The Sun Sets on the Golden Age of Television – Justified Retrospective

The contemporary sun sets on an old sort of story as Justified ends its 6-season run. It was unwatched, overlooked, and unloved, but it was arrogant too – it faced off criticism with a considerable show of strong and compelling TV. Justified ended and the world is no better for its absence.

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Justified has been a special kind of television show. It told a story that was unique and it kept a tight focus on its narrative concerns. For those uninitiated Justified was the story of Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), a United States Marshal who wore a Stetson and embodied the archetypal lawman of the Old West.

Back in season one, we were first introduced to our hero in Miami as he faced off with an outlaw and gave him a choice – either leave the city or I’ll kill you. This visceral introduction to Graham Yost’s Elmore Leonard based narrative is the perfect microcosm for what occurs over the next six seasons. Raylan will dispense justice all by himself. He shot the outlaw in what was an apparently justified moment and then found himself sent back to Harlan County, the place where he grew up.

Harlan, Kentucky is the typical Western setting. It provides numerous bad guys, outlaws, and gunslingers for our quick on the draw Marshal to face off against. And it’s this contemporary setting that allows for a decidedly old fashioned sort of tale. It’s a story of binary opposition, of good versus bad, but it’s also far more nuanced than it first seems.

TV’s (Second) Golden Age

Yes, Justified could be too stereotypical at times, too archetypal perhaps, but that was used to great effect and it’s a TV show that sits comfortably with its peers. It was a product of TV’s golden age, although it wasn’t quite as influential as some of its contemporaries. It never reached the level of prestige TV like Mad Men (2007), Breaking Bad (2008), or The Wire (2002) but it hailed from a proud lineage of anti-hero antagonists that started with The Sopranos (1999), or perhaps with Oz (1997).

Justified was reminiscent of The Shield (2002) and Deadwood (2004) but it always told its own tale. It was verbose, considered, and like its Marshal hero it resorted to action far more readily than exposition. It may well have been the most violent show on TV (save perhaps Sons of Anarchy (2008) or Game of Thrones (2011)) but Justified always reflected its title and its violence was never gratuitous.

The key thematic concerns for Justified were legacy, place, and time. Each one was shown through Raylan’s return to the county where he was born. In this world (a purgatory of sorts), with the return of the hero to his past life, a very binary sort of opposition appeared. Raylan was a man of the law but the people that he grew up with were outlaws and career criminals, and Raylan stood out as a man that rejected those ideals – he was the good to their bad.

However the conflict was always found in the fact that Raylan could do questionable things, his morality was never quite defined or traditionally clear-cut and in that he became a reflection of TV’s golden age and its love of anti-heroes. Yost’s depiction of Raylan’s morality wasn’t as overt as Walter White’s descent into meth production and organised crime, or Tony Sopranos’ violent downward spiral, but there are similarities to be found between Raylan and Mad Men’s Don Draper. Both men reject their respective futures and find more comfort in the past, in a world where men are men, and woman are woman.

The Death of the Traditional Hero

But that thought reveals perhaps the most enduring legacy of Justified and its contemporaries. Those anti-hero tales fractured the narrative of the white man and his place in the world and showed that gender and colour don’t deserve the pedestal or the entitled status that they’re innately given. There are other shared tropes too that are seen throughout the age of the anti-hero, one of the most relevant being that of competence. Every one of the antagonist/protagonists seen throughout the noughties were good at what they did. The world around them however rejected and fought against their values.

The tall drink of water Timothy Olyphant as US Marshal Raylan Givens.
The tall drink of water Timothy Olyphant as US Marshal Raylan Givens.

Justifed did what it did admirably. It stuck to its tropes, its throwbacks to the days of the Old West, and it used archetypal characters to tell an old sort of story through a distinctly modern lens. Raylan was a gunslinger lawman and his job was to restore order and allow the residents of Harlan County some respite from the outlaws, the bootleggers, and the drug dealers that plagued their lives.

However once Raylan returned with implied righteousness to Harlan it became apparent that this simplicity, this sense of right and wrong, was completely contextual and in a world where outlaws shoot guns the law has to shoot faster. But Justified always considered the idea that you are defined by where you come from and Raylan for all of his designs on enforcing the law often resorted to ‘bad’ (or violent) decisions – similar to Vic Mackay in The Shield, Raylan often embraced the darker parts of himself for some sort of perceived societal good.

Unlike Breaking Bad, The Sopranos or any number of anti-hero TV from the last 15 years the ending to Justified was gentler, and it allowed for some reflection and perhaps even peace for its characters. Raylan got the bad guy, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) a verbose serpentine man, and instead of killing him, put him in jail. In fact the last season of Justified worked best because it reiterated not who the characters were, but who they had become and Raylan’s final actions showed a rejection of the anti-hero tropes he had been mired in.

Walton Goggins as the outlaw Boyd Crowder.
Walton Goggins as the outlaw Boyd Crowder.

For Raylan it became clear that he was a lawman and his actions reflected this. Boyd on the other hand was clearly an outlaw and one that reveled in the title comparing himself to Billy the Kid. Boyd was Raylan’s opposite, they came from the same place but their paths had diverged, either could have become the other but life had shaped each one and forced them on opposite sides of an implied sense of right and wrong.

Raylan and Boyd were two old fashioned men and their lives were no different to the gunslingers of old. In fact Justified suggests that the West was never won, it was never tamed, and it never will be because people have long memories, people make decisions that put them at odds with the law, and the people of rural America are too proud to be domesticated. The problems that plagued the American West are simply human ones, or perhaps more accurately masculine ones.

The Televised Evangelical Western

That was always the strength of Justified – the fact that none of the characters would bend a knee. It was a charismatic show and one that was far more verbose, talkative, and distinctive than anything else on TV. The characters were immediately recognisable through clear archetypal tropes and for all intents and purposes it was a genre piece, a Western that found its way into the new world. It also told a story of poverty in a setting not usually explored in narrative film or TV and that always marked it out as unusual and unique.

The rural Americana on display in Justified was far removed in terms of both its perspective and narrative arc from the more traditional white anti-hero stories shown in TV like Breaking Bad. Instead Justified was a fun piece of TV that could ratchet up the tension, use exhilarating Wild West genre tropes, and tell a story that was both immediately familiar and enticingly alien.

It was always a show of opposites, one full of conflict that could be seen in the torn up people that it focused on. But it also considered the legacy of violence and the fact that it lasted generations, and that it was passed down like a birth right. People grow old but they don’t forget – that was the mantra, the crux of Justified’s narrative.

The Waning Golden TV Sun

Perhaps though it speaks of bigger things, of the fact that the golden age of TV and its army of antiheroes has come to an end. The influence of TV like The Sopranos is waning and the anti-hero may no longer be as interesting as it once was. A line delivered by Raylan stands out as perhaps reflective of the show and its legacy:

“Growing old ain’t for pussies.” He could just as easily have said, “Growing old ain’t pretty.”

Time is on nobody’s side and Justifed and Raylan by extension found that life is hard, decisions have repercussions, and nothing lasts forever. Justified opted out, it hung up its hat, but it did so with grace and poise, just like its Marshal hero.

The final moments of the finale stand out as a fitting nod to what came before. Boyd and Raylan finally sit down and talk with none of the pretence that usually marks their interactions and for a moment they find some sort of honesty and talk as equals. Raylan is clearly a Marshal, a lawman, and on the right side of society, and Boyd wears an orange prison jump suit. They talk through glass and the setting reflects who they are. Boyd isn’t an outlaw, he isn’t the big bad guy anymore, he’s a man behind bars and it was Raylan who put him there.

For a moment the ambiguity is dissolved and they see each other for who they are. Their paths that took them to this moment aren’t so clear however and only a few episodes back Raylan discarded his badge, the trappings of the law, in order to catch Boyd. Boyd conversely dressed as a policeman to escape Raylan.

They were stripped of their ‘usual’ costumes and in a sense became the other, however briefly. But now those games have been forgotten and at the end they are who they are – Raylan the cop, and Boyd the criminal. And in essence this final conversation stands as a fitting reflection of the entire show. Raylan and Boyd were always on a path destined for collision and now that possibility is gone and they sit and talk from their respective perspectives. There’s a touch of Michael Mann’s Heat underlying this moment.

And in the end Boyd’s and Raylan’s differences are so clearly magnified that it becomes apparent that they are two sides of the same coin, they made different decisions at some point in their lives but both refused to change and accept the consequences of their actions.

Boyd and Raylan share a past.
Boyd and Raylan share a past.

“We dug coal together.”

Boyd says to Raylan and the statement speaks of the past, the legacy of something shared, and the fact that both of them came from the same hole in the ground. Nothing can change that and although their eventual conflict dispelled any notion of fraternity there comes a point where they can look back not only with nostalgia, but with wistfulness too. Things were always simpler, easier, and less ambiguous through the lens of retrospect.

However something does jar, something does stand out in the moments that led to Boyd’s incarceration. Raylan gave Boyd the chance to go out guns blazing, to be the outlaw that he had always claimed to be, but Boyd opted for prison. He gave up in the end and in that moment it became clear that he wasn’t a true outlaw, he surrendered to the law and lost his outlaw status, but Raylan was a true policeman. He didn’t kill Boyd; he arrested him.

About a Girl

Joelle Carter's Ava Crowder - a strong woman in a world of violent men.
Joelle Carter’s Ava Crowder – a strong woman in a world of violent men.

Boyd has always been a survivor, he wouldn’t fully embody the choices that he made. Raylan however would and that arc is reflected in the way that he dealt with Ava Crowder, Boyd’s erstwhile love interest – he let her go, justice in that moment was allowing her her freedom. It’s a strong narrative decision too and it allows one of the most battered characters a happy(ish) ending.

The last moments of Justified are two men talking, not fighting, and their conversation revolves around the past and a girl (Ava) that got away. It’s a moment as old as time itself but it’s one that’s becoming increasingly archaic. Two white men remembering the past, a time that was better than now, and perhaps not quite understanding the world that they now find themselves in.

Raylan’s last visit to the Kentucky Marshal’s office reflects this too. He shares a drink with Art but on the way out he walks past Rachel, a young black woman that now runs the Marshal’s office. In that moment, the aging white gunslinger in a Stetson sees the future and it’s not his, but the past was. Things have to end and Justified went out well, not with a bang, or a whimper, but with a comment on how times have changed. Raylan may well have shot Boon but it was Loretta, a young woman, the future of Harlan, who towered over a dying outlaw – Raylan lay impotently on the floor.

Another One Bites the Dust

The world isn’t any better for Justified ending but things have to come to a close and Justified has always been a backwards gazing show, a nostalgic vision of the West with its good guys and its bad guys. Justified always acknowledged the contradiction in thinking that life was simple, binary, and easily articulated through stereotypes.

Justified stands as a sort of folk song, a piece of pop culture that tells stories of lawmen and outlaws, of a dance with death and the difficulties of being a good man in a world full of bad ones. It’s a show that will be talked about, perhaps in whispers, but it won’t be forgotten – it made too much noise.

Justified was unwatched and unloved but it was always compelling. In the future people will look back on Justified and wonder how they missed it, they’ll look back with nostalgia for a time when good guys fought bad guys, a time when the West was depicted on contemporary TV, and they’ll wish that they’d been there when it was happening. A few old souls of course will be able to say that they were there, that they remember it, and that it shot fast, lived by its own rules, and left behind a considerable bounty for those willing to look for it.

Justified has become a product of the past just like the lawmen, gunslingers, and tall tales of the Old American West, ironic perhaps but certainly fitting.

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“You think you’re better than me because you play by the rules? Whose rules? My life is my own.” Boyd Crowder

 

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