Raylan Givens Returns in an Uneven but Still Enjoyable Justified: City Primeval

TV Reviews Justified: City Primeval
Raylan Givens Returns in an Uneven but Still Enjoyable Justified: City Primeval

With every new revival that comes out of Hollywood, one has to wonder what the goal ultimately is. For shows like Veronica Mars and Party Down that were canceled prematurely, revivals offer an opportunity for growth and closure. But for a series like Justified, which ran for six seasons and not only concluded its story but did so in such a narratively and emotionally satisfying way that its ending is widely regarded as one of the best series finales of all time, the purpose of a revival is a bit murkier. 

Running from 2010 until 2015 on FX, Justified is a neo-Western based on a novella by renowned crime author Elmore Leonard. It stars Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, a U.S. marshal quick with his sidearm who is reassigned to his home state of Kentucky after one too many issues in Miami, a move that forces him to reluctantly confront his past and the demons that ensured he never wanted to set foot in the Bluegrass State again. Considered by critics to be one of the best shows to come out of TV’s most recent Golden Age, the Emmy-nominated series concludes with Raylan sending outlaw Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins, in a career-defining performance), his sometimes ally but not quite friend, to prison once and for all. With Boyd locked up, the last of the shackles chaining Raylan to Kentucky fell away, and he was able to move on, both literally and figuratively.

In the eight-episode limited series, which is titled Justified: City Primeval, Raylan has been retrofitted into another Leonard property, the novel City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit. Set 15 years after the finale, the story takes Raylan to the Motor City, where he crosses paths with the violent sociopath Clement Mansell (Boyd Holbrook); his loyal girlfriend, Sandy Stanton (Adelaide Clemens); and his formidable lawyer, Carolyn Wilder (Aunjanue Ellis). 

The two main questions that arose when FX announced it was reviving Justified for a limited run were: What does Raylan look like outside of Kentucky, and can anyone replace Boyd as a worthwhile villain? After all, a hero is only as good as his antagonist, and the deeply complex relationship between Raylan and Boyd (a man who shared a similar life experience with and was a mirror to Raylan in many ways) is what sustained the show for six seasons. By series’ end, Olyphant and Goggins were co-leads more than anything else. But Boyd, who presumably remains in prison in Kentucky, doesn’t fit into the narrative of City Primeval, and the writers don’t attempt to force him, or anyone else from the show’s original run, into the story (though a couple characters do pop up in natural ways). Too often revivals act like little more than a carousel of familiar faces, with people stopping by for nostalgia’s sake rather than because the story calls for it. Justified: City Primeval does not care if you miss Jacob Pitts’ Tim Gutterson (and trust me, we all do); this is a new story, in a new location, with new people. But that’s also one of the reasons that the show falls somewhat flat.

So much about what made Justified compelling came down to its setting in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Appalachia is rich in history, but it’s an area of the country that is rarely explored on TV or in film, and it’s even rarer that it’s not treated as the butt of a joke, which is why Goggins was determined to avoid stereotypes and expand the idea of what it meant to be from rural America by highlighting Boyd’s intelligence. One of the best decisions executive producer Graham Yost and the Justified writers made was to depict Harlan and its surrounding area not as dead-end towns but as homes, with businesses like Mags’ store, Boyd’s bar, and the local brothel Audrey’s. This gave viewers a window through which to view people as human beings. We got to know not just who they were but also their way of life and the relationships and alliances they had with one another. These men and women are what brought Justified to life and gave it a unique sense of place, effectively making Harlan the show’s main character. The second you remove Raylan from this environment, the show loses a sizable piece of itself. The ghosts of the past are gone, but so is the fully realized, lived-in world that provided six seasons of story and gave us rich and memorable characters like Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale), Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman), and Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns).

All of this is to say that this revival is not the Justified anyone knew. If one goes into this limited series expecting a rehashing of the original show, they will be disappointed. The City Primeval subtitle is a nod to the show’s source material, but it’s also a clear demarcation that separates the old from the new. It tells us this chapter of Raylan’s story is going to be different even if the man at its center appears relatively unchanged save for grayer hair. Holbrook’s villain is also different from Boyd and many of the others who brought the criminal elements of Harlan to life. He’s an impulsive wildcard, sowing chaos wherever he goes. In many ways, he is the opposite of the carefully drawn antiheroes and antagonists of the original series, who often had clear and understandable reasons for their actions. Mansell simply wants what he wants in the moment, everyone else be damned. He has vague plans, but doesn’t think too far ahead. It makes him dangerous but also somewhat predictable.

But it’s not just that the setting and characters are new and different; there is an obvious vibe shift that accompanies the move to Detroit, all the way down to the series’ score and coloring that often paints the city in shades of blue. This is wise—Detroit is its own city with its own history and its own problems—but it appears that the move north has resulted in a loss of the show’s signature sense of humor, too, which is probably the most unfortunate change. Yes, there are glimpses of the sly wit that once made the drama series one of the funniest shows on TV, but they are few and far between, and mostly act as a reminder of what the show is missing. The fact that Justified: City Primeval features a lot of the same creative team behind the scenes makes this most confounding. But this isn’t the biggest change to the narrative.

Raylan’s daughter, Willa (portrayed by Olyphant’s real-life daughter Vivian), is a teenager in the revival, and we quickly learn she shares some of her dad’s more questionable traits after it’s revealed she punched another girl and broke her nose. When someone tries to carjack father and daughter on a stretch of deserted Florida highway and Willa misses the boat to camp, she joins Raylan on the trip to Detroit so he can testify against the man at the center of the highway altercation. Her presence in the narrative raises a lot of questions for Raylan, and underscores a number of long-time issues, most notably whether he will ever change and put himself and his family first. 

It’s established in the series’ pilot that Raylan’s anger, recklessness, and decision to prioritize his career is what led to the demise of his marriage to Willa’s mother, Winona (Natalie Zea). The six seasons that followed only doubled down on the idea after the two reconnected early in the show’s run. “If you wanted to change your life for me, Raylan, you would have done so by now,” a pregnant Winona tells him after she leaves him in Season 3. Although they reunited after Willa was born, it’s revealed in the flash-forward in the finale that it didn’t work out despite a move to Miami. Willa’s presence in City Primeval once again raises the question of whether Raylan will ever change or if he’s destined to be a man whose bone-deep obsession with catching the latest criminal will destroy every relationship he has. 

Whether it meant to or not, Justified sometimes glamorized Raylan’s job as a lawman and his ensuing actions; he was cool and funny, and he always got his man, no matter the lines he had to cross to do it. He skirted the law and ignored direct orders, mostly in the name of the greater good, while shooting bad guys if they drew on him or gave him what he deemed to be enough reason (and he wasn’t always above maneuvering people into positions to give him reasons to shoot). In the end, it made for great television, but City Primeval works to undo some of that unintentional glamorization, both in service to Raylan’s fragile relationship with his daughter and in acknowledgment of how views have changed regarding law enforcement since the show ended. 

It’s not to say Raylan’s actions weren’t often in question during the show’s run—being reassigned to Kentucky is his punishment for shooting a man on a crowded rooftop in Miami after similar occurrences in the past, and he is investigated by the assistant U.S. attorney for his actions as well. But Raylan skirts serious repercussions; the character’s penchant for using lethal force is also treated more as a personal defect than a serious issue that is part of a larger systemic problem, and in 2023 that simply doesn’t work. So in City Primeval, we see a man whose previous Wild West-like methods are out of step with contemporary ideology, but who is trying to do better, all in a story dealing with corruption within Detroit’s law enforcement system. This includes not just the judge with a little black book whose murder is the catalyst for Raylan to remain in Detroit beyond his initial assignment, but also members of a tired police department desperate for a win.

The show’s acknowledgement of racism and systemic issues within the criminal justice system goes hand in hand with the way it positions Raylan’s actions as a white man against the actions of its Black characters, specifically Ellis’ lawyer Carolyn, whose back is against the wall when it comes to defending the violent Mansell, who is also white and also very guilty of countless crimes, including the very murder he’s suspected of committing here. The series is pointed in its attempt to contrast the difference between how Raylan’s anger over Mansell’s actions manifests versus how Carolyn’s anger over being forced to defend a man she hates to protect someone she loves (Vondie Curtis Hall’s Sweety) might be perceived. “Everybody doesn’t get to be angry the way you do,” Carolyn tells Raylan after Mansell threatens Willa. But while it’s clear Raylan comes from a different world and has often been given the benefit of the doubt when he doesn’t deserve it, the show doesn’t always necessarily do much other than to point it out. 

Justified is a series that is often discussed in terms of seasons. The second is considered one of the best single seasons of TV ever produced, the fourth saw the show depart its familiar formula and embrace a season-long mystery to positive reception, while the fifth is regarded as the show’s creative nadir. City Primeval is a separate piece of fiction about a man in a different chapter of his life and should be treated as such, but if one wants to compare it to the seasons that have come before, it’s probably somewhere in the middle of Raylan’s adventures. Even though it’s purposefully a different show—the creative team has repeatedly talked about approaching City Primeval as a new series—there’s still far too little of what made the original series great.

That being said, by the end of the eight-episode run, the purpose of the revival is made clear: to investigate whether a man like Raylan, who carried so much emotional baggage from his own upbringing, can change and be a good father to his own child. Without getting into spoilers, Justified: City Primeval ends in such a way that it can be read as either a definitive ending to Raylan’s journey or as a set-up for another adventure, depending on one’s own beliefs and/or preference. Olyphant has said he’d return for another season should the opportunity present itself, but if this is the end of the road for Raylan Givens—who remains one of the best TV characters of the 21st century—it’s hard to argue against it, no matter the pitfalls that ultimately plague City Primeval.

We can quibble about whether this coda tarnishes the show’s previously stellar ending, but I’m not sure it does, at least not in the way other revivals misunderstood their audiences and ruined once-beloved series (ahem, Veronica Mars). It turns out there was more to say about Raylan Givens, specifically about who he is as a father, so even if the crime element wasn’t the show at its best, there is still a purpose to City Primeval. And that’s more than can be said about some of the other revivals Hollywood has trotted out over the last decade.

Justified: City Primeval premieres with two episodes on Tuesday, July 18 at 10/9c on FX. 

Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, Gold Derby, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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