Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Is Justified Fan Fiction

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Jan. 17 2012 3:41 PM

He Wrote the Book on Raylan Givens

But FX’s Justified understands Elmore Leonard’s greatest character better than Leonard does.

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My own prurient preferences aside, Raylan offers Justified producers plenty of story ideas that could lend themselves to TV, like a grabby subplot that revolves around a trio of bank-robbing strippers. There’s also a 23-year-old woman putting herself through Butler University with the proceeds from her poker winnings; her plotline culminates—as all poker stories must—with a climactic showdown at the gaming table.

If Justified producers do pluck those characters from Raylan, though, it won’t be right away; the explosive Season 2 finale left numerous messes that will need to be cleaned up in the early episodes of Season 3. Coming off the shootout of “Bloody Harlan,” the Season 2 finale, Raylan and Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) are still in an uneasy truce—that is, until the season 3 premiere, “The Gunfighter.” Harsh words between Raylan and Boyd quickly escalate to a physical fight—and as tends to be the case when Boyd is concerned, his anger is not what it seems. Still, both the exchange and its outcome neatly lay out both the conflict between these two characters and the ways their shared Harlan background continues to inform their lives into the present. All this is to say that there’s plenty on Justified’s plate before it trots out the felonious gyrators.

What’s the best evidence that, at least right now, Yost and the Justified writers have Raylan Givens and his world pegged in a way even Leonard can’t match? It wasn’t Leonard who wrote a storyline bringing the awesome Karen Sisco to Kentucky. Oh, sure, she’s named Karen Goodall when she appears in episode 2, and mentions a name change following a brief marriage, but given that she’s played by Carla Gugino, it’s clear she’s meant to be the heroine of Gugino’s sadly short-lived ABC series Karen Sisco. (Though Leonard created Sisco, who was also played by Jennifer Lopez in the movie Out of Sight, interviews suggest they’ve changed her name for legal reasons.)

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Anyway: Regardless of her maiden name, Gugino’s Karen is an intriguing addition to the show. In both Raylan and Justfied, Raylan’s (justified) shooting of gangster Tommy Bucks (Peter Greene) didn’t just catalyze Raylan’s return to Kentucky; it’s become a kind of legend that precedes Raylan everywhere he goes. Every crook whose path he crosses has heard about it. Karen’s return into Raylan’s life suggests the possibility that we could learn more about what else happened to Raylan in the time between his leaving Harlan and his return. Plus, Karen’s just a great character, with both coolness under pressure and fire smoldering under the surface to match Raylan’s. Bringing her to Justified is a fantastic idea, and it’s Yost who made it happen.

There are hints that Raylan and Karen shared A History when they were both posted to Miami—a development which could the Justified door to any number of indelible Leonard characters—but the start of Season 3 finds Raylan still planning a future with Winona (Natalie Zea) and their unborn baby. But while Leonard’s Raylan ends with the hero (somewhat implausibly) finding a measure of happiness and peace, the story isn’t near over for the Raylan of Justified—which means Yost will be able to continue borrowing from Leonard’s plots, and continue improving upon them.

Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Previously.TV and has written about television for Yahoo, Vulture, the New York Times Magazine, and TelevisionWithoutPity.com, which she co-founded. She lives in Los Angeles.