Justified returns tonight on FX to begin its fourth season, and to this I say: Hoo. Ray. TV critics can fight one another all year long to prove who loves Breaking Bad or Homeland more, but for me, Justified is the best-written and most enjoyable show on TV. There’s a number of reasons why Justified is so great: the casting is top notch, the performances are routinely excellent, both the season-long arcs and the case-of-the-week stories are interesting, fun, and surprising, but most of all, the writing is just thoroughly fantastic.
Here’s one example of a single scene that, to me, sums up what is so special about the way Justified is written.
In a Season Three episode, Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) had paid a visit to a recurring bad guy, Wynn Duffy (played by the enjoyable Jere Burns). They’d clashed before, and Raylan had run him out of town with a warning to never come back. At this latest meeting, Raylan knocked Duffy down, ejected a bullet from his gun, and dropped it on Duffy’s chest. As a threat, Raylan said: “The next one’s coming faster.”
Now, that’s a cool thing to do and say, but doing a cool thing and saying a cool thing is hardly groundbreaking for a hero cop on TV. The creators of Justified, however, don’t just leave it at that.
Several episodes later, Wynn Duffy and his boss, Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough) try to frame Raylan by leaving the shell casing from Raylan’s bullet, with his fingerprints on it, at the scene of a murder. A homicide detective, an FBI agent, and Raylan’s boss, Art (Tom Searcy) question Raylan about this shell casing and how it wound up with his fingerprints on it. Let’s watch!
In case that video has been removed by FOX or Vimeo, here’s a transcript of the scene:
FBI Agent: “You’re in the motor coach, with Robert Quarles and Winn Duffy, there’s a bodyguard out front, but that still doesn’t explain to me how you got your fingerprints on a bullet casing.”
Raylan: “I threw a bullet at him.”
Homicide Detective: “You threw a bullet at him.”
FBI Agent: “Wait. You… threw a bullet at him?”
Raylan: “No-no, I, like… dropped it.”
FBI Agent: “On the floor?”
Raylan: “On Duffy.”
FBI Agent: “So, Duffy was on the floor.”
Homicide Detective: “You failed to mention that, Deputy.”
Raylan: “Well, I’m… mentioning it now.”
Homicide Detective: “How’d he get on the floor, I wonder?”
Raylan: “Look, you wanted to know how my prints got on the casing, now you know. Okay?”
FBI Agent: “Wait, why-why did you throw a bullet at him?”
Raylan: “I was trying to make a point.”
Homicide Detective: “Which was?”
Raylan: “Get the hell out of Kentucky, and don’t come back.”
FBI Agent: “How was throwing a bullet at him going to accomplish that?”
Raylan: “Told him the next one might be coming a little faster.”
FBI Agent: *Long pause* “Deputy. That might just be the coolest thing I’ve ever laid ears on.” *Laughs*
Art: “Did you come up with that all on your own?”
Raylan: “Heard it on the Johnny Carson show once. He was telling some old gangster story, I always thought it was kinda cool.”
FBI Agent: “Well, that just gets better and better, huh?”
Homicide Detective: “It’d be a lot better and a lot cooler if it had actually worked.”
FBI Agent: *Laughs* “But still!” *Pauses* “It’s a shame we have to lock you up.”
To me, that’s just brilliance. There’s no shortage of cop shows on TV, and no shortage of cops doing and saying cool things. But now we have a cop doing something cool and saying something cool, and then later having to explain it, step-by-step, almost deflating the coolness of the act for the audience, who witnessed it the first time. Then, another cop sits back and admits how cool he thinks it is. Which is rare: again, people are always saying and doing cool things on TV, but how often does anyone actually point out how cool the cool things are? And finally, Raylan somewhat sheepishly has to admit that he’s not cool enough to have thought up the cool thing by himself, but that he heard it on an old episode of Carson.
Coolness. Deconstruction of coolness. Acknowledgement of coolness. Admitting coolness isn’t quite as cool as it seemed. I love it. To me, that scene is the best bit of writing to come out of TV last year, and that kind of writing is what makes Justified the best show on TV.