The Strange, Glorious Pedigree of 'Justified'

The FX series, based on Elmore Leonard's novels, takes inspiration from Hemingway, Westerns, and crime-novel classics.



Years ago, interviewing Elmore Leonard for American Film, I asked him why he disregarded Hemingway's dictum "to always get the weather right." "I don't," Leonard replied with a shrug, "do weather."

There's no need for a weather report in the coaling mining towns of Harlan County, Kentucky in Justifed, the FX series based on Leonard's writing that's headed towards the final episode of its third season tonight. The forecast in Harlan County is always dark.

Leonard's Harlan and its inhabitants are the greatest creation of a career that has spanned more than 60 novels and nearly a score of films and TV shows. This is the first time he has gone with a recurring character, in this case Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, played so well by Timothy Olyphant that Leonard seems to have begun styling the literary Givens after the TV characterization: In Leonard's recent novel, Raylan, Givens is more like Olyphant's Givens than the Raylan of earlier books—a bit less laconic, a little more sly, and given to the witty comeback. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to call both TV and print characters a hybrid. Leonard and Olyphant are listed among the show's producers, and the two are known to spend quality time "conferring," as they put it when I talked to them.

In Leonard's phrase, "Timothy is one of the few actors who delivers the lines the way I heard them when I wrote them."

Justified, which won a Peabody Award for excellence last year and an Emmy for actress Margo Martindale, has touched a nerve among its millions of followers that runs deeper than just about any crime show since The Sopranos. It might also be the first great American TV series to create itself, so to speak, as it goes along. (Leonard freely admits that he wrote Raylan to provide plot elements for the series, several of which were incorporated into this year's shows.)

The first two novels in which Givens appeared, Pronto (1993) and Riding the Wrap (1995), placed Raylan among the Italian-Cuban mob in Miami, a Stetson-wearing modern marshal who operates under an old-fashioned set of rules. In his most famous shoot-out, Givens kills the mafia's number-one hit man, Tommy Bucks, at an open-air restaurant in Miami after, in the tradition of Wyatt Earp, giving his man "24 hours to get out of town."

The first few episodes of season one Justified drew freely from the Miami-based novels, and even the next couple of episodes took some of the novels' plot themes and transplanted them from the Gold Coast to bluegrass. But the characterization of Raylan didn't really take off until the marshal service reassigned him to his Old Kentucky Home of Harlan County, a place Leonard had first visited in his 2001 short novel "Fire in the Hole." In the novella, Boyd Crowder, destined on TV to become Raylan's chief protagonist, was seven years older than Givens; they had worked together setting off explosives in the mines and watching each other's backs. But their friendship has its limits: When Boyd became a backwoods meth and marijuana lord at the end of the story, Raylan kills him without regret.

In the course of the series, though, the chemistry between Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins, who plays Boyd, became so intense that audiences wanted more. For one thing, Olyphant and Goggins were closer in age than their literary originals and a genuine doppelganger theme began to emerge. Boyd was brought back from the dead. When I asked Leonard how he managed that trick, he quipped, "Raylan's bullet just missed his heart."

Leonard, who has cowritten 39 episodes, expanded Goggins's character to make him seem more like the man Raylan might have grown into had he not gotten away from Harlan in time—more introspective and not quite a committed neo-Nazi. (In an episode midway through the first season Raylan sees Boyd's swastika tattoo and asks why he hates Jews. "To tell you the truth," replies Goggins with a shrug, "I'm not sure I've ever met a Jewish person." It's easy to believe that under the right circumstances the two would not have been terribly dissimilar. As Boyd put it in an episode during season two. "At 19 I went to Kuwait. Raylan went to college and the Marshal's Service.")

Presented by

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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