(You'll never leave SPOILERS alive.)
Justified starts with history.
Raylan Givens walks onto a patio restaurant in Miami. He walks into a courthouse. He walks into a kitchen. He walks into a church. He can’t stop running into people he already knows.
When he sits down across the table from Tommy Bucks and counts down the minutes until the deadline he’d given Bucks to get out of town, it’s because of history: that Bucks killed a man—dynamited his head off—in front of Raylan back in Managua.
The opening scene—Raylan’s cool, unflappable confrontation with, and provocation of, Tommy Bucks—gives us the image of Raylan Givens. Of course he’s introduced from behind, with the hero-shot from below, all shoulders and hat. He’s completely assured—as Bucks attempts to make conversation about the bad food in Managua and so stop the clock on his deadline, Raylan is soft-spoken, reflective, pleasant, and ruthless: “I didn’t mind it. Had some pork dish I quite liked. One minute.” Bucks grows more and more flustered and finally, with the time almost up, draws first. Raylan is quicker. Raylan will generally be quicker.
He shoots Tommy Bucks three times in the chest. So now, ostensibly, we know who Raylan Givens is: calm, righteous, and cool, a man living by a code that no longer exists. “You do know we aren’t allowed to shoot people on sight anymore?” his boss in Miami wearily asks him. “And haven’t been for, oh, I don’t know, maybe a hundred years?” Raylan’s defense is one he’ll repeat throughout the episode: “He pulled first.” No one ever seems impressed by it, as far as justifications go.
His final repetition of it in this episode is almost breathless, a catechism rather than an explanation, something he’s telling himself more than he’s telling Winona, whose house he’s broken into in the middle of the night.
There’s a lot of comedy to Justified—hey, Elmore Leonard adaptation—and some of the subtlest is Raylan running up against other people’s expectations and, to some extent, against the modern world in general. He’s willing to take prisoner transport—a “shit detail,” as Art will later inform us—as the cost of doing his particular brand of business, but he’s not expecting to be drop-kicked all the way back to Kentucky.
Suddenly, Raylan’s not so cool: “No, Dan, I grew up in Kentucky, I don’t want to go back there.” Olyphant’s face goes especially mobile here, almost wrinkled up with dismay, but Dan (played by Matt Craven with note-perfect frustration), doesn’t care: “Well, then we have a problem, because you don’t want to go back to Kentucky and you cannot, under any circumstances, stay here. Got any other skills?”
He doesn’t. And that’s history, too: the difficulty of escaping what you’ve always been.
Okay, so let’s talk about Boyd Crowder, the pivotal second lead who started out as a guest star who was supposed to die at the end of the pilot.
Over the course of the series, Boyd will prove to be a leopard constantly repainting his own spots, but even with that in mind, he doesn’t quite match up to himself here. Art lays out his history—Kuwait in Desert Storm, back home again, tax evasion because he was a “sovereign citizen,” prison, white supremacy, life of crime—and everything gels but the taxes, not because Boyd would want to pay them but because the Boyd we know later is smart enough to know how to pick his battles. Boyd here is more reckless—even stalling starting up his getaway car after a bank robbery to get a gleeful adrenaline rush—and more likely to start needless trouble.
But oh, is he having fun: when he and Raylan finally reunite in person, both Olyphant and Goggins play it relaxed and easy, two old friends taking pleasure in each other’s company. Raylan will spend the rest of the series intermittently denying that he feels anything in particular for Boyd, but there’s an ease he has here that he has nowhere else, even given that Raylan is almost always more at ease with criminals than he is with the law-abiding. He accepts a hug and some moonshine. Boyd admires the hat: “This is how you wear a hat,” he tells his lackey Devil, “all casual.”
(If you’re keeping track of connections between the beginning and the end, Boyd also implies Raylan wears the hat high up on his head, which will ultimately save his life.)
They riff off each other in a kind of charged improv as they move from the past to the present and reminiscence about their mining days and the picket lines turns into Boyd’s discourse on anti-Semitism and white supremacy. “Read your Bible as interpreted by experts,” he says, with a shit-eating grin just slightly too wide for us to believe he means it. And Raylan knows Boyd is too smart for it: “You know, Boyd, I think you just use the Bible to do whatever the hell you like… You like to get money and blow shit up.”
They push each other, building off a familiarity they alternately accept and deny, until, after he waltzes out of a line-up unidentified by the black pastor whose church he hit with a rocket launcher, Boyd extends Raylan a date as clearly as Ava does, and just as likely to appeal. Suppose Boyd gives Raylan the chance to get out of town by tomorrow noon?
“Now you’re talking,” Raylan says, with just a hint of a smile.
I mentioned Ava, so we’ll backtrack to her, the third corner of the triangle that the series uses to support its storytelling and here the bright, brash contrast to Raylan and Boyd’s circumspection and image management. Ava has just shot and killed her husband—Boyd’s brother, Bowman—after coming up from the floor one day with a knot on her head and the certain knowledge that she’d had enough of being smacked around.
That shapes her, here: she’s almost high off the experience of asserting herself, and she can’t get enough it. She kisses Raylan the moment she sees him standing in her doorway and admits to a long-standing crush. She confesses, fully, to the cold-blooded murder of her husband—she provides the context for it but doesn’t try to argue, as Raylan does, that she was justified. She was tired of him hitting her, she cooked him a lavish dinner, she came in with his rifle, she killed him, and she cleaned up his blood: “Lysol’s the best cleaning product you can buy.” She can move on swiftly and completely; she’s a survivor.
Crucially, when Raylan tells her he’s not allowed to pursue a relationship with someone under investigation, Ava calmly puts out her cigarette and tells him that if he wants to come over that night, no one can really stop him. Joelle Carter’s matter-of-factness sells the moment absolutely, and it’s one of two moments where she seems older than him, more knowledgeable in the ways of the world: “Boyd doesn’t want to kill me,” she tells him. “Boyd wants… to go to bed with me,” and it’s not fear that causes her pause but delicacy, like she needs to find the best way to word it so he won’t be shocked.
And, sure enough, she cuts through the grandiose drama of Boyd and Raylan’s planned shoot-out over a fried chicken dinner.
“Goddamn, woman,” Boyd says, “you only shoot people when they’re eating supper?”
I have no idea what Justified would look like if it had carried on as planned—though I’m going to wantonly speculate about it anyway, as is my right as an American—but suffice to say, the show fundamentally altered its path when test audiences liked Walton Goggins’s portrayal too much to let Boyd go even after Raylan shot him in the chest.
That’s not just because Boyd would become the show’s longest-running antagonist and sometimes simply its second protagonist—our representative of the criminal underbelly in general and the shadow side of Raylan in particular—but also because the Raylan Givens who shoots Boyd and kills him and the Raylan Givens who shoots Boyd and misses just a little are, crucially, two different Raylans.
Justified is Elmore Leonard braided with Southern Gothic, with Raylan as the Leonard and Boyd as the Gothic, and Raylan being unable to fully divorce himself from all that—from Boyd, from Harlan, from his history—becomes the ongoing theme of the series. Raylan will later say the miss was purely accidental—“sometimes you miss the bull’s-eye”—but Boyd doubts it, and we have good reason to doubt it, too, because Raylan mostly doesn’t miss, and because the antagonism between them over the next several seasons is so surprisingly amiable for so long. Raylan blows the shot, consciously or unconsciously, because he wants to.
Art reacts to Boyd’s continued pulse with a kind of amused evaluation. “At Glynco, didn’t you teach those recruits to aim for the heart?”
But Boyd and Raylan dug coal together: that complicates everything. And that complication lasts.
There are two questions Justified will come back to over and over again, and both of them are present in “Fire in the Hole.”
The first, simply, is what kind of man is Raylan Givens? The man who started the episode with perfect confidence has gotten kicked back into his own past, and it’s destabilized him: at the kitchen table shoot-out, he even not-so-jokingly tries to convince Boyd to drop the whole thing. He’s still plenty cool—for evidence, check out any scene in which he interacts with Dewey Crowe (“I might be undertaking a situation here”)—but just as the past turned out to be buried beneath just the thinnest layer of the present, a hot anger is underneath all Raylan’s ease, and the dangerous thing is that he hardly knows about it himself.
He tells Winona that he truthfully doesn’t know if he would have shot Tommy Bucks regardless of Bucks drawing first, and the reason he doesn’t know is because he doesn’t know who he is: “I never thought of myself as an angry man.”
“Honestly, you are the angriest man I have ever known,” Winona tells him, in the last line of the pilot, as we exit on Raylan holding a wordless reaction to that.
Justified, for the most part, likes its characters and is kind to them, and part of that kindness is the occasional alleviation of consequence, the reassurance of restoration, and even a kind of grace. That’s an approach that resonates with me, and we’ll see the strengths of it throughout the series, but I want to note that here we do also see the ways in which being spared a choice is sometimes as destabilizing as it is saving. Raylan is relieved of the burden of cold-blooded murder he might have incurred if Bucks hadn’t pulled on him—but he’s deprived of the self-knowledge, too. He doesn’t know what he would have done, and he can’t keep from wondering.
Similarly, he doesn’t know—and can’t know—why the shot on Boyd went astray. Because he couldn’t, at the last moment, kill the man he dug coal with? Because, as he maintains, he simply missed? Because some part of him, after Tommy Bucks, wanted reassurance that he was a good man?
It takes six years to unify those questions and those dramatic approaches, to get us to an ending where choices are made, Raylan learns what kind of man he is, and everyone gets peace.
* Everything about Boyd’s reaction to Bowman’s death is hilarious, from Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) bungling the story: “Your brother got shot!” “What? Where?” “At his house!” “No, dumbass. Where on his body?” “I don’t know.” “Well, is it serious?” “Oh, yeah! He’s dead!” And then of course Boyd’s later half-hearted explanation to Devil about why he wasn’t looking for revenge on Ava: “I mean, you knew Bowman. You know how he could get.”
* “Some places haven’t been entered into the system, like North Korea and Raylan’s home town.”
* I have no interest in pointing out Kentucky gaffes and bonuses on every episode, but I’ll confine myself to one, because it amuses me: Harlan and Lexington are about a hundred and sixty miles apart, and characters on Justified are always going back and forth very casually. It’s sometimes a little bit funny to pretend that Raylan is making three-hour drives at the drop of a hat just for the witty repartee.
* Also, if you Google Maps Harlan, KY, the photo on the map screen is of the Harlan Funeral Home. Cue the music, everyone.