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Rough Justice

Behind the Rage of Raylan Givens

“Justified: City Primeval” questions a lawman’s anger.

Timothy Olyphant as lawman Raylan Givens in “Justified: City Primeval”

Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Raylan Givens! I’m stealing that line from Homer, but there’s a lot more Homer in FX’s contemporary cowboy serial Justified than you might initially imagine or remember. In the series, which ran from 2010 to 2015, Timothy Olyphant played Givens, a smooth-talking, quick-drawing U.S. marshal who made it out of the coal mines of Kentucky to the glamorous and dangerous locale of Miami. But after a controversial shoot-out, Givens is sent home to Harlan County. And it’s there that he runs into old frenemies like white supremacist explosives expert Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), his obstinate scofflaw father, and all the good guys and bad guys who paradoxically know him too well and don’t really know him at all anymore.

Homer, too, wrote about warriors who respect one another so much they have to kill one another, about men who pay dearly for the dumb choices of their family members, and about how weird it is to come home after you’ve been away for a long time. Most of all, though, he wrote about rage. At the end of Justified’s pilot, Raylan’s ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea), tells him, “you do a good job of hiding it, and I suppose most folks don’t see it, but honestly, you’re the angriest man I have ever known.” The line comes as something of a surprise. For an hour, we’ve seen Olyphant’s Givens keep his cool in almost every situation, calmly staying one step ahead of all his foes, but we’ve also seen him commit acts of incredible violence, acting upon his rage in ways that should perhaps trouble us more than they do.

Justified doesn’t quite have the reputation of its peers from the prestige TV teens. Compared with shows like Mad Men and The Americans that more explicitly played with their genre origins, Justified might seem more conventional: a high-end, episodic Western rather than a reinvention of the form. But, just as Raylan himself has got a lot more going on beneath his unflappable gunslinger exterior, Justified was always considerably more than its satisfying shoot-outs. Creator Graham Yost’s embrace of genre in Justified freed him and his writers to tunnel into world-building, to paint an elaborately and vividly detailed portrait of a place: Harlan County, Kentucky, was a community exploited and ravaged by coal companies, by drug dealers, by neglect. Harlan County was angry, too.

Justified: City Primeval, FX’s reboot of Yost’s original series, is more critical of that anger, or at least more aware that its audience might not uncritically accept or sympathize with an angry white protagonist flashing a badge and holstering a gun. So, it takes Raylan out of Harlan, out of the white working-class hollers of the original series, and onto the streets of Detroit. Despite being the series’ protagonist, Raylan is rarely the main character in any of this reboot’s episodes. Instead, the show uses his presence—his anachronism and his anger—to ask new questions about that badge and gun, what they can allow, what injustices they can be made to justify.

Developed by Dave Andron and Michael Dinner—two writers from the original series—and based on Elmore Leonard’s novel City Primeval, the new Justified is an entertaining, occasionally thought-provoking limited series about crime and corruption in Detroit. And it does a lot of the great things the old Justified used to do. It explores the blurriness between law enforcement and lawbreaking, particularly in a narrative through line about judicial corruption. It’s also still interested in the disconnect between police and community (showing it this time through Terry Kinney’s Albanian mobster, whose extralegal policing of his own community frequently supersedes whatever plans the Detroit PD has in the works). “Order and justice are not the same thing,” somebody says in the new series, and that might as well be a mission statement for the entire Justified televisual universe.

The new series picks up several years after the end of the old one. We meet Raylan on a road trip with his daughter (played by real-life daughter Vivian Olyphant). They’re en route to a camp for troubled teens when two carjackers make the mistake of trying to shake them down. In short order, the two would-be criminals are cuffed in the back seat eating fast food, on the way to being delivered to the authorities up in Michigan. Raylan is, as usual, unfailingly polite but also ready to be brutal at the drop of a Stetson. By the end of the episode, he manages to get roped into helping the Detroit PD with a murder investigation. So Raylan is holed up in a local hotel, just like old times, and City Primeval begins.

It’s worth noting that the novel upon which the new series is based does not feature Raylan Givens as a character. This series’ writers simply add him to the existing plot, and it shows a little bit. The murder investigation in this series centers around a killer named Clement Mansell (Boyd Holbrook)—known as “The Oklahoma Wildman”—who is, not coincidentally, another white Southern outsider with a quick trigger. His seemingly consequence-free spree of violence and theft through the city brings the corrupt systems of Detroit to crisis, and so the story is as much about stopping him as it is about understanding why, precisely, he’s so hard to stop.

Boyd Holbrook plays the aforementioned Wildman with try-hard glee, but it’s difficult not to notice that his charisma pales in comparison to that of Olyphant, especially because the show works so hard to pair the two: Mansell repeatedly challenges Givens to a gun duel, as if he were cosplaying his favorite character from his favorite show, Justified. A hallmark of the old Justified was that Raylan was not fundamentally dissimilar from the bad guys he was chasing, even approaching a kind of kinship. Indeed, the show was built around the idea that he and Boyd took opposite paths from the same origin. The Oklahoma Wildman, on the other hand, remains more an annoyance than a true challenger. Holbrook plays a busy void at the center of the show, a chaos agent whose crimes bear little relation to either the place or the people he’s exploiting. His presence only emphasizes the question of what either of these white boys with Southern accents is doing here.

The villain problem in City Primeval sticks out. Justified’s first three seasons, in particular, were an undersung masterpiece of the Peak TV era in large part because they featured two of the greatest villain performances of twenty-first-century TV in Goggins’s explosive neo-Nazi-turned-evangelical Christian Boyd and Margo Martindale’s murderous materfamilias Mags Bennett.

Beyond Boyd or Mags or even Raylan, though, it was Harlan County that most defined Justified and that City Primeval misses most. When we first meet Raylan Givens in the pilot, in his cowboy hat and boots, he’s a creature of the holler, out of place and out of time, causing trouble among the drug-running sleazes of Miami. His opening showdown as well as his oft-repeated justification (“he pulled first”) mark him as a curious anachronism, more like the nineteenth-century sheriff that Olyphant played on HBO’s Deadwood than someone you might imagine employed by the U.S. Marshals Service in the present. That tension between Givens’s old-school brand of justice and the world of contemporary crime and corruption in the bright lights of South Beach would have been a fine premise for a fun procedural: Kentucky-fried Marshal Raylan Givens, fish out of water in Miami. USA Network would have run that show for 15 seasons.

But that’s not the show Justified was. Within minutes of the start of the pilot, Givens is back in Kentucky, forced to confront the culture he both fled in anger and carried with him as a badge of honor. It’s a deceptively complex negotiation, and one that brings forth basically all the insights the show ever had. To the drug runners in Florida, Givens is the embodiment of the Kentucky style of justice, but back home in Kentucky, Raylan’s still the kid who left his family and friends behind. The drama of Justified was never about Givens as a fish out of water; it was about drowning in your own past.

In leaving Harlan County, Justified: City Primeval essentially becomes a version of the show that Justified’s creators decided against in the first five minutes of that pilot. Detroit is not Miami, but the effect is the same. There are elements of this new series that feel flatly touristic—in particular, a moment when Givens’s daughter wanders, alone, through a burnt-out old factory building. There is an unavoidable flavor of Rust Belt ruin porn about the proceedings. Of course, the original series was not without its own whiff of poverty porn, but that show’s great strength was its willingness to stick with Harlan County, its vulnerability to suffocating in the specificity of place. In City Primeval, Givens is by contrast a guest in the narrative. It’s a good one, but it doesn’t really need him. This is someone else’s story.

There’s an echo of that original line about Raylan’s anger in City Primeval, but its new context gives it different explicit meaning. Rather than being read by the love of his life, it’s his new love interest—the tough, embattled Black defense attorney Carolyn Wilder (Aunjanue Ellis)—who delivers the blow. “You’re angry,” she says, “I get it. I’d be angry, too. But everybody doesn’t get to be angry the way you do.” Unlike Winona, Carolyn is not plumbing Raylan’s hidden depths but noting his privilege. Justified spent six seasons thinking about why Raylan was so mad. Justified: City Primeval asks how Raylan can afford to be so mad all the time.

Does that mean this new series is a critique of the racial and gender politics of the original—a reckoning with Raylan Givens as a “problematic” character? Not really. And that’s because Justified is and was always about whiteness, in ways spoken and unspoken. Its six original seasons began with a showdown between the white power of the Marshals Service and the “White Power” of Boyd’s neo-Nazis, and the slippage between those two poles was perhaps the series’ most consistent theme.

In the new season, it has become an explicit topic of conversation. Wilder seeks an acquittal for Raylan’s carjacker, by (not wrongly!) portraying the marshal’s gruffness as racialized brutality. There’s a prominent plot point surrounding the elevation of a white detective over her majority Black peers, and, at one point, a Black character points out that the Marshals Service used to catch runaway slaves. It’s not incidental that, through six seasons and a reboot, everybody keeps trying to get Raylan Givens to quit being a marshal. His old friends and family see him as a sellout, he’s a pain in the ass to all of his bosses, and his love doesn’t want to see him killed. None of these are abolitionist positions, but they all share the sentiment that Raylan—the iconic embodiment of a lawman—should not be the arm of the law. His anger is not exceptional, in other words; it’s an integral feature of the carceral state.

All the same, the show put Raylan in a white hat, and it let us know he was with the good guys. Justified was never “copaganda” in the true sense, but it did allow some of its pleasures to come from Raylan’s reckless violence. City Primeval is considerably more careful in its treatment of that violence, of that anger, embodied in the handsome frame of a middle-aged white man. It’s an admirable project for a reboot—especially when so many contemporary reboots seem devoid of purpose. But it’s also a project I’m not certain Raylan Givens needed to travel so far for, especially if he’s not planning on sticking around.