Last week saw the last episode of the season of possibly the best, certainly my favourite American TV show of recent years, Justified. When the show started in 2010 it looked like it was going to be just another American cop show, but then something happened a few episodes in. although each episode is largely self contained, each season has its own over arching story that develops in most of the episode. We can thank Elmore Leonard for the original idea, the show started life as “Fire in the Hole” a 60 page novella he wrote in 2001. As with a lot of Leonard’s writing the story is driven by the dialogue more than the narrative, this found its way into the show especially through Boyd Crowder who will always use a sentence when a word would do. The first episode contains a lot of the ideas from the book and introduces the characters Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins ) and his sister-in-law, Ava (Joelle Carter). Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant ) had already appeared in Pronto and the follow-up Riding the Rap. The driving force behind the show is Graham Yost, creator, show runner, executive producer and some time writer. And this is where the story finds its real strength, the writing. To extend the story from 60 pages to 52 hours of television (to date) is a real achievement.
The way it holds the viewers interest is simple, the characters. You expect Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder to be well written characters, but it goes beyond that, and includes the supporting characters. With the best part of another dozen well written characters including other U.S. Marshal’s, low level criminals and The Dixie Mafia the show has a depth and breadth of character that no other show can on TV at the moment can match. This not only helps keep the interest but also gives the show potential longevity. The beauty of the format is the way it allows characters to be promoted from supporting and background characters to more important ones when the story needs it. There is also a wealth of recurring characters who are also we rounded and perfectly cast.
At the heart of the show is Raylan Givens a cowboy hat wearing Deputy U.S. Marshal, who is described in the source novella as “a man who is born 100 years too late”. A perfect stereotypical character, honest and righteous but always pushing the boundaries of the rules, he is far from “by-the-book”. A quick draw man straight out of the old west, despite his best attempts for a peaceful resolution, he shoots (and kills) a lot of people. But on his own, how good could the character be? Givens and Boyd Crowder are two sides of the same coin. The pair knew each other as kids and “dug coal together” in their teens, they have real if begrudging respect for each other. As Boyd often reminds Raylan they aren’t that different.
The first three seasons all hard a story revolving around a central villain. In season one it was Bo Crowder (M.C. Gainey), Boyd’s farther who runs the local drug trade. Season two sees the converging forces of a mining conglomerate and Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) and her family drug business. In season three it is Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), an exiled lieutenant from Detroit crime family. In season four it all changed as the overriding story involved an investigation into a twenty year old crime and the secret identity of the perpetrator. But two characters held all these stories together, Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder are always there in some way or another, as the stories develop there involvement increases. Don’t underestimate the geniuses and subtlety of the writing that makes this possible.
A fifth season has been announced for 2014. There are lots of things that need to fall into place for the show to succeed and remain fresh, I’m not worried.