Premieres tonight on FX, 10 pm ET.
[Important note: I will be writing about Justified every week for TV Club. However, since this is the pilot and I’m posting this missive before the pilot airs, I’m treating it as I would a regular review and only spoiling as much as necessary. That said, I’ll throw a few spoiler-y thoughts into “Stray Observations” (with proper warning) and all subsequent Justified recaps will proceed as if you’ve seen the episode.]
“I want you to understand. I don’t pull my sidearm unless I intend to shoot to kill. That’s its purpose, to kill, so that’s how I use it. I want you to think about that before you act and it’s too late.” —Raylan Givens
Pilots are not always a reliable bellwether of how a show might look down the road, but they don’t get much better than the one for Justified, the new FX series by Graham Yost. And there’s reason to be optimistic, just based on how skillfully Yost and company set the table, that we’re in for something special. Lifting the character of Raylan Givens—a U.S. Marshal with an old-fashioned way of meting justice—from two Elmore Leonard books (Pronto and Riding The Rap) and a short story (“Fire In The Hole,” upon which the pilot was based), Justified does everything a great pilot should do: It has an arresting, instant hook of an opening scene; it gives a vivid impression of the major players (especially Raylan, of course) while leaving some questions about them hanging; it has a wonderfully particular sense of time and place; it suggests the potential for endless juicy storylines over the stretch of however many seasons it stays on the air; and most of all, it’s entertaining as all get out.
After an early career spent being the best thing about forgettable movies—his malevolent turns in Go and The Girl Next Door are particularly good, though he’s always been a striking screen presence—Timothy Olyphant got a chance to stretch out in the more substantial role of Sheriff Seth Bullock on Deadwood, and that easy-going swagger is present, at least on the surface, in Justified. Olyphant has played more heavies than not, but the common denominator in all his work is a devilish smile, an offhand wit, and extraordinary self-possession, which makes him a natural Old West hero in the John Wayne/Clint Eastwood tradition. As Raylan, Olyphant shows off that rascally charisma of his, but he’s a darker, more complicated character than his 19th century sheriff shtick would seem to indicate at first. (In its quiet way, the very last line of the pilot is a mind-blower in that respect.)
The terrific opening shot says it all, as Raylan descends upon a poolside cabana in Miami, Florida in his trademark Stetson, the ultimate fish out of water. Taking his place across the table from a thuggish Peter Weller lookalike, Raylan sets up an old-fashioned showdown: The guy has been given 24 hours to leave the city, or else Raylan will shoot him on sight, and he’s got two minutes left. Those two minutes are vintage Leonard, full of tension as the clock ticks away (and we know immediately Raylan’s serious about his deadline) yet sprinkled with colorful bits of small talk (comparing crab cakes), personal history, and philosophy. When it’s over, the crook pulls his gun first, but Raylan is quicker to the draw, and he shoots the man dead. All of which leads to the question that hangs over the episode (and the series): What if the bad guy didn’t pull first? Would Raylan have killed him in cold blood?
Raylan likes to keep it simple—his statement to officials after the fact (“He pulled first. I shot him.”) is hilariously concise—but the moral clarity of shooting a man after he draws first becomes a hell of lot murkier if he kept his “shoot on sight” promise to an unarmed man. In any case, the media headache that follows the shooting leads Raylan’s bosses to tuck him away in a Kentucky backwater that just happens to be his old stomping ground. The first case on his docket concerns Boyd (The Shield’s awesome Walton Goggins), an old coal-mining buddy of his who has grown into a hell-raising, bank-robbing, drug-dealing, tax-evading white supremacist. In his latest spree, Boyd has fire-bombed a church in Lexington and shot one of his fellow travelers in the back of the head. Raylan needs to bring Boyd to justice, but their history together makes it a more difficult job than it seems, even before you factor in Boyd’s legion of armed-to-the-teeth rednecks.
“Pilot” introduces some other major characters, too, including Raylan’s ex Winona (Natalie Zea), now remarried and working as a court stenographer, and Chief Deputy Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), who plays Raylan’s tough-but-affable boss in his new office. But beyond those great exchanges between Raylan and Boyd—a master class of acting, as well as a good example of how Leonard and Yost can suggest familiarity (and lots of personal baggage) between the two in casual dialogue—I loved the chemistry between Raylan and Ava, Boyd’s sister-in-law, played by an absurdly sexy Joelle Carter. Ava is on the hook for murdering her abusive husband, which obviously puts her in danger with Boyd and company, but she and Raylan know each other, too. Their greeting on her front porch is something else, like an attraction so electric that they lose any sense of social or professional politesse.
It will be telling, in the weeks to come, if Justified can develop the world beyond its magnetic center—or if it will even leave Raylan’s side at all. (See Dexter for a case study in how a largely inane supporting cast can subtract from a brilliantly conceived antihero.) But for now, this is terrifically promising television, with an irresistible fish-out-of-water hook and a hero of deceptive simplicity. Hope you’ll join me as it unfolds this season.
• Amusing detail: Mullen has a Tombstone poster behind his desk. So maybe Raylan has landed in the right place, after all.
• Harlan County makes for a fascinating backdrop, given the historic showdowns between coal miners and their union-busting bosses. (Documented most memorably in Barbara Kopple’s 1976 classic Harlan County U.S.A., in which shots are fired on camera.) It also colors Boyd’s anarchist, freedom-fighting worldview in a way that makes sense, because he naturally sees government and corporate agents as oppressors.
• Love Raylen’s gambit to the Jamaican preacher: “Well, I saw Peter Tosh once.”
• “I’d give up this Nazi bullshit. Go back to poaching gators. It’s safer.”
• Boyd: “Read your Bible, as interpreted by experts.”
And now for spoil-ery observations:
• Raylan is questioned twice about his father, and they’re the only occasions in the whole episode where he looks uncomfortable. And looking uncomfortable goes against Olyphant’s nature, so it must be really significant.
• “At Glenco, didn’t you teach those recruits to aim for the heart?” Loved the offhand way Raylan’s decision not to shoot to kill Boyd was handled. The show was loaded with subtle touches like these.
• That final scene between Raylan and his ex was low-key but stunning. For one, he opens up to Winona in a way he doesn’t for anyone else—hence his explicit worries about that incident in Miami and what it says about him. And that last line from Winona (“Honestly, you’re the angriest man I’ve ever known”) speaks volumes.