Given the critical acclaim for dramas about violent, damaged men, it’s a surprise that FX’s “Justified” doesn’t generate more attention that it does. The story of a trigger-happy U.S. marshal dealing with the low-lifes and criminals of rural Kentucky, the show would seem to have all the elements for the pantheon of “Golden Age” TV: crackling dialogue, a high body count, moral ambiguity, exciting plotting and a handsome hero.
“Justified” deals with the adventures of Raylon Givens, the son of a criminal operator in Harlan County, Kentucky who rejects his father’s ways and becomes a lawman. Givens operates under his own code, defying authority and breaking any rule necessary to bring the bad guys to justice. In the series pilot his superiors send him back to Kentucky as punishment for various offenses against federal procedures. The rest of the series addresses how he deals with his past, his family, and the generally lawless culture in which he was raised.
“Justified” probably isn’t a critical darling because Givens, for all his moral complexities, is an old-fashioned hero, not an anti-hero in the mold of Tony Soprano, Walter White and Don Draper. He’s basically a character out of a classic Western, a seemingly outdated genre with clear good guys and villains. He’s a U.S. marshal, for cripes’ sake, with a badge, a gun and even a trademarked white Stetson hat. Take out the swearing, the cell phones and SUVs, and Givens could be John Wayne.
Back in 1954, the great movie critic Robert Warshow wrote the definitive essay on the American Western (“Movie Chronicle: The Westerner”) and rereading it today is like discovering a character sketch of Raylon Givens. Like the traditional Western hero, Givens is a loner who can’t really connect permanently with women and can’t articulate why he acts the way he does, except to say it’s the right thing to do.
Then there’s the violence. The very first scene of the series is an outright duel, with Givens and a mob boss pulling their guns to see who can shoot whom first. (That this takes place in a fancy Miami restaurant is the final straw for his bosses and precipitates Givens’ exile back to Kentucky.) In the five seasons since, the show has been suffused with violence, shoot-outs, beatings and blood. Still, as Warshow explains, “it is not violence at all which is the ‘point’ of the Western movie, but a certain image of man, a style, which expresses itself most clearly in violence…. A hero is one who looks like a hero.” And Givens does look the part, always cool in the face of danger. But although his brutal behavior is almost always “justified” (hence the title of the show) it takes a toll that puts him even further outside normal society — why, just like Ethan Edwards at the end of “The Searchers”!
Of course from the critics’ perspective, the real problem with the show might be that it’s just too entertaining. As portrayed by the extremely likable Timothy Olyphant, Givens is a wise-ass, a protector of the vulnerable with a dead-eye aim, and too charming for his own good. The episodes are taut, exciting, extremely well-written (the show is based on an Elmore Leonard short story, after all) and the plotlines are neatly tied up with a bow.
“Justified” is deeper than a mere entertainment, however. Even the title has more than one meaning. In Christian theology “justification” is God’s act of removing the guilt and penalty of sin while declaring a sinner righteous through Christ’s sacrifice. Unfortunately, as soon as Givens is forgiven for his sins, he goes out and commits some more. Religion provides an important backdrop on the show; sometimes the preachers are frauds, sometimes they are sincere. But always the characters wrestle with their sins or, more tellingly, make a point of affirmatively NOT wrestling with their sins.
The characters and the issues they address on “Justified” could come out of the Bible. Are the sins of the father visited upon the children? Maybe yes, maybe no. “Justified” shows how hard it is to evade your birthright. Givens escapes only because his mother and then his stepmother insisted that he not follow his father’s path. Givens’ semi-evil counterpart, Boyd Crowder, is not so lucky. As smart, brave and cool as Givens, Crowder actually does follow his father, first into the coal mines, then into white supremacy and crime. As hard as he tries, Crowder can’t rise from “white trash” into respectability.
FX recently announced that next year would be the series’ final season, which is just as well. Season five, which ends next week, has strained to find new stories. There is a natural conclusion to this tale that involves Given getting his act together and getting back together with his ex-wife and daughter. Until then the series is just spinning wheels.
Kudos, then, to FX for ending “Justified” before creative paralysis sets in. Unfortunately, once “Justified” is gone there will no longer be any good Westerns on TV.