The Strange, Glorious Pedigree of 'Justified'

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

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FX

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.")

Perhaps the biggest factor in the show's success is the care taken with the scripts and the nuance and shading provided by a combination of great writing and great acting. Though Leonard's subject is crime, he's always had more in common with the Hemingway of "To Have and Have Not" and short stories such as "The Killers" than with writers of the genre he is usually lumped with, such as Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson.

There is one crime novel, however, that Justified seems to be following in its grand conception, one that has been inspiring American writers and filmmakers. since its publication in1929, Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest.

Red Harvest might lay claim to being both the first contemporary western and the first actual American crime novel as opposed to stories that stuck to the traditional mystery format. A stranger arrives in the western mining town of Personville—we will come to know it as "Poisonville"—which was modeled on Butte, Montana. The town is caught between two corrupt factions with organized crime and the police constantly changing sides in a war to control the wealth from the town's resources.

The stranger—the Conventional Op or just the Op, familiar from some of Hammett's other stories—must constantly play off both sides against each other as the carnage reaches near-crisis and otherwise decent people get caught in the crossfire.

The character who must pit one side against the other has become an almost-staple of crime fiction. The Coen Brothers, clearly paying homage to Hammett, used it in Miller's Crossing, and Walter Hill in his Depression-era gangster flick, Last Man Standing.

For some odd reason, the Red Harvest theme has often been repeated in the setting where Hammett first placed it, mining country. A few years ago, David Milch, pushing the story back half a century, created the gold-mining town Deadwood, a blatant reworking of Hammett's story with, coincidentally, Timothy Olyphant as the lawman caught in the middle.

Leonard, a better writer than Hammett, has added some intriguing wrinkles. The mines are no longer the principal source of income for the locals, many of whom have become "gun thugs" for what has been dubbed the Dixie Mafia, drug producers for organized crime syndicates stretching from Miami to Detroit—or modern-day "carpetbaggers," as Boyd them. The corporate-like gangsters are in constant struggle with the natives for control of the trade, and both sides constantly outbid each for control of the country sheriff's office.

But we care about happens in Harlan Country more than we do in Poisonville because nothing that happens there is without consequence to Raylan Givens. He is connected to virtually every character in the show by blood, marriage or roots. If he crashes a gun barrel over a drug runner's skull, it's bound to be someone he played baseball with in high school. If he shoots a gun thug, it will invariably be someone who was the schoolyard bully.

Though Givens, as a federal officer, comes as close as anyone on the show to being incorruptible, he is constantly drawn across the line. His ex-wife Winona, played by Natalie Zea, was married to a flunky for the Detroit mob, and his own father Arlo (Raymond J. Barry) works for his boyhood pal Boyd.

And if all this weren't enough, this season Leonard has added the wild card of racial tension: Harlan County's black criminal element, represented by the formidable Ellstin Limehouse, slyly played by Mykelti Williamson. Limehouse likes to conduct business with a blood chilling smile while brandishing the tool of his day job, a butcher's cleaver.

Tonight's finale should set things up well for what is rumored to be the fourth and final season, and as the Red Harvest scenario comes into focus, the one certainty is that friendships and family ties will become shockingly undone and characters we have come to care for will go down. Raylan Givens and Elmore Leonard's Harlan County is in for some stormy weather.

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

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