Raylan’s Short Road to Harlan: Why We Are (and Aren’t) Justified

Despite FX’s tremendously thorough removal of all things Justified on YouTube, there is still some […]

Ethan Richardson / 9.6.12

Despite FX’s tremendously thorough removal of all things Justified on YouTube, there is still some information in this post about the show’s plot, though nothing substantial, and nothing beyond season two. And though this is really a character profile, I feel obliged…spoiler alert!


One of the more frequent complaints about the FX television show Justified is the incoherent play between the two worlds of Harlan and Lexington, a three-hour drive made confusingly effortless between scenes and commercial breaks. During the first season it was hard to tell where Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens was hanging his hat each night; same woodpaneled motel room, same half-spent bottle of Turkey 101, different–way different–town. And though this muddling may not have been as intentional as I am about to project, it certainly represents the rapid schizophrenia which haunts Raylan’s identity. It is as though Tates Creek Road runs fifteen minutes, not three hours, between Law and Lawless, the former as easy to leave as the latter is hard to avoid. In the same way as that crooked road with that dark, crooked bridge, Raylan–and the entire supporting cast, for that matter, and the entire viewing audience, for that matter, too–does not think so much as he exists between who he is and who he ought to be.

Even at “home”–really it’s just his office–in Lexington, Kentucky, Raylan is a transient motel-sleeper, as if he cannot worry himself too much with the cost of bedding down for good. Though a lawman, these are the trappings of an outlaw. Nothing is allowed the surrender of permanence, and this is what makes being back in Kentucky so hard. In the first episode of the first season, Raylan is transferred from his post in Miami for his shoot-now-ask-later Marshall work (Rooster Cogburn, anyone?), and sent back to Kentucky as punishment. Though he didn’t need the training in violence–growing up in Harlan County with a criminal father provided that–Raylan’s righteous violence is self-described as justified. Because of this self-description, the thought of going home is a dreaded demotion, a return to a life left for good reason. Raylan joins the Marshall’s Office in Lexington, but finds that his crime scenes are almost always leading him to Harlan, where everybody knows everybody’s business, and everybody’s business is nobody’s business, or else.

As you can guess, old relationships rekindle. There’s the Crowders and the Bennetts. There’s his jailbird father, his crooked aunt. There’s Ava, the unfortunate girl who always had the hots for Raylan, but always picked the wrong guy; there’s Winona, Raylan’s ex-wife, now since re-married to a doltish realtor named Gary. There’s Boyd, Raylan’s childhood friend, who seems always to be both Raylan’s most targeted criminal and only friend. Boyd Crowder’s family has a historic feud with the Bennett family, both of whom will serve Raylan bourbon on the porch and after make plans to kill him. Slowly through the first season, and picking up beautifully in the second, we find Raylan not just bearing the sight of an old cast in his life, but willfully engaging it with his own. It becomes apparent to the audience that Raylan is not being haunted by Harlan so much as Raylan is addressing what has always been there. The Harlan in the boy will resurface, even from under expensive jeans, suit jackets, and a Marshall badge, and a lot of times Raylan’s utter cool in the face of hillbilly danger is what makes Justified so captivating.

And yet Deputy Marshall Givens is only so slick because he has left. (Everyone in Harlan County apparently has, in some fashion, given that Dickie Bennett’s turned-up Levis and layered flannel are a little different than this.) The show revolves around Raylan’s role as Enforcer, and this role is primarily affixed to his being an objectively external force. His badge represents the Law, and with his badge he is the Law. Raylan may come from Harlan County, but his office is in Lexington.

There are these genius moments of genteel hospitality with his nemeses–front porch pickin’ and bourbon sippin’–that are wrought with irony. Of course, Deputy Givens is once again enjoying a little chat in the general store with Mags Bennett, sweetlipped matriarch of the Bennett drug ring, but we know he is enjoying it for all the wrong (or right) reasons. Under the masquerade of the Kentucky parlance, Raylan’s badge is maneuvering a death blow to the lawless. What makes his character so good, though–especially in season two–is that even his exacting of justice is maligned. Behind the badge of justice, Raylan’s intentions can never be objective, but a quiet yearning to eliminate the past that made him. He can say his shootings are justified but, really, when it comes down to it, Raylan uses the anger he has always known to try to ward off the anger he has always known.

What does this even mean? Well, this is not The Shield, and Raylan’s not, per se, a dirty cop. But Justified similarly plays with this notion of murky justice. That, in anyone’s hands but God’s, justice is more like self-justice. And that’s why the road is all too short to Harlan–the road between Law and Identity–what is right and what is real–because that road is you. It is the coexisting confliction within a man facing his present with his past. And who doesn’t want to be justified?

There’s an amazing picture of this in the last episode of season two [spoiler!] where, amidst talk of remarriage and a new new life with ex-wife Winona, Raylan receives a call to a sure-death situation in Harlan. Despite Winona’s ultimatum, her plea to remember himself and go away with her, he does actually remember himself… and goes to Harlan. He ends up with a few bullets in his gut.

With this kind of wrongheadedness from such a capable lawman, creator Elmore Leonard seems not just to be saying that the best kind of cop is the one who understands his enemy, but that it simultaneously makes him the worst possible cop, in his terrible revelation that he himself is more his enemy than ever before understood.