‘Justified’ – Return to Harlan County. ASAP.

justified a murder of crowes

I think I need to watch the fifth season premiere of “Justified” another time. I liked “A Murder of Crowes,” last week’s first show of the new season, just fine, but I’m a little bit on the fence about it.

First of all, a return of the FX series, created by Graham Yost and based on characters created by the late, great Elmore Leonard, is always welcome. It’s one of a handful of TV series that I anticipate for months in advance.

The story of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), who finds himself back in his homeplace of corrupt, dirt-poor Harlan County, Kentucky, is very nearly equal parts hardboiled crime drama, smart-ass comedy and scarily accurate (to my Tennessee-descended sense) portrait of the dark side of the Appalachian experience.

As someone whose lost a namesake cousin to gun violence and whose family hailed not far from a town named No Business because the law – specifically federal revenue agents – had “no business” being there, I can attest that the show is true-to-life.

The series’ Harlan County – close enough to Lexington to make the chamber of commerce there wince every week when the show airs, I bet – surely numbers a few good people among its population. But aside from the cops, lawyers and judges – some of whom are a little bent themselves – the cast of characters is pretty much made up of outlaws: thieves, drug addicts, meth makers, prostitutes and the kind of guy who keeps a naked man chained to a bed in the back room. Although to be fair, the latter character was just visiting Harlan County from Detroit.

Walton Goggins and Timothy Olyphant in Justified

Chief among these darker characters is Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), latest in a long line of criminals who has dabbled in white supremacy – he blew up a black church with a rocket launcher, for god’s sake – evangelism, coal mining, bar owning, drug-making and distributing and, maybe most surprising of all, heroism and doing the right thing.

Pitting longtime friends/enemies and – when it’s convenient for them – cohorts and colleagues Raylan and Boyd against each other and, sometimes, against the dregs of Harlan County (and at times their own families) is the genius aspect of the show.

True to the spirit of Leonard – who’s featured characters used in the show in a few novels and stories – “Justified” features a lawman who’s not only cool but hot-tempered who, at times, makes astonishingly bad decisions and an outlaw who murders – sometimes with remorse, sometimes without – and traffics but is prone, at the time you least expect it, to do the right thing.

justified raylan boyd

If the conflict and simpatico relationship between Raylan and Boyd is the heart of “Justified,” the supporting characters are the veins that carry the blood.

Few cop shows have ever had such a likable and interesting group of lawmen, from wry Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Art Mullen (Nick Searcy in a performance that makes me want to see a whole hour about him every week), Jacob Pitts and Erica Tazel as marshals Tim Gutterson and Rachel Brooks and assorted characters like a smart-ass U.S. attorney, a kinky judge and Constable Bob, a small-town, small-time lawman played by comedian Patton Oswalt who seems like the comic relief but ended the fourth season as just about the biggest badass in Harlan County. Despite his worries that the folks who live out in the hills eat people. I’m praying Oswalt and his “go bag” will be back this season.

And my god, what bad guys. Goggins makes Boyd Crowder as complex and fascinating a character as any on TV, and likewise Joelle Carter as Ava – a bad-leaning girl who could be downright ruthless when she needed to be, and ended up in prison because of it – are characters capable of carrying their own show.

And what a bunch of low-lifes consort with Boyd and are confounded by Raylan, including Dewey Crowe, the hapless, brainless small-fry crook played by Damon Herriman, Jere Burns as sarcastic criminal Wynn Duffy and so many others.

Tribute must be paid to the Bennett clan, led by Mags (Margo Martindale). The Bennetts, astonishingly corrupt but endlessly fascinating, made the second season of the show so hard to top.

The current season is trying, though, by introducing more members of the Crowe family, including Darryl Crowe Jr. (played by Michael Rapaport), a Florida thug moving to Harlan to complicate Raylan’s life.

I need to watch the first new episode of the season again because I can’t figure out just what about it left me a little frustrated. Maybe it was that Raylan and Boyd were a thousand miles apart for most of the action. Maybe it’s that both were out of Harlan County for most of the premiere. Because, believe me, as much as I wouldn’t want to live in Harlan County, I want my hour there every week.

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