Justified is a strange show. At first I approached it cautiously, thinking that the return of Timothy Olyphant to the solid ground of playing a lawman in a big hat meant that it should be worth a peek. Between the leftover goodwill from Deadwood and the careful avoidance of his big screen appearances in Live Free Or Die Hard and Hitman I had enough reasons to think that it couldn’t be too bad. Worse case, I figured, it’s CSI: Hazzard County. It wasn’t. In fact it was very, very good. However it still felt like a guilty pleasure, the US Marshal, being reassigned to his backwater hometown, solving cases and shooting bad guys, enjoyable but surely never rising above that. It was not until season two I realised that actually, it wasn’t a mere guilty pleasure, nor was it merely good. It was great and it has remained so up to the time of writing without missing a beat.
Isolating the greatness of Justified is a tricky thing because on the surface many of the components are, perhaps fittingly for this series, old hat. The main character, Raylan Givens, is an archetypal maverick law enforcement officer with authority issues and the ability to shoot people before they shoot him. He is a US Marshal reluctantly sent back to his home town after causing trouble in Miami. He has an exasperated boss. He has problems with paperwork and the technicalities of cases. This is largely standard rebel lawman territory. His old friend from back in the day, Boyd Crowder, is now, predictably, a local criminal. Their dads worked together in the field of miscellaneous rural crime. They have history, and a shared interest in a woman, Ava Crowder, wife then killer of Bowman Crowder, Boyd’s brother.
This is of course a cheesier premise than a bag of Wotsits touring Wisconsin yet it works extremely well because Justified twists the formula in one key aspect – the setting. By the normal run of things your typical crime show is set in a city, and it doesn’t usually matter which. In stepping away from the established locales to the slightly shop-soiled countryside of Kentucky Justified manages to change not just is aesthetic but also its characters and stories.
Such are the strengths of the series that simply transplanting the standard criminal archetypes of a city to a rural district might have worked well enough for a time with Justified. The series is extremely well acted, with Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins as Raylan and Boyd both providing more than enough charisma in their roles to carry a series apiece and the action scenes are suitably tense yet inventive. However the show does more than simply swapping city blocks for trailer parks, and by doing so opens itself up to be something much more than another show about a lawman with a gun.
What we see in the Kentucky of Justified is a detailed and intricately drawn world, albeit one filmed in California. It is a region of clans, corruption, industry and crime which seems to have more in common with a divided medieval kingdom than a modern slice of the American south. We see an area of poverty and plenty, with vast wealth in narcotics and coal, but the majority of the locals living in little better than shacks. Of course I can’t speak to the realism of the show; I’ve never been closer to Kentucky than its Wikipedia page, but in a series with this richness and texture that doesn’t matter, if anything it is a benefit. The Harlan County of Justified is a character in itself and if I knew the real Harlan County, I’d probably just be annoyed at the unfair depiction of the people and the inflated murder rate. This miniature world, with its own economies, corruption and conflict is a world away from the big city and it gives the writers scope to roam. There is lawlessness to it all too. No legion of cops with armoured vehicles to patrol the streets, or many streets for that matter. Bodies get to go down the old mineshafts or into slurry pits and there’s not always somebody in earshot when the shooting starts.
The second element that a countrified setting brings to Justified is language. A typical American city where a typical American crime show might be filmed is a melting pot, characters gather from all around and accents and styles of talking can vary from one side of town to the next. In Justified the accents are more uniform which means that character speech patterns can be more clearly defined than merely observing who has what accent. For example Boyd speaks with verbosity and perspicacity such that I wonder if his dialogue is written in verse, while Dickie Bennett, an old acquaintance of his and Raylan’s from their school days, shares the wit but not the vocabulary or the charm. There is also a very strong feeling of amiability to these characters, an apologetic air about them when they indulge in unpleasant acts. Southern hospitality is alive and well in Harlan, even if two of the most likeable characters in the series start out as militant white supremacists.
Perhaps the greatest strength to the Harlan County location however lies in the villains it produces. The placement of the region along narcotic supply routes, real or imagined, means that a ready supply of professional criminals from outside can be wheeled in when needed. Meanwhile the hills and the hollows provide plenty of convincingly grubby and unhinged local troublemakers, often sporting truly epic hair. The backdrop of local industry being based on mining paints a convincing and familiar picture of a world in which young men have to choose between undignified and dangerous work versus a life of idleness, unemployment and crime.
This choice doesn’t account for all of the villains of course, with malevolent clan matriarch Mags Bennett being a highlight of the series in season two. The women of Justified seldom partake in the violence of the series but there is a hard streak to all of them, even if there is perhaps an over reliance on their need to be rescued as a plot device.
With Justified scheduled to wrap up after the end of next season (six), it will have had a good run and plenty of time to give itself a proper ending. Eulogising might seem premature but with the writing on the wall there’s really nothing left to do but settle in and enjoy the ride. While we may not see the likes of Justified again for a while, but hopefully it has shown TV writers and producers that the world doesn’t end at the city limits.