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15 Essential Justified Episodes to Prepare for City Primeval

Photo: FX

It’s been almost a decade since Justified wrapped up an acclaimed, six-season run of neo-western crime drama on FX, and in that time the show has only grown in esteem. Streaming availability means that more and more fans have embraced the saga of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and his outlaw rival Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) over the last eight years, and all that mounting attention has finally paid off in the form of a sequel.

Later this month, Justified: City Primeval will return to the saga of Raylan Givens in a new city (Detroit), with a new villain (Boyd Holbrook) and a new era for one of TV’s most beloved lawmen. Based on Elmore Leonard’s City Primeval — a novel that doesn’t actually feature Raylan Givens, making his appearance a clever show-only adaptation — the new miniseries is designed to be absorbed as a stand-alone story, a satisfying crime drama all its own completely separate from the conflicts of the original series. But Raylan’s story is so rich and complex, and the emotional and psychological scars he carries are so vast, that it would be a damn shame to miss a chance to revisit the show that started it all. Ahead of City Primeval’s July 18 premiere, we’ve rustled up the 15 essential Justified episodes that showcase the series’ big developments and swagger.

“Fire in the Hole” (Season 1, Episode 1)

There’s no better place to start than at the beginning, particularly since Justified has one of the most propulsive and addictive pilot episodes you’re ever likely to find. Adapted pretty directly from the Elmore Leonard story of the same name, which inspired the entire series, this episode introduces the main characters who will make up Justified’s core for the next six seasons. There’s Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens; his onetime friend and eventual nemesis, career criminal Boyd Crowder; Boyd’s sister-in-law Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter); and a host of other vital supporting characters. On one level, it’s a pretty straightforward cop-and-robber story, as Raylan returns to his hometown of Harlan, Kentucky, and immediately falls into an investigation of Boyd’s antics, but on another it’s the groundwork for a crime epic.

“The Lord of War and Thunder” (Season 1, Episode 5)

Justified’s initial hook might have been “lawman returns to his hometown,” but it’s what the show eventually does with that premise that makes it shine. Even as season one often takes a case-of-the-week format, the roots of the serialized drama to come are already forming and strengthening, and that’s especially clear in this episode. “The Lord of War and Thunder” goes a long way toward explaining Raylan’s antipathy toward his hometown by introducing his own father, the stubborn outlaw Arlo Givens (Raymond J. Barry), and tangling Raylan up in his family’s troubles once again. Throw in an important early appearance from Raylan’s ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea), and a solid crime story mixed in with the family drama, and you’ve got a vital piece of Justified world-building that pays off in big ways later.

“Bulletville” (Season 1, Episode 13)

Raylan’s not the only major character in Justified with daddy issues. Boyd’s own father, Bo Crowder (M.C. Gainey), passed on his outlaw ways to his son, but lately they’re having trouble seeing eye to eye, and that comes to a head in the season-one finale. In the backdrop of all the bloodshed (and there’s some serious bloodshed), we get a glimpse at Boyd’s efforts to reinvent himself and steer away from his previous white-supremacist leanings, an important piece of the puzzle that is the character. But of course, an episode titled “Bulletville” is bound to pay off in a shootout, and it all culminates in one of the show’s best, a battle that also further illustrates and deepens the complicated frenemy ties between Boyd, Raylan, and Ava.

“The Moonshine War” (Season 2, Episode 1)

Roughly speaking, each season of Justified kicks off with the introduction of a new antagonist, and with season two we get one of the show’s best. In this episode, we meet the Bennett clan, a group of drug runners led by the charismatic and dangerous Mags (Margo Martindale, in top form) and her hotheaded son Dickie (Jeremy Davies). We also meet a girl named Loretta McCready (a young Kaitlyn Dever, already showing plenty of talent), whose fate is intertwined with the Bennetts in more ways than one, and we learn just how far Mags is willing to go to keep her business interests moving forward. That’s bad news for Raylan, who’s already dealing with a possible reconciliation with his ex-wife and the fallout from the gunfight at the end of season one.

“Reckoning” (Season 2, Episode 12)

Raylan can’t stand his father, but he does have a soft spot for his stepmother Helen (Linda Gehringer), which means that when the Bennetts take her out as part of the ongoing struggle between the families, he goes on the warpath. This episode doesn’t represent the all-out climax of the season, but it does deliver one of the best examples of Raylan’s fury when someone close to him ends up in the crossfire, and it deepens the rift between Raylan and Arlo in fascinating ways that pay off later. Throw in Boyd’s machinations and the clever wranglings of the Bennett crew to get one of their own free, and you’ve got a Justified classic.

“Bloody Harlan” (Season 2, Episode 13)

When you have villains as good as the Bennetts, you have to make the final showdown count, and “Bloody Harlan” does not disappoint. It’s yet another example of Raylan and Boyd finding themselves aligned in uncomfortable but necessary ways, battling Mags Bennett and her family while the walls close in with explosive and unforgettable results. But this is about more than just a major showdown. Throughout the series, Raylan tries his best to leave his old Kentucky home and start a new life somewhere else, but Harlan’s violence keeps pulling him back, and this is one of the earliest and best examples of that emotional push-pull. Plus, we learn more about what Loretta McCready’s really made of, which will be very important later in the series.

“Coalition” (Season 3, Episode 12)

Justified’s third season expanded the show’s reach to include copious dealings with the Detroit mob, and put particular focus on a ruthless mob operative named Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), who arrives in Kentucky hell-bent on securing his own drug operations no matter how much Boyd or anyone else fights him. Quarles’s whole arc is worth watching, of course, but things get particularly thrilling near the end of the season, when the show’s new villain has his back against the wall and one of Justified’s previous villains, Dickie Bennett, is out for blood while trying to recover his mother’s lost fortune in drug money. “Coalition” sets up the season’s endgame while also revealing exactly what happened to that money, laying out consequences not just for the season finale, but for the rest of the series.

“Slaughterhouse” (Season 3, Episode 13)

The season-three finale wraps up the Quarles arc of the show, and for that alone it’s worth watching, particularly as McDonough pushes the character into pure drugged-out madness territory. But there’s more to “Slaughterhouse” than a final showdown with the show’s latest big bad. The episode also packs even more complicated, violent drama into Raylan’s relationship with his father and adds depth to the many ways in which Boyd and the increasingly criminally minded Ava insert themselves into Raylan’s life. It’s one of the show’s best concluding chapters and features one of the most memorable death scenes Justified ever delivered.

“Outlaw” (Season 4, Episode 8)

In season four, Justified set out to play with the legend of Andrew Thornton, the drug runner who fell out of the sky in the 1980s with bags of cocaine loading him down. For its version of the legend (which doesn’t involve a bear doing cocaine, sadly), the show posits that a mysterious and legendary drug smuggler is still hiding out in Harlan, and numerous interested parties are closing in on him. It’s a complicated, sometimes frustrating season-long saga, but “Outlaw” is vital to the arc of the entire show, because it delivers one last brutal dose of daddy issues for Raylan. As the Detroit mob starts to close in on Harlan, and a decades-old mystery nears its conclusion, Raylan must face down the death of Arlo, the man who made him what he is, for better and for worse. It’s a powerful episode, with some key pieces of the Detroit mob puzzle in it to boot.

“Ghosts” (Season 4, Episode 13)

The season-four finale wraps up the central conflict of the previous 13 episodes, which includes the Kentucky mob battling enforcers from Detroit and Boyd’s quest to gain a sense of legitimacy in his hometown. But “Ghosts” is vital for two other key reasons. The episode marks the beginning of Ava Crowder’s troubles with the law, troubles that have vast and dramatic implications for the rest of the series, and it also marks a turning point for Raylan. Everyone’s favorite marshal has always been a bit of a rebel, but the extrajudicial lengths to which he’s willing to go in this particular episode are brutal, shocking, and enough to make you see him in a new light even after four seasons.

“Shot All to Hell” (Season 5, Episode 5)

Season five of Justified largely concerns itself with the dealings of the Crowe family, who arrive to help out their cousin, Boyd’s henchman Dewey (Damon Herriman), and then just … decide they’re not leaving. Their story is, for many fans of the show, a weak point that calls to mind the better saga of the Bennett clan three seasons earlier, despite the welcome presence of guest stars Alicia Witt and Michael Rapaport. But “Shot All to Hell” is an extremely important episode even without the Crowes and their brutal machinations. Thanks to a devious guard, Ava’s stay in prison gets much more complicated and frightening very quickly in this episode. Meanwhile, Raylan gets to spend some time out in the field with his supervisor, Chief Deputy Marshal Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), tracking down a key Detroit lead. It’s not often these two get to work a case head-on together, and the complex nature of Raylan and Art’s relationship is worth remembering as we head into the show’s endgame.

“Restitution” (Season 5, Episode 13)

Another season finale, another wrap-up of the main arc of the last 13 episodes. “Restitution” does indeed put an exclamation point on the show’s time with the Crowe clan, but while the way that particular story wraps up is certainly worth watching, it’s not exactly why we’re here. With season six on the horizon as the series capper, this episode sets up several key elements of what’s to come. Once again, we get to see Raylan face an opportunity to leave Kentucky with his ex-wife and baby daughter, and once again we see him turn it down in favor of going after Boyd one last time and finishing the job he started back in season one. But the real kicker is Ava’s release from prison, and a fateful meeting she has with Raylan just as the season is ending, which will change both of their lives as season six dawns.

“The Hunt” (Season 6, Episode 7)

Every once in a while, Justified slows down a little, not for a bottle episode or a whimsical side story, but to really study its core characters and draw new conclusions about where they might head next. “The Hunt” is the best example of this tendency in the whole series, and it delivers two key plots that speak volumes about what happens next. Raylan’s half of the episode gives him a chance to step back from the case against Boyd and spend some much-needed quality time with his wife and his baby daughter, something that’s particularly important where City Primeval is concerned. As for Boyd, he grows increasingly suspicious of Ava’s potential connections to Raylan, taking his bride-to-be out to a remote cabin for a hunting trip that will change their relationship forever. It’s a tense, intimate, deeply consequential episode for everyone involved, and raises the emotional stakes for the final episodes.

“Burned” (Season 6, Episode 9)

For its final season, Justified picked no less an acting titan than Sam Elliott to play its last Big Bad, a wealthy and terrifying kingpin named Avery Markham, who comes into Harlan with designs on controlling the entire community. “Burned” is the episode where the community starts to hit back, with a push for independence led by none other than rising weed dealer Loretta McCready (because when you’ve got Kaitlyn Dever, you don’t keep her on the sidelines forever). Meanwhile, Boyd tries to stage a daring robbery that will strip Markham of his considerable cash hoard, Raylan puts the screws to the eternally slippery Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns, who’s been hovering around the story for several seasons now), and Ava is still caught in the middle of it all. It’s an extremely tense hour of television, and a great table-setter for what’s to come.

“The Promise” (Season 6, Episode 13)

As the series finale of Justified dawns, everyone is at odds with everyone else. Ava’s on the run, Boyd is desperate to find her, Raylan’s been pegged as a fugitive from his own law-enforcement colleagues, and of course Avery Markham is on a mad tear to get back what’s his at any cost. It’s a lot to wrap up in an hour, but “The Promise” manages to clear that bar, delivering a final confrontation between Boyd and Markham, the arrest Raylan’s been waiting six years to make, a farewell to Kentucky for everyone’s favorite U.S. marshal, and even a (somewhat) happy ending for Ava Crowder, who finally gets the freedom she’s been after since the series premiere. It’s a story so well-told that there’s even time for one last gunfight for Boyd and a handy coda sequence that establishes the family situation he finds himself in as City Primeval launches.

15 Essential Justified Episodes to Prepare for City Primeval