Justified’s Unexpected Social Commentary Propels the Show to TV’s Elite Ranks

Timothy Olyphant in Justified. Courtesy of FX

With just a few episodes to go, Justified seems poised to join the elite ranks of dramas that went out on a high note; like a handful of other memorable crime dramas, including The Shield and Breaking Bad, it has spent its final season (its sixth) honing its themes and deepening the main characters, bringing back supporting players (including a dead one who appeared as a ghost) for on-point cameos, and casting a retroactive light over the whole saga. And yet it’s doing all this without sacrificing the no-fuss quality that made the show’s literary forefather, the late Elmore Leonard, such a joy to read. It has every right to be full of itself, but it never is. Like its hero, Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), it moves with a sense of purpose even when it’s moseying along.

As always, the show blends Western- and gangster-movie tropes so deftly that it’s hard to tell where one picks up and the other leaves off. The main story is a land grab by the gangster Avery Markham (Sam Elliott), who wants to install himself as the master power broker of Harlan County, Kentucky, with his former flame Katherine Hale (Mary Steenburgen) by his side. Avery’s rivalry with the county’s resident would-be kingpin, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), who’s plotted to liberate $10 million in cash from a vault in Avery’s pizza parlor, echoes traditional urban potboilers about criminal gangs fighting for supremacy, with the brutal and sarcastic Raylan and his U.S. Marshals colleagues handling the cop side of the cops-and-robbers equation. There are criminal informants — first Boyd’s fiancée, Ava (Joelle Carter), then all-around fixer Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) — and colorful henchmen, some scarily eloquent (Garret Dillahunt’s Ty Walker), others endearingly dumb (Duke Davis Roberts’s Choo-Choo, a shambling giant with a freight-train knockout punch). But the boots and Stetsons and bolo ties and drawling put-downs and chaotic woodland gunfights keep the whole thing situated in the American Western’s head space. So does the constant talk of escaping the past and reinventing oneself, a desire expressed at various points by Raylan, Boyd, Ava, even Avery and Katherine, who are bonded by a tragedy that drove Avery underground and claimed the life of his former partner, Katherine’s husband. “The past and the future are a fight to the death,” says Ava, who loves Boyd and wishes she could stay with him but is scared of his selfishness and brutal temper. Intimations of classic literature keep sneaking in as well, including references to Shakespeare (Avery and Katherine are whacking enemies like a couple of cornpone Macbeths) and Herman Melville. At one point, Raylan taunts Boyd, his principal quarry, that they’re characters in “one of those classic stories where the hero gets his man, then he rides off into the sunset,” and Boyd warns that the obsessive lawman might actually be the hero of “that other classic, where a guy chases a whale to the ends of the Earth till he drowns for his troubles.”

Everyone on this show has trouble letting go of the past in some form: a past dream, a past love, a lifelong fantasy. “Doing what a man’s gotta do” fuses with its crime-thriller mirror, “Just one last big score.” Raylan’s boss, Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), warns Raylan that there’s always one more snake to kill, and if he insists on finding new ones, he’ll never settle down with his family; Ava fruitlessly urges Boyd to give up his desire for the $10 million in Avery’s vault and just pick up and leave town with her and start over somewhere new. It’s a compulsion, perhaps an addiction, embedded deep within the American mind — a concept suggested in a throwaway moment at a party announcing Avery as the town’s would-be new boss, at which Raylan picks up a tumbler of bourbon, then pushes it away, then picks it up again moments later and downs it.

But the deeper struggle in season six is the struggle for the soul of Harlan County — and it’s here that the show’s Western- and gangster-film mythologies subtly blend to create something that is, for Justified, quite unexpected: social commentary. There’s a low-level sense of continual upheaval: The world is changing, but the people are unwilling or unable to change with it. The characters are intoxicated by nostalgia and legend, but the show itself sees through them, even though its constant invocation of Kentucky’s past as a mining economy and the loving shots of dilapidated shacks and covered bridges suggest otherwise. Modernity is growing over tradition like kudzu, and from the very start, Justified has been hip to this process. The show’s main theme, “Long Hard Times to Come,” by Gangstagrass and T.O.N.E-z, lays rap over hip-hop backbeats over bluegrass guitar and banjo. Raylan wears a Stetson and is known for his quick draw, but he communicates with his girlfriend and their child via Skype and conducts most of his important business via cell phone, and when he teases a young wannabe gunfighter named Boon (Jonathan Tucker) by invoking John Wayne, the kid blankly says, “I don’t know who that is.” “He was a movie cowboy,” Raylan replies.

If any trace of Harlan’s authentic identity is to be preserved, locals will have to do the preserving. And that’s where Loretta McCready (Kaitlyn Dever), the onetime ward of the late Harlan weed dealer Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale), comes in. Avery repeatedly tries to terrorize her into selling her land, and she enters the fray to start her own marijuana empire, using Boyd’s gang as her security force. The intent is not just to make money but to keep it in the community and help her neighbors hold on to land that’s been in their families for generations. That’s the only way to preserve and extend what remains of tradition and keep the past alive. Loretta couldn’t be more different from Avery and Katherine, two carpetbagger capitalists looking to strip-mine Harlan’s economy without becoming a part of it. (They don’t even own homes there; they live out of luxury-hotel rooms.) Calling Katherine a “city mouse-ette,” Loretta urges her neighbors, “I will give you cash for your land, just like Markham, but the difference is, I don’t want to move you guys out … Throw in with me, we’ll make Harlan prosperous our own selves. Give this county back to the people the way we all know it should be.” This is not what most people mean when they use the phrase “grassroots capitalism,” but it’s the most perfect plot twist on a series filled with them. And it slyly positions Loretta as spiritual kin to the show’s many hard-charging macho sheriff and outlaw types. She won’t sell, won’t cut, won’t run. She’s doing what a woman’s gotta do.

*This article appears in the March 23, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.