There are two crucial comments made within the first three episodes of Justified’s fifth season regarding how Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) talks. As the character anticipates brokering a deal to get Loretta (Kaitlyn Dever), a clever Harlan County orphan, out of yet another jam, a handcuffed drug dealer (Wood Harris), observes that Marshal Givens isn’t a gifted conversationalist. This may not be the wisest statement for an arrested felon to make, but then Justified has always reveled in the myriad voices and mannerisms of the criminal mind.
The funny thing is that this criminal is right, in a way: Raylan talks a lot, but he often talks to people rather than with them. He’s a soloist, a frequent raconteur, but more importantly, a lawman, and he often speaks to remind people of his duty. Most of his acquaintances respect the law on the surface, but show a tremendous indifference, if not outright spite, toward the badge in action. Sure, he’s engaged when trying to romance Loretta’s new caseworker (Amy Smart), but on the job, Raylan can only find the energy to tease the furies of marginal villains, from a deadbeat father to a busted money launderer.
That Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), the Dr. Moriarty to Raylan’s Holmes, has a similar dialectical gift explains why his long relationship with Raylan—born into a criminal life, but removed from it now—remains so intrinsically alluring and fascinating. As the season starts, however, Raylan isn’t even on Boyd’s radar. With Ava (Joelle Carter), his fiancée, in prison, Harlan County’s ascending crime kingpin is left to deal with a botched Detroit dope connection and orchestrate Ava’s release on his own. Boyd’s visit to a deeply broke Detroit plays like a drift through a blood-splattered fever dream, complete with a chainsaw-wielding madman and a Peter Lorre type. It’s one of Justified’s wilder exaggerations, which, at their best, lend the series a potent sense of the sinister, summoning vivid, grotesque images of the paranoid madness that a criminal life engenders. If nothing else, this helps explain how the series gets away with having Dave Foley and Will Sasso play a pair of Canadian gangsters.
As Boyd tangles with Lee Paxton (Sam Anderson), the wealthy coffin seller who helped put Ava in jail, Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) fumbles his way into a mid-six-digit windfall after settling a personal injury case against the U.S. marshals. His good fortune unfortunately invites the attentions of his power-mad Florida cousin, Darryl (Michael Rappaport), who has designs on becoming Dewey’s partner, by force if necessary. Indeed, the series continues to brandish an incisive, caustic view of those brutes that sentimentalize family in the name of opportunism, as Darrell pontificates on the importance of his kin around the same time he openly orders the stabbing of his brother. This howling cynicism, however, is accompanied by a generous but by no means soft vision of the civil servants and government workers who lend real support to those whose family life is nothing short of toxic.
The show’s characters, whether major or minor, skirt familiar archetypes, but the writing and performances consistently subvert accepted lowlife caricatures, finding something less pointedly foreboding than odd and irrefutably human in Harlan County’s heroes and villains. It’s this attentive and anxious dedication to distorting an accepted, unsympathetic view of the criminal and criminally poor that gives the series its disarming, darkly comic tone. The show’s creators even afford a deadbeat, drug-pushing dad a certain measure of respect by not solely defining him by his misdeeds. In fact, he makes the second key observation about Raylan’s dialect. After the marshal beats him and gives him a nickel’s worth of free advice, the man suggests that Raylan’s simple summation of personal issues would be more suited for a bumper sticker. Another “bad” man is brushing up against a witty truth about Raylan and his way of casually condescending to those with whom, under different circumstances, he’d be in the same boat. It’s the same truth that Justified continues to live by without exception: There are as many simple problems and solutions as there are simple people, which is to say none.