Justified should be a way more popular show. It’s not that it’s unpopular, in fact it’s heading into its sixth season, it’s that it should be resonating more clearly with viewers. It is the kind of show that should generate waves of online response. Floods of people should be desperately avoiding finding out the last surprise death, theorizing about who Drew Thompson is, wondering what will happen to Art. It should be inspiring waves of fan-art, essays, and Halloween costumes. Boyd should clearly be one of the more popular characters on TV. Yet the show seems to fly under the radar. It’s definitely a success, and definitely has its fans, but it deserves so much more.
The show revolves around Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, a Miami marshal who gets sent back to his hometown in Kentucky after shooting a gun thug. Which wouldn’t have been a problem if he hadn’t, Wild West style, given the crook twenty-four hours to leave town or get shot. This is how the show opens; by the way, it’s not a spoiler in the slightest. The show then focuses on Raylan’s relationship to the community (he gets called the “redneck whisperer” by his colleagues at least once), to his Dad, to his coworkers, and mainly to Harlan County.
Justified is an exemplarily competent show. The scripts are great, blending pitch-perfect dry humour with incredible character development and a healthy dose of cringe-worthy tension. Few writers can handle this sort of tone, but Justified makes it look like child’s play. The cast is great. Timothy Olyphant completely nails the character of Raylan – a cocky, badass character with a firm moral code and deep-tissue anger issues. Every single person in the marshal’s office is great, oftentimes getting to spout some of the show’s best lines (Art talking about his “marshal stiffy” remains one of my favourite running jokes). Raylan’s dad, played by Raymond J. Barry, is a wickedly unrepentant dick who gets to carry some of the show’s more important emotional beats. And Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder? He’s going to get his own damn section of this article, that’s how amazing he is.
The show started strong from the beginning. The pilot is a fairly compelling piece of TV, and it certainly helps set the tone. It’s also the only episode that gives Raylan’s ex-wife a truly compelling moment (“you’re the angriest person I know”). The first season is definitely the show’s weakest though. It was still finding its feet, and occasionally falls too heavily into a case-of-the-week format, something the show traded in for complex overarching plots later on. It also took the writers the season to realize that they’d accidentally stumbled upon what needed to be the heart of the show – the strange relationship between Boyd Crowder and Raylan Givens.
Boyd’s character was actually meant to die at the end of the pilot. He’s an old acquaintance of Raylan’s from their coal mining days. The pilot sees him post-coal mining and post-military service. He’s turned into a skinhead neo-Nazi piece of trash with a fairly incompetent crew. What changed the character, and consequently the entire show, was Walton Goggins’ performance. He was so impressive they let him survive the finale, and slowly wrote him into the rest of the season. A lot of his role that season amounts to Boyd talking to Raylan from behind bars, especially about the new found religious beliefs he claims to have adopted. Eventually he gets out of jail and starts a backwoods church, which brings him into conflict with his father.
At its core, Justified is all about family and typically about the father-son dynamic. This runs through the over-arching plots of every season, including season one despite its occasional hesitant approach towards fully interconnected episodes. Season one sees Raylan up against the criminal organization run by Boyd’s father, which leads to some truly spectacular stuff. Season one’s finale, “Bulletville”, marks a turning point for the show. Hell, “Bulletville” is probably the single best episode of the show; it’s seriously jaw-dropping stuff. It manages to be thematically resonant, complex, exciting, hilarious, tense, Biblical, intimate, and hugely entertaining. It’s a next-level piece of TV. It was a big turning point for the show largely because Boyd is in it a lot. After “Bulletville” he easily slides into the role of a second main character. The show is still about Raylan, but it’s also about Boyd’s attempts at climbing the criminal ladder.
Walton Goggins turns in some incredible A-level work as Boyd. The character is intellectual, manipulative, and charismatic. Past that, he changes wildly from season to season. In season one he starts as a neo-Nazi, then points his preaching talents in an entirely different direction as a born-again Christian. Season two sees him start as a repressed, defeated miner. Then a petty criminal. Then a quietly scheming security advisor for a mining company. Season three sees him struggling to build a proper criminal enterprise, constantly trying to manipulate bigger fish like Win Duffy. His relationship with a pre-existing character starts to get especially important this season too. Season four sees him hunting for the same convict as Raylan and sets him up for season five (season four is a very different season, but more on that later). Season five sees him struggling with his aforementioned relationship, handling his dangerous new partners in crime, and getting far closer to building his desired empire. It’s an incredible character arc, easily the most compelling on the show. Goggins’ acting is brilliant and he desperately needs to break out in a big way.
The show may never have an episode better than “Bulletville”, but each season of the show only improves.
Season two’s big villains are the Bennett clan, a family of redneck pot dealers. Margo Martindale plays the mother, Mags Bennett. Her gross sons Dickie and Coover are played by Jeremy Davies and Brad William Henke respectively. Kaitlyn Dever plays their sort of adopted daughter. They are a compelling bunch, sometimes funny, sometimes skin-crawlingly unpleasant. They, naturally, have a past relationship with Raylan – specifically Dickey, who walks with a limp as a result of a past altercation. Raylan’s cases constantly brush up against the Bennett family throughout the season, and eventually a mining company’s plans for the county bring their plots and Boyd’s crashing together.
Season three focuses, in part, on the hunt for Mags Bennett’s hidden money. It also sees crook Wynn Duffy getting involved with Robert Quarles, a psychopathic member of the Dixie Mafia. It greatly expands the world of the show, bringing in more representatives of the Dixie Mafia, the gang Raylan frequently opposed in Miami. It introduces the idea of the Limehouse’s segregated community. (The show really doesn’t shy away from how unpleasant and racist a place like Harlan County can be.) This season only steps up the writing, and gets even more complex and involved than season two. Plus a major plot-point is based around a terrible pun, so that’s something.
Season four may be the best season of the show yet. Season five’s writing may be better, but season four might be the superior whole. It’s a hard call anyway – I’m on the fence about it. The season is about the hunt for an old witness that completely disappeared. He was witness to a crime that could put Theo Tonin, the head of the Dixie Mafia, away. The season actually adopts an interesting experiment; each episode of the show is one day in real time (with the exception of the finale). This season also gives Walton Goggins more screen-time than any other season, and it’s a great choice. The plot is complicated, fascinating, surprising. It has some of the best plot twists of the show’s history, and some very affecting emotional beats.
Season five sees Dewey Crowe’s (an idiot companion to Boyd since the show’s pilot) family moving to Harlan from Florida. It sees Boyd teaming up with Wynn and ex-Dixie Mafia member Picker to help pick-up and deal some slightly more serious drugs from Mexico. The season is completely unpredictable, in the best of ways. The Crowes continue the show’s great family-villain motif, especially given the fact that one of them, Kendall, is still a child. This is a season with something like four unexpected deaths in the premiere alone. Raylan’s relationship with his boss (coughfathermotifsagaincough) gets especially strained this season, and Boyd’s relationship with his fiancée goes incredibly unexpected places. It’s the most complex, busy, exciting season of the show yet, undoubtedly. Season four’s key mystery, coupled with some of the show’s best scenes and moments, make them incredibly hard to compare. Season five does manage to perfectly set up season six, which is intended to be the final season.
The whole show is really just a cut above the rest. Any show with such an effectively defined core theme is special, let alone one that also hits just about every mark you could want from a piece of entertainment. You’d be hard-pressed to point to a truly bad episode, even if not all of them are as amazing as “Bulletville”. It’s a must watch show that really deserves your attention.