Text-to-Screen Ratio: Justified (Part 2)

(Editor’s Note: We now bring you to the second part of this analysis, up earlier than expected thanks to the completely addictive nature of “Justified’s” first season and the brisk pace at which Elmore Leonard novels can be read. Once again, spoilers abound for both the season and the related books, so if either bothers you accept a transfer to Harlan County and get caught up first.)

Unless you’re a referee at a limbo convention who’s been paid off to make sure all the contestants win, it’s probably advisable to avoid setting the bar too high. As I mentioned in the first half of this series, the pilot episode of “Justified,” centered around the exploits of Elmore Leonard’s Stetson-wearing U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, did just that thanks to its incredibly strong source material of “Fire in the Hole.” Adapting the original’s plot and dialogue almost verbatim, show creator Graham Yost and lead actor Timothy Olyphant created one of the best pilots I’d seen in recent memory – my gauge for that being an episode of a show where, if we had nothing else, I’d still be satisfied.

But since the pilot saw that short story through to the end, it raised the question of whether or not the show would be able to keep that momentum going, despite having two other Raylan novels (1993’s “Pronto” and 1995’s “Riding the Rap”) to draw from. It’s always a tightrope effort for a film/TV writer to move away from source material and make the characters their own, and the video stores are littered with adaptations that failed as a result of this. After having seen the full first season however, I can safely mark “Justified” in the victor’s category, with a season that picked the best parts from Leonard’s remaining novels and manages to tell its story in a way that feels like a natural extension – and funnily enough, gets better the more its plot becomes independent from Leonard.

As we get started, I must admit that my plans for this piece were derailed early on: my original intention was to read both novels at the same time I watched new episodes, comparing how they matched in terms of voice and story. I could do the former but not the latter however, as the novels predate the events of “Fire in the Hole” by following Raylan as a U.S. Marshal in Miami, rather than post-Kentucky reassignment (“Pronto” actually ends with the shooting that forms the pilot’s opening scene). If the show wanted to adapt either verbatim, they would have to take the form of flashbacks, and spending that much time on past events can be a death knell for a show just starting out.

But while neither novel can be used chronologically as the structure for a season (and are both admittedly weak when compared to “Fire in the Hole”) each novel contains multiple interesting moments in Raylan’s life, and Yost and company decided to use their framework in the show’s early episodes. The third episode “Fixer” heavily adapts the plot of “Riding the Rap,” where a pair of mismatched convicts kidnap a loan shark for ransom and Givens finds himself unwillingly responsible for the man’s safety. Next week’s episode “Long in the Tooth” adopts “Pronto’s” plot of a fugitive criminal – and former prisoner of Raylan’s who gave him the slip – in the crosshairs of his dangerous employers and once again trying to duck Raylan in pursuit of his duties.

Both these episodes and the second episode “Riverbrook” have more of an episodic feel rather than a serialized one, and consequently do come across as much weaker than the pilot. Most of the supporting cast is largely off to the side in favor of sending Raylan on some adventure, and after the thrilling climax of “Fire in the Hole” they almost feel like decompression. Additionally, while the pilot filmed in Philadelphia the rest of the season was filmed in Los Angeles, and early episodes don’t even seem to be trying to simulate Kentucky. The show would later find dependable wooded areas and battered offices to set its action in, but “Justified” sacrifices the opportunity for the setting to be a character as New Jersey was in “The Sopranos” and Albuquerque is in “Breaking Bad.”

But while the episodes feel a little rocky to start off, they are redeemed by the fact that they raid the best scenes from the novels. “Riverbrook” opens with a vignette from “Riding the Rap” where Raylan escorts one of the skinheads arrested in the pilot to jail by himself, and the conflict and conversation that result go a long way to showing how in control of a situation Raylan is. Juicy gunfights come from each book with “Pronto’s” shootout with Italian mafiosi applied to two cartel hitmen looking to collect a contract on Raylan, and “Fixer” taking “Riding the Rap’s” practice face-off between two gangsters that quickly turns bloody. Both scenes are not only thrilling, but also betray how seriously these gangsters take their images, a recurring theme in Leonard books.

After these three episodes burn through the Raylan source material, Yost’s writing team moves back to the central plot of Raylan dealing with old ghosts in Kentucky. His old coal-mining partner Boyd Crowder has survived Raylan’s shot to the chest and supposedly found religion, a conversion even Raylan can’t determine the sincerity of. His old crush Ava isn’t too young for him anymore, and his ex-wife Winona has a new husband making some very bad decisions. And the shooting of Miami cartel enforcer Tommy Bucks, while justified in his moral code, has also earned him the ire of some very powerful and connected people.

And the more these stories take hold – using these threads as the impetus for both A-stories as well as a few sideplots – the better the show gets. The stories it tells are not only tied in with the development of its main characters (Raylan, Ava and Boyd) but also contain a solid balance of action scenes and banter to ensure boredom rarely if ever occurs. Not enough credit can be given to the show’s writers for this – all of them apparently wear bracelets inscribed with the letters “WWED” (for “What Would Elmore Do?”) to guide them through writer’s block, and it shows. One review of the episode “The Hammer” went so far as to say they have “the Leonard voice down cold.” It challenged readers to make a difference between Leonard’s books and the work of show writers like Fred Golan and Chris Provenzano, and I’d have a hard time making that decision myself.

And as with the pilot, the lines of Raylan remain strong because they have Timothy Olyphant to deliver them. I cited in my review of the pilot his “undeterred focus, an understated intensity to his words and the ability to look superb in a cowboy hat,” and the longer the show goes on the more it feels no one else could or should play this character. In both “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap” there was a sense that Raylan was underestimated by others but always in control of the situation, and Olyphant holds both sides of the character – able to chat disarmingly with a suspect in one scene, and then slam their head against the table a minute later. (I’m even able to forgive his not using a revolver as he’s so good in his gunfights – plus a semiautomatic was his weapon of choice in both original novels.)

Recognizing how well Olyphant does with Raylan as a character, Yost and the other show writers made the smart choice to play to Olyphant’s strengths and give the character a Seth Bullock-esque tightly focused anger. His anger has many targets, but the most obvious is his father Arlo (a fantastic Raymond J. Barry), a weathered amoral crook who raised Raylan with the back of his hand. My original hypothesis that Raylan would be a man more in conflict with his code was proven incorrect, as he remains committed to his “Old West lawman” image but seems to use it more as guidelines to keep his anger in check – unless he needs to blow off some steam in a bar fight, in which case he takes his hat off.

And in another debt the show owes to Leonard, the show remains consistently voiced when the camera moves off of Olyphant. In my Text-to-Screen Ratio on “Dexter” I postulated that one of the reasons its sideplots and supporting characters are so weak in comparison to Michael C. Hall is because its source material is written in first-person, and it’s rather difficult to extrapolate new characters from that. Leonard’s novels on the other hand are written in third-person, and regularly switch between the protagonists and antagonists in a move that enhances both the character traits and the flow of the story.

As such, “Justified” is able to bring in a strong stable of guest stars actors from week to week, ranging from M.C. Gainey as a boisterous local crime lord to Stephen Root as an eccentric judge to Jere Burns as a sadistic hitman. It’s also drawn heavily on Olyphant’s fellow “Deadwood” veterans, with W. Earl Brown as a dangerous convict in a stand-off with Raylan and Sean Bridges as an ex-con with a desperate plan to provide for his family. With few exceptions, these character actors play their roles with a Leonard-esque zeal, armed with clever lines and an almost theatrical flair to their actions.

When it comes to the original characters from the story, no character has been given such an expanded life as Raylan’s old coal mining buddy Boyd Crowder. I completely rescind my comment that Walton Goggins’ perfomance brought Boyd “somewhat less compellingly” to life, because the conviction Goggins applies to Boyd more than makes up for the differences in background and appearance. Boyd’s born-again arc takes the book version’s modified Christianity into fierce moralism that neither the viewer nor Raylan can be sure if it’s real, and he and Raylan continue to hold an adversarial respect that leads to some wonderful dialogue, particularly as Raylan circles Boyd trying to put him in prison.

And other than Goggins, the recurring cast continues to deliver performances that blend seamlessly with their original versions. Nick Searcy as Raylan’s boss and old Academy training partner Art Mullen has the air of “a big, comfortable man with a quiet way of speaking” that “Fire in the Hole” described, but also shows the frayed patience that anyone would have after more than a few escapades with Raylan. Carter continues the fine work she established in the pilot as Ava Crowder, still a strong and stubborn woman who’s attracted to Raylan for a variety of reasons, and not afraid to defend herself with a sawed-off shotgun.

In the world of characters who Leonard didn’t take as much time with, Natalie Zea is quite capable as Raylan’s ex-wife Winona, an unseen character in all the books but who keeps Leonard’s description of talking “always a little smart-alecky.” While the show leaves out the two sons he had with her in the book, it does keep the plot thread that she left him for the realtor selling their house – a plot point that builds to an excellent mid-season episode “Hatless.” Other minor characters are less well-served, as despite regular credits Erica Tazel and Jacob Pitts as fellow Marshals Rachel Brooks and Tim Gutterson are nonentities after the first four episodes, yielding their screen time to the various guest stars.

“Justified” has already been renewed for a second season on FX, and while I don’t plan to write a new installment for that season I will certainly be tuning in. Yost and Olyphant and company have pulled off the rare feat of taking an author’s character and giving them an even better world to play in, raiding all the right pieces of the source material and taking the story in a new and interesting direction. Leonard has mentioned that at some point he might come back to the character of Raylan Givens in a new story or novel, and if he does it’s almost certain he’ll be hearing Olyphant’s voice as he writes.

Extra Credit: Want to know how Elmore Leonard feels about “Justified?” Check out these interviews and also an essay on where Raylan Givens came from.

2 Responses to Text-to-Screen Ratio: Justified (Part 2)

  1. […] I wrote in my earlier pieces (part 1 and part 2 available on The Lesser of Two Equals), “Justified” is a show where it’s really […]

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