“Justified” (FX), which returned recently for its penultimate season, is widely regarded as the most pitch-perfect adaptation in any medium of the work of the late great thriller writer Elmore Leonard. Hell, he thought so himself.
It isn’t just that actors Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins and the perennially under-praised Nick Searcy are so skin-crawlingly perfect for Leonard, effortlessly adept at embodying his characteristic rhythms and attitudes, the ease-veiling-a-threat of people who know themselves to be capable of anything, of whatever’s necessary.
At a deeper level, showrunner Graham Yost and his crew have mastered Leonard’s deceptive no-sweat approach to storytelling, the ability to spin a great yarn while apparently doing nothing more taxing than standing around shooting the shit.
Thriller writers can be roughly divided into two camps as to how they come down on the vexing question of outlines and pre-planning. Some believe strongly that writers owe it to their readers to carefully work out a plot beforehand. Others are devoted to the excitement of discovering the story as they write it. Leonard was firmly in the make-it-up-as-you-go-along camp. He has said that when the work was going well it felt as if his characters had minds of their own.
The trick of disguising the fact that a book was being written went further in Leonard’s novels than anyone else’s. It wasn’t the author but the characters themselves who seemed to making the story up. We almost never catch anyone doing something because it is required by the plot. We seem to be watching behavior as it unfolds minute by minute, impulsive and instinctual.
And despite the fact that a 12-episode TV series calls for script meetings, casting calls, location scouting and the construction of sets, a degree of quasi-military tactical organization that writers are spared, “Justified” is remarkably successful at capturing that old time Elmore Leonard feeling that we are eavesdropping on lop-eared characters who barely know themselves what they will be doing five minutes or a split second from now.
If there is a moral or ethical underpinning to Leonard’s work it is, in part, that the ones who manage to calm down and think ahead will always have the edge in a conflict. Leonard often gives them something extra to be doing, a business or craft interest to keep them busy. Mykelti Williamson’s terrifying Ellstin Limehouse in season three had a backwoods BBQ empire and was constantly seen slicing big red chunks of meat from sides of beef and pork.
This season’s redneck godfather, Darryl Crowe, Jr. (Michael Rapaport), owns an alligator farm, which comes in handy when there’s a corpse to dispose of, as there often seems to be. The Crowe clan goes way back with Olyphant’s Raylan Givens, introduced in the memorable first season encounter in which weasley punk Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) took a short dive into a hard steering wheel.
Depicting home-grown, back roads crime has been one of “Justified’s” strong suits, inbred crime that’s rooted in a sense of clan loyalty. This was exemplified in the all-time-classic season two storyline centering on Margo Martindale’s moonshine matriarch Mags Bennett. The thematic connection between seasons two and five is highlighted by the returning presence here of Loretta McCready (Kaitlyn Dever), a young girl orphaned by Mags and protected by Raylan in season two who turned out to have more sand than anticipated, one of that season’s several well-chosen nods to “Winter’s Bone.” Their relationship this time is complicated by the fact that Raylan is a new dad, fretting over his responsibilities. Every well-meaning move he makes with Loretta has implications.
We’re just a couple of episodes into the new season, so it’s possible that season five could take a short dive of its own. There is a generic subplot embroiling Boyd Crowder (Goggins) in a conflict with some Canadian drug suppliers that threatens to blur the focus on the more interesting monsters in the foreground. But as always the calm poise of the show from scene to scene inspires confidence.
A selection of Elmore Leonard’s books will join those of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Philip K. Dick and a very few other genre writers in the Library of America this fall, suggesting that the editors believe that he has contributed something unique to the fictional portrayal of this country. “Justified” confirms this. You can hear it in every line.