Which name sounds more hillbilly — Boyd Crowder or Walton Goggins? Actually, Goggins played Crowder in FX’s recently ended series Justified, a six-year epic of the criminal enterprises afoot in Harlan County, Kentucky, a place that easily lived up to its sobriquet of “Bloody Harlan.”
Justified was based on a story by the late, immortal Elmore Leonard called “Fire in the Hole.” Leonard, until his death last year, was the show’s executive producer, and Justified was chockablock with the dead-on dialogue that was Leonard’s stock-in-trade (although he gave the nod to George V. Higgins as his master and model).
The hero of Justified is ostensibly U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, the last American gunfighter, played with laconic steel by Timothy Olyphant. For me, though, the character who kept my eyes on him is Crowder, a self-styled outlaw who once upon a time dug coal with Givens in the scary Kentucky mines. Their relationship is edgy, hand-on-your-gun.
Goggins’s serpentine body and fire-stained eyes lend his Crowder an aura of incipient violence. This is belied, though, by Crowder’s speech, an amalgam of Elizabethan cadences and a backwoods preacher’s Bible-thumping urgency. He is both snake and charmer.
Our introduction to Crowder has him gleefully blowing up a country church from long distance with a rocket-propelled grenade. He is handy with explosives from his time in the mines and quick with a pistol. While Marshal Givens is a cold-eyed killer as well, his shootings are mainly justified, per the series title. Crowder, though, is a flat-out murderer. In one memorable scene, he is sitting in a car with a criminal associate who has the bad taste to call Crowder a gangster. “I ain’t no gangster,” he replies. “I’m an outlaw.” And he casually shoots the man in the head, dead-bang.
Our introduction to Givens is atop a Miami Beach restaurant, where he is lunching with a bad guy, whom he had given 24 hours to leave town. The time is up as they chat, and when the hood goes for his gun, Raylan shoots him, dead-bang. And gets exiled to Kentucky for his Wyatt Earp troubles.
Givens’s trademark in Justified is a wide-brimmed Stetson, which he wears with the élan of Bat Masterson or Wild Bill Hickok. You fuck with that hat and Raylan Givens at your own peril. Crowder has his own style, wearing shirts buttoned at the neck and jackets that look like they were made by his granny on a spinning wheel high up in the Harlan County hills. His clothes are as unique as his character.
An American striver
And his character is distinctly American. Behind his murderous criminal machinations we sense the striving after a better way of life, a way out of those damn mines forever and ever. His American Dream is warped and blood-stained, but it is a strong brown God, as T.S. Eliot called the Mississippi River, and it drives him relentlessly.
But in the long term, Boyd Crowder is mainly a fuck-up, albeit a fascinating and fearless fuck-up, whose schemes after that one big score to get him out of Harlan usually blow up in his face like a stick of dynamite down in that eternal hole. It’s probably the low-rent, country-simple minions he is forced to rely on to carry off his dream scores, but he usually ends up back at square one. And, finally, in the last episode, in jail.
Raylan Givens, though, is transferred back to Florida, where we assume — probably wrongly — that he and his woman and child live happily ever after.
Law and order has triumphed, in its way. In these times of what seems like endless police violence on unarmed black citizens, knowing that “authorities” like Raylan Givens are out there with loaded guns and no real oversight, the word “justified” has an eerie echo.