Every April at the Gutter we mix things up with the editors writing something outside their usual domain. This week Comics Editor Carol writes about TV. ‘Ware ye plot details for the whole series including the series finale.
“Raylan, if a book could only be judged by its cover, you’d be a best seller.” ~Boyd Crowder
“I shot people I like more for less.” ~ Raylan Givens.
Justified starts with a showdown, as Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) walks across the poolside patio of a Miami hotel and tells a man having lunch he has two minutes left. Raylan had given the man, Tommy Bucks, twenty-four hours to get out of town or he’d kill him. He refuses food and is pleasantly menacing as Bucks loses his nerve and tries to shoot Raylan. Raylan kills Bucks and defends himself claiming that the other man drew first. Raylan’s exasperated boss tells him, “it’s not about who pulled first.” The Attorney General is pissed. The state of Florida is pissed. Raylan is transferred to Lexington, Kentucky. Raylan protests, “I grew up in Kentucky. I don’t want to go back there.” Back in Kentucky, Raylan has a lot of past he tried to leave behind—an abusive and criminal father, a dead mother, an ex-wife, and a man he had dug coal with, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins).
Raylan is pissed at being sent back to Kentucky, and especially pissed that the Lexington office and the District Attorney think his familial and personal ties will be helpful in rooting organized crime and Boyd Crowder in particular out of Harlan county’s very closed community. Raylan never wanted to go back, but he is still deeply implicated in Harlan County himself, in a way that his Lexington boss, Chief Deputy US Marshal Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), and his fellow Deputy Marshals Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel), an African-American city girl who went to Old Miss, and Iraq War vet who really seems like he’s suffering from PTSD, Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts), don’t. “Tell me about this shooting,” Art Mullen asks. “It was justified,” Raylan says. And we have a title and, seemingly, a pattern of behavior: Raylan shooting criminals and feeling just fine about it.
The series was based on Elmore Leonard’s short story, “Fire In the Hole” and the first episode is named after it. Leonard became quite involved with the series and was so pleased with it that he wrote another book, Raylan. (I also suspect the series became a little shaky in the fifth season as the writers dealt with Leonard’s death in 2013). I’ve been watching and thinking about Justified since 2010. It seemed like the worst thing that might happen with it would be Raylan Givens’ weekly “justified” shooting, but the writing was smarter than that. Raylan’s shootings had consequences. Because of that, as Justified came to an end this year, I haven’t been too concerned about how the series would end. I have a million thoughts about the show, but I don’t have space for them all here. So this time, assuming there will be other times for me to talk about the female characters (Mags Bennett! Deputy US Marshal Rachel Brooks! Helen Givens!) or Wynn Duffy, I’m going to talk about self-delusion and the stories Raylan Givens and his almost brother, dark reflection and possible doppelganger, Boyd Crowder, tell themselves. One of the greatest pleasures of a show with many pleasures for me, has been the chemistry between Raylan and Boyd. Other characters call Raylan on his crap, but Boyd is the only one who really gets under Raylan’s skin.
“I think you love anything lets you put your head on the pillow at night believing you’re not the bad guy,” Raylan to Boyd.
“You know what I’m wondering is what do you tell yourself at night when you lay your head down allows you to wake up in the morning pretending that you’re not the bad guy,” Boyd to Raylan.
Boyd Crowder is the mirror Raylan Givens looks into. And Raylan hates what he sees. As young men, Raylan and Boyd worked mines together. Boyd had been a powder man, the man who sets charges in the vein. He fought in the first Gulf War and returned to become a White Supremacist bank robber who specialized in blowing something up and robbing banks while emergency services were distracted. “Saw that in a Steve McQueen movie,” Raylan says dismissively. Raylan doesn’t even believe Boyd believes in White Supremacy, saying tht Boyd just likes money and blowing shit up. Boyd tries on a series of identities over the course of the show: White Supremacist bank robber; reformed convict and preacher; protector of Harlan County; honest miner; faithful partner to his wife, Ava (Joelle Carter), who had shot her previous husband, Boyd’s brother Bowman, for being abusive; loyal friend; local crime boss; international drug trafficker; outlaw.
What Raylan and Boyd share is a desire to be something else, and they see that in each other and claim to see each other’s true self. Raylan thinks Boyd just likes money and blowing things up. Boyd thinks Raylan likes shooting people and hides behind a badge. Raylan is the one with a steadier constructed identity. Raylan has one story that he sticks to—gunslinging lawman, complete with cowboy hat , quickdraw and a marshal’s badge like gunfighters of old. For Raylan, the badge makes all the difference, no matter what he’s doing. So he feels justified whether he’s shot someone, stuffed another convict or suspect in the trunk of his car, smashed a criminal’s face into the steering column of a car, shooting Arlo, doesn’t notice when Winona leaves him (again), forces his criminal informants in a terrible position, uses his access his ex-wife Winona Hawkins (Natalie Zea) cover up a theft or sets up a gangster to be killed by another gangster because the man threatened his family. But, of course, that’s Raylan telling himself a story about who he is. Raylan is on the side of justice and right, and not so much on the side of the law. And he assumes that being on the side of justice and right makes him a good guy. But as Winona tells him, “You’re the angriest man I’ve ever met.”
“You shoulda been on the other side with me and your daddy. You’d still be able to shoot people and be an asshole. Your two favorite activities,” Boyd to Raylan
Raylan grew up in Harlan, the son of an abusive and remarkably loathsome outlaw, Arlo Givens. (Played diabolically by Raymond J. Barry) Raylan played football on the high school team, and after graduation, he dug coal side by side with Boyd, who was also the son of the county’s most powerful crime boss. Raylan got the hell out. He left and reinvented himself as a gunslinger. He warned criminals they had twenty-four hours to get out of town. But it bothers Raylan when Boyd suggests he likes shooting people, asking, “At any point when you were looking at that gun thug, did you see your daddy’s face?” Boyd asks Raylan a variation on the same question in their mountainside showdown in the second to last episode of the show, “Collateral.” And bothers him in the same episode, when the patriarch of his extended family compares him to Arlo, saying both use the family to get what they want and don’t care about the consequences.
In “Seeing Ghosts,” Raylan compares himself to Marshal Will Kane in High Noon. Boyd counters comparing Raylan to Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick, making himself Raylan’s monomaniacal obsession, his great white whale. Boyd reminds Raylan that one person’s story of iconic American heroism, the lone hero standing up to injustice, determined to do the right thing even if it means his death, is just as easily iconic American tragedy—a man who willingly destroys everything in his unwillingness to compromise in destroying what he sees as evil. Raylan seems to believe he can move on from Harlan if he can just take out Boyd. And he never much considers that maybe in wiping out Boyd, he’s trying to wipe out not just Boyd’s perception of him, but something Raylan sees in himself. Raylan will be justifed in all the senses of the word. In this, Justified captures so much about how American life is storytelling, myth and bullshit, and I say this as a person who readily enjoys all three.
While I have worried about Art’s safety as a marshal on the verge of retirement, I have worried that Art would die as a result of Raylan’s shenanigans. I never worry that anyone will show up one night and kill Art and his family because of what Art has done. But Raylan is a different matter entirely, because Raylan is implicated in Harlan. I can easily see people deciding to take Raylan’s insults and brutality personally, because it is personal, and he does his best to make it so. When Raylan first came back to Harlan County all he wanted was to get the hell out again. As the series progresses, Raylan actively refuses chances to leave. It strangely reminds me of Sgt. Howie in The Wicker Man (1973), but where all Sgt. Howie has to do is sleep with Willow—or take a nap— to escape. All Raylan has to do is go help care for his infant daughter in Florida. Raylan is so caught up in his story where he takes down the Boyd in one final showdown and then rides off to sunny Florida with to be with Winona and their daughter, that he doesn’t realize sometimes you only get so many chances to get out.
And Raylan’s self-delusion is plenty explicit in the final season as he sets up his final showdown. Raylan works with Avery Markham (Sam Elliott), a much worse and more dangerous criminal, to tempt Boyd into one last heist. He’s knotted together their stories—Boyd’s last heist will be Raylan’s final showdown. Boyd knows Raylan is setting him up, but goes for the final heist anyway. He can’t resist the happy ending to his own outlaw story. Boyd’s sure he’ll get it, too, because he’s the hero of his own story, too. And coming into the end of the series, Boyd is going for an outlaw ballad. But I think Raylan doesn’t see that he can’t help himself any more than Boyd can. Like Sheriff Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven, saying as he lies shot and dying, “I don’t deserve this, to die like this. I was building a house,” Raylan’s been believing the story he tells himself about how he can just walk away when he’s done. Because in Raylan’s story he’s the hero, the justified man, and he thinks that all somehow protects him. But as Will Munny tells Wild Bill before finishing him off, “Deserves got nothing to do with it.”**
Raylan’s not the only one who thinks he’s going to get the showdown he deserves. In the final few episodes, Raylan is confronted with a more fun house version of himself in Avery Markham’s hired gun, Boon (Jonathan Tucker. Markham hires Boon to help him intimidate the people of Harlan into selling their property to him in anticipation of becoming a marijuana tycoon. Boon fancies himself a gunslinger and a quickdraw. Boon embarrasses and disgusts Raylan, since Raylan would rather pretend that they didn’t both construct their identities from watching the same Westerns. Maybe it’s enough for Raylan that he’s in High Noon and the younger man seems taken by Jack Palance’s Wilson in Shane. Where Raylan tries to psych a man into drawing his weapon in the opening scene of the series, Boone picks a fight with a poor diner waiter and take the man’s hat using the same kind of elaborate insults used by men in the old West so they could kill a man and claim self-defense. Like Raylan, Boon has a good deal invested in making sure his story is reflected back at him. For Boon, this means a showdown with Raylan. Raylan claims that he and the kid have nothing in common, because Raylan believes that his story and his badge aren’t cover. Even when he breaks and bends the law, Raylan believes that he is engaged in justice. But it does feel good to see him shoot Boon down and take the waiter’s hat back from him.
In the end, Justified circles back to roughly where it started. Boyd was shot in the chest as he was in the first season, and imprisoned. He finds God again and starts a prison ministry. Visiting Boyd, Raylan tells him, “You’re repeating yourself.” But Raylan is, too. Raylan visits Ava at her new house and they reprise the time he dropped by again in the first episode. Raylan’s life is a little different. He’s back in Florida, but he didn’t get the happy ending he thought he might. Winona has wisely found someone else. But despite the many parallels, little and big between where Justified started and where it ends, it is also not the implied Nietzschean eternal return of True Detective‘s “flat circle.” There are differences from where they started and those differences do matter. Raylan got a happy enough ending, a fortunate ending. He’s still alive and he’s out of Harlan. He’s part of his daughter’s life. He’s still a marshal. But his new hat doesn’t suit him at all.
*Harlan county was immortalized in Barbara Kopple’s 1977 documentary Harlan County U.S.A, which followed a coal miner’s strike. I can understand if Kentuckians might not be so partial to Justified in the same way I don’t expect Baltimoreans are down with The Wire and I spend much of my time pretending Low Winter Sun never happened (despite my fondness for the series’ name).
**Make sure to read Screen Editor alex’s piece on Justified, “Deserves Got Nothing To Do With It.” We watched almost all of Justified together and, boy, do we talk about it a whole lot.
Carol Borden is surprised to discover just how fond of Justified’s Wynn Duffy she became. Now if you’ll excuse her, she has to hydrate and watch women’s tennis.