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.)
Conversion stories go wrong in one of two ways, both of them resulting from credulousness: They either may be presented as necessarily phony and delusional or, conversely, they may be presented with too generous a dose of crepuscular sunlight and too little attention to the unpleasant material realities of life. Justified navigates these poles cleverly. Rather than indulging our cynicism or attempting to overwhelm it, the writers harness it for their own narrative use. There is no sweetness and light, and no easy road to redemption. As Boyd tells an appropriately named criminal colleague: “You see, Devil, I can’t discard my past any more than I can these tattoos.” He retreats into the woods, establishing a primitive church and working against his father’s plans to flood the community with methamphetamine. It is far from clear that Boyd would know the road of righteousness if it were laid out in front of him in yellow bricks — he manages to murder a hapless meth cook in the course of doing the Lord’s work. But Boyd’s rebirth is brilliantly scripted in that the audience, like Boyd’s gangster father and practically everybody else around him, expects eventually to learn that it was all part of some elaborate ruse. The sincerity of Boyd’s newfound faith is not absolutely established until the moment it is crushed, and his little flock is put to the sword. It is a very skillful piece of plot construction.
Boyd retreats to the coal mines, where he can make legal and profitable use of his pyrotechnic talents, and in his free time applies himself to anesthetizing his spiritual anguish with Wild Turkey. He forswears crime and seeks shelter in the home of his former sister-in-law, a self-made widow.
But those tattoos are still there, and so is his criminal instinct. Boyd eventually returns to organized crime, but with another unexpected twist. While shaking down some well-connected, high-class criminals for a great deal of money, Boyd throws in an out-of-left-field demand: “Gentlemen, what you do may make you criminals, but you are not outlaws. I am the outlaw, and this is my world — and my world has a high cost of living. . . . I want you men to help me get a Dairy Queen franchise.” It is a strange request from a man whose other business negotiations are mainly centered on control of the local heroin trade. He proposes marriage to his girlfriend and grabs a briefcase full of money — to buy a house on Clover Hill, where the respectable folk live. In a particularly poignant scene, his fiancée realizes that she knows intimately the back rooms of a house they are considering, because as a little girl she was there with her mother, a housemaid.
Boyd’s great criminal master plan, as he finally reveals, is to join the middle class. A Dairy Queen is great for laundering money, but it’s also a good business, a foothold on respectability: “In three generations’ time,” he explains, “we’ll be an old family name. Nobody’d think twice about their kid and a Crowder kid playing together after school. This is how we see our grandkids grow up bona fide.” His fiancée expresses well-grounded doubts that they’ll survive long enough to see that happy day, and Boyd responds with a look that says: “Of course not, but why would that matter?” There is a saying, usually attributed to the Greeks, that a civilization reaches greatness when old men plant trees knowing full well that they will not live to sit in the shade of them. And that is Boyd’s design: After war and prison, a near-death experience, the discovery of faith and its loss, what our villain aspires to is bourgeois respectability, a wife and children, a home in the suburbs, and a clean name — if not for himself, then for his grandkids, even if he will not live to see it.
With his resourceful mind, perverse sense of humor, and flamboyantly Biblical cadences, Boyd Crowder is a great villain. There is something inescapably conservative about great villains, and not just because Darth Vader finds your lack of faith disturbing. In the progressive imagination, there is no sin, only a world in which the social engineering remains imperfectly executed. But a world without sin is a world without villains, petty or great, and therefore a world without heroes, too. It is a dead world. Though the cast of Justified features Nick Searcy, one of the most entertainingly out-and-proud conservatives in Hollywood and a ruthless mocker of that town’s official pieties, the show offers no evidence of being constructed along self-consciously conservative lines, and that is an excellent thing: Self-consciously conservative attempts at entertainment can be every bit as dreary as their sanctimonious counterparts from the left. Conservatives do not need their politics validated by rock concerts or movie stars. We know that human life contains a great many indigestible, immutable nuggets, those facts of life reminding us that, as Thomas Sowell once put it, reality is not optional, even on television.