There are some television shows that, when you first watch them, feel like they were tailor-made for you. FX’s neo-Western Justified, which is based on a short story by esteemed crime fiction writer Elmore Leonard, was that series for me. Debuting in 2010, the Kentucky-set drama stars perennial-portrayer of lawmen Timothy Olyphant as the quick-drawing, quick-tempered Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. Walton Goggins also makes a star-turn as the clever and charismatic outlaw and thorn in his side Boyd Crowder. After the first few episodes I was hooked: drawn in by Raylan and Boyd’s shared history (which added a layer of complexity to the dance they were doing); the sharp, witty dialogue that flowed between them like the best Kentucky bourbon; the unique setting that is rarely seen on TV except as the stereotypical butt of a joke. For six seasons, Justified was my favorite show on television, and the morally compromised men at its center were my favorite topic of discussion.
In the years since Raylan put Boyd in prison and buried his personal demons in Kentucky, I have rewatched Justified a few times, even once cheekily writing about how it was the best show I watched in 2018, three full years after it ended. But as more time passes, watching Justified brings with it a sort of reckoning, as I am forced to contend with the fact that one of my all-time favorite shows—and one that I still believe in many ways is one of the best shows of the recent prestige era—depicts and thus contributes to a serious systemic issue in the real world: lawmen who believe they’re above the law using excessive force without worry, because they know they can get away with it.
Raylan’s frequent flouting of the law, disobeying direct orders, and shooting bad guys is baked into the very foundation of Justified. The show literally opens with him shooting a man on a crowded rooftop in Miami after giving said man 24 hours to leave town. It seems cool at first, and is more than effective at introducing viewers to the character and his point of view. But the excuse Raylan gives, when questioned by his boss, is that the shooting was justified because the man pulled on him first. Rather than being fired or stripped of his duties for a reckless use of lethal force in a public space again (it’s already a recurring issue for him), he is treated more like a PR disaster and sent back home to Kentucky, a place he never wanted to return to. And that’s the crux of the problem: Most of Raylan’s shootings—and there are many over the course of the show—probably are considered legal or “acceptable” because the person in question pulled on him or attacked him first. But how many times did he maneuver those people into that position or force their hand? How many encounters could have been handled differently, without the use of lethal force?
While Raylan isn’t a corrupt lawman in the traditional sense, one of the show’s running themes is that he could have been a criminal or outlaw like Boyd if the circumstances had been slightly different. The two grew up together in the same small town. They both had criminals for fathers. They dug coal together. But while Boyd followed in his dad’s footsteps in an attempt to make something of himself, Raylan hated his father and rebelled against his upbringing by joining law enforcement and helping to put away the types of men and women he encountered growing up. But his more respectable profession hasn’t fundamentally changed who he is. He’s still an angry man unable to face his trauma or deal with his emotional baggage, and who has—on more than one occasion—found himself spoiling for a fight, whether it was with a couple of drunks in a bar, or with Boyd (like when he tried to goad him into drawing on him in the series finale so he had a reason to shoot him). As righteous and well-intentioned as Raylan can be, and as many criminals as he has put away during his long career, Raylan’s flawed moral center and disregard for human life at times makes it difficult to ignore the real-world implications of depicting yet another white man sworn to uphold the law breaking it for his own benefit.
While the show does make an effort to put Raylan’s actions as a modern day cowboy in the crosshairs of the American judicial system in the form of a persistent assistant U.S. attorney, he is never really outright punished for his actions. This means Raylan is free to go on his way and do it all again. And while this often made for good, sometimes even excellent, television, especially when Raylan interacted with Boyd or Jere Burns’ Wynn Duffy, at some point we have to ask ourselves why we’re willing to accept this type of unethical behavior from fictional characters when we know very well the harm it causes in the real world.
The global Black Lives Matter protests and calls for defunding the police in the wake of the death of George Floyd while in police custody in May 2020 were a big wake-up call for a lot of people. Even if you thought you knew or understood how prolific this problem had become across America, it was still still relatively easy to ignore when it didn’t affect you personally. And that’s the same broken thinking that allows many viewers to write off shows like Justified—ones that glorify the lawman who breaks the law for his own benefit—because they’re exciting to watch, or because the hero is fighting on the side of the good, or because, like Raylan, he comes with some well-timed quips too.
Despite being a fictional character, people like Raylan Givens exist in our world, and seeing them portrayed over and over again on TV and in movies reinforces the idea that what they’re doing is somehow, sometimes, considered acceptable. So this violent behavior has contributed to a staggeringly harmful mindset whether we want to believe it has or not. The real world doesn’t operate by a code or differentiate between the good guys and bad guys the way Justified at least tries to do. More often than not it seems innocent Black men and women are brutalized and killed by police who face no repercussions while others, mainly white people, are taken into custody peacefully. There are systemic issues across the many law enforcement agencies of this country and it’s beyond time we recognize them and work toward fixing them.
Of course Justified isn’t the first show that has portrayed a cop or someone in a similar profession bending or breaking the law to their liking—hell, it’s not even the first show of its kind to air on FX or star Walton Goggins—but it is a series that has been very well regarded by critics, and is one that I personally have connected to and thus must reckon with as I attempt to do a better job of being an ally and fighting injustice in my own life. So with the news that FX is now developing another series based on an Elmore Leonard property and that Olyphant could potentially reprise his role as Raylan Givens, my only ask is that the writers and producers take into consideration how dangerous portraying a character like him can be at a time like this. I’d love to see what this talented team of writers can do—Justified featured some of the best writing on TV and was populated by incredible characters—but moving forward we should all hope for entertainment media to find a better way to exist in the crime genre without further perpetuating or glorifying lawmen who turn to reckless violence to solve all their problems. It’s arguably not much, but it’s a start.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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