By: Aleks Chan
Timothy Olyphant could melt your television set with his charisma alone. In JUSTIFIED, FX’s smart, brisk, and terrifically acted new drama, he plays U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, one of the smoothest, laconic operators on TV. Sporting a Stetson, cowboy boots, and hip holster, he’s like a character from GUNSMOKE drizzled with a quiet, undeniable machismo. Down to his gait, Olyphant exudes charm in this role, enough to render a scattergun-wielding neo-Nazi a whimpering puppy of a man with the threat of his fast trigger finger. Givens is a man who lives by his own idea of justice and morality: he often gives his targets a time period to turn themselves in before he comes gunning for them. When he fires the first shot (and you’ll learn how fast of a draw he is), he’ll simply state: “It was justified.”
But after shooting a con in the audience of a Miami hotel and creating a massive media headache for his superiors, Givens is banished to his home state of Kentucky, where he comes to find that his childhood friend Boyd Crowder (THE SHIELD’s always excellent Walton Goggins) has become a local terrorist: leading a band of white supremacists, they’re rob banks and blow up churches. There’s a great scene in the pilot where Givens visits Boyd’s victory den (a strange pastiche of Confederate flags, swastikas, and a set of pews) and Boyd explains how the Bible justifies his behavior, thereby presenting a dueling perspective of ethics – just how different are Ray and Boyd when it comes to rationalizing their law-skirting ways?
There’s something almost exotic about Harlan, Kentucky, Givens’ hometown, a coal-mining town packed with classic imagery of the religious South: driving to see the abused-turn-murderous wife with a neo-Nazi brother-in-law, our first glimpse of Harlan is of a rickety old shack bearing “Jesus Saves” across the side. It’s reminiscent of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHT’s Dillon, Texas, where escaping was to not only evolve as a person, but to be free and survive, something Givens did and is now reminded of.
Being back home also puts him within reach of his ex-wife Winona (DIRTY SEXY MONEY’s Natalie Zea), a court reporter who left him for another man, and his old crush Ava (Joelle Carter), who married Boyd’s abusive brother, and seems to have become a degree of certifiable in the process. (An overly vapid Southern belle is a hallmark of laziness, but Carter does a fine job of balancing this with a warm, inviting grace, never allowing us to completely dismiss Ava for a second.)
Based on an Elmore Leonard character (most notably from his novella Fire in the Hole) and as conceived by Graham Yost, a former writer for BOOMTOWN and who also helmed both BAND OF BROTHERS and its follow-up THE PACIFIC, JUSTIFIED is a mixture of genres, geography, and tones: modern Western, Southern gothic, domestic drama, and a pulsating crime procedural. These undulate throughout the show, anchored by Leonard’s (who also serves as an executive producer) very wry, very welcome sense of humor.
Givens’ job has him following old cases around Kentucky and the country, introducing a case of the week setup not necessarily implied. In lesser hands, this could spell trouble if handled incorrectly, but by threading more of Givens’ personal back story into each episode, we get the benefit of both the serial and the procedural. What’s more refreshing is that even the guest characters are richly drawn: Episode 2 features an escaped prisoner looking for his hidden spoils who struggles more with his ex-wife moving on than the for his stolen money. There’s a tender moment of regret and understanding towards the end of the episode that took me by surprise. What Givens lacks in outward emotion the show makes heartily makes up for.
One last, slobbery heaping of praise for Tim Olyphant, whose subtle, unassuming performance is a collective of complexities – he takes all the details of the character and makes it all seem so effortless and so natural to come by. And in a way, this speaks of JUSTIFIED’S talent as well: I usually harp on shows that invest too much into one performance, but this is a rare case where both appear to be in sync. Grade: A-
JUSTIFIED premieres tonight (Tuesday March 16) at 10PM on FX.