Graham Yost walks us through Justified’s third season (Part 2 of 4)

Graham Yost walks us through Justified’s third season (Part 2 of 4)

Justified creator Graham Yost recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the third season of his hit FX crime show. This section of the interview covers episodes four through six, beginning with “The Devil You Know” and concluding with “The Guns Come Out.” Don’t miss part 1

The Devil You Know” (February 7, 2012)
A corrupt prison guard breaks Dickie—and a terrified Dewey—out of jail in an effort to go after Limehouse and the Bennett millions. Devil’s discontent with Boyd’s leadership, combined with his own criminal ambitions, leads him to consider an offer from Quarles to get Boyd out of the picture. When Devil tries to conspire with Johnny on this mutiny, Johnny turns on him. 

The A.V. Club: Was it a wise bet on Devil’s part to believe that Johnny would join him in a mutiny against Boyd? It seemed like it wasn’t at the time, but proved otherwise down the line.

Graham Yost: Listen, we do the best we can to try and motivate the character so it feels real, but sometimes you’re just put in a situation where they have to do this because you need the story to go that way. I think in this case, it would have been fantastic if we’d had a couple of more episodes to really set up Devil’s betrayal, and Devil’s wooing of Johnny, and we could see him slowly burn Johnny, and then it would become much more realistic and a bigger surprise when Johnny pulls his gun. And, as you say, what we find out about Johnny in the last episode… when we find that out [that Johnny has betrayed Boyd by leaking the location of Devil’s body to Limehouse], there should be a sense of, “Oh, okay.” We didn’t plan that, but in this world, everyone can have many different motivations, and they’re often primarily self-serving, and you can always come back to that. You can see where people are going to make mistakes based on greed, personal ambition, resentment, revenge, anger, all that stuff. We’re not doing Brothers And Sisters, you know? We’re not doing a family drama where no one’s got a gun. These guys are criminals, they want money, they’ve got weapons… they’re not good people, and so it’s not hard to imagine the motivations. 

That said, it felt reasonable for Devil to play on Johnny, thinking back to the second season, when Boyd recruits Johnny. There’s obviously a lot of antagonism between them, and a lot of ill will. It’s a hard sell for him to get Johnny on board, but he does, and I think that given Johnny’s history with Boyd, it’s believable that Devil could turn him. And then the surprise of Johnny having played it on Boyd’s side also feels reasonable. Like, “Okay, he’s with Boyd.”

AVC: You mentioned a little bit about planning and being able to adjust. How much flexibility do you really have in making alterations while you’re in the process of shooting? Does the need to maintain continuity limit you? 

GY: We allow ourselves a fair amount of flexibility, and sometimes it’s thrust upon us. I think it was in episode four or five, there’s this really quite nice scene between Boyd and Ava, where they show each other their scars, and say, “We’re in this together,” and that came about because the episode was short. We thought, “What haven’t we really serviced? Well, we haven’t done a good Ava and Boyd scene, one that really focuses on them and their relationship, and isn’t sort of plot-driven.” So that became something that, because we had the flexibility, because we start shooting in October and don’t go on the air until January, we squeezed in a scene that we’re going to put into an earlier episode. We do adjustments like that on the fly. And then the other stuff, like decisions about Johnny, that sort of evolves. I think every show is like that, to a degree. Even the big serialized shows, they’re winging it, to a certain extent. As much as we had a plan for the season, and rough goals and benchmarks and targets and stuff like that, you have to adjust as you go.

AVC: And who’s making the adjustments? Is it you, or is it various writers on the set? Is this really done on the day, or before the day?

GY: Rarely is there a big character adjustment done on the day. It can be a different approach to the scene, and Tim [Olyphant] has a huge amount of input, both in the scenes he’s in and in the overall show. He’ll work with me or whoever is on set for that episode, or who will be prepping an episode. So the scene content can have a great deal of flexibility, even as we’re shooting. There have been times where Tim will come up with something, or the writer will come up with something, or even I’ll come up with something, or feel, as I say, the Boyd and Ava scene, “Let’s bolster that.” We had another episode, number seven, that was very short, that we went back and added some Quarles and Duffy stuff to it, and re-shot a scene to give a little bit more between Raylan and Quarles, so that it got us where we needed to go. But it’s this weird, sort of chaotic process. We know where we’re headed, but we say, “Hey, wouldn’t it be interesting if we did this?”

AVC: Can you think of other examples of things being created out of production need this season that had a better result than if you had pre-cooked it well before you started shooting? 

GY: Honestly, there are examples from every episode of things that came out of the fact that we couldn’t go to that location, or we needed to fill out the episode, or maybe we needed just a turn on a scene. There’s a thing later on where Raylan is trying to get a good reason to keep Dickie in jail, I think it’s in the 10th episode, and he goes to see this old woman, and I think it was Dave Andron who came up with the whole milkshake idea. [The mute old woman has Raylan fetch her two milkshakes. She drinks one and pours the other in Raylan’s lap. —ed.] I think that was him, unless it was Taylor [Elmore], I forget. Anyway, stuff like that will happen: “Let’s do a milkshake gag.” So production has to scramble around, and suddenly get a couple of strawberry milkshakes. But they do it. With this show, you have to be loose, because we’re going to change things, sometimes dramatically, at the last minute.

AVC: Have you learned to become comfortable, or even happy, with that reality as a showrunner? 

GY: You know, as long as David Blass, who’s our production designer, doesn’t contract to have me killed, I’m happy with it. He’s just a wizard at getting stuff done. Out of respect for him, I have to try and rein that in, because it’s just not fair to the art department and to wardrobe and to casting to throw these changes in too much at the last minute. But it does happen. It’s just that we can’t resist the better idea. If someone comes up with something great and there’s a way to do it, then let’s do it. 

AVC: At this point in the season, Quarles still seems like a wise, albeit ruthless, businessman. Trying to bring Devil into his camp is a win-win situation for him. If Devil succeeds, then Boyd is gone as his chief rival. And if he fails, Quarles doesn’t lose a lot. Is it fair to say that Quarles was good at what he does before coming to Harlan? He got into some trouble in Detroit, but off of the Oxy, he’d probably stand a pretty good chance here. Is that the way you thought about him when conceiving that character? 

GY: Yeah. In Elmore [Leonard]’s world, the bad guys come up with some little twist on a scam that other people haven’t done. Or Elmore might’ve—or Greg Sutter, in his research—might have found an instance where someone was doing this and it’s like, “Eh, it’s kind of smart.” You know, you could actually see how that might work. And so the whole idea of Quarles setting up mobile Oxy clinics and trying to come up with a quasi-legal way of generating a lot of Oxy in Harlan seemed like a reasonable thing for him to pursue. And it had a reasonable chance of success. Legally, it really wouldn’t, but we had heard rumors that there were such things, and so we just went with it and decided to play it out in the whole context of laws changing in Florida to try and shut down the pill mills. Where could that go next? And we like the idea of people from the North coming to Harlan to exploit its natural resources. It happened with timber, it happened with coal, and in our dark Elmore world, the idea of using the addicts of Harlan as a way to generate money seemed like sort of a smart bet on Quarles’s part. Then we had to then play with, “Okay, what can be his undoing? How will Boyd beat him? How will Raylan beat him? How will Limehouse beat him?” And then a lot of that came when we hit upon the idea of the boy chained to the bed in the back room. That opened a door for us. And it’s like, “Okay, how he’s going to be defeating himself?” So Quarles has a lot of antagonists. Which is important for a good/bad guy, I think.

AVC: That feeds into a running theme this season, which is about demystifying the crime scene in Harlan. As one of our commenters put it, criminals become criminals because they’re not very good at things. 

GY: Yes, and such is the case in all of Elmore’s fiction. They almost succeed, but they ultimately don’t. And the ones who succeed the longest are the best at it, so Boyd is going to succeed a long time, because he’s quite good at it. But even then, he’ll make mistakes, and the same goes with Limehouse. It was our goal right from the beginning that Limehouse be the last man standing. That all this stuff happens, and he still has his world. There’s a loss to him in the death of Errol—or the shooting of Errol, we haven’t decided whether he’s dead. But Limehouse survived. And he always will. Now we don’t know if that will be the case in season four, but at least up to this point.

AVC: It seems to have something to do with impulse control, too. Boyd has those moments where he does, as you say, cross the line, but he’s capable of really stepping back and assessing things rationally, whereas Quarles is doomed by his own vices. 

GY: Right. And Duffy has a similarity to Boyd and to Limehouse, which is playing the long game and trying to be smarter about it. And controlling his ambitions. I think that’s one of the things about Limehouse—he mentions it to Errol, you know, “You don’t think I didn’t think this when I was younger? That we should step out and expand?” But that’s not the smart game. The smart game is to know what you have and protect it, and just do that. I always think about companies that just expand too fast, whether it’s Krispy Kreme or Boston Market or whoever. It’s like, “Man, if you just stuck with what you did, you would have something that would last for generations.” But you get caught up in the idea of, “Now I can play in the big leagues and I can go further,” and that ambition can often spell the end. 

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AVC: Was there a temptation to show a little more of what the effect of all this business has on the community, on users? There’s an element of this—

GY: Yeah, I mean, there were elements of that in [episode] three. One person we didn’t talk about was bringing James LeGros back as Wade Messer. He was so wonderful at the end of season two, but we hadn’t wrapped up what had happened to him, and we thought, “Hey, what if he’s still out there and he’s in the wind, and they want to get him?” Just the idea of not just the sad cost of crime, but in that case, Oxy addiction, what it’s done to the community. And there’s a little glimpse of that in this episode, too, in four. This is also the episode of Dickie getting out. And we wanted to gin up the whole mystery of the money as something. 

AVC: How did the Bennett-millions plot come together?

GY: It was interesting. We didn’t know where it was at that time, but we started to get a glimmer—I remember it came out of, I think, talking to Tim about the scene between Raylan and Loretta. That she would say, “What do you think, I have it?” and that just struck me and struck the room as, “Hey, what if she did have it? Wouldn’t that be a cool thing to go to at the end of the season?” And then I always had in the back of my mind, we called it the Great Train Robbery, that somewhere in episode 11 or 12, we would have this big thing for Boyd to go after, and it would be something that would be orchestrated by Limehouse as a way to get rid of Boyd. We didn’t have it about the money at first, and then we said, “You know what? We’ve got that. That’s in our toolbox. We’ve set that up. Let’s bring it back again.” And it was a good way to bring it back to Loretta. So that McGuffin of the Bennett money became something that served us well. It was something we invented at the beginning of the season. It was not something we’d set up in the second season, but it felt credible, and we ran with that as far as we could.

Thick As Mud” (February 14, 2012)
Erstwhile Boyd Crowder crewmember Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) gets a showcase when organ harvesters hold his kidneys for ransom and send him off in a race against time to get the money to buy them back. Elsewhere, Winona finally leaves Raylan a “Dear John” letter, and Quarles and Boyd have a conversation that sets the tone for their adversarial relationship the rest of the season. 

AVC: This was a tremendously entertaining episode, and one built around a dominant A-plot.

GY: It’s part of the first story in the book Raylan by Elmore. He has Raylan going to track down this guy Angel, who’s been cut open and his kidneys have been taken. In typical Elmore fashion, he came up with his twist on an urban myth, an urban legend, of kidney thieves. And his twist was that people would steal them and then sell them back to you, ransom them back. And we thought that would be fun to play with, but we also liked the idea, “What if they hadn’t actually taken the kidneys? Who would be stupid enough to believe that they actually had?” The character, our go-to character, is Dewey. [Laughs.] In the first versions, in outline and breaking it, we had Raylan finding Dewey in the tub. Originally, we had [episodes] four and five all jammed together as one episode. And Tim read the outline—Taylor Elmore had written the outline—and he said, “You know what? This should really be two episodes. It’s too much for one episode.” And he was absolutely right. So we went back in and we rewrote four and then re-broke five. And that was great, because that way, we had our Dickie episode in four and our Dewey episode in five.

But there was some point where we thought, “Well, wait a second—what if Raylan doesn’t find Dewey, and Dewey’s out there trying to get money to get his kidneys back?” As soon as we came up with that idea, then we really had the episode. And Damon Herriman is just so wonderful. He’s Australian, you know. He’s just not at all like Dewey Crowe, but he does such a great job. In the second season, we had the episode where he pretends to be a marshal in order to rob other criminals, pretends to be Raylan. And we hope to do that every year, to have our Dewey episode. And this became our Dewey episode. 

AVC: You had a lot of episodes in the first season that had a real standalone quality. Of all the episodes this season, “Thick As Mud” seemed closest to that model. Was that fun to go back to that way of doing things? You do have the larger plot to think about as well, but to build it around that core seemed to give this episode a kick. 

GY: Yeah. But it’s also Adam Arkin’s direction, and it’s having Dewey Crowe as the focus. It’s standalone, yet there was stuff we had to set up in the previous episodes in order to make it work. Who Lance was, Ash, the crooked guard, Lance, the crooked prison medic, and then the surprise about the character we call Layla, the nurse. It is fun. We were playing with big chunks of stuff from Elmore’s book, and that’s also fun to do.

AVC: What is Elmore Leonard’s level of involvement these days? This was a story of his. He wrote the book. What’s his history with the show and his creative input into the show? 

GY: This was his story. Elmore looks at it as his contribution to the show. He doesn’t want to write the scripts. He’s not going to review scripts or give notes or anything like that. He just lets us do what we do. And he’s happy—you know, reasonably happy—with what we’re doing. So he gets a kick out of it. He came up to visit the set in the first season, and Tim said, “Hey, why don’t you write another Raylan short story?” And so he started and wrote this kidney story and introduced us to Pervis Crowe and these other characters, who we then turned into the Bennett clan in the second season. And he just kept going, and he came up with another story and then another story, and so Raylan, as he says, is three stories he’s loosely connected and called a novel. But he basically said to us, “You can hang it up and strip it for parts,” which is just a wonderful gift for him to give us. And that’s his contribution: “I’m not going to write scripts, but I’ll write another book, and you guys can take what you need from it.” So that’s really the extent of his involvement, and it’s huge—you know, it gives us places to go. We get to go back to the real Elmore stuff. We’re not always just completely making it up on our own. 

AVC: He’s made it pretty clear in the past when he hasn’t been pleased with adaptations of his work. So there had to be, at least at the beginning, a bit of anxiety about how this was going to go with him. 

GY: Definitely. After he read the pilot script, I think he felt a certain amount of relief and ease, and then after he saw the pilot and saw how good Tim was playing Raylan, he felt at greater ease. I think that continued. Once he saw episodes we had to create ourselves, and he felt that it was still within his world. I don’t know if he looks at it that way, but it certainly was something he enjoyed watching, was the kind of show that he enjoys. That was a huge vote of confidence. And in the book, Tim and I got the dedication page. And I can’t tell you what a thrill that is. That’s pretty much one of the coolest things that’s happened to me in this business. 

AVC: “Thick As Mud” ends with a great exchange between Boyd and Quarles, where Boyd dismisses Quarles as a carpetbagger, even though, at that point, he’s not holding a tremendous amount of power. Was that a tipping point for Quarles, that exchange? Do you think it unnerved him?

GY: I don’t know if Quarles would ever admit it unnerved him. It certainly became a greater complication. Now, this wasn’t going to be as straightforward. He didn’t really know exactly what he was dealing with, and now he has an idea. There was a line in Elmore’s book where two characters had a conversation and it ends with, “They knew each other.” And that became a theme throughout the season, too. Just that sense that Raylan can meet someone, even if it’s Fletcher Nix, and there’s a sense by the end he knew him. Less so with Fogel, less so in other situations, but there is certainly a sense… And listen, Quarles says it to Duffy in the first episode. Duffy is having Quarles frisked—of course they don’t find a gun up his sleeve—and Duffy’s boss says, “Why are you doing that?” Then he says, “Well, I don’t know him.” Quarles then shoots the guy, shoots the girl, and turns to Duffy and says, “You know me now.” And so that became something throughout the season. In this episode, Quarles and Boyd, now they know each other. They know what they’re dealing with.

AVC: At this point, Boyd’s own group is in a state of disarray. What gives him the confidence to address Quarles the way he does? 

GY: I think a lot of it is historical. And he has a lot of confidence in himself, but it’s also his confidence in Harlan. His confidence in his world. “You think you can come down here and take over? We’ll see how that goes.” There’s a line in “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” that song, something to the effect of a man in the Northeast comes handing out $100 bills, and he never left Harlan alive. So Boyd has that sense of his world, that he will survive. Someone coming from the outside won’t. 

When The Guns Come Out” (Feb. 21, 2012)
In the wake of Boyd’s big confrontation with Quarles, a raid on one of Boyd’s Oxy houses—led by Quarles associate Tanner Dodd (Brendan McCarthy)— results in three deaths. Though Quarles seems like the obvious man behind it, Boyd isn’t convinced and embarks on an investigation that leads him to Limehouse’s territory. 

AVC: This episode is built on a very clever twist, which is that in the wake of Boyd’s threats to Quarles, it makes a certain amount of sense that Quarles would strike Boyd’s Oxy house in a show of power. But  Errol is pulling the strings. Is it a sign of Boyd’s superior instincts that he just doesn’t think it adds up, that it doesn’t make sense to him? 

GY: This is something that came out of the room. Initially, the idea was that Limehouse was behind it. And I said, “I just don’t see Limehouse doing that. Limehouse wants to protect his own.” Then someone said, “Well, what if it was Errol?” And then that gave us a place to go for the rest of the season. The relationship between Limehouse and Errol, and Errol and Boyd, and Errol and Dickie, and all that stuff. So when that happened, we wanted to have Boyd at least have the suspicion that maybe this wasn’t Quarles, because it felt so… it’s such a bold move. Would Quarles really do that? It’s so obvious. Would it really be Quarles? So we set the suspicion up in Boyd’s mind that that’s what’s going on. And that’s part of why Boyd survives. Because he’s smarter than your average criminal.

But then all things do point to it being Quarles, or at least Quarles-related. So when Boyd throws down the challenge to Quarles at the end of five, is that a smart thing to do? Well, we see that one of the tools that Boyd can use is Raylan. And that’s what he does. He contrives to have Raylan stake out the competition. Knowing it’s not entirely self-serving on his part, that this is something Raylan would want to do anyway. That Quarles is a bad guy, and he’s an outsider. And so Boyd feels he can have many allies in that fight to shut down Quarles. 

AVC: One of the great things about the episode is that Errol’s Yojimbo-like plan of setting these sides against each other seems very smart, but then Limehouse is unhappy about it. And the reasons he’s unhappy about it say a lot about who he is and what his priorities are. 

GY: Well, it goes back to Limehouse’s goal to be left alone. He’s clear about that from the beginning, and he stays true to that to the end: “I just want to be left alone.” And people will doubt that and divine different motives and think, “Well, maybe he really is doing this and wants to do that, but he is who he says he is.” But he sees that the only way to survive what Errol has started is to go through it. And that in fact he has to embrace Errol’s plan and spin it up even further with his own ideas on how to really get these guys going at each other. That becomes his plan later on, which is to deliver them to Raylan. 

AVC: And did Errol just misunderstand him fundamentally about what he wants, what his business is?

GY: That’s the nature of youth. I think Errol’s feeling was, “Yeah, well, okay, maybe you were right back in the ’70s to think that, or the ’80s to think that, but this is the 21st century, and I am right to think this.” There is a degree to which he’s right, which is with the Internet and everyone knowing everything about the world and all the knowledge that can come in at all times, it is harder to maintain an isolated community. So maybe Errol was right, to an extent. But you can also understand why Limehouse doesn’t want to give that up. So I think what Errol thought was, “I can do this, I can pull this off, and then I can present this like I’m a cat dropping a mouse at the doorstep. Look what I’ve done. I have given us this.” And it’s just, Limehouse is smart enough to figure it out.

AVC: This is the episode after Winona departs. There’s a great line in the episode from Art, where he says, “You know you’re in trouble when the drums stop.”

GY: Right.

AVC: How does Winona’s departure weigh on Raylan in the rest of this season?

GY: There’s a line in a later episode [regarding Raylan’s impending fatherhood] where Art says something to the effect of, “You might be feeling unmoored.” And Raylan calls him on it: “Unmoored?” But it’s true. I think Raylan is a little unmoored from this. We set up stuff in the first season of what Raylan wants. Either literally or figuratively, he wants to kill his father, or at least get him in jail. He wants to vanquish Boyd, and he wants to get Winona back. And this season was all about, to a degree, resolving those questions from the first season. What’s going to happen between Raylan and Arlo? What’s going to happen between Raylan and Winona? What’s going to happen between Raylan and Boyd? And so we deal with them one at a time, but this is the Raylan-and-Winona thing. 

So he’s gotten her back, but can he sustain that? And we like the idea that when she says at the end of season two, “You go down to Harlan, and you save that 14-year-old girl. I might not be here when you come back.” And we decided pretty early on that in fact she was leaving. And she gets pulled over by a trooper and taken to the hospital—or directed to the hospital—and finds Raylan suffering from a gunshot wound in surgery. Even though she came back, she had left. And that’s the reason she left. And part of the reason she left was she didn’t want to be the person who says, “Don’t go save a 14-year-old girl.” And that she knew that as much as she loved him, they couldn’t be together. And so our goal for the whole first half of the season was to get them to a place where they realized they can’t be together. And it’s horrible, and they still love each other, but it’s just not going to work. So we wanted to kind of redeem Winona. We didn’t want her to be the nagging shrew who’s saying, “Don’t be a hero.” Because that’s not a very wonderful character to write or portray or anything. We wanted the drums to stop and to let them have fun for the first bunch of episodes. And even though there’s conflict, they’re getting along pretty well, and she’s supporting him. And we liked that. We had fun playing with that.

AVC: To the point where it’s a surprise for him and really for us that this happens. And yet it makes sense. 

GY: Exactly, and I think that’s the goal for any show. It should be a surprise that makes sense.

AVC: It seems like one of the difficulties in writing a crime show is that it can be tough to integrate domestic scenes. Last season, you brought Winona more into this world through her failed money grab, but you didn’t have that this season. Did that make things a little more complicated? 

GY: We knew where it was going to go, so we were okay with spending some time just with Raylan and Winona being them, and just having fun with their relationship and their banter. And we let it be less negative, let it be more fun. But then we came up with this idea for “Watching The Detectives,” the eighth episode, where we think we’re done with her, and then we bring her back in for an episode. And that became something we felt would surprise the audience and yet would be fun—but we’ll talk about that when we get to that episode.

Check back tomorrow for part three.


Part one

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