In the opening scene of FX’s superb new neo-western crime drama, Justified, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) guns down a murderer across a table of crab cakes in the outdoor dining room of a swanky Miami hotel. He’d given the man (Peter Greene) 24 hours to ditch town, but he didn’t listen. Raylan then spends the rest of the episode reassuring himself that the kill was “justified.” The resulting fallout gets him unhappily transferred back to his Harlan, Kentucky home turf, where his teenage friendship with the local white supremacist helps the Feds and his shoot-first-brood-later attitude is better appreciated.
This setup, lifted partially from Fire in the Hole, the Elmore Leonard novella on which the show is based, tells you almost everything you need to know about Raylan: he’s an expert marksman, he’s a man of his word, and he has issues about where he came from. That, too, is quickly justified: The show’s setting is a slow, backwoods place where the women go gently mad from boredom, sexual frustration, and nightly beatings, and their men sour from disenfranchisement. The only memorable male character in the pilot who isn’t a law enforcement officer, drug pusher, or racist, is a barkeep. Raylan, perfectly realized by Olyphant, who gets better with every new wrinkle and gray hair, walks Harlan’s beat like a circus cat on its hind legs—half grace, achievement, and triumph and half like he might topple over onto all fours and run for it.
On the other hand, Raylan’s childhood cohort-turned-nemesis, Boyd (Walton Goggins, resembling a classroom skeleton covered in burnt, stretched hide), is so firmly ensconced in this manner of life that when we meet him he practically blends into the background. The messiah of Western Kentucky, Boyd runs a training camp for young Nazis, teaching them to torpedo churches, murder snitches, and rob banks—all as a front to support his narcotics business. He and Raylan have a mutual respect that runs deep (they “dug coal together”), prevents them from killing one another immediately, and implodes over—what else?—a girl. She’s a broken murderous herself, but she also cooks an excellent fried chicken. The rivalry between the two suitors is of the oldest kind (good vs. evil, hero vs. villain, brother vs. brother), making Justified feel unexpectedly classic and still mercilessly exhilarating, as the pilot alone features three shootouts, one beating, one murder, and an explosion.
Leonard’s work has never faired this well in series format before. ABC’s colorful Maximum Bob, starring Beau Bridges as the titular Florida judge known for his tough sentences, seemed fresh in the summer of 1998, but it eventually suffocated on its own eccentricities while trying to spit out the novelist’s whip-smart dialogue and accommodate weekly plotlines. The network tried again five years later with Karen Sisco, featuring cult darling Carla Gugino as a short-skirted South Beach-based Marshal. Yet even the show’s pop soundtrack and the momentum from Steven Soderbergh’s own Sisco film, Out of Sight, couldn’t make up for its uneasy balance between procedural and stylized pulp. Which was odd, because TV procedurals are the most modern, accessible type of pulp fiction out there right now: short, titillating crime tales that hit every emotional high note and awaken the most lurid and violent curiosities in an easily digestible hour.
And it’s in this vein that Justified uses Raylan’s personal war in Harlan as the backdrop for his episodic encounters with more curious underworld elements—from prison escapees and incestuous cousins to a bloodthirsty dentist. Finishing each episode is like closing up a really great, gritty, little crime novel.