There are two people in this world you don’t want to try to outsmart. Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder are one-time friends, sometime rivals, and oftentimes enemies as one is a US marshal and the other the lethal grand marshal of the Harlan County underworld.
You know this if you’re a fan of “Justified” on FX, where it returns Tuesday night at 10, and if you’re not … well, I won’t be judgmental and say you should be. The violence on the show is not for everyone. But it’s also one of the best-written, superbly acted shows on 21st Century television. In fact, with “Breaking Bad” gone, it is the best in both categories. And there aren’t many shows that look half as good.
That said, I didn’t put season four on my Top 10 list; by the end of the year I could barely remember what happened last season. While each episode was certainly enjoyable I didn’t think Raylan and Boyd were tested all that interestingly by the other characters.
On the other hand, the excellent local crime and horror writer Dave Zeltserman thought it was the best-crafted season yet because of “Raylan having to deal with what a completely unrepentant bastard his dad was, and Boyd and Ava seeing their escape to a legitimate life crumble apart. Timothy Olyphant's acting once again lifted the show above any other crime show.”
(Raylan’s father, one of the many Kentucky no-goodniks on the show, had tried to kill Raylan but wound up getting his bucket kicked in jail for his troubles. Ava was Raylan’s girlfriend for a spell in the first season before finding the man of her dreams in Boyd.)
The series was founded on stories by the late Elmore Leonard about an old-school but postmodern marshal whose code of honor often finds itself at odds with the law, which got him in trouble in Miami. His bosses thought he might do better in Kentucky where folks don’t mind looking the other way so much.
This sounds, I know, like every other vigilante show, but it isn’t, thanks primarily to show runner Graham Yost, a kindred spirit of Leonard’s in that his writing, and that of the others, is so laugh out loud sharp that it transcends politics. It’s less like “Dirty Harry” than a latter-day version of “Maverick,” another genre-busting show that called to mind Bob Dylan’s line, “To live outside the law you must be honest.”
For one thing it’s hardly a celebration of Raylan’s ways. Season Five opens with the American Nazi ne’er do well Dewey Crowe winning $300,000 in damages from a well-deserved but illegal whuppin’ that Raylan gave him. Raylan also caused Dewey mental duress when he told him that he had one of his kidneys removed while he was unconscious. “For the record, he thought he had four kidneys” Raylan says in defense.
Raylan gets a little payback in the second scene here:
Raylan also had some experience with the Florida Crowes and much of the first couple of shows this season takes place in the Everglades as well as in an apartment building you don’t want to go to in Detroit (think chain saws) where Boyd and Wynn Duffy of the Dixie Mafia are looking for welchers in a dope deal.
Raylan — and Boyd for that matter — come across trailer trash, mansion trash and all the garbage in between. Boyd has been one of TV’s most charismatic villains of late with a homespun wit and swagger to match Raylan’s. He has his own code though. Raylan makes what most of us think is the moral choice in most cases, though he’s often hard-pressed to stay within those bounds. If you insult or double-cross Boyd — or Ava, his fiancée — you have a blood-spattered life expectancy of minus zero. And, of course, his ways of earning money aren’t at all admirable.
Still, he has his own version of doing the right thing. He certainly treats Ava better than Raylan did and Raylan's hardly a family man when it comes to his ex-wife and new child. Boyd, like Gus or Mike on “Breaking Bad,” makes his way through the world in a uniquely riveting style, thanks of course to Walton Goggins’ ability to inhabit this character so thoroughly.
Which brings us to another similarity between “Justified” and “Breaking Bad.” Everyone in this show — mostly character actors except for Olyphant — is giving a career performance. I’ve never seen them better, anyway, including Olyphant whose “Deadwood” lawman was also wonderfully portrayed. You see Goggins, Nick Searcy, Jere Burns, pop up elsewhere, but never with the Yost-given panache they have in “Justified.”
It’s too early to tell how good this season is going to be, but it’s not too early to know that I’ll be with Raylan "The way you wear your hat" Givens and Boyd "the way you spike your hair" Crowder every step of the way, rooting for one and getting seduced by both of them.