“You make me pull, I put you down.”
These eight words are deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in a nutshell – and Elmore Leonard in a nutshell as well. The eight words, first presented in that order in Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole” (expanding on a supporting player in a few earlier Leonard novels), tell you that Raylan is a man with both a rigid code and a high opinion of himself. And that he has to say them out loud – in this case to his former friend and present nemesis Boyd Crowder – suggests Raylan is a man who very much enjoys opportunities to put his code, and gun, into action. As dialogue goes, it is simple and spare while telling you everything you need to know – the perfect Elmore Leonard sentence.
TV veteran Graham Yost took that line off the page and put it into the mouth of actor Timothy Olyphant in the very first episode of “Justified,” which turns in its badge and gun tomorrow night at 10 on FX. Early in the series’ run, Yost gave all his writers wristbands with the legend WWED, for “What Would Elmore Do?” He didn’t always do things exactly like the acclaimed crime novelist – Leonard (who died in 2013) always objected to the cowboy hat Olyphant wore, since Raylan in the books wore a smaller businessman’s Stetson; and Yost changed the ending of “Fire in the Hole” to spare Boyd’s life once he saw how electric Walton Goggins was in the role – but the series in total has felt very true to Leonard’s storytelling principles. Its dialogue has always been lean, while its plotting has been on the rich and fatty side.
It was an endlessly-quotable show, even though Boyd tended to be the only character who spoke in flowery prose. (As an out-of-town visitor once put it, “I love you the way you talk; using forty words when only four will do.”) I regularly rely on Raylan’s wise words that, “You run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole; you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.” And I dream of ever saying anything half as cool as Raylan’s promise, after dropping an ejected round from his pistol onto an injured opponent, “Next one’s comin’ faster.”
And what amazing characters the show had to deliver all that dialogue! There was Raylan himself, a modern-day gunslinger who was as quick and unyielding as his legend, but also spectacularly annoying to work with for his more rule-following colleagues. (One of the smartest things Yost and company did was to always place the show’s sympathies behind the other deputies.) And there was Boyd, a silver-tongued chameleon – last week, Raylan dubbed him “the world-conquering emperor of lies” – who never met a fellow criminal he couldn’t blow up, whether with words or some improvised explosives. And, of course, there was the parade of colorful crooks that one or both men had to battle over the years: backwoods marijuana kingpin Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) and her twitchy, entitled son Dickie (Jeremy Davies, who, along with Martindale, won the show its only two Emmys ever); sociopath carpetbagger Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), who always had a gun literally up his sleeve; Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson), barbecuing crimelord and secret-keeper of an all-black holler in the hills of Kentucky; local gangster Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns), blessed with a cockroach’s survivability and the perfect deadpan reaction to every insane thing happening around him; Raylan’s bone-mean father Arlo (Raymond J. Barry), who let his son grow up looking at his own grave marker on the family property; and dim-witted goon Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman), who once told someone to whom he had given a gift, “the anus is on you” to take care of it properly.
This final season alone has been an embarrassment of guest star riches. Sam Elliott arrived as a legendary crimelord returning from exile and somehow became scarier without his trademark mustache. Mary Steenburgen had one of the best roles of her career as a bitter gangster’s widow who was almost as clever as she believed herself to be. Garret Dillahunt popped up as a mercenary who spoke in as oddly a formal manner as Boyd, and when Dillahunt had to leave to work on another show, “Justified” seamlessly replaced him with Jonathan Tucker as Boon, a hipster gunslinger (an archetype the series created instantly) with a burning desire to prove that he’s faster than Raylan. Along the way, it’s brought back many of the show’s most memorable surviving figures from past seasons, including Katilyn Dever as teenaged pot mogul Loretta McCready, a surrogate daughter to both Mags and Raylan. And both new characters and old have been given some of the best, most crackling dialogue of the series, as if the writers are having a final competition to see who can craft the most Leonard-ian exchange.
With the exception of the largely dismal fifth season(*), “Justified” seemed to have an endless supply of both great lines and great villains, making it the rare show of this era that could, at its best – particularly in the Mags-centered second season and this apocalyptic final one – qualify as both a Great Drama and a Fun Drama at the same time.
(*) It’s up there with the homicidal second season of “Friday Night Lights” for most puzzling outlier year of a show that was great immediately before and after it happened.
Yost originally conceived of the show as a series of short stories in the same vein as “Fire in the Hole,” with lots of standalone Raylan Givens adventures where he brought in the bad guy by the end of the hour. Season 1’s “Long in the Tooth,” with Alan Ruck as a fugitive dentist, is one of the show’s best overall episodes, but it’s been long-forgotten because the desires of the cable audience (and FX management) was for a more serialized show, and Yost nimbly pivoted towards that, first with Boyd and his father Bo (M.C. Gainey), then with Mags and the other big bads who followed her.
Much like Leonard’s books, “Justified” could suffer from the high-class problem of having too many entertaining characters, which often made the plots more complicated than they ideally should have been. After sparing Boyd’s life due to Goggins’ genius, Yost then had to find things for his arch-villain to do – things that would take advantage of the actor’s abundant charisma while avoiding a final confrontation with Raylan that the series was clearly holding back for the finale – and you could feel the show straining sometimes to keep Raylan, Boyd, their shared love interest Ava (Joelle Carter), that season’s big villains, and the other deputies from the Lexington field office feeling relevant at the same time. (The other deputies tended to be the first ones to get shunted aside when things got busy, though all three – especially Nick Searcy’s wily old boss Art Mullen – got their moments from time to time.) Even that classic second season couldn’t keep things perfectly in balance, resulting in a wobbly two-parter involving Raylan’s ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) stealing money from an evidence locker.
But the writers never lost sight of who their hero was, and they let him show off the same cocky, stubborn, sarcastic demeanor against thugs big and small. They had a great character at the center, played by an actor who fit the role as perfectly as that hat fit his head.
And even at the end, it seems that Yost is following the What Would Elmore Do? credo. This has been perhaps the busiest “Justified” season (3 & 4 are the other contenders for that title), and after making a penultimate episode that left a lot of plates still spinning, Yost could have been, well, justified in asking FX to let him pull a Kurt Sutter and do a bonus-sized final episode. Instead, it’s only a couple of minutes longer than normal, and while it resolves a lot of things, it doesn’t go out of its way to squeeze in every single moment and character a fan might have hoped for. It has an eye on where this all started for Raylan, Boyd and Ava – for that reason, and also because it’s just a damn good episode, I’d strongly advise rewatching the pilot if you have time before the finale airs – and it’s focused on the story rather than all of the excesses.
Some of the joys of “Justified” came in those excesses, but what made the show so good, so often, was in its simplicity when it came to its hero and his long-standing foe, and how Raylan – who dug coal with Boyd, had a drug-dealing thug for a father, and often took too much pleasure in finding himself in situations (and at times outright arranging them) where use of lethal force was justified – had a lot more in common with Boyd than he ever liked to admit.
In one of my favorite Raylan/Boyd scenes (from the great season 2 finale), Raylan realizes that he needs Boyd to spare the life of Dickie Bennett so he can use him in turn to save Loretta. The two men stare each other down, framed very much like a sheriff and a bandit in the thoroughfare of some dusty town in the Wild West, with Raylan’s promise about what he would do if Boyd made him pull his gun hanging over everything. Boyd is adamant about keeping Dickie, just as Raylan is adamant about taking him.
“Well, are you asking me or are you telling me?” Boyd wonders.
Raylan cocks his head and suggests, “Makes you feel better, you can tell people I asked.”
End scene. Nothing more needs to be said, or shown. That was “Justified.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com