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

Justified creator Graham Yost recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the third season of his hit FX crime show. This final section of the interview covers episodes 11 through 13, beginning with “Measures” and concluding with “Slaughterhouse.” Don’t miss part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Measures” (March 27, 2012)
The Detroit bosses send two hired guns to wipe out Quarles, but Raylan and Art intercept them. With a bounty on Quarles’ head, Boyd manipulates Sheriff Napier into arranging Quarles to meet him, then tases him in one of the whorehouse trailers. Dickie and Errol become partners in a plot to steal back the Bennett millions, but the complexity of the job leads Errol to propose an unlikely partner: Boyd Crowder. 

The A.V. Club: There’s a lot of excitement right away as Michael Ironside appears in this episode. But it raises the question: Who do you have left in the stable of character actors? And do you hold back on casting someone special in a role that may be just limited to one episode? How do you handle the people that you really want to cast?

Graham Yost: [Sighs.] You know, we do hold back. And it’s really a hard decision when we decide to cast Michael Ironside in a part that’s probably only going to appear once. Or Pruitt Taylor Vince in an episode where he’s going to die at the end. And so we face that a lot of times. I think that the decision I make is, “You know what, they’re perfect for it, let’s do it.” We’re not going to be doing this show forever, there are other great actors out there, and we’ll continue to find them. The reality is, there are dozens of great character actors out there, and actresses, that we could find things for on Justified. And I hope we continue to get to do so. So when our casting directors need to fill a role and say, “What about Michael Ironside?” it’s like, “Really? We can get him? Yeah!” Because Justified is looked at as a fun place to work for a week, so we get that.

AVC: Is it a chicken-or-egg thing? Do you look for actors available for a role you’ve written, or are there times where you know this character actor is definitely available and then you write this role for this person? 

GY: We assigned the role of Dickie Bennett to Jeremy Davies because he said he was interested in being on the show, and we were excited by that. Eric Stonestreet on Modern Family, he’s a Kansas boy, and he likes the show, and we’ve been looking for something for him for two years now. And it’s just hard to schedule. He’d love to play a bad guy. And I think there are a lot of people out there—a lot of people—there are a number of actors out there who’ve seen the show and think, “Boy, it’d be fun to go play a bad guy on that show.” And so there are some times we’ll get wind of that, and we’ll think, “What could we do with blah blah blah?” And we’ll just keep that in mind.

AVC: This episode also brings Adam Arkin out from behind the camera as Theo Tonin. He’s directed several episodes. 

GY: He’s part of the family, yes. He did a big run on Sons [Of Anarchy] and enjoyed that, and in getting Adam, then we can think about maybe a future for Theo Tonin. Will he play any further part in the series? We know we’ve got this fantastic actor playing the part. And it was just fun for us to have him in front of the camera. I think it was fun for him. He’s directed some of our best episodes. 

AVC: You have to set up a lot of action for the penultimate episode and the finale in “Measures.” Are these types of episodes the hardest to write? And do they tend to get less respect than they deserve when they’re done?

GY: Yes. They are hard to write, and they’re hard to pull off, because we’re at that point now where we know we’re heading for the conclusion with Quarles and Limehouse and Boyd and whoever. Whatever the story of the season is. And yet we can’t wrap it up too soon; otherwise we’re done at the end of [episode] 11. So we’re still always looking for that satisfying thing within the episode. The two things we had in this episode that we wanted to enjoy was the idea of Raylan and Art. And that was Tim [Olyphant]’s idea. “Let’s have Art go with Raylan on this thing, going up against bad guys.” And that there’s a misunderstanding. Raylan thinks the guys are down there to back up Quarles, but no, they’re down there to kill him. We thought that was fun. Don’t know if we executed it perfectly, but you know, it’s still fun. And then the other thing was the idea of a continued fallout of Ava killing Delroy, and that now they’re not having trouble getting protection money, and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. And then it turns out to be a thing by Quarles, and I’ve always wanted to do an episode where Boyd had to be a detective.

Again, because it’s late in the order and we’re jamming and we’re running, we didn’t give that story enough time. But I still think it’s a fun sequence. But Boyd saying, “Look for a household cleanser, because if he brought bleach with him, then he’s a pro,” and figuring this out from the woman’s testimony, it just became too easy. They show up at the crime scene, as it were, they see the dead guys, and they know who did it by the end of the scene, instead of it being something we could arc out over the episode. We may try that again some time. It’s a fun role to put Boyd in. But those were the two big things we were going for, and then the big thing at the end with Dickie. And also, we got to spend a little time with Rachel and Tim, and let Rachel kick someone in the nuts. [Laughs.]

AVC: There’s also that morning-after scene with Lindsey, which seems significant in that Raylan expects to be begging for absolution, but doesn’t have to. Is there a thought that this may be the woman for him? Do you see Lindsey as playing a more significant role than she has?

GY: If we can work out a deal with Jenn Lyon, who just did a great job, I think that’s something we would be interested in. They are fun together, and she’s great. And listen, Raylan of course is attracted to a woman who can hold a shotgun.

AVC: The episode ends with a great cliffhanger involving Boyd Crowder. The idea of bringing Boyd in on the Bennett millions scheme suggests this “team of rivals” you see in crime stories—and politics—but how did you want to play with that idea, and maybe just play with that McGuffin in general?

GY: Our initial idea for [episode 12] was that it was going to be a big robbery thing. That Limehouse was going to get Boyd involved with it and Quarles, and then it would all be this thing where he’s just trying to turn them over to law enforcement. And it was unrelated to the Mags money, and we just kept on banging our heads against the wall, and then it was, “Well, what do we have?” So it can seem like we planned out the money thing all along, but it was, “You know, well, we have that. So let’s make it about that. And let’s set up the team-of-rivals thing, the strange bedfellows.” That’s the only thing we could imagine that would get Boyd and Dickie in the same room without Boyd killing Dickie. But let us find out later in the episode that Boyd knew it was a setup from the beginning, and he was just sort of playing it out to see how far they were going to go. And that kept Boyd smart, and it still put Dickie in the jackpot, and things kind of tumbled out of control, and that’s what led to the conclusion of the episode.

Coalition” (April 3, 2012)
Due to a flawed security plan involving two hookers, a pile of Oxy, and a long-chained leg restraint, Quarles slips out of Boyd’s custody and becomes a player again. Errol has Dickie recruit Boyd for the Bennett millions scheme—and Dickie nearly gets killed, until Boyd agrees to hear him out. Things get personal for Raylan and his colleagues when a trooper is shot outside the Crowder bar. 

AVC: When things go downhill for Quarles, the characters snipe about him quite a bit. How did Neal McDonough react to all the humiliation and snarky remarks that were thrown his way this season?

GY: I don’t know how Neal has reacted to the snarky remarks, like Duffy saying, “You mean with the big baby head?” and other people talking about his eyes, and how “he even shits blonde,” and all that stuff. But I will say the whole scene of him chained and partying with the whores really came out of something that Neal said to us, or one of the writers, that we embraced. He said, “I’d love to see myself naked and on fire running down a street,” so we set aside the naked thing and used that in this episode, and then he’s on fire at the end of the episode. Separate things, but that was part of Neal’s instincts to say, “Let’s completely degrade and demolish this character.” The whole episode’s written by Taylor Elmore. He had just had dental surgery and had to write the episode in one weekend. And we maintain that he was just high as a kite on Vicodin, and he wrote the whole thing in two days.

That whore-party scene, where Quarles is smoking Oxy with the two hookers, that was the first thing he wrote, and it changed very little. When people read it, they said, “What the hell are you doing? This is insane!” so we had to figure out some ways to get into it. We adjusted stuff in [episode] 11 to set up how Quarles would be in this position, and we also shot 11 and 12 out of sequence. We shot 12 first, and then 11. Which was really tough, but it was just the script for 12 was in a better position at that time. So it became weird when we were shooting 11; it’s like, “Well, what have we done, what do we have to set up?” and that became an extra burden on that one. But yeah, it was just, “Let’s see how far down we can take Quarles and yet have him continue to be this formidable adversary that can get out of any kind of situation.”

AVC: To get back to the whore party, there were some complaints that perhaps this was not the strongest security situation, considering how much Quarles is worth.

GY: I heard that from a friend, and I basically told him to shut the hell up. [Laughs.] But yeah, it’s not the smartest move. The argument can be that Boyd is not perfect, and he’s not always figuring out all the angles. But no, there’s certainly writer convenience in there. This is something we wanted to do. We wanted to get Boyd to have him in his clutches and then lose him. So how do we lose him? And what’s the most entertaining way for him to get free? And that’s what we came up with.


AVC: There’s a really surprising scene where Errol escorts Dickie into the lion’s den. The audience probably expected Boyd to respect Dickie for making such an audacious move and hear him out, but that’s not how things go.

GY: That was just Taylor’s instinct—I think that was all our instinct—that Boyd is going to be calm for a second, and then just snap. And then just go to kill him. And he’s going to torture him until he kills him. Then the money trumps everything, because greed rules out. There was actually a production thing where originally Boyd was dunking [Dickie’s] head in the sink, and Jeremy said, “You know what? I get sinus infections when I do that kind of stuff.” So we came up with the bag over the head, and actually ended up being a better, more gruesome and violent scene. We just like the idea of smart people who lose their smartness when there’s a lot of money at stake.

AVC: There’s a scene with Dickie where Raylan assesses him as “a stupid, craven hillbilly piece of shit.” Was that always the way you and the writers thought about Dickie, or was he conceived a little differently than that?

GY: I think that’s the way Raylan sees him, or that Raylan wants to present him. I think Raylan’s view of the world is, you make your choices and you have to be willing to ride the rap. As he says in “Riding The Rap.” And I think that’s what he’s saying here, but with a greater sense of vehemence. He’s not going to buy into Dickie’s whole thing about, “Raylan, you crippled me, and that changed my whole life,” or, “Look at my mother. I had a difficult upbringing” and all of that stuff. It’s like, “No. You think you’re smarter than you are.” And that is certainly true about Dickie, and I think it’s true about a lot of the criminals in Elmore’s world. They think they’re smarter than they are. And one of the things that always screws them up is greed. So they should be smart in the situation, but when there’s a crapload of money at stake, they lose their rationale. They lose their intellect and their ability to judge. Except for Boyd. But even Boyd can kind of screw up a little bit, and my feeling is that putting Quarles on the long chain was him thinking of $200,000 [for handing him over alive] vs. $100,000 [for killing him]. He should have just tied him to the bed, but that wouldn’t have been as fun of an episode. 

But back to Dickie. Dickie sees himself as a victim. He always sees himself as a victim. And sees himself as smart. And he’s neither. He’s not that smart, and he’s not really a victim. He’s made a choice in his life, and Raylan calls him on it. And Dickie is a cockroach. He just will not go away. 

AVC: How did you come upon the idea of Loretta ultimately having the money?

GY: It goes back to the scene—I think it’s in the third or fourth episode—when Raylan talks to Loretta because he’s gone looking for the money, and that’s when he hears that it might be with Limehouse. It just came out of working on that scene, I think with Tim, just this notion that Loretta would say, “What, you think I’ve got the money?” And as soon as that question got raised, I remember in the writers’ room saying, “Yes, Loretta should have the money. That would be a great conclusion to the Bennett story.” Mags’ last wishes were that Loretta have the money. And it’s a final “fuck you” to Dickie, too. So we knew that was a target from fairly early on, and then it was just a matter of when could we get Kaitlyn [Dever], because she was doing Last Man Standing, the Tim Allen show. And she’s such a special performer; she is just great. I think that’s my favorite scene of the season, the two of them [Raylan and Loretta] together. And he tells her he’s going to let her keep it. And she’s not pleading or apologetic or anything. She’s just Loretta to the end. She’s a tough kid. I think [Dave] Andron, who was on the set that day and came up with the line… or maybe it was Taylor, I forget. Or maybe it was Ben [Cavell]. Who knows, but one of the three of them came up with the line, “Do I really look like a Van Halen fan? Do I strike you at all as a Van Halen fan?” It was a different line in the script.

AVC: There’s also a pretty nice scene with Sheriff Napier when he talks about the realities of his job. What was the thinking behind that?

GY: That was a thing from Tim, and actually goes back to [an earlier season] when he goes to see Sheriff Hunter, played by Brent Sexton. There’s just this sense of how hard the job is. You’ve got to keep track of these shitheads over here, and this guy over there, and it’s just it’s a difficult place to be a law-enforcement guy in. And this is another one of the casting fortunes we struck upon. It was Cammie Patton who suggested David Andrews for Napier, and David and I had worked together back on From The Earth To The Moon, and I wrote the episode where he’s Frank Borman and he’s finding out what happened with the fire in Apollo 1. He’s a great performer, but I had hired him just because I knew him and I knew he did good work. I had no idea how specific he was going to be [with Napier], and the whole mustache thing and the vanity. It was stuff he just came up with that then we wrote to, and that he just filled in, and this is something where Tim enjoyed playing with him. “What if he talked a little bit about how hard his job is?”

Which is another bit of an Elmore thing, of people who have made bad choices rationalizing the hell out of them. “You don’t understand. If you were in my shoes, you would have done the same thing.” Which then goes back to the whole notion of crossing the line. And there’s Napier, just like Doc Stern, just like Shelby: When he takes the money from Quarles, his life is fucked. He crossed that line. The reality is, with someone like Napier, he’s probably crossed a bunch of lines before that, but that was the big line. 

Slaughterhouse” (April 10, 2012)
The season finale brings all parties together for a bloody climax at Limehouse’s shed. It turns out that Arlo is responsible for shooting the trooper—“a man in a hat,” just like Raylan—but just when Raylan finally has Boyd nabbed for killing Devil, Arlo takes the fall for that crime, too, in a bid to protect Boyd. Quarles attempts to leverage the lives of Raylan and a kidnapped boy in exchange for the $500,000 needed to settle his debts, but meets a grisly end.

AVC: The “piggybank.” How excited were you about letting that pun fly? When did that come to you?

GY: That was on the day. I wasn’t there when they were shooting that. But that was not in the script. And it’s just one of those glorious moments. We were just looking for where would be a cool place that Limehouse had been hiding the money. We’re not trying to say it’s the only place he’s been hiding the money, but it certainly worked for us. You know, the title of the episode, the fact that that climactic scene happens there, was something that really came out of us looking at early scenes. When we introduced Limehouse at the end of the second episode, and he’s threatening Bernard, and Errol’s there, and we see Errol’s gnarled hand and all that… There was just that feeling, “You know what? This is where we have to end this season, or have the big climax. Because it’s just such a scary, dangerous place, with all those edged things.” And Fred [Golan, the writer] and I were kicking around the episode, and I just suggested “Slaughterhouse” as a title. It’s weird and ominous, yet appropriate.

AVC: We haven’t talked much about Arlo, but the end of this episode really hits hard in terms of the extent to which Raylan is susceptible to his father. What were your plans for Arlo this season, and how did it pay off?

GY: That was something that we did arc out and stayed pretty close to. We liked the idea of the lion in winter and this older man who has lost his fangs and his claws, but is still dangerous in one way or another, slowly losing his mind. So that was something that we built in, from fairly early on in the season. [Arlo] talking to himself, calling people by the wrong names, and then we just went for it in 12 and had him have a full-on hallucination of [his late wife] Helen. It was fun to get Linda Gehringer [as Helen] back on the set. So we were heading for that, and the other thing we wanted was that as Raylan is losing Winona once again, Boyd is developing this deep relationship with Ava, and is developing a better relationship with Arlo than Raylan could ever have—or would ever want, really, because it’s based on a mutual love of crime. But that was one of the things that we were headed toward, the idea of Raylan getting Boyd. Completing this arc that was set up in the pilot episode. He’s finally going to get Boyd into jail for good. And then Arlo pulls the rug out from underneath him. So he ends up winning, but losing. He gets to vanquish his father, a goal that he has had for a long, long time. To send his father to jail, if not literally kill him. And he gets it, but it’s kind of an empty victory. Not empty, but it has its cost. 

AVC: “The man in the hat” line is a real punch in the gut.

GY: It was just something we hit upon. And it was weird, because we were shooting [episode] 12, and it was hard to get the hat on [Trooper Tom] Bergen’s head, because he would have been in the car heading out to the bar. And I got a call late from Taylor Elmore saying, “Okay, we’re having trouble getting the hat on his head. How do you want to do that? Do we have to have the hat on his head?” And I said, “We have to have the hat on his head.” And when you see it, he just puts it on. He’s a trooper. And he just puts it on, but that was something that when we hit on that, in working on that scene with Arlo, basically his confession scene, we did have versions where Arlo says that in Raylan’s presence. “I saw a man in a hat, he was threatening Boyd, and I shot him.” We kept on going back and forth. Would it be better to hear Arlo say it in front of Raylan, or have Raylan tell Winona? And that’s ultimately where we landed. 

AVC: There’s also a reprise in this episode of the “Harlan Roulette” scene, this time with Duffy in the motor home. Is this where Raylan’s reputation pays off? 

GY: Duffy is just such a fun character, and Jere [Burns] has brought so much to it. Building sympathy for Wynn Duffy was really a fun thing to play over the season. And us actually having some sympathy for him in this scene. Again, it’s Raylan crossing the line. What is Raylan willing to do? It’s like Art beating the hell out of Frank John Hughes in the second episode. What is Raylan willing to do? Was he going to plant the gun on Quarles that Quarles had used to kill Gary? And we have a nice little twist in that, which was something that Tim came up with. We’d been toying with how could we do this, and they figured out the right way to do it. 

But the Duffy scene, I think Andron wrote that scene. Fred wrote the episode, but we did farm out things, which is what you do when you get to the last episode and you’re just jamming and you’re up against it. I took a first crack at the Raylan-Winona scene at the end, and Fred fixed it. But I think Andron did a pass on this, and was very proud of it. And Andron had written “Harlan Roulette,” so it was sort of fun for him to say, “Well, why don’t we use that again?” And we had a lot of debates. Did Raylan actually put the bullet in the gun? Or did he palm it like Fogel did in the third episode? But this is a question of how far will Raylan go. He knew that on an emotional level, what would ultimately set Raylan off to go to his darkest place is any threat to the people who are important to him in his life, and he liked Bergen, but Bergen more than anything is a law-enforcement officer. And so it becomes, “You do that, you kill one of our tribe, and I will do anything to get you.” Just as Art did in the second episode. Art didn’t particularly like Nichols, who was the witness-protection marshal, but he would do anything to avenge his death and protect any other people in the program. So that was the thing. Raylan would do anything at this point.

AVC: Ava’s treatment of Ellen May in this episode is remarkably brutal. Is she just growing into a role that she has to play? Does this change the course for her?

GY: I think that if you were to speak to Ava at the end of this story, she’d say, “Yeah, I wish I hadn’t done that.” I don’t think that she embraces that. I think that she did that out of her anger and frustration over Boyd being taken away from her. And over the course of the season, we see how much they mean to each other. And it is this true relationship. Although we see between Raylan and Winona what they have at the end, too, which is pretty great. But Ava is devastated at the idea of Boyd getting taken away, and she’s lashing out. I think she would regret it, but that’s also what we wanted to get to, was her crossing that line. That she ends up smacking Ellen May, just like Delroy did. Something she swore she’d never do.

AVC: So where does this leave you for season four? How far ahead do you usually end up thinking about the show and where you’re going to go with it? 

GY: Boyd and Ava are now destined to be the king and queen of Harlan, so we know we’re going in that direction. We know that Raylan is going to have a child, and that he’s got a reasonably good relationship with Winona, and yet he’s free to sleep with other women. So just on a crass story sense, that gives us places to go. Limehouse is still alive, his relationship with Boyd is fraught, we’ve set up that he’s been conspiring with Johnny, or Johnny’s been conspiring from him, right from the beginning. We’ll see where that might pan out. But in a big sense of the series, we’ve come to the end of the Arlo story, at least for the time being. And the Boyd story is on new footing. We’re looking at this as the halfway point of the series. There are questions that we still have out there. The Johnny question, things like that. But we are going to look to now see where we’re going to go for the second half of the series.

AVC: Can you actually see the end of the road? Do you ever look that far ahead?

GY: We’re starting to look at that now. Really, we’ve always looked at that. You always wonder, “Hey, I wonder how this is going to end.” But now we’re really starting to look at where we want to go. And we’re given that freedom. Even though we’re only picked up for the fourth season, you know, we’ve got all the hopes and ambitions that we get to run this thing through to the end. 

AVC: The ratings keep increasing, but in television, that can produce a different kind of terror, right? When the run is that open-ended, that becomes kind of a problem, doesn’t it?

GY: I don’t think we could sustain some of these relationships forever. And I just think that it’s fantastic to be on FX, and we’re doing 13 a year, which is much more manageable than trying to do 22—and even then, we hit our rough patches. Six years is more imaginable than eight or 10, even though the money is less. But in terms of creative enterprise, six years looks pretty good. But then again, it could be that [FX chief] John Landgraf reads this interview and goes, “What the hell are you talking about? We want to keep it going forever.” Or Sony says the same thing. But at least from where we’re sitting now, it seems like a good model. We might totally reevaluate and say, “You know what? Now we’re getting into the second act of this series, and it’s going to go nine years,” or eight years, or something like that. But right now, this is what we’re thinking. 

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