John Ostrander: Justified Complaints
SPOILER WARNING: I’m going discuss last season’s Justified which means I’ll talk a bit on what happened during it. If you intend to binge watch the show and haven’t done so yet, skip the column.
Last week, FX wound up its fifth season of the Elmore Leonard inspired series, Justified. It stars Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens, a supporting character and sometimes star of some of Leonard’s crime novels. You may not know all his books but a fair amount were made into good movies such Hombre, Get Shorty, 3:10 to Yuma, Jackie Brown and, as mentioned, the TV show Justified.
For those who don’t know: Elmore Leonard was noted for his spare style and his way with dialogue as well as his keenly drawn characters. Like Damon Runyon, Leonard liked the seamy side of people and expressed them with unique dialogue. In his essay, “Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing” he said: “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” One of the other rules I found interesting: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Sounds simple but, oh, it is not.
Justified’s main character, Raylan Givens, is a U.S. Marshal and something of a throwback. He’s a bit of a cowboy, wearing a Stetson and boots and liable to shoot first and ask questions later. He gets tossed out of Florida after telling a local mobster to get the hell out of Dodge, er, Miami. When the deadline Raylan sets arrives, the marshall provokes the mobster into drawing on him (in a public place) and shoots him dead.
The killing is ruled “justified” but Raylan’s worn out his welcome and he gets sent back to where he came from – Harlan County, Kentucky – and the Marshall’s office there. He runs into old friends, enemies, family, wives, and lovers, as well as picking up a few new ones along the way. One of the most notable of his friends/enemies is Boyd Crowder, played by the inestimable Waylon Goggins. Boyd’s character is from a short story Elmore Leonard wrote, Fire In the Hole, which featured Raylan. Boyd’s dead at the end of the story but he’s been too good a character to lose for the TV show so they’ve kept him around.
Each season has generally had a central villain as the Big Bad to unite the episodes and there have been some doozies. Boyd did that for the first season but the second season was really killer, with Margo Martindale doing an incredible turn as Mags Bennett, the matriarch of a local crime family. Down home scary. Both motherly and a monster.
The next season’s Big Bad is Robert Quarles (played by Neal McDonough), a cold nasty enforcer sent down from the mob in Detroit. Not only a nasty piece of work but ultimately a bit psychotic. He wasn’t quite as good as Mags but he was pretty bad ass and an interesting change of pace. Fourth season got a little complicated with the search for an old criminal Drew Thompson and Raylan contending with another Detroit mob enforcer named Nicky Augustine.
The first and second season were great; each succeeding season hasn’t been as good but still justified making Justified part of my mandatory viewing each week. Raylan is just so damn cool. The series borrowed heavily from Leonard’s novels and stories, adapting characters and plot lines to work for the TV show.
This last season — not so much. It’s been a slog to get through. The Big Bad was the Crowe family, specifically oldest thug Daryl Crowe Jr (played by Michael Rapaport). They’re the Florida side of the Crowe clan represented in Kentucky by Dewey Crowe, a Coyote style moron who has been in the show since the first season. With things petering out for them in Florida, they go to visit cousin Dewey.
The season is as much about Boyd Crowder’s attempt to get into the heroin trade and his wife, Eva’s, adventures in prison. In fact, it’s more about the Crowders than it is about Raylan. Therein lies a part of the problem. I simply didn’t care. It didn’t matter to me if Eva got shanked in prison. I didn’t care if she and Boyd got together again. Raylan wasn’t even particularly cool. The stories were all over the place and Daryl Crowe Jr. was just a thug. There seemed to be a lot less Elmore Leonard in the show and more of the showrunners trying to figure out how to be Elmore Leonard. They forget his dictum: “Try to leave out the part that readers (viewers) tend to skip.” There was a lot I wanted to skip this year.
It’s already been announced that next season will be the show’s last. We already know part of what’s coming – the final showdown between Raylan and Boyd. Who will live? Who will die? Who will care at this point? I’m not sure it will be me. I’m not sure if I’ll be back. And that’s not giving Elmore Leonard his due.