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Wednesday, September 27th, 2023  

Justified: City Primeval

FX, July 18, 2023

Aug 29, 2023 Photography by Chuck Hodes/FX Web Exclusive
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Raylan Givens, the maverick U.S. Marshal beloved by critics and fans (thanks to star Timothy Olyphant’s mix of slick charm and steely intensity) thwarted some of the Deep South’s most despicable criminals in Justified, the FX series that enjoyed an acclaimed 2010-2015 run.

In the eight-episode limited series Justified: City Primeval, Raylan may have finally met his match in Willa, his teenage daughter, who is not yet out of high school. Willa was first introduced to audiences near the original series’ end as a newborn he barely saw, because he was, of course, in the middle of yet another dangerous case. The Willa of this revival wears retro Guns n’ Roses and AC/DC concert tees that are as much an extension of her personality as the famed wide-brimmed Stetson favored by her old man. He’s now quite old by the way, and visibly graying whenever he removes that cowboy hat. And he’s never contended with anyone like Willa, who shares her father’s penchant for rule breaking.

In City Primeval’s premiere, Willa is being dragged to a reform school by Raylan. The pair begin the limited series with a pulpy yet twangy exchange that’s sure to delight fans because it rings so true to the source material: a combination of cult crime author Elmore Leonard’s novels Fire In the Hole (about Raylan in his criminal-laden Kentucky, which all of Justified is loosely based on) and City Primeval (a cop novel set in Detroit with different characters that current showrunners Dave Andron and Michael Dinner have drawn upon to give Raylan a fresh locale and foes). As Willa glowers in the passenger seat, Raylan cruises down the highway and, with a smirk, drawls: “You sound like every fugitive I ever transported. Stallin’, pleadin’, beggin’. Lookin’ for their chance to slip out the bathroom window,” (though in Olyphant’s subtly, effectively adopted accent, he pronounces it “winda”). When Raylan reminds his daughter she broke her classmates’ nose, Willa convincingly quips she deserved it.

Throughout much of this grippingly dramatic car chase and gunshot laden limited series, some of the most powerful and memorable moments are quieter ones like these between Willa and Raylan. Because she is played by Olyphant’s real life daughter Vivian, they share not only a resemblance and a shorthand— she also has her Dad’s sly sense of humor. Not to mention his aversion to bullshit. She calls Raylan out, in fact, when he returns to her at their Detroit hotel room hours after he promised because he was out sleuthing. His wounded expression during such interactions, and the subtext about scrutinizing once glorified leading men, adds exciting new depth to Justified’s characters and themes. On a more practical, plot level, it also gives this new installment exciting stakes. That’s because Willa is too often threatened by crooks intent on manipulating, or even forever wounding, Raylan.

Prime example: in the premiere’s early scenes, Raylan and Willa’s trek to reform school is cut short by literal highway bandits on the outskirts of Detroit. Rather than just rob Raylan, they also want to kidnap Willa. Of course the Marshal is much handier with a firearm than those amateurs. And as is his wont, Raylan once again gets cavalier, attempting to still bring Willa to camp on time while both hoodlums are handcuffed in the back seat.

That brings us to the next new character that helps Justified: Primeval rival the original. When he testifies against the men who held him and Willa at gunpoint roadside, their defense attorney deftly focuses on Raylan dallying to drop off his daughter instead of taking the perps directly to lock up. When Carolyn Wilder, this potent Detroit lawyer played in an equally commanding performance by Oscar nominee Aunjanue Ellis (King Richard, Lovecraft Country), turns the tables on him legally, the Marshal isn’t just dumbfounded. He’s also smitten. Judge Alvin Guy, meanwhile, is quickly persuaded by Carolyn and even goes as far as locking Raylan and Willa up for a few hours, giving the daughter ample opportunity to smugly taunt her father.

That punishment may seem excessive, but Judge Guy is as corrupt as Carolyn is just and diligent — making her aspirations for the bench all the more compelling later on in this miniseries. Judge Guy barely survives the premiere, however, thanks to a car bombing gone awry. Famously granite-deep voiced character actor Keith David (The Thing, Coraline, and the narrator of numerous Ken Burns documentaries) clearly relishes playing this rotten judge, who demands Raylan join local cops to track down the car bombers. Now tethered to Detroit on a strange new case that quickly reveals the city’s depths of unfathomable corruption, Raylan and a handful of local detectives question the judge. He orders them to stop wasting his precious time (which he usually spends gambling and skirt chasing the moment he hits the gavel for the day) and reminds them to take heed, because he has dirt on just about everyone in town. It turns out Judge Guy has a literal little black book brimming with details about the misdeeds of Detroit’s rich and powerful.

Carolyn Wilder eventually becomes tempted to use that black book, a brutally bitter moment because she and Raylan appear to be the only people in Detroit who aren’t merely mired by its corruption, but who are also working against it. It’s no wonder Ellis was nominated for that Oscar, because she purses her lips and narrows her eyes until viewers are shook by the reverberations of her heartache after years of trying to do the right thing, only to be met with innumerable setbacks. Before she is faced with that dilemma, however, the Marshal feels protective of Carolyn because of the filthiest client she has ever been tasked with defending— the man who gunned down judge Guy and pocketed his black book. Carolyn assumes (understandably, given her mix of legal and street smarts) she can handle herself with this viciously threatening, completely twisted client. But in the end it’ll take her, Raylan, and a pact with most of Deteroit’s mob just to slow Justified: City Primevil’s antagonist down.

In one heart-stirring scene, a handful of flirtatious interactions (the best being when Willa orders Carolyn an ostentatious drink for Raylan when she notice Pops eyeing her from across a restaurant) all culminate with Raylan parking outside the home of Detroit’s last uncorrupted lawyer to keep her safe from her client from hell. Carolyn joins him in the passenger seat, and the Elmore Leonard style dialogue that Ellis and Olymphant then expertly exchange is as succinct yet steamy, and heartfelt.

It’s a good thing they become so close, and have each other’s backs. Because when that chaotic client finally turns on Carolyn, she and Raylan spend much of the rest of Justified: City Primeval rightfully wondering if their combined formidable skills and resources will be enough to take this antagonist down.

Carolyn’s client is none other than Clement Mansel, who Leonard readers will know as The Oklahoma Wildman from his 1980 novel City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit. Similar to that book, Clement is a judge-murdering, Albanian mob-confronting chaos agent in City Primeval. The showrunners have smartly combined his character arc with Leonard’s Fire In the Hole protagonist Raylan Raylan. This loose adaptation of the source material, with dialogue and an overall tone that maintains the spirit of Leonard’s hard boiled prose, are all astutely constructed. That’s because no one is better equipped to square off with Clement than Raylan and Carolyn.

Writing and performing such a character would be daunting indeed–and not just to satisfy the novel’s fans. On earlier Justified seasons, Raylan has brought down the most conniving criminals in his native Kentucky, be it Walton Goggins’ bug-eyed neo-Nazi bank robber Boyd Crowder or Sam Elliott’s practically mustache twirling weed dealer Avery Markham. More surprising than any plot twist in Primeval is how Boyd Holbrook rises to this lofty occasion. In fact he, Ellis and Vivian Olyphant are strong enough to ensure you won’t miss the original Justified’s murderer’s row of engrossing supporting characters.

Holbrook was a bit bland in what was supposed to be his TV breakthrough, Narcos (though it’s tough to share the screen with a supernova of charisma like Pedro Pascal). Since then, he’s admirably stretched in weirder supporting roles. And he’s perfect here as Clement. His bleached, matted hair matches his feral demeanor. He doesn’t just chew up the scenery, but goes straight for its jugular. Whether he’s picking the elastic of his tighty-whities with the muzzle of his pistol, or dancing around a luxury apartment in a kimono (both of which he stole), Holbrook will mesmerize viewers as they live vicariously through his ceaseless hedonism. That is, until his ravenous ecstatic greed gives way to a nastiness that will make you flinch, and makes him a TV villain for the ages. As Clement, Holbrook hotwires eye-catching vintage cars in the series’ grim but stylish rendition of Detroit, jacking those vehicles with ease. Clement also manipulates his gorgeous but passive and enabling girlfriend Sandy (a sympathetic to the point of pathetic Adelaide Clemens) into seducing marks that she becomes fond of, before The Oklahoma Wildman maims them mercilessly. Leonard fans will delight in one scene late in this series where Clement offhandedly asks his latest handcuffed victim to explain Twitter, before cutting off his hilarious description (“Uhm, it’s aggregated social media…“) to get back to his ruthless villainy.

And while Holbrook brings just enough of a sneering sense of dark humor when required, he also plays plenty of these scenes (especially toward the end of the series) with the appropriate straight menace to give viewers chills. Best of all: his and Raylan’s showdowns. There’s one early in City Primeval where he tracks down and subtly threatens Willa, triggering everything in Raylan but his trigger finger. Olyphant and Holbrook’s twisted chemistry crackles as the lean mean Marshal shows surprising strength for his physique, dragging The Oklahoma Wildman away from his daughter and beating him pulpier than Leonard’s dialogue. Toward the series’ conclusion, the two foes face off again, hands hovering over their pistols with a neo-western flair that contrasts until it sparks against the Detroit noir that dominates much of the previous episodes to the point of making the cinematography gritty and grimy enough to all but blemish your mind’s eye.

Raylan has certainly found a suitable backdrop in Detroit. The consistently dreary rooms and overcast streets that developers and Justified alums Dave Andron and Michael Dinner capture as writers, and the latter as the director of numerous key episodes and scenes in this mini-series, are a refreshing change after the balmy-til-it-burns ambiance of Justified’s mostly Kentucky-set first six seasons. The dark palette matches Primeval’s lighting, compellingly shrouding Raylan’s face at key moments when he has his Stetson on. This adds gravitas to his demeanor and suspense to his would-be actions, especially when his face is revealed while he’s reacting to all the more shady Detroit police practices. TV and stage vets Victor Williams, Marin Ireland (dubbed “one of the great drama queens of the New York stage” by the New York Times and Norbert Leo Butz (one of only nine actors to win a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical twice) give lived in, understated performances as highly jaded Detroit veterans. From sicking borderline rabid dogs on suspects, to turning blind eyes and even outright lying about their suspects, these cops show Raylan “enough shit to give me pause,” as the Kentucky lawman colorfully describes it (which is saying something, given the questionable shootout he instigated in the very first moments of Justified’s first episode).

Given Detroit’s rich African American culture and history, there are also pulsing racial undertones in these new episodes that Justified 1.0 lacked. Clement and his Detroit partner in literal crime Marcus ‘Sweety’ Sweeton (Vondie Curtis Hall, Chicago Hope, Gridlock’d) have bitter disagreements about both the lengths that the Wildman goes during their capers, and their tastes in music (he doesn’t like Clement’s honky-sounding shit, to put it mildly). Sweety, being a failed bassist who once jammed with Miles Davis during that jazz great’s late ‘80s Detroit tour stop, knows a thing or two about the latter. He’s clearly marred by the systemic old hurdles that brought him down, and his moral compromises almost make him wince, especially when he and dear friend Carolyn discuss the judge’s little black book as Sweety tends bar. In a way, Hall is the soul of the series, and the subtle racial charge of the conversations between him as Sweety and Carolyn or Clement give this series added heft. The same goes for one of Carolyn’s early exchanges with Raylan, when she points out anyone would want to beat Clement down for threatening their daughter, but only he can get away with it as a white man, once again brilliantly scrutinizing leading man archetypes not unlike Willa did from a gender and familial angle.

City Primeval has more grippingly precarious stakes than its predecessor. Whether it’s the ugliness of this new city’s underbelly, or the deeper nerves struck by more thorough character development, Olyphant succeeds at every opportunity to draw Justified viewers in. Despite Raylan’s tossed off one-liners during the tensest of conflicts (Clement even compliments his lack of self seriousness during one of their throwdowns), Olyphant as Raylan speaks volumes with his gaze. Whether he’s glaring at a crook or absorbing one of Willa’s withering looks, his eyes often smolder like his pistol’s muzzle. And sometimes they gape like the wounds that weapon leaves. (www.fxnetworks.com/shows/justified-city-primeval)

Author rating: 9/10

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