Justified and the Potential Dangers of Reviving a Show That Ended Perfectly

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<i>Justified</i> and the Potential Dangers of Reviving a Show That Ended Perfectly

The reboot/revival/remake trend that began a decade ago when Netflix greenlit a fourth season of Arrested Development and Veronica Mars fans crowdfunded a feature film is now a bona fide creative pipeline in Hollywood. The road may be littered with unquestionable failures and forgettable attempts to capitalize on existing intellectual property, but the inevitability of someone eventually striking gold means that every TV show that might have had an audience at one time is likely being considered for a comeback. But what happens when a show already has the perfect ending?

Such is the case for the Emmy-nominated and critically beloved neo-Western Justified, which FX announced in January will be returning for a limited run under the title Justified: City Primeval. Like the original series, the new show is based on an Elmore Leonard property—in this case, the novel City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit. Timothy Olyphant is returning as U.S. Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens, the coolest of modern-day gunfighters. It’s a role so iconic and so closely identified with the laidback actor that at times it’s near impossible to see him as anything else—though it may be because he won’t let us.

Since Justified ended in 2015, Olyphant has played effortlessly cool lawmen in Disney+’s Star Wars space western The Mandalorian and in the fourth season of Noah Hawley’s anthology series Fargo. He even reprised his role as marshal Seth Bullock in HBO’s Deadwood movie, a role that preceded his turn on Justified but is, in some ways, just a few shades removed from the character of Raylan. It’s as if Olyphant has been trying to tell us for years that he’s ready to pick up the character’s trademark hat and strap on his badge and gun again. (There’s also the time he literally told us during an interview.) But the question is: Should he?

There’s an obvious risk involved in revisiting Raylan’s story. Justified was revered by many while it was on, though not to the extent it rightfully deserved, and not as much as some of its Golden Age companions like Breaking Bad. Still, it went out on the highest of high notes. You’d be hard-pressed to find a fan who takes issue with how the series ended. The back and forth between Raylan and his warped mirror image—the charismatic outlaw Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins)—came to a close when Raylan finally put Boyd in prison for good after the latter refused to engage in a final gunfight and robbed our occasionally morally complicated hero of the satisfaction of having a justifiable reason to put him down (and maybe saving him from himself in the process).

It was a well-crafted and emotionally rewarding end to a hard-fought, six-season journey, which frequently saw the duo walk a carefully drawn tightrope of not friends, but sometimes reluctant allies. With Raylan’s final visit to Boyd in the episode’s closing minutes—in which he solemnly delivered the fabricated news that Ava (Joelle Carter) had died in a car crash rather than tell him she was living in California and raising Boyd’s child—we were reminded of why their story had been so captivating for so long: their shared history. The two had grown up in the same dead-end small town in Appalachia. Both had criminals for fathers and were working in the mines before they were 20. The foundation of their strange relationship was a sense of the familiar, and maybe something even resembling respect—the kind that only comes from going through hell with someone. Although their paths eventually diverged, with Raylan becoming a quick-drawing lawman and Boyd embracing a life of crime in pursuit of his own goals, in many ways the two men are the same, the human equivalent of a “choose your own adventure” book. So with just four words (”We dug coal together”) we understood Raylan and Boyd and the invisible tether that connected them. We knew why Raylan would choose to free Boyd and Ava (and thus himself) from the shackles of Harlan rather than force the three of them back into the circumstances that had trapped them without their consent for so long.

When a show nails an ending on both the narrative and emotional fronts like Justified did, there’s a natural hesitation that happens when presented with the possibility of a revival. What if the new chapter fails to execute at the same level? What if it makes a mistake so bad that it retroactively taints the rest of the show? One need only to look at Hulu’s Veronica Mars revival to know just how quickly things can fall apart for even the most beloved show, as the long-awaited fourth season was well-received until the unnecessary death of a fan-favorite character in the finale undermined its story, and revealed the show’s creator had misunderstood what it was about the show that kept fans coming back. In the grand scheme of things, writers owe fans nothing, but Veronica Mars serves as a cautionary tale, since fans’ willingness to interact with and support a project is fundamental to its success and ongoing existence.

So there are, ahem, justifiable reasons to be wary of Justified: City Primeval and its potential effect on the show’s legacy. But it will be a while before we can determine if the actual story is one of them. All we know now is that the action picks up eight years after the end of the show, with Raylan still living in Miami and co-parenting his now 14-year-old daughter with ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea). After a chance encounter on a deserted highway sends him to Detroit, he crosses paths with a violent sociopath known as the Oklahoma Wildman. Now, Raylan is not in the book upon which the story is based, so the narrative is being retrofitted to accommodate him. And if the creative team behind the series were not made up of the writers and producers who worked on the original, I might be more concerned about trying to fit the character into a preexisting story. But they long ago proved themselves to be more than capable of doing right by Raylan and right by the work of Elmore Leonard. Still, there are a few questions one can’t help but ponder.

First, does the TV version of Raylan and his cowboy charm work as well outside of the mountains and hollers of Kentucky? Justified worked as well as it did for as long as it did because of the history that kept Raylan tied to Harlan and its surrounding areas, which we never really saw as towns so much as homes and businesses that acted as windows into the area, its inhabitants, their murky pasts, and their tenuous relationships and alliances with one another. This gave the show a sense of place and a lived-in feeling that many series simply don’t have. And while the writers laid enough groundwork for the criminal underworld of Detroit during the show’s run that it probably won’t be too difficult to transport some of that same lawlessness north, it’s still removing a central part of the show.

Of course, Justified had already done some of that work by the end of the finale—the time-jump revealed a more mellow and personally content version of Raylan in Florida. He’d been freed from Arlo’s (Raymond J. Barry) hold and the chains that had kept him tied to Harlan County. But he was not a completely changed man, if his inability to work things out with Winona is any indication. Whether or not this evolved version of Raylan carries over into the new show will likely be an important part of the story, especially as it pertains to his aging and the fact that he has a teenage daughter.

Elsewhere—and perhaps more importantly—what does a version of Justified look like without Boyd Crowder? Can there be a successful revival without the silver-tongued outlaw who caused so many headaches for Raylan? A hero is only as good as his antagonist, after all. But as of now, there’s been no word on whether Goggins will reprise his most famous and arguably best role. However, given what we know about the show, it seems unlikely. And that works in the show’s favor as much as it works against it. As previously established, the relationship between Raylan and Boyd formed the connective tissue of Justified. So a version of the show without Boyd would likely feel lacking. And yet, trying to shoehorn the character into a story in which he doesn’t fit threatens to undermine the entire project.

There must be a purpose behind each and every revival. There has to be a reason for it to exist. Without that, it’s simply a greatest hits tour and obvious cash grab. Without Boyd in the mix, the show has the opportunity to grow and evolve alongside its leading man. And it seems like the writers might recognize that—there’s a reason the show isn’t coming back under the original Justified title. But if Boyd does appear, there must be a very good, natural reason for his presence in the narrative, much like when the writers brought Winona back occasionally after she left Raylan in Season 3. (This extends to the rest of the cast as well. Though most of the oddballs that we came to love over the years—like Damon Herriman’s Dewey Crowe—didn’t make it out of Harlan alive, there are a few who could potentially and conceivably pop up, including Jere Burns’ Wynn Duffy. And their presence should never feel like a stretch.)

If Justified: City Primeval can navigate these tricky waters, though, there’s no reason to believe the show can’t become one of the few revival success stories. Unlike some series that have returned, Justified is the type of show that is built for a limited revival such as this one. Raylan is one of the coolest leading men of the last 20 years. He’s funnier than most of the characters on shows billed as comedies. With a few exceptions, it doesn’t matter who surrounds him so long as he gets to do his swaggering gunfighter thing. So as long as he’s anchoring the series, there’s a high probability of viewers’ enjoyment. Meanwhile, the narrative structure of the show is more than flexible enough to accommodate these types of limited adventures. Remember, Justified successfully put aside some of the straightforward elements of its season-long crime stories to take on a complex mystery tied to Harlan in Season 4. And it was one of the stronger seasons when all was said and done. This means it should be relatively easy for the writers to craft a new serialized, closed-ended narrative around Raylan and make it fairly compelling.

But perhaps the best thing going for Justified: City Primeval is that there’s been a clear demarcation between it and Justified. In giving the new series a subtitle, it communicates that this is something slightly different, something we should view with fresh eyes but an appreciation for what’s come before. It also keeps the original narrative, with its perfect ending, firmly intact. So if the Oklahoma Wildman and the rest of City Primeval end up going the way of the Crowes in Season 5, well, we can always pretend it isn’t canon and treat it like a straight-to-DVD sequel. Here’s hoping we won’t have to though.

Justified is now streaming on Hulu.

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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