Justified is a series that's been inexplicably off the radar of award shows and the eyeballs of a mass audience even as it grew tremendously in sophistication and quality since first airing on FX in March of 2010. As it enters its sixth and final season, the show has found its best form to date, and with only seven episodes left until the series finale, it has set up an epic final showdown that could cement the series as arguably one of the best of the decade.
Based on the short story Fire In The Hole by Elmore Leonard, Justified is a truly unique television show. It is an odd and strange combination of Western's that also touches on small town life and its themes, such as the resistance to modernization, with diverse genre elements such as the hard-boiled detective found in film-noir to the typical cops-and-robbers story lines. Each season has revolved around a major villain that attempts to establish their criminal empire and is brought to life by an outstanding cast of supporting actors and guest stars whose marvelous displays of acting are punctuated by impeccable dialogue and beautiful art direction that is able to establish the show's Harlan County setting as a character its own.
The show's protagonist is U.S. Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens. Played by Timothy Olyphant, Givens is smug with a devilish-grin, quick to draw and sure in his shot, a modern day sheriff in his own wild west. The plot is based on his reassignment to the small rural area town of Harlan County where he was born and raised in Kentucky following a shooting incident in his adopted city of Miami, Florida. What separates him from the typical anti-hero gunslinger cliché is how he himself is tied to the very people he is now responsible for policing. Given the nature of small towns, Raylan has a history with the various backwater families he crosses paths with, all of whom are attempting to run their own petty criminal enterprises. Ever-present in his brown cowboy boots and the trademark white cowboy hat, Justified rarely fails to reflect on how easily Raylan could have been on the opposite side of the law, and uses his empathy and connection to explore to whether he uses his badge as a source of justice and or as justification to break some of the same laws he claims to enforce.
The second protagonist of Justified is a man named Boyd Crowder, a criminal hell-bent on establishing a criminal empire his own. Played by the egregiously underrated but far more than capable Walton Goggins (just ask Quentin Tarantino), Boyd glides about with the swagger of an outlaw, dressed properly, and a southern twang for his awe-inspiring loquacious eloquence, and the swagger of an outlaw. Smooth-talking and charismatic as a southern preacher, Boyd's motivations in the series are simple: he wants money and power. But it's the evolution of his character, his motivations and his increasing ruthlessness in achieving those desires that make him the most complex television character since Walter White.
Initially presented as a white supremacist bearing a swastika tattoo, we soon learn he is far more interested in manipulating situations and people, with an added penchant for robbing banks and in his own words "blowing shit up," than he is on the state of race relations. He is a man driven by a desire to achieve a non-existent end game, a process that has led to everyone and everything in his life becoming chess pieces, to be played or discarded depending on what the situation on hand demands. Stuck in his attempts to establish himself a king, the show's final season presents him the ever tragic "one last heist" to transform his criminal activities into a legitimate business.
Introduced as the show's first villain, as well as the first antagonist Raylan faces upon his return, their paths have crossed on numerous occasions over the series to both benefit and detriment. Forever tied, but inherently opposite, at its core the show is about a dance between two men, one in the hero's hat and the other wearing the villain's mask. Tied more closely than anyone else on the series, their relationship began in a coal mine as teenagers, a sacred bond in the rural town and has over the course of the series evolved into how each accepts and lives within their contradictory life philosophies. Both believe the notion that no one in this life is innocent, and we are but the series of decisions we make when circumstances transpire either for or against us, but to what end and to who's benefit is where they diverge. And it is on this grey line that rests the beauty of Raylan and Boyd's dance to the grave that lends Justified its heart. It twists these labels, forcing us to confront whether labels can be applied on what is and what isn't considered moral, a recurring theme that raises the show from cliché to poetic.
While six seasons has seen its share of villains come and go, the series comes full circle to focus on the two men with whom it all began. In its all too short run, Justified has delivered a wonderful Western opera that drips with Shakespearian dialogue and the hubris of Greek tragedies, all rapped up in the Southern backwater world so poetically articulated and presented by Mark Twain.
If you're looking to fill that Breaking Bad shaped hole in your heart, Justified is well-worth your time.
Justified is on FX on Tuesday's at 10:00 PM. You can also stream the entire series on Amazon Prime.