How good is FX’s Justified, returning for its third season tonight? Some TV series inspire conventions, cosplay, and speculative fiction from their fans. Justified may be the first show to inspire fanfic from its creator. Elmore Leonard introduced U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in the novel Pronto, but hadn’t revisited the character since “Fire in the Hole,” the 2001 novella which became the basis for Justified. The show reignited his interest, and Leonard’s new novel Raylan—so inextricable from Justified that the cover image is of actor Timothy Olyphant in character—is out this week.
Leonard has explained that he wrote the book to give Justified producer Graham Yost more story ideas for the second season and seasons to come. Given that the writers of Justified wear bracelets reading WWED (What Would Elmore Do?), you might think they’d slavishly followed Leonard’s lead. But Raylan, surprisingly, reads like an alternate-universe version of Justified, Season 2, with tantalizing possibilities for Season 3. The changes Yost made, in fact, led to a much better story. It’s possible that the writers of Justified understand Elmore Leonard’s best character better than Elmore Leonard does.
First of all, if Yost and the Justified writers had followed Leonard’s blueprint exactly, viewers would have been cheated out of the series’ best character and juiciest storyline. Mags Bennett is not even a character in Raylan; in the book, the crime-bossing parent of hapless nitwits Coover and Dickie is their dad, one Pervis Crowe. For the show, of course, Yost crafted a rich yet tragic story for Mags (Margo Martindale, who won an Emmy for the role), the alternately diabolical and soft-hearted criminal mastermind who contrived a way to steal the daughter she always wanted.
Leonard is known for his laconic style, and in Raylan, little space is given over to the hero’s reflection upon his own motivations. But the author’s reluctance to devote much of his work to describing a look, or a pause, or the tension of a moment—all three of which are trademarks of Olyphant’s Raylan—requires Leonard to ... make his Raylan talk. Book Raylan is taciturn by any reasonable measure, but compared to TV Raylan, he’s a chatterbox. Right from the book’s first chapter, this essential difference is inescapable. “Give me his name,” Raylan asks a victim whose kidneys have been stolen and are being held for ransom. “I swear on my star you won’t have to pay for either one.” “I swear on my star”? Try to imagine Olyphant’s Raylan saying anything so melodramatic. I sure can’t.
Leonard’s economy of prose does help to give Raylan the same propulsive pace fans enjoy on Justified. That said, when one subplot puts Raylan in the compromising position of facing down a perp while wearing only cowboy boots, some readers might wish Leonard would, you know, slow down just a little and paint more of a picture. Sure, one of the conspirators does take a moment to admire the figure Raylan cuts when he’s unconscious and naked and lying vulnerable and exposed in a bathtub, but since the book jacket has already put Olyphant’s likeness in some readers’ heads, if Leonard devoted more detail to the scene, some readers probably wouldn’t complain. This scene didn’t appear in Season 2—trust me, you’d remember—but Leonard’s told an interviewer it might be used in the show, so … those readers who’d enjoy seeing Olyphant play it out can hope that Yost will make it happen.
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.)
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.