‘Justified: City Primeval’ brings back Raylan Givens and brings us Elmore Leonard’s Detroit
2010 was a fairly good year for television, as it was when programs including The Walking Dead, Sherlock, and Downton Abbey had their debuts. And FX introduced Justified, a new series based on a character created by Elmore Leonard, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens.”
The show mostly takes place in Harlan County, Kentucky. Givens, played by Timothy Olyphant, finds himself back where he grew up and discovers that many of those from his past have turned to organized crime in general and drug trafficking and murder specifically. That situation sets up the push-pull between Givens trying to uphold the law and his sense of loyalty for those who were part of his life. He upholds a code that may not follow the language of the law but which he, in effect, thinks is “justified.”
Justified had a six-season run. In the final episode, Givens moves from Harlan to Miami, where he is going to start a new life with his daughter and ex-wife, Winona, who was instrumental in many of the dilemmas that Givens faced in Appalachia.
Givens returns in Justified: City Primeval, where he is with his now-15-year old daughter (performed by Olyphant’s daughter Vivian) and goes from Miami to Detroit, where he faces a sociopath, Clement Mansell (Boyd Holbrook), and, because this is how things are nowadays, with the law serving as much as a weapon as a shield, Mansell’s attorney, Carolyn Wilder (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor). Michael Dinner, the showrunner for the series, told EW: “But then there’s a fourth character, which is the city of Detroit.”
Elmore Leonard, who died at 87 in 2013, was a life-long Detroiter. His father worked for General Motors. He received his degree from the University of Detroit. He worked as a copyrighter for ad agency Campbell Ewald, where he wrote ads for Chevrolet. Clearly a son of the city.
Nowadays the public probably best knows Leonard for the movies based on his novels: Get Shorty (book: 1990; movie: 1995) and Out of Sight (1996; 1998). While Leonard didn’t write the screenplays for either of those movies, he did write the screenplay for Mr. Majestyk, which he then wrote a novelization of (remember: Leonard was in the ad business—he knew what would sell).
Leonard began his fiction career as a writer not of detective or crime stories and novels—after all, he lived in a place that people called “Murder City” for more than a couple of years—but Westerns. His early stories appeared in Dime Western Magazine and Zane Grey’s Western. A story of 1953, “Three-Ten to Yuma,” was filmed twice as “3:10 to Yuma,” once in 1957 with Glenn Ford and Van Helflin, and then in 2007 with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. It wasn’t until 1969 that Hollywood filmed a non-Western work by Leonard, The Big Bounce, a contemporary crime story with Ryan O’Neal (which also had another take, this time in 2004, with Owen Wilson in the O’Neal role).
Raylan Givens first appeared in Leonard’s novel Pronto, in 1993. Leonard followed that with another featuring Givens, Riding the Rap, in 1995. 2001 saw the story Fire in the Hole, which was the basis of the first series. Leonard’s last published novel, Raylan appeared in 2012, Raylan.
Justified: City Primeval is based on Leonard’s 1980 novel: City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit. Raylan Givens is not a character in the novel. There is another cop on the case, a homicide detective, who Givens takes the place of in the series.
Detroit is not only the “fourth character” in the show, but Leonard made extensive use of the city in novels starting in 1974 with 52 Pick-up (which became a film in 1986 staring Roy Schneider and Ann-Margaret).
Leonard’s extensive writing of Westerns served him well in creating characters like Raylan Givens. The Western has long been characterized by a hero who must upholding the law alone, while any institutional support is “back East,” or at least somewhere where the marshal is not. While Givens had the support of a handful of people from the U.S. Marshal’s Office in Lexington—his boss, Art Mullen (played by Nick Searcy), and colleagues, Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel) and Jacob Pitts (Tim Gutterson)—when faced by the Crowder crime family and Wynn Duffy (played by Jere Burns, who makes the most of his natural Mephistopheles-like physiognomy)—in most instances decisions that Givens must make are entirely personal.
Although Givens is the hero of Justified, like any hero he is flawed, not only in the sense of being personally affected by his heritage, but also as he is clearly a man who is of a type that no longer seems germane to the world that he faces—witness the Stetson—even though it is a world that largely created him.
Elmore Leonard was certainly familiar with Gary Cooper’s role as Will Kane in High Noon (1952). Kane faced a decision of between taking on the bad guys or taking the train out of town. Many of his characters, including Givens, encounter similar dilemmas.
Olyphant’s easy-going portrayal that, at times, gives way to directed anger, has made “Justified” a series that stands up better than those launched in the same year, a Dame of the British Empire, Cumberbatch, and an array of zombies notwithstanding.
And presumably Justified: City Primeval will carry that weight.