Justified might not be one of the pillars of TV’s Golden Age, but as it approaches its series finale Tuesday night, it too has been great—at times, even transcendent. All this despite that fact that hardly anyone watched the show, a fact that places it squarely in the realm of great TV dramas that flew under the radar and relied on the loyalty of a few devoted fans and proselytizers.
Perhaps a victim of the era that spawned it, and that offered an abundance of worthy prestige dramas, Justified was routinely overshadowed by other cable shows, in both the ratings and awards departments. It gradually lost viewers after it premiered in 2010: Just 1.8 million people watched the penultimate episode (by comparison, 5 million people watched the second-to-last episode of fellow FX show Sons of Anarchy). It was nominated for occasional Emmys, winning only twice (for actors Margo Martindale and Jeremy Davies, both well-deserved), but inexplicably, never received a nomination for best drama. Justified was a critical darling, but that acclaim failed to translate to awards glory, even as shows that weren't as consistently praised racked up nomination after nomination.
Nor did Justified ever ignite the Internet the same way shows like Breaking Bad, or another excellent FX series, The Americans, did. (When’s the last time you read a Justified think piece, or visited the show’s page on Reddit?) Admittedly, its central premise—a U.S. marshal who plays by his own rules returns to his hometown in the Kentucky hills—isn't quite as compelling as a chemistry teacher becoming a meth magnate, or a group of figuratively lost souls literally lost on an island with polar bears and a smoke monster, even if it pays homage to the time-honored traditions of the Western.
Justified was never quite as influential as some of these other shows because it was largely a product of the new TV environment, rather than a factor in its creation. Nor was it even all that innovative. The show began with a fairly generic “bad guy of the week” format before morphing into a heavily serialized saga in its second season. And even then, it wasn’t wildly transformative. Its spiritual forebearers, The Shield and Deadwood, had already explored themes of revenge and forgiveness, home and family, loyalty and betrayal, years before Justified debuted.
But to say nothing of its uniformly excellent writing and acting, Justified was, perhaps more than any other show, one that knew precisely what it wanted to accomplish. It was always perfectly comfortable in its own skin, and despite a few missteps along the way, it refused to be anything other than its strange, funny, verbose, serpentine self.
Based on a character created by the late novelist Elmore Leonard, Justified told the story of Deputy U.S. marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) as he is reassigned to his hometown of Harlan, Kentucky after shooting a criminal in Miami—the result of his fabled quick draw. Raylan’s childhood friend, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), has become a criminal mastermind of sorts, a silver-tongued chameleon (as Alan Sepinwall aptly calls him), a man who's always 10 steps ahead of everyone else and can talk his way in or out of any situation imaginable. The two men share a witty rapport even as they remain enemies—they both know they share a history, that they’re two sides of the same coin, kindred spirits who will always have Harlan running through their veins for as long as they draw breath.
Olyphant and Goggins were both born to play these roles, assisted in no small part by the deft writing of creator Graham Yost and his team of scribes. They, too, stormed out of the gate with a serious advantage, having the writings of Leonard—who liked the show and frequently consulted with the producers until his death in 2013—from which to draw ideas.
Even as the show took audiences through rural poverty and the criminal underworld of Appalachia, it was always funny, because it never took itself too seriously—it figured out a way, as no other show other than Breaking Bad has—to at once scrutinize the darkest depths of our society and reveal the comic absurdity of it all. In that way, Justified was innovative and quite unique, but not in such a pronounced manner that it could be mentioned alongside the other transformative shows of the era.
Justified could stay so confident and robust for six seasons largely because of the constant addition of fascinating supporting players. (Martindale played the pot tycoon and family matriarch Mags Bennett; Davies played her fidgety son, Dickie.) So many shows add secondary characters who turn out to be poorly developed, or opt not to add any at all precisely because it’s so hard to do them right. But from the rollicking mafia man turned informant Wynn Duffy, to the ruthless Robert Quarles, to this season’s leathery, magnetic big bad Avery Markham (Sam Elliott, another actor born to be on Justified), the show’s recurring characters—its villains, especially—were rarely thinly written, and always a ton of fun.
I say rarely because the fifth season of the show was what can be best described as a creative misfire. Michael Rapaport, who played the main villain that season, was the show’s first and only serious miscasting. The plot, normally intricate and layered in the best way possible, became unnecessarily convoluted in the same way that many shows that are on the air for a while tend to do. Even at its worst moments, Justified was still a good show—certainly better than most—and it’s miraculous that it didn’t fail much more than just once, given how fearless it was at taking familiar TV conventions and turning them on their heads.
The show never quite found its spot in the television zeitgeist. Actually, it wasn’t very popular by any standard. But it was so good, and so fun, and it didn’t really care about being anything besides those two things. I can only hope, that in a few years, more people will discover it: a fate it's not only earned, but amply justified.
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