Deadwood's Timothy Olyphant returned to series television last year, playing another cowboy lawman with his own unimpeachable code of ethics. Unlike his previous cable show, however, this one is set in modern day, with Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens serving as an anachronistic throwback to frontier justice. In his way of protecting order, a man is only as valuable as he is swift with a sidearm. If you are going to draw on another man, make sure you mean to kill him, and above all, know that you are...Justified.
Okay, so I make it sound a little hokey at the end there, but Justified has an old-time charm that makes a fella want to strap on a typewriter and light out for dangerous territory where he can shadow a quickdraw artist and spread that gunslinger's exploits far and wide. Olyphant has a definite southern charisma, lending Givens a surface politeness that masks the inner anger and turmoil that comes from having to enforce the greater good. In one episode, he tells a fugitive how he grew up watching Have Gun, Will Travel on television, and though elsewhere he professes to no longer believe in the cowboy ideal that show embodied, he still walks the walk regardless. Givens is like a mash-up of Gary Cooper's sheriff in High Noon and Philip Marlowe--the last hold-out for rightness and chivalry in a world that has long since moved beyond his moral boundaries. He is the descendent of Olyphant's Seth Bullock--a lawman so convinced of his own correctness, it practically burns him from the inside out. Except, unlike his spiritual ancestor, this modern man at least gives some thought to anger management. Justified is, in large part, about that management. Can Raylan Givens maintain?
Justified opens strong and never relents. In the very first scene, Givens is confronting a bad guy whom he gave 24 hours to vacate Miami. When the gunthug doubts this warning, Raylan must prove the veracity of his threat with a shoot-out. The bad guy ends up dead, and Raylan is punished as a result, exiled to his hometown in Harlan County, Kentucky, pending further investigation. The peace officer never intended to return to the stomping grounds where he grew up. He has too many enemies there, and also too many friends. Boyd (Walton Goggins from The Shield), Raylan's pal from his days working in the coal mines, is the son of one of the biggest criminal kingpins in the area, while Raylan's own father, Arlo (Raymond J. Barry), is a small-time crook who may or may not still be on the grift. Then there's also the matter of Raylan's ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea, Hung), a court stenographer. She's remarried, and her new husband (William Ragsdale) doesn't appear to be on the up and up--though one of the season's long-term questions will be whether he really is bad, or just not good enough for Raylan. (A little from column A, a little from column B, if we're being honest.)
Like most of the good current TV shows, Justified has both an overall plot and then individual stories that play out episode by episode. For instance, episode 4, "Long in the Tooth," features Alan Ruck (Cameron from Ferris Bueller's Day Off) as a mob accountant on the run, and Raylan tracking him to California works as a one-off, but it also gives us more background on the Marshal and builds on the lingering threat of the people Raylan pissed off back in Miami. Another standout stand-alone episode of the season, "Blowback" (#8), guest stars another Deadwood alumni, W. Earl Brown, as a particularly nasty prisoner who takes hostages in the Marshal station. The "enclosed space" plot is intense and funny, and gives both Brown and Olyphant ample opportunity to show off their verbal skills. (Deadwood fans will enjoy seeing different actors from that show pop up in Justified, including Ray McKinnon as a creepy hitman.)
The larger plot involves the rivalry between Raylan and the Crowder family. Just as he is getting back to town, one of the Crowder boys is shot by his wife, Ava (Joelle Carter), who ends up both under Raylan's protection and in his bed. The Crowders want revenge, and the initial tussle between Raylan and Boyd leads to a questionable metamorphosis. The Crowders' two primary commodities are drugs and racism, but Boyd abandons the meth and the white power for Christianity, becoming a rather loquacious evangelical. Naturally, this causes a conflict between him and his clan, particularly when his daddy, Bo (played by the wonderfully craggy M.C. Gainey), gets out of jail and sets out to re-establish his power. Though there are other heroes and villains to be found in Harlan, all illegal roads lead right back to the Crowders.
Justified's head writer and producer is Graham Yost, the screenwriter of Speed and a contributor to Band of Brothers and The Pacific. The character of Raylan Givens is plucked out of the fiction of Elmore Leonard, particularly the short story "Fire in the Hole." Fans of the films Out of Sight and Jackie Brown will recognize the Leonard style--a blend of grit and wit showcasing all sides of the law whether good, bad, or other. The police and the crooks get equal billing, and the stories explore the things that separate them and the gray areas that tie them together. Neither can define themselves without the other. Yost sticks to Leonard's m.o. of combining realistic violence with another duality: human drama and dark humor. The patter in Justified has genuine snap, but it's also richly constructed. Many of the characters, particularly Raylan, talk in a sophisticated Southern drawl that's just the right side of flowery. Also, following his religious conversion, Boyd Crowder turns into one hell of an orator. Walton Goggins more than earns his paycheck. He's got one scene in particular where he dances and testifies before a church congregation, delivering a coded message to his father, that may be the most memorable moment of the entire 13-episode cycle.
By the conclusion of Justified: The Complete First Season, Yost and his writing team have tossed a lot of balls in the air, but with a show this smartly planned, none of them fall to Earth unnoticed or hang suspended, forgotten by the people who gave them flight. The narrative threads all converge for a finale that closes the season with a satisfactory bang without overdoing it. Too often, television shows end a season by going over the top rather than letting the story take its natural course. (It was a regular complaint in my ER reviews, and about the only quibble I had with the first two seasons of Veronica Mars, for instance.) At the same time, the closing installment sets the stage for Season Two, which is luckily just around the corner. (Too bad FX cancelled Terriers, the two shows would make an awesome double feature.) Justified: The Complete First Season is a show you could stop watching once you're done with this set, and you'd be happy with what you have, but I guarantee you won't want to. It's the best kind of serialized storytelling: each moment is fantastic as it happens, but you keep watching because you know what is going to happen next will be even better.
Two subtitle tracks are available: a standard English option and English for the Deaf and Hearing-Impaired.
Each disc has some special features, all in high definition, though Disc 1's supplemental section is limited to the commentary for the first episode, which features series creator and writer Graham Yost, director Michael Dinner, and Elmore Leonard's research assistant, Greg Sutter. It's one of four audio commentaries. Disc 2 has tracks on the 8th and 9th episodes, the former with Yost and writer Ben Cavell, the latter with actors Olyphant and Zea and writer Dave Anderson. The last commentary is on the finale on disc 3, and it teams Yost with writer Fred Golan. Picking and choosing significant episodes and changing the line-up around means the commentaries stay interesting and tread different ground, avoiding the overkill of other TV series collections.
Disc 2 has three featurettes. "What Would Elmore Do?" (18 mins., 48 seconds) is an interesting, in-depth examination of the Elmore Leonard style and the challenges in adapting his work to another media. The writers and Leonard himself talk about the literary origins of Raylan Givens and the choices the producers made to fit Leonard's big world in your little TV. The other two extras are more along the lines of standard promotional fare, and even use the same interview sessions with cast and crew (and Leonard again). Both clock in at 4 minutes, 52 seconds, with "The Story of Justified" giving the basic rundown of the series and "Meet the Characters" being just what it sounds like, a round-up of the series cast.
Disc 3 finishes off with two more documentaries, "Shooting for Kentucky" and "The Marshals". "Shooting" (16:07) talks about the real Harlan Country, and brings in costume and production people to give the lowdown on how they make the show look authentic--even though they shoot in Pittsburgh. "The Marshals" (12:46) discusses the history of the Marshal service.
Finally, the last disc ends with a music video for the full theme song from the show ("Long Hard Times to Come" by Gangstagrass; it's essentially some cheaply shot performance footage mixed with clips) and a short preview of Season Two (1:49), which starts on FX next month. There are also a couple of other previews