When the smoke has cleared from the madness that happened throughout Justified and we’re left wading through a pile of dead bodies of minor characters and villains, it’s time to take a breath and remember the show and its legacy: 6 seasons of hard-hitting, no-nonsense storytelling care of Elmore Leonard and Graham Yost that embraced a classical style, eschewing the obsession with antiheroes and dark trajectories into man’s darkest heart.
In terms of greatness, Justified is on a par with the greats of modern television, joining the ranks of shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and The Shield. Unlike those shows, however, Justified has always had a lead who was grounded in his own justice, without gambling too much of his own integrity or sacrificing his soul for a bastardized version of what justice means. Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens has bent the rules and has done terrible things, but he’s always had the classical morality of a cowboy misplaced in a modern tale. He shoots to kill, and sometimes he allows enemies to be killed by other enemies without helping, but this isn’t the same thing as seeing Walter White allow someone to choke to death on their own vomit or Tony Soprano murdering a family member in cold blood.
Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder is the exact opposite of Raylan. The two grew up under similar circumstances: Shit-bag families, digging coal together, horrific poverty. In later life, they split, Raylan going into law to escape his family; Boyd going into crime to out-do his family and prove his own worth to himself. The two share a mutual respect and hatred for each other.
Boyd is also always interesting to watch. His mind is always calculating an escape plan or figuring out another bigger, better score. I’d love to call him a weasel, but he’s so much more than that. And Walton Goggins is a fantastic actor. Shane from The Shield is equally fantastically played, but the two characters are completely different from each other.
The most popular reading into the show is the idea the cop and criminal are only separated by a badge, but to quote the movie Adaptation., “On top of that, you explore the notion that cop and criminal are really two aspects of the same person. See every cop movie ever made for other examples of this.” What separated Raylan and Boyd isn’t just a badge, it’s an actual state of being, and the very last episode, the very last scene, spells out beautifully what makes the two so different and what brought them together time and time again. Despite everything that happens, despite all the murder, the double-crossing, the thievery… they dug coal together. And there’s something about working in that bullshit, in that darkness, in that choking, suffocating heat, that forged something of a brotherhood for them that neither of them can ever truly abandon.
Other shows have delved deeper into a darker psychology on tortured main characters, but that was never Justified‘s style. Justified is faithful to Elmore Leonard’s narrative qualities in his novels that celebrates criminals as interesting, entertaining characters, worthy of great monologues and soliloquies, but there’s always a hero. An Elmore Leonard hero doesn’t need to be a warrior, and can be a thief themselves or kill when not totally, ugh, “justified” but has a moral center that is understandable to everyone. It’s like a slightly, slightly more ambiguous version of Gunsmoke.
Of course, the show never would have been what it is without Graham Yost, writer on other amazing shows like Band of Brothers, The Pacific and From the Earth to the Moon. The dialogue is always masterful to watch–masterfully written, shot and acted:
Raylan: Well this is one of your classic stories where the hero gets his man and rides off into the sunset.
Boyd: Or maybe it’s like that other classic where a guy chases a whale to the ends of the earth only to drown for his troubles.
Raylan: I gotta admit, there’s a small part of me that’s going to miss this when it’s over.
Boyd: Well, don’t eulogize the past until the future gets its due.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the show, it’s worth a watch. It’s a lot more deliberately paced than most shows in its vein, but it’s a show to watch for the quippy one-liners and have an opportunity to hang out with dirt-bags, lowlives and cops–all of which equally well-written and drawn and fun to listen to speak.