No show wears its love for language and land more proudly than FX's Justified, which ends its six-year run on April 14. Based on a novella by Elmore Leonard and starring squinty sex symbol Timothy Olyphant, the hillbilly noir never received the critical adulation or the audience one might expect for such a consistently moving and entertaining series. Boasting some of the best writing, acting, directing and mythologizing anywhere on television, Justified left the innovations and the boundary-pushing to its more self-serious Golden Age cohorts, delving instead into the familial histories and economic dysfunctions that make its setting, Kentucky's Harlan County, such a dangerous place to call home.
Justified's soul rests not in its heart but at its hip, right next to the gun holster. In the pilot, Olyphant's trigger-happy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens is transferred from Miami to Lexington, just a few hours from Harlan, where he grew up as the unhappy son of a hired thug who worked for the Crowders, the criminal clan that ran the county a generation ago. Thecoal industry in Kentucky has collapsed: “It's [now] cheaper to take the tops off mountains and let the slag run down and ruin the creeks,” explains ex-miner Boyd Crowder, played by Walton Goggins. He's the first to acknowledge that mineworkers were exploited early and often by their bosses — it seems that damn near everyone in Harlan is making up for a lost livelihood in the former company town by getting involved in the drug business. Each season of Justified has focused on a different drug — meth, pot, oxy, heroin — tracing its history in the region and the violence it now inspires.
But Justified isn't so much The Wire in coal country as it is a lower-stakes (but just as bloody) Game of Thrones in the 21st century, particularly in its depiction of how each character is burdened or buoyed by familial inheritances of land, standing, alliances and rivalries. Despite his hatred of his father, Raylan is referred to as “Arlo's boy” by the old-timers, and the federal officer's series-spanning aim to put the charmingly villainous Boyd in prison (or six feet under) is informed by their fathers' thorny relationship.
Showrunner Graham Yost has populated Harlan with a viper's nest of colorful schemers and losers, including standouts such as Margo Martindale's criminal matriarch, Mags Bennett; Damon Herriman's dumb-as-a-box-of-hair-with-swastikas-drawn-on-it crook Dewey Crowe; and Jere Burns' extravagantly eyebrowed, women's-tennis-loving Dixie Mafia functionary Wynn Duffy.
Though it's rare to find an out-and-out dull hour of the show, Justified invariably becomes more exciting toward the middle of each season, when the murder mysteries that launch each 13-episode arc begin to reveal the invisible wires that connect Harlan's seemingly disparate psychopaths and pragmatic killers. But, of course, partnerships built on greed and violence are shaky at best. Leonard, who served as an executive producer on the show until his death two years ago, was never convinced of the intelligence of most criminals anyway, resulting in a lot of bullets landing in the shooter's feet.
The sprawling cast in Harlan and Lexington and the characters' intimate knowledge of the land — down to what kind brand of cheap concrete a local dam is made of, which happens to be the same one that forms the base of the Statue of Liberty — contribute to an impressively detailed and convincing sense of place — the series' greatest achievement. The real Harlan County apparently @thinkovision.