FX’s Justified has a body count that rivals any ante-apocalyptic shoot-em-up out there. Set predominately in the hills of Harlan County, Kentucky, 30-odd years after the famous coal miner’s strike, Justified dives winsomely into the nefarious world of rural poverty and crime. Main characters deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Oliphant) and silver-tongued outlaw Boyd Cowder (Walton Goggins) have killed a combined 38 people over the course of the series so far with minor characters eliminating other minor characters at an exponentially higher rate. Season three (2012) boasted a body count of 33, and the most recent season (season five) wasn’t far behind with 31 plus a dog and rooster.
Boyd and Raylan know that they too must die and they face it with wit—the only way they see to stare down an institution as powerful as death and not melt.One might expect the show to be desensitized to death—a typical western where undeveloped characters die with little to no consequence. While some think death has gotten pretty flip on Justified, death is no trivial matter to the narrative of the show. The regular occurrence of death allows the show to investigate the concept in depth. In the hills of Justified’s Eastern Kentucky, death is explored as both a unique phenomenon and a fact of life.
Death is central to the world of Raylan and Boyd. In the eyes of Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens, without death there can be no justice in Harlan County. For the outlaw Boyd, without death there is no livelihood. Neither man loves death, but both have become intimately acquainted with it for what it offers. For both men killing is justified for one reason or another–for the preservation of life or the punishment of wrongdoing.
Writer Elmore Leonard (3:10 To Yuma, Fire in the Hole) and director Graham Yost have created a world that could handle the mass carnage—a wild west among one of the least tame demographics in the country: the rural poor. In poverty stricken eastern Kentucky killing and death are a part of life as essential to survival as food, work, and family. In the final episode of season 5 Raylan recalls his first encounter with death as an 11 year old child, “Will Hendrick’s pig. Went feral, started tearin’ up my mama’s vegetable patch.” From then on, Raylan was well acquainted with death, from the feral pig to Tommy Bucks to the dozens of other kills Raylan made throughout the show (and we can assume, before).
“It’s no small thing, takin’ a life” Raylan goes on, describing his first kill, “I knew I shoulda felt good about it, but I didn’t. Walked home, stepped through the front door, and threw up.” As commonplace as death had become to Raylan, it was still deeply unnatural. The abnormality of death never left Raylan. Reflecting on his first kill in the line of duty, Raylan remembered, “Damn, if it wasn’t the same feeling.”
For Raylan and Boyd there is no life without death. In Justified, morality can be an ambiguous shade of gray—but never neutral. Death is the justifier. The only satisfactory punishment for the transgressions of the unrepentant. Without death, their reign would continue and more undeserved life would be lost.
We find out in the first season that the reason Raylan Givens was transferred from Miami back to his home state of Kentucky was because he shot a man named Tommy Bucks—a gangster with some grotesque kills under his belt . Raylan gave Tommy Bucks the option to either to leave Miami or be shot on sight. As Raylan sought to follow through on the latter, Tommy Bucks pulled his pistol on Raylan—making the whole ordeal legal. Would Raylan have shot him if he hadn’t?
That first kill and most kills throughout the series are about more than self-defense or duty for Raylan. It’s about justification. For him, death is an absolution of guilt and a cessation of wickedness.
And at other times, death is unexpected, unnecessary tragedy—a result of the wickedness of those who seem to deserve (and usually get) their own justification.
Still there is a very real tension between justification of the wicked and loss of life—sacrifice or tragedy. When Jimmy, Boyd’s right hand man for the better part of three seasons, unceremoniously is tortured and shot by vengeful Mexican cartels there is no justice served. Did Jimmy commit horrible crimes over the course of the show—absolutely—but it was his devotion and loyalty to Boyd that made his death a tragedy.
Boyd, who possesses less of a sense of legal justice than Raylan, is just as acquainted with the institution of death as justifier. In Boyd’s outlaw morality, death is almost always the only acceptable punishment. For betrayal, incompetence, or transgression, death is usually the pardoning agent and bartering tool. For Boyd, death clears debts.
Scottish pastor Sinclair Ferguson tells a story about those condemned to death under Scots law:
“In the patterns of older days, when a condemned prisoner was executed, a notice would be affixed to the door on the morning of his execution of his cell reading: ‘at 8am this morning, this man was justified.’”
Death is the ultimate legal reckoning for Scots law and for both the outlaws and lawmen in Justified’s Eastern Kentucky. When watching the show, consider the purpose behind the death shown–it is almost always seen as a tragedy in need of reckoning or the reckoning for the tragedy at hand. Yet it is easy to perceive that something is clearly wrong with the world when we observe death.
In Christianity, the finality of death is seemingly at odds with the doctrine of eternal life, with the details a mystery, even if we believe sincerely that heaven is a real place. This can lead us away from seriously contemplating death and its inevitability in this life. But the gospel confronts death on two sides. Like Justified, Jesus interacted with the tragedy and the legal demands of death. Jesus wept over the death of his friends, and in the face of death’s eventual inevitability, he brought his friends back to life. Then he preached of an eternal life, only possible by the removal of our guilt from sin before God the Father. Jesus accomplished this removal through the means of death itself, when on the cross Jesus collided with the inevitability of death.
Boyd and Raylan know that they too must die and they face it with wit—the only way they see to stare down an institution as powerful as death and not melt. Religion didn’t comfort Boyd when he was faced with tragic death (season 1) and it doesn’t drive Raylan. Yet they both look at death with a near-biblical gravity—as earthly justification. The rampant death throughout the series allows the viewer to continually examine death and wonder at the weight of death or at our own insensitivity to it.
Raylan and Boyd see clearly the power of death to justify. The difference between Justifed’s leading men and Christendom is who acts as justifier. When we are the justifiers, death is our tool. When Christ is the justifier, death need not be feared.