By now, there are enough smart, fitting adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s work to the screen — big and small — that it obscures the long, problematic history the prolific writer had when turning his work over to Hollywood. And it wasn’t from lack of trying. According to some sources, there have been over two dozen whacks at transforming Leonard’s fiction, which is lean enough to sometimes read as if it’s a script treatment, into film or television. Even though it seemed the curse was broken with 1995’s Get Shorty, a story fittingly inspired by Leonard’s dismal encounters with Hollywood studios, there were still plenty of dire and doomed adaptations to come, interspersed with only the occasional winner. So there was plenty of cause to be skeptical about Justified. Officially based on the Leonard short story “Fire in the Hole,” the television series was the handiwork of Graham Yost, who’d previously left his fingerprints on some pretty terrible screenplays and dubiously received solo credit for one great one that he’s the first to acknowledge owes an enormous debt to the doctoring work of Joss Whedon. And yet, Justified, at its very best, might represent the pinnacle of Leonard adaptations. The second season of the show is clearly Justified at its very best.
Leonard was famously impatient with flowery language and elliptical routes to the point, so I’ll get straight to it: the second season of Justified is the best stretch the series ever had mostly because of the strength of the storyline centered on mountain matriarch Mags Bennett, played masterfully by Margo Martindale, duly rewarded with an Emmy for her efforts. Justified usually had a surprising amount of plot in play, but it prospered with the tried and true approach of gently easing through a season-long story, usually dominated by (in the parlance of Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) one “Big Bad,” while giving individual episodes their own spine with a case of the week, or at least some dilemma that could be solved before the allotted hour (with commercials) was up. One of the gratifying pleasures of Season Two is the way those week-to-week stories fed into the larger whole, like tributaries building a creek into a torrential river.
Even as the series is striking the perfect balance between big picture vision and incremental storytelling, it is simultaneously settling into proper place, figuring out the best methods to build some longevity into the work. At times in the first season, it seemed that Yost and company operated under the assumption that their efforts would be as short-lived as other adaptations of Leonard’s work for television. They didn’t exactly write themselves into corners, but there was less world-building than tracking through the first couple acts without all that much of a sense as to how long the third act would then have to last. Justified, then, spends time getting cars on the proper tracks to keep the show going: providing Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) motivation to stay in the Kentucky office he was transferred to against his preferences, better defining the relationships between the various supporting characters, and, maybe most importantly, positioning Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), a character that wasn’t exactly supposed to have longevity, to be an enduring antagonist. Eventually, the need to keep escalating Boyd’s menace while keeping him in play would strain the credibility of the series. At this point, though, his position as a dangerous, unapprehended criminal presence in Harlan County still made sense.
Still, the exceptional quality of the season all comes back to Mags and the rest of the Bennett clan. The potency of the story begins with the critical yet often forgotten truism that a villain is best if they don’t really operate as a villain, perpetrating actions out of pure malevolence. That makes for hollow fiction, and it’s something that occasionally dogged Justified in the future when it indulged in sadistic characters like Robert Quarles (in Season Three, played with admirable gusto by Neal McDonough) and Boon (in Season Six, played with one off-key note by Jonathan Tucker). Mags, however, does terrible things for reasons that she can clearly justify as part of a greater good for herself and her family. Sometimes her actions stem from an overblown sense of hill-folk honor and sometimes they result from her reckoning of the machinations necessary to reach an end goal of familial security. The story becomes more compelling because every decision is traceable and understandable, even those that are abhorrent.
Within the structure of the season, Yost and his team gift the actors with rich, delicious material and wisely let them blaze through it, whether with beautiful unhinged creativity (the invaluable Jeremy Davies as Dickie Bennett) or unyieldingly raw emotion (Kaitlyn Dever as Loretta McReady, a part she started playing when she was barely a teenager). Rewatching episodes now, I’m surprised at how direct and punchy the the language is. It’s still clever and sharp, but the writers’ room mantra clearly echoed Leonard’s own less is more (or at least enough, dammit) philosophy. The show would evolve to the point where a character would correctly describe Boyd’s manner of speaking as “using forty words where four will do,” as if Leonard’s sensibility was being juiced up with syringe blasts of David Milch’s roundabout elocutions (every time another Deadwood alumnus arrived on set, the writers propensity for intricately verbose monologues of pungent pontificating bloomed like a spreading meadow of voluptuously odiferous wildflowers increased exponentially). Much as I enjoyed the pile-up of words that would eventually become the norm on Justified, the tighter approach to the writing is ultimately more satisfying. Of course, that’s a prime takeaway from the Leonard lesson plan.
If there was any doubt Leonard agreed Justified stood as one of the more successful adaptations of his work (though I’m not sure he ever accepted the hat worn by the character), it was surely eliminated by the author’s decision to revisit the main character a new novel, entitled simply Raylan, released in 2012. Those pages in turn fed the storytelling of the third season, basically creating a narrative fiction circle of life. Further solidifying the importance of Justified in Leonard’s mighty legacy, Raylan was the novel published before his death, in 2013. The book even had a picture of Olyphant on the cover. It couldn’t be clearer. After years — decades, really — of mixed results, someone besides Leonard finally got Leonard right.
—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
—Cheers, Season Five
—The Sopranos, Season One
—St. Elsewhere, Season Four
—Veronica Mars, Season One
—The Office, Season Two
—The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
—Gilmore Girls, Season Three
—Seinfeld, Season Four