Justified Still Holds Up but Hits Different Now

Raylan wearing his hat with a white fence behind him in Miami in the Justified pilot

With Justified: City Primeval on the horizon, it seemed like a good time to revisit the original series, which (if you can believe it) premiered all the way back in 2010. Being in my 40s, there’s a way in which that feels like just the other day to me, but actually watching the show again makes it clear pretty quickly that, no, this was a long time ago in the Before Times and a world that now feels far away.

It’s not that Justified is overtly political—it isn’t—but in some ways this almost feels like a problem from the perspective of 2023. Take, for example, the way that Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) is introduced in the pilot. He’s a neo-Nazi, sort of, and says some very antisemitic things as he and Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) meet again for the first time in years, but the sense is always that Boyd is not terribly serious about white supremacy. He’s a criminal, using the trappings of neo-Nazism to pursue monetary goals more than anything, and after he’s shot by Raylan at the end of Episode 1, all of this stuff just kind of fades away when it comes to Boyd.

A rundown barn saves Jesus Saves on the side

It’s not that Justified ignores the past or retcons Boyd’s opening act out of existence. Rather, the line the show takes is precisely what I’ve just articulated: Yes, he had a dalliance with white supremacy, but that’s not who he is. Which is not to say he’s a good person, mind you.

And, indeed, Boyd Crowder is such a compelling character over the course of Justified’s six seasons that I’ve been prone to argue over the years that he is the actual main character of the story. But it’s a little harder to look past that Nazi stuff now than it was when the series originally aired. At that point, it was easy (if perhaps wrong) to view such white power groups as fringe elements destined to failure. Now, given a general rise in the amount of open bigotry that’s occurred in the intervening years and movements in our mainstream political life that seem properly fascist, it’s hard not to view them as a real threat.

That what Justified does with Boyd Crowder still works anyway is a real testament to Walton Goggins’ performance.

Ava (out of frame) points a shotgun at Boyd, who is sitting at the dinner table

Boyd always seems more like a lost soul in search of purpose than an evil man or a bigot, and there remains value in how Justified elicits empathy towards the criminals of Harlan County even as it never excuses them. I don’t know if you could quite pull off this move now, not just because our political sphere has become ever more polarized, but because that polarization feels like it has infused day to day life to such an extent that the show wouldn’t be able to ignore it.

More than anything, though, Justified remains a lot of fun. In its early episodes in particular, it operates with a serial-episodic structure that I’ve always loved and often miss, as there is a case of the week, with a longer arc of plot proceeding largely in the background, built through solid character work.  As it proceeds, the show becomes a step more serial in its storytelling, but this feels fairly natural, with each season basically having an over-arching antagonist, and the central conflict between Raylan and Boyd playing out as a long game over the course of the series as a whole.

Along the way, we get great turns from the likes of Margo Martindale, Neal McDonough, Mykelti Williamson and many more, with Timothy Olyphant’s standout performance as Raylan Givens of course anchoring the whole thing. The way that he plays loose with the law is refreshing—in line with its spirit if not always its letter. In contrast to so many TV cops, Raylan won’t bend the rules to get a conviction he knows is deserved, though he will bend them to give people a chance to do what’s right, or even just what’s smart.

Raylan talking to Dewey Crowe in Ava's house

I don’t know that many details of the original series will be relevant to Justified: City Primeval, as the story is set to take place in Detroit instead of Kentucky. At the end of the series finale, Boyd was in prison, Ava (Joelle Carter) was in California, Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) was in the wind, and Raylan had moved back to Miami, where he and Winona (Natalie Zea) were separated but still raising their daughter Willa together. Winona seemed to have gotten married again, to a fellow named Richard (Jason Gedrick).

I don’t know if we’ll see any of those characters, besides Raylan and Willa (who will be played by Vivian Olyphant) in Justified: City Primeval. Any important personal developments regarding Raylan will surely be filled in by the show itself, and every indication is that it would be a mistake to rely too much on the source material in making predictions.

The original series was based on an Elmore Leonard story called “Fire in the Hole” and Leonard was involved in the production of the show. Still, Boyd dies in the short story but survives in the TV series. Raylan Givens also features in Pronto, Riding the Rap, and Raylan, which is the last book Elmore Leonard published before he died in 2013.

Yet, Justified: City Primeval is not based on any of those stories. Instead, it’s based on Leonard’s 1980 novel City Primeval, which does not feature Raylan Givens. And we might further guess that the series will take place in our time as opposed to 40 years ago.

As for the classic version of Justified, I do think it holds up. Its tendency towards a serial-episodic structure is itself a relic of the time in which it was made, as streaming was just getting going, but it also means that the biggest hook is in the characters themselves. I look forward to seeing what Raylan’s up to a decade later.

Apparently, he got out of Harlan alive.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *