Justified is wrapped up in the nature of change and often fixates on a person’s ability (and inability) to extricate from the past. Lead Timothy Olyphant plays U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens as a rule-breaking, results-getting lawman with John McClane’s ingenuity and Will Rogers’ wit, but there are skeletons in his closet forever threatening to drag him back to his humbler beginnings. Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) is Raylan’s other half in every way that doesn’t involve a marriage license—including his attempt to run from the past, which just won’t let him rule his criminal organization like a “legitimate businessman” who isn’t covered in white-supremacist tattoos.
And yet it’s hard for Justified to find much reason to change itself. Since its debut in 2010, it’s been one of TV’s most consistent performers, in a class of shows—like The Middle or Parks And Recreation—whose reputation for delivering high-quality product could be taken for granted. There’s just not much call for showrunner Graham Yost to switch up the recipe of his country-fried Elmore Leonard adaptation: Folksy pronouncements, smart-ass asides, and startling gunplay have done just fine for Justified so far. But the first two episodes of the show’s fifth season, “A Murder Of Crowes” and “The Kids Aren’t All Right,” suggest the show can change. It just has to follow the example of its protagonists and do so incrementally.
Justified will never top its breakout second season—13 episodes headlined by Margo Martindale’s ruthless, Emmy-winning Mags Bennett. But season four came close. It would be Justified’s best, were it not for the occasional stall in the Drew Thompson mystery or Yost and company’s surely dwindling reserve of reasons to get Raylan back to Harlan County. This year, the show takes its time in that regard, using a comic confrontation between Raylan and returning schmuck Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) to launch a longer arc, but otherwise sending the marshal—and Boyd, the erudite Joker to his shit-kicking Batman—to points elsewhere.
In lieu of bringing the action to Harlan, the show brings Harlan to the action—and it’s already paying off. Drawing on the rich tapestry of characters woven in previous seasons, “A Murder Of Crowes” and “The Kids Aren’t All Right” stir up long-tailed material out of lingering feuds, familial strife, and criminal histories. Were Olyphant’s name not above the title, these installments of Justified might hum along just fine without the presence of Raylan Givens.
Besides, there’s enough non-Harlan activity to keep Raylan busy, the most important of which merely tugs at the sleeves of season five’s opening passages: Marshal Givens is now a family man. Ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) is down in Miami with their daughter, but whether that daughter should represent LeBron James or Dwyane Wade on her onesie is the most vexing dilemma of Raylan’s young fatherhood. It’s an intriguing, deeply felt new angle for the show’s meditations on family ties—and those meditations are the bedrock of these new episodes. The word “family” is never too far from Justified’s lips, and the questions raised in these two episodes—Does Boyd truly love Ava? What separates the Kentucky Crowes from their “bad news” Florida kin?—suggest the fifth season will be saying it a lot.
They also suggest shifting sands and power grabs that will alter the landscape of the show’s underworld—within and without Raylan’s old stomping grounds. As all things should on a show whose general atmosphere is a humid stickiness, the tide turns slowly in Harlan County. And that slow turn necessitates players with just enough familial connections for the viewer to immediately latch onto their motivations and intentions—players like Michael Rapaport as scheming Crowe cousin Darryl Jr. Continuing the show’s tradition of unorthodox guest casting (also appearing in the premiere: David Koechner, Dave Foley, and Will Sasso) consummate New Yorker Rapaport isn’t the first face that leaps to mind at the words “Southern crime boss.” But the mythology of the show and the slickness of its scripts integrate him into its world seamlessly enough to lend credence to the personal history he reels off in his first scenes with Olyphant.
Throughout “The Kids Aren’t All Right,” Raylan gets an earful about himself. Even strangers are convinced they have a bead on Givens: A collar labels him a poor conversationalist; a prospective love interest judges him on the basis of his badge and his unique code of honor. But Justified has always been a show about defining yourself, for yourself. So long as it keeps finding fresh criminal conspiracies to wrap around that core—as season five appears to have done—the show will remain a must-watch.
Developed by: Graham Yost (from characters created by Elmore Leonard)
Starring: Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, Nick Searcy, Jere Burns, Joelle Carter
Airs: Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX
Format: Hour-long crime drama
Two season-five episodes watched for review