The crackling new Western Justified (FX) pops from the head of Elmore Leonard, and last night’s episode was its most Leonardian yet, which is saying something. From the show’s mid-March debut, Justified has prospered by capturing a particular sense of place. The setting is Kentucky hill country, shot to make you sweat with the humidity that further dulls the bad guys’ wits. It is lush with the beauty and weirdness of the folkloric backwoods, gritty with the coal dust of the miserable mines—a sublime pulp terrain.
Which is to say that the setting is archetypal Elmoravia. Whether that land is dirty snow-banked Detroit, overchlorinated pool-blue Miami, or “this here” Harlan County, a majority of the citizens are of the sort best described by Martin Amis in a 1995 review of Leonard’s novel Riding the Rap:
He understands the post-modern world—the world of wised-up rabble and zero authenticity. His characters are equipped not with obligingly suggestive childhoods or case-histories, but with a cranial jukebox of situation comedies and talk shows and advertising jingles, their dreams and dreads all mediated and secondhand. They are not lost souls or dead souls. Terrible and pitiable (and often downright endearing), they are simply junk souls: quarter-pounders, with cheese.
These are gangs who can shoot but not think straight, and in this third episode the hoods and no-goodniks exhibited a great range of folly as they engaged in a tightly plotted roundelay of triple-decker doublecrosses.
Here we had a bookie who, when acting as an informant, delivered his tips in hoarse and impatient Brooklynese, sometimes while wearing an egg-cream moustache. There was a pothead layabout chatting about current events as if to prove that a little knowledge is a foundation for a threat of danger that is no less thrilling for being comic. Best was a heavy whose instrument of terror was a garden-variety garden tool. Generally, if you see a pair of pruning shears in the first act, you expect to see one appendage or another getting pruned in the third, but it is typical of Justified’s sharpness that the keen threat remained just that, a threat, and instead climactic gunshots provided a fine release.
The shots issued from the gun of Raylan Givens, the quick-draw virtuoso who is our compelling hero, technically a deputy U.S. marshal but effectively the new sheriff in town. The title of Justified refers to Givens’ claim about a shooting that sets up the series: He says he was right to kill a reptilian villain back in neon Miami, and with a glance at the shine in his eyes, we know that he was. It happens that Givens appeared in Riding the Rap and that Amis was also efficient in defining his sympathetic nature: “Raylan is perhaps the cleanest character in the entire [Leonard] oeuvre, dead straight and ‘all business,’ a genuine enforcer. … Raylan isn’t post-modern; he is an anachronism from out of town.”
After the mess in Miami—a P.R. problem even if morally and procedurally correct—the Marshals Service sends the man back to the land where he was raised by his lowlife daddy and which he fled at age 19. You can’t go home again, but Givens somehow can, being an easygoing figure of myth, not just anachronistic but out of time. Future Emmy nominee Timothy Olyphant plays him with a crinkling and enthusiastic boyishness—but his voice is so parched (as dry as Bill Paxton’s on Big Love) that it seems to forecast sagacious old age. He’s not especially anxious about the scores he must settle and the business he has to finish; he just addresses injustice as it comes. Likewise, Givens isn’t too terribly gooey about the lovely old sweetheart now back in his arms: He’s there, and she’s available, and let’s go. His gaze is fond and lusty but fairly unsentimental.
It’s a bit of mystery to me what keeps this incorruptible cowboy from being appallingly corny. Maybe it helps that there’s a palpable anger beneath his sense of honor. Or maybe—given the profusion of small-screen anti-heroes recently seen simmering in New Jersey strip clubs, Manhattan ad agencies, and Baltimore surveillance vans—the time is simply right for a straight-up good guy. Spreading his handsome wings, this angel of death achieves liftoff.
Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.