Confession: I love me some escapist television. I grew up with Airwolf, The A-Team and Knight Rider. I’ve no problem with the easy thrills of a show where the two-fisted hero wraps up life’s complicated problems in 50 minutes and a couple of commercial breaks.
As I grew out of The A-Team, I discovered the novels of Elmore Leonard, the veteran crime writer who’s a smart literary stylist too. He writes the kind of novels that get featured in the New York Review of Books and sold in airport bookstores – cool tales of American lowlife on the make and the law enforcers who try to keep up with them.
From a Role/Reboot perspective, Leonard has some features to commend him. He writes strong, unusual female characters. One of the most notable is U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco, played by Jennifer Lopez in 1998’s Out of Sight. The movie celebrates the competence of its female lead without fuss, something all too rare in modern Hollywood. (There’s a standout scene where she calmly fends off a thug’s sexual harassment and strikes him with a telescopic baton. As he reels, she tells him: “You wanted to tussle. We tussled.”)
When FX announced its new series Justified three years ago, fans like me were excited to see where showrunner Graham Yost and his team would take Leonard’s adapted tales of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. Played with great charm by Timothy Olyphant, Raylan’s an unflappable ex-miner who works a Kentucky beat and holds to the code of an old-style gunfighter.
The show is a modern Western, and the cowboy is a great emblem of American masculinity. No character better fits what Charlie Glickman has called the “Act Like a Man Box”—that set of key attributes and associations that define what it means to be a man, from sexual prowess to violence and able-bodiedness. (Check out Charlie’s piece here for a refresher.)
Justified charms viewers by giving us sharpshooting thrills straight out of the Act Like a Man Box while putting a twist on the gunslinger stereotype. Despite being a Western, Justified can still offer us a fresh view of American masculinity. As Charlie reminded us, gender is not a zero-sum game:
You can have as many characteristics that are traditionally thought of as male as you like and you can have as many that are traditionally thought of as female as you want, without that coming into conflict.
If, as Charlie puts it, “gender is a buffet,” a smattering of cowboy posturing doesn’t necessarily spoil the meal.
From the start, I’ve hoped that Justified could smuggle a critique of the cowboy figure into popular TV. Marshal Givens might be a prime-time good-guy, able to take down gangsters without breaking a sweat, but in this show, we see the toll taken by his trigger-happy ways.
First of all, there’s the endless paperwork, recriminations, and internal investigations as our hero racks up the body count. Then there’s the damage to his relationships with others. One example is the old friend who he dates after saving her from a murderous husband. Raylan abandons her for his remarried ex-wife, and she takes up instead with another criminal.
Though many women in the show are swayed by Raylan’s charms, one is unmoved. She’s my favorite character, Rachel: an African-American marshal who gets to call Raylan outright on his cowboy behavior.
Rachel is professional and deadly. She doesn’t get drawn into the macho games of male colleagues. She even sees through the apparently effortless charm of our hero. In a great episode of Justified’s first season, Rachel takes Raylan to task on ‘cutting to the front of the line’ in their department.
RAYLAN: Did you ever consider I happen to be good at the job?
RACHEL: And you being a tall, good-looking white man with a shitload of swagger, that has nothing to do with it? You could get away with just about anything.
Rachel directly identifies Raylan’s easy cool as studied “swagger,” a performance rather than some kind of male birthright. His cowboy attire symbolizes his own choices from the “Act Like A Man Box,” and she calls him on it.
“How do you think it would go over if I came into work one day wearing a cowboy hat?” she asks her partner. He has no response but a laugh. He offers his hat to her, but she refuses to try it on.
This promising scene, which flags up issues of gender and race without spoiling our prime-time fun, is followed by one which subtly undermines Rachel, when she and Raylan question an elderly African-American man.
The acerbic witness mocks the idea that he might have “a soft spot” for the Marshals because they protected James Meredith, the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi.
“Am I supposed to be impressed you got a colored partner? All this post-racist shit?” the man asks Raylan.
Rachel takes over the conversation and tries to charm her fellow African-American, making her accent approximate his own. She is “performing” blackness, just as a cowboy “performs” masculinity—and her performance fails.
“Am I hearing you dropping your R’s?” the man asks. “Are you trying to get down with me, soul sister?”
The female marshal’s performance of blackness is found wanting—in comparison with Raylan’s apparently effortless ability to “perform masculinity” and charm those in his path.
Little wonder that, at the end of the episode, when Rachel does try on Raylan’s cowboy hat, it doesn’t fit.
Justified’s second season spent more time with two other women. One is Mags Bennett, a corner store owner who is also the head of a vicious criminal clan. The other is Raylan’s ex-wife, Winona, a cool and competent lawyer who rejected him for his unwillingness to give up dangerous duties.
Mags got off to a promising start as a new kind of crimelord. She brims with Southern hospitality, but in business she’s not above poisoning snitches or breaking an errant son’s hand with a hammer. Viewers feel glee, and a real sense of threat, as we watch her deceive, outmaneuver, and brutalize opponents and allies alike.
Only in the closing moments of the season is this amazing female character undermined. Mags takes her own life on discovering that her adoptive daughter has rejected her, and another of her sons has been killed. Defining herself by her motherhood, she surrenders in the most irrevocable way when she realizes that she has failed her family.
Raylan might outlive Mags, but the show’s writers give his ex-wife, Winona, moments where she genuinely challenges her former husband. Like Rachel, Winona sees that Raylan’s charm is a construct, a performance: when she tells him, “You’re the angriest man I know,” we see the flaws beneath the smooth surface of the gentleman gunslinger. (Olyphant’s nuanced performance helps here, hinting at something simmering under the marshal’s courtly good manners.)
However, Winona is ultimately de-clawed by the scriptwriters, just as Rachel was. In an uncharacteristic moment of weakness, she steals money from the Marshals. The theft forces Raylan into an illicit attempt to protect her from the consequences of her actions. The marshal looks more noble than ever as he risks his career to protect the “little lady” from her folly—and Winona, the one person who could seriously question the way Raylan lives his life, is reduced to a weeping wife from an old school Western.
Justified’s scripts dance on a line between the clichés of the past and the challenges of the present, including modern attitudes to gender and ethnicity. When showrunner Graham Yost adapted Leonard’s work for the screen, he made Raylan a more ambivalent character—not an orphan but the son of a petty criminal—someone trying to be a better man than his father. These tweaks create the layers of ambivalence that give depth to this show about a cowboy cop.
Tension between the Western, which defined American masculinity, and modern TV storytelling, with its attention to character, gives Justified its appeal—yet at the same time, it also keeps the show from truly offering a “role reboot” in this all-American game of cops and robbers. (It’s still, sadly, hard to imagine a primetime show whose hero was a black female Marshal, like Rachel, trying to uphold the law in rural Kentucky).
Justified’s third season kicked off on Jan. 17, with our hero recovering from a gunshot wound. He discovered that his sharpshooting skills, the measure of his potency, have been affected by his injuries. This link between injury and emasculation is nothing new—think of Jack Nicholson getting his nose slit in Chinatown—but there’s hope on the horizon.
A new female Marshal is in town. She seems Raylan’s equal in every way. Like J-Lo’s character in Out of Sight, she’s called Karen, and armed with a telescopic baton. She’s even played by Carla Gugino, who headed an ill-fated Out of Sight spin-off series back in the 1990s.
In Justified, this new Marshal is going to give Raylan a run for his money. And with luck, she might just stretch the show’s notion of gender, too.
Justified airs Tuesdays 10pm EST on FX.
Dr. Matt Finch is a writer and international educational consultant. Find out more at www.matthewfinch.me/about.