The much-admired television series The Wire had at its heart the hokiest and hoariest of set-ups — the cast of Baltimore cops and crooks may have been Dickensian, but it all revolved around the hard-drinking Irish-American police detective with a heart of gold, the hard-charging maverick who was always in trouble with his superiors but only because he cared so very much about bringing criminals to justice. On paper, it sounds like a disaster; on the screen, it was quite something else. Perhaps inspired by a perverse competitive spirit, the creators of Justified upped the cliché ante with their hero, Raylan Givens, a laconic U.S. marshal and gun-slinging quick-draw artist who does things like tell bad guys to get out of town by a certain time or else — and does it all while wearing a white cowboy hat, in case you missed the point. But the writers behind Justified understand the difference between originality and novelty, and the series, based on an Elmore Leonard novella and short stories, is arguably the most interesting thing on television, and a powerful piece of evidence for the proposition that the long-form television series has convincingly displaced the feature film as the premier medium for dramatic storytelling.
It is also a deeply if subtly conservative piece of storytelling, not in the sense that it has any sort of preconceived ideological agenda, but in the sense of Margaret Thatcher’s observation that the facts of life are conservative. Justified is set in eastern Kentucky, largely in and around the backward and impoverished community of Harlan. And while the moonshine may have been displaced by the modern chemical smorgasbord of methamphetamine, OxyContin, marijuana, and heroin, the unchanging contours of hillbilly life are immediately familiar. (The show’s opening music, a bluegrass/hip-hop hybrid number called “Long, Hard Times to Come,” is an inspired condensation of the show’s cracker/gangster aesthetic.) As one character observes, Harlan is not unlike Afghanistan: feuding clans, led by men with long beards, shooting at one another. Life in Harlan is dominated by a complex criminal ecosystem, with players ranging from a brutal marijuana matriarch and a white-supremacist gang to the traditional Italian Mafia and Central American drug cartels. Raylan, a native son who wished never to return, is sent back to Kentucky after his questionable shooting of a mobster in Miami — a shooting that was technically “justified,” but only because Raylan has a unique talent for manipulating criminals into situations in which he can legally shoot them: completely legal but totally unethical.
Upon his return to Kentucky, Raylan immediately encounters an estranged friend from his youth, Boyd Crowder. Raylan and Boyd had mined coal together in their teens, and each had sought a road out of Harlan: Raylan through the U.S. Marshals Service, Boyd through a tour of duty in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. Both return home, Raylan with his white hat and marshal’s duties, Boyd with swastika tattoos and a job in the organization of his crime-boss father. Boyd is not a particularly compelling character when we first meet him: His untethered redneck malice has him blowing up a black church with a rocket-propelled grenade — partly because it is a black church, partly because its pastor deals marijuana, partly because of the combination of black people and marijuana-dealing, but mostly because he likes to see things go boom. He ends up in a confrontation with Raylan, and Raylan shoots him, with only a light dusting of regret. In Elmore Leonard’s version, that is the end of Boyd Crowder. In Justified, that is where things get interesting.
Boyd does not die from his wounds, but is reborn through them in a full-hearted religious conversion. It is difficult to think of a pop-culture portrayal of the mysterious emergence of faith through crisis that has been presented with less cynicism or greater artistic rigor. Walton Goggins is so alive in the role of Boyd Crowder that one fears for the future of his career, that audiences will have a hard time seeing him as anybody else, the same way Mark Hamill has largely been relegated to voice work because his face still belongs to Luke Skywalker. (Mr. Goggins, previously best known for his work as a corrupt cop on The Shield, has been stretching himself: He recently appeared as a transsexual prostitute in an episode of Sons of Anarchy. I saw Boyd Crowder with D cups.)