In many respects, the third-season premiere of Justified, “The Gunfighter,” is a difficult episode to love. The show’s second season was incredibly strong, and went out with a powerhouse finale and a masterpiece of a final scene in which Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) commits suicide with a poisoned glass of her “Apple Pie” moonshine. It was easy to get lost in the world of Mags and the Bennett clan, enough so that one might wish that Justified never leave the confines of Harlan County.
By contrast, “The Gunfighter” takes place almost entirely in Lexington, broken up only by Ava (Joelle Carter) and Devil’s (Kevin Rankin) failed attempt to sell the now-spoiled pot Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) raided from the Bennett compound. Even Boyd and Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies) are separated from Harlan County on account of their respective incarcerations. In place of Mags, we’re introduced to Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), a well-dressed and cold-blooded mobster from Detroit who seems to be making a power play in Kentucky. Personally, I like Justified best when its stories are steeped in the tradition and mythology of Harlan County, and the idea of a central villain from Motor City isn’t as immediately compelling as Mags and her family’s tyranny.
But Justified has repeatedly demonstrated its skill for setting into motion pieces that come together masterfully later on. In the power vacuum left by the Bennett family’s demise, an external player like Quarles may be just the thing to galvanize the forces and characters still lying dormant in Harlan. Quarles may also be the catalyst for Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) becoming a defender of Harlan, rather than an outside force challenging its power structures. Perhaps most interestingly, outside threats may necessitate the continuation of Raylan and Boyd’s troubled alliance, despite the fact that Boyd currently finds himself alongside Dickie in prison for attacking Raylan in the middle of the marshal’s office.
Boyd’s continued evolution is another point of interest—perhaps the strongest of the series. In 26 short episodes we’ve seen him transform from a skinhead pyromaniac to a peace-preaching religious cult leader to a lost soul working the Kentucky coalmines. He finished last season by taking up his late father’s criminal business and usurping the Bennetts’ control over the Harlan drug trade. How his character develops by the end of season three is anyone’s guess, but the dynamic between Boyd and Raylan will no doubt continue to be the driving force of the series, and after their wonderful scene together in the marshal’s office, it promises to be as compelling as ever.
What begins as a routine questioning turns contentious in a hurry after Boyd demands an apology from Raylan for not allowing him the opportunity to kill Dickie. After Dickie’s murder of Aunt Helen (Linda Gehringer) and torture of Raylan, it would be easy to argue that Raylan has more legitimate reason than Boyd to wish Dickie dead. There’s even a moment in season two when it seems Raylan may exact his revenge. A hysterical Dickie begs for his life by reminding Raylan that he’s a marshal; Raylan counters that he’s also a Givens, suggesting that there’s something in his blood compelling him to murder Dickie. Ultimately, Raylan relents and brings Dickie in alive.
Given his choice to let Dickie live, Raylan would seem consistent in not allowing Boyd the opportunity to kill Dickie. And yet he does expose something like hypocrisy in his response to Boyd’s request for an apology. He paints Boyd’s sense of justice as being beneath his own, incredulously stating, “I’m sorry, did you see a creek out in the lobby? Pretty green trees, and cutoff mountains? You think we’re in the holler? I am a Deputy U.S. Marshal.” He’s in the right, yet his judgments ignore the internal struggles he himself has faced, which Boyd is quick to remind him of by echoing his own argument against Dickie: “You’re a Givens, Raylan.”
It’s a telling character moment, indicative not only of the characters’ respective histories, but also of the dynamic that makes Raylan the unique force of law enforcement that he is. Boyd’s mistake is that Raylan’s nature as a Givens who grew up digging coal in Harlan is not something that runs counter to his role as a marshal, but rather something that runs alongside it. Back in the pilot episode, Winona (Natalie Zea) told Raylan (then her estranged ex-husband) that though he’s good at hiding it, he’s the angriest man she’s ever known; she understands his anger doesn’t find its expression by traditional means.
Raylon’s prodigious ability to kill is clearly necessary to the power he wields. But in the world of Harlan, where “sawed-offs are like assholes,” the ability to kill is really no big deal. In an isolated town where countless players are desperate to assert their own sense of order, be it through drug running, ill-conceived notions of white power, or simply through the quest for family dominance, being on the side of the law is the only adequate way for Raylan to truly express his anger.
Harlan’s certainly a world unto itself with its own rules, populated with characters living on the fringes of society. But it’s not a wild-west frontier town, nor is it an apocalyptic war zone where nihilism reigns. On a similar note, despite his love of western attire and gunslinging, Raylan’s not like a character out of Olyphant’s previous show, Deadwood. He’s not founding the rule of law in a lawless place through the seemingly supra-legal use of violence. Nor is he a Jack Bauer type who must go beyond the rule of law in order to protect law-abiding citizens. Raylan is not a rogue; he works within the system. He and Art (Nick Searcy) may have their disagreements, but as we saw last season, when push comes to shove, Art’s ultimately there to support him. Every time Raylan’s killed a man he’s been, as the title suggest, justified.
In “The Gunfighter,” Raylan, despite still recovering from a bullet wound, routinely dispatches a psychotic hit man who wears a black hat that counters Raylan’s white Stetson. The imagery is as straightforward here as it was in the old-time westerns it references: Raylan is the good guy, and he’s clearly justified in killing the hit man who would have murdered not only Raylan, but also Winona and their unborn child. And yet Raylan’s death count continues to grow. He’s very much a post-Sopranos character, whose violence is intended to upset us as much as it excites us. But he’s a hero, not an antihero.
We understand the place where characters like Tony Soprano, Walter White, and even Jack Bauer exist in society. Whatever their aims, the law stands as a hindrance to their violence. We also understand the juxtaposed roles of law and violence in frontier towns likes Deadwood, where violence makes order possible, but still paradoxically stands in contrast to it. Raylan Givens is something else. He isn’t beyond or above the law; he is the law, or at least the kind of force that gives law meaning. He’s the hidden threat inherent to any rule of law—the threat that carries through despite any adherence to due process: “Obey, or be struck down.” Raylan doesn’t need to become a criminal to express his anger, not because he’s managed to escape his past, but because his righteous violence provides him with a much more potent outlet.
Of course, as both an idea and a character, this is nothing new. But in context of a decade’s worth of antiheroes on cable television, Raylan Givens stands out as the one character whose actions remain sanctioned by our ideas of justice. He kills and yet is not guilty of killing. And for that very reason, of all the various stone-cold killers the last decade has given us, he’s also the most dangerous.
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