The Line Between Hero and Villain is Blurred in ‘Justified: The Complete First Season’

Elmore Leonard’s characters are tailor-made for the TV medium. His leads are intelligent, wise-cracking guys (and a few gals) who often blur the line between hero and villain. The trick when adapting Leonard is retaining his signature touches while finding ways to stretch the characters with greater depth. Although it was critically acclaimed, the 2003 Leonard series Karen Sisco had a brief run on ABC. This raised questions about whether the popular author’s style could succeed on the small screen.

Premiering in March 2010 on the FX Network, Justified earned serious attention from the start with its deft integration of western genre conventions into the modern landscape. Timothy Olyphant plays Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshall who’s not afraid to use his gun in a tough situation. After taking out a vicious killer in Miami under questionable circumstances, Givens is transferred to his former hometown of Harlan, Kentucky. Throughout the season, the consequences of this shooting linger, even while he takes on familiar enemies in the small town. Questions about whether the killing was justified remain and only increase as chaos erupts in his new environment.

The premiere, “Fire in the Hole”, is adapted directly from Leonard’s short story of the same name. Upon returning home, Raylan pursues Boyd Crowder (The Shield’s Walton Goggins), a former buddy who leads a band of white supremacists. Boyd appears to be your basic crazy fanatic, but there’s a lot more lurking beneath the surface. The conflict quickly escalates into a violent showdown with only one likely survivor. Raylan also reconnects with the attractive Ava (Joelle Carter), a childhood crush married to Boyd’s brother. Well, she was married. A shotgun blast ended that unhappy union just a few days earlier. This description barely scratches the surface of the characters and issues covered in this single episode, revealing great promise for the ongoing series.

Justified has the thrilling shootouts, but its success owes more to a rare attribute in action television: charm. I have little patience for episodic series, but even the one-off stories work here because of the unique, likable characters. Creator Graham Yost (Boomtown and the other writers develop a world of eccentric people that bring depth to even a fairly generic situation. Even brief supporting roles have the right touches that match the engaging characters in Leonard’s books. It helps greatly that actors with big personalities like Stephen Root, Alan Ruck, and David Eigenberg inhabit these roles.

The stellar recurring characters also bring depth to familiar parts like the delinquent father and the ex-wife who might still have feelings for her former husband. First of all, Arlo Givens (Raymond J. Barry) is a criminal and not your model father, but he’s hardly a generic monster. We pity the guy while understanding Raylan’s hesitation and animosity. His gorgeous ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) still lives in Kentucky and actually works at the court house. Their bond starts rekindling on a slow burn and believably grows as the story moves along. It will be interesting to see where their relationship will go in the upcoming season.

The early episodes follow more of a “crime-of-the-week” format while familiarizing us with the characters. As the season progresses, the ongoing conflict between Raylan, the Crowders, and the Miami mob reaches a feverish pitch. When Boyd’s father Bo (Lost’s M.C. Gainey) returns from prison and ramps up the drug trade, it is open season on Raylan and his associates. The action-packed finale, “Bulletville,” is an old-style western standoff between the good and bad guys. Joining an unlikely comrade, Raylan must step well beyond the law to stay alive.

This DVD set includes a solid group of featurettes and commentaries from the cast and crew that provide some valuable material. Yost is all over the interviews and discussions and is definitely a Leonard enthusiast. “What Would Elmore Do?” gives a sharp overview of the process of adapting the author’s work for the small screen. Another good entry is “Shooting for Kentucky”, which shows the ways the crew aimed to depict Kentucky while shooting in Pennsylvania and California. Along with the writers and the directors, Olyphant, Zea, and Searcy join the commentaries, which cover four episodes. The actors’ participation is slightly less interesting than the creators’ statements, but it’s still enjoyable to see the variety.

Justified might appear to be a straight-up action series, but there’s much more lurking beneath the surface. The environment and relationships become more complex with each successive episode, and roles that could be throwaways become surprisingly poignant. The original Miami shooting casts a pall over everything and will continue to haunt Raylan in the upcoming season. He may think he’s through with the past, but it definitely ain’t through with him.

RATING 8 / 10