“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.