The primary vision for Justified, however, and its canny understanding of Leonard’s rhythms and tone, belongs to the creator, Yost, who came to the project as a fan. “You get Peter Jackson to do Lord of the Rings because he loves Lord of the Rings,” he told the TV writer Alan Sepinwall. “You get someone to do Elmore Leonard because they love Elmore Leonard, not because they want to make a cop movie.” It begins, as always, with the dialogue. The show’s pilot is frequently a line-by-line adaptation of “Fire in the Hole,” and subsequent episodes borrow from the Raylan novel Riding the Rap. Leonard, who was closely involved with the show before his death, provided it with still more source material when its success inspired him to write a new novel, titled simply Raylan, which he encouraged Yost to “hang up and strip for parts.” Five seasons in, Yost and his writers have of course mostly had to write for themselves. But the spirit of Leonard is ever present, signified by the rubber wristbands Yost had made for the crew early on, bearing the motto “WWED”—what would Elmore do?
It’s a question, obviously, that Yost and his collaborators will have to answer for themselves from here on out. Justified may not be the best drama on television, but it is among the best, and the degree to which it has been overlooked during awards season seems primarily an indication of the angst-enthralled tenor of the times. Raylan clearly has his demons, but unlike Walter White and Don Draper and Carrie Mathison (or, reaching further back, Tony Soprano and Jimmy McNulty), he doesn’t spend a lot of time wrestling with them. Is he, as his ex-wife avows in the kicker of the show’s pilot, “the angriest man [she has] ever known”? Maybe. But he genuinely hasn’t given the subject much thought. He is the consummate Leonard hero: cool, and not entirely in a good way.
Like any show, Justified has had its ups and downs, but the fourth season culminated on a high note, with a razor-sharp encounter between Raylan and a Detroit mobster played by Mike O’Malley—a confrontation that elegantly bookended that very first scene, on the Miami rooftop with the gun thug. Only this time, contrary to established fashion, Raylan managed to engineer his desired outcome without drawing his gun.
Yost has suggested that after this season, the show has “maybe two seasons left.” Among its accomplishments, Justified has already given Leonard, in Raylan Givens, the signature character that he lacked throughout his writing career—ironically, in part thanks to his success selling the rights to his books (and by extension, the rights to his characters) to multiple studios over the years.
Beyond lodging Raylan firmly in the public imagination, however, Justified offered a more significant, late-in-life gift to Leonard, the consummate film buff, the lover of Westerns and crime stories who, as a child, recounted movie plots to his friends and was photographed holding a toy pistol in a pose imitating Bonnie Parker. It proved to him, after decades of frequent disappointment, that his authorial vision could be translated to the screen—not just once in a while, not by lucky fluke, but as he himself had committed it to the page: over and over again.