Raylan Givens “Justified” my love

Manly swagger turns me off. Except when it's paired with compassion, righteous courage — and a Stetson

Topics: FX, Justified, TV, Television, Editor's Picks, entertainment news, raylan givens, Masculinity, sexuality, Gender Roles, The Walking Dead, hillbillies, Kentucky, cowboys,

Raylan Givens "Justified" my love (Credit: FX/Frank Ockenfels III)

I am not drawn to men who swagger. In fact, I’m repulsed by them. It’s long been my experience that a man who swaggers is, contrary to his walk, insecure and out to prove something by behaving as if he is a king in this world, and the rest of us are just minions. So, how then, do you explain my adoration of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, whose chronicles are told in the FX series “Justified”? It’s hard not to argue that Raylan (played by the magnificent Timothy Olyphant — and why has this man not won an Emmy yet?) does, in fact, swagger. Raylan moves through two separate worlds as if he owns them both. But my boyfriend opines, as we keep our Tuesday 10 p.m. appointment with “Justified” each week, that what Raylan wears is not arrogance, but a “righteous swagger. Informed by self-confidence and self-history. More important accessories than any gun, badge and hat.”

The gun, badge and hat (and jeans and cowboy boots) announce him. Raylan is rarely seen without his Stetson (except for an early episode in which he lost the hat in a bar fight), and his marshal’s badge, which he wears on the right side of his belt, just in front of his gun holster. You might think that those things just about comprise his identity, but there you’d be wrong.

While Olyphant is a fiendishly handsome guy, I don’t feel an erotic attraction to Givens, nor does my partner, but both of us admit to having mancrushes upon him. My partner has read, at last count, 22 Elmore Leonard novels, always looking beyond the short story, “Fire in the Hole,” (and much later, “Pronto,” “Riding the Rap,” and “Raylan“) upon which the character of Givens is based. He also sees traces of Givens in an earlier novel by Leonard, “The Hot Kid,” about a character similar to Raylan but set in the 1920s. I mention this because it’s one of the ways that our mancrushes have manifested themselves: his by reading anything that will give more clues as to how Leonard himself sees Raylan, and me by thinking about Raylan so much I wound up writing this article. For us, our interest in “Justified” commands that we not only make sure that we are home to keep our appointment with the show’s original viewing time, but then also leads us to watch the show the next night, on DVR, where we can stop it every few moments to discuss the last snippet of dialogue, or to start to unpack the central conflict that drives the series.

From the start of the story, a key point is that Raylan’s return to the part of Kentucky that he grew up in is a punishment by the authorities above him for his “justified” (according to Raylan) shooting of Tommy Bucks, the man who tortured Raylan’s partner in front of him. (This is not explained in the show, but is played out in the closing chapter of Elmore Leonard’s novel “Pronto.”) When the series opens, Raylan sits across a Miami restaurant table from Bucks, a button man whom Givens had given 24 hours to get out of town — or be killed. Bucks has fewer than ten minutes left on his deadline, and what follows is a typical Raylan-style conversation: I told you there would be consequences and here they are. You draw on me and I put you down. Bucks draws, and Raylan shoots him at the table. End of Raylan’s career in Miami, and he is shipped up north to work under the command of Art Mullen, someone with whom he used to work at Glynco (the training academy for U.S. Marshals), and now the Chief Deputy Marshal in the Lexington office.

And unlike “The Walking Dead,” the world inhabited by these characters is one in which gender is played not as some binary world in which men do men’s work and women guard the hearth and home, but a more realistic world in which men and women are recognized to have a depth of character that can incorporate good and evil, ethics, morality, desire, regret and history, to be complete human beings and players in a deep and magnificent story arc. (I attribute that not only to the sterling performances by the ensemble cast, but also to the magic of the show’s writers, whose failure to be nominated for Emmy Awards mystifies me.) Trying to unpack the various narratives that have run through the show’s three seasons would confuse those who have never seen the show, and annoy its devotees, so the best way that I know to get at the show’s complex views of gender, and especially masculinity, is to examine Raylan’s relationships with various characters.

Raylan and Art Mullen

It would have been easy for the writers to turn Art into the typical angry supervisor who is always try to rein in his rule-breaking deputy. Enough cop shows have been built upon such a premise. But Art Mullen bears a patient (though at times, exasperated) affection for Raylan, and their father-son sparring is full of clever, funny repartee that draws out the deeper characters of both men. In fact, their banter has even had moments of built-in meta jokes about said banter, as if their relationship is made to somehow rest upon that delicate but verbal balance. And while the nature of their relationship is rarely acknowledged (except for a memorable moment in season three, when Art tried to give Raylan some “fatherly” advice about Raylan’s impending fatherhood, which essentially came down to “quit doing reckless shit before this baby has a chance to meet you”), the affection between the men is one of the anchors that keeps Raylan on the other side of the law from his biological father, Arlo.

Raylan and Mags Bennett

The entire second season of “Justified” was dominated by the relationship between Raylan and Mags Bennett, matriarch of a crime family that included Doyle, her corrupt police chief son; Dickie, crippled by Raylan in a high school baseball game 20 years earlier; and Coover, pot-growing genius but mentally disabled. Mags was terrifying: Her grown sons did her bidding because the punishment she meted out for disobeying her was dreadful to behold. (The scene of her breaking Coover’s hand with a hammer chilled.) Raylan had a history with Mags, and throughout the second season, he never treated Mags with anything less than respect, even as he pursued her sons to bring them to justice. Even when Raylan was forced to kill Coover, he didn’t disrespect Mags. Always, despite their positions on the other side of the law, Raylan treated Mags as a worthy adversary, and not as if she were just another gun thug who populate the hollers of Harlan County. And Mags was not some one-dimensional, evil mother, but, as the writers made clear, her machinations to sell off her land to the coal company, her control of the pot-growing business, and the harsh justice that she dealt out to her sons, was all part of Mags’ desire to leave her grandchildren a life that would get them off the mountain, out of a life of crime, and gain them respectability. Mags’ character (and Margo Martindale’s Emmy-winning performance) left an indelible mark upon the show. Not only did Mags’s actions continue to have ripple effects throughout all of season three, but her dealings with Helen (Raylan’s aunt and Arlo’s wife) and with Loretta (the girl she took in after Mags’ poisoned Loretta’s father) showed a woman who was fully realized as a human being; who could be a grasping, controlling, rageful criminal, and a tender, vulnerable woman whose longing for a daughter made her find a girl she could nurture. The writers have never failed to present their female characters as complicated as their male characters, and Raylan’s interactions with Mags showed how he could have deep affection for a woman whom he also recognized as a woman capable of just about anything. When all of her attempts to control the future had failed, Mags commited suicide in front of Raylan, and it was Raylan who held
her hand as she died.

Raylan and Winona Hawkins

Winona is Raylan’s ex-wife, the woman who originally left him years ago when she could no longer handle the fear and stress of being a marshal’s wife. Now, after his return to Kentucky, the two resume their affair, despite Winona’s re-marriage (to feckless Gary Hawkins), and mid-way through season two, Winona left Gary to take up with Raylan full-time. But the same problems they had the first time around rear up again. Discovering that she is pregnant, Winona attempts to convince Raylan to give up his dangerous life, and to take up a job as a shooting instructor back at Glynco. At first, Raylan seems gung-ho about the idea, but viewers know enough about his character to know that he could never give up the adrenaline rush that he gets from hunting down fugitives, even if it does mean risking his life on a regular basis. Raylan thinks that since she’s pregnant, Winona will finally accept that Raylan’s life is his job, but she surprises him by leaving him. Winona wants a family and a house and fear-free life, which Raylan thinks he wants, too, until he realizes that, with a piss-poor example in Arlo, his gun-thug father, he doesn’t have a clue how to be a dad, and seems surrendered to the idea that he and Winona will co-parent a child while living apart. Winona, for her part, has shown that she is not dependent on her love for Raylan to do the right thing for herself and her unborn child.

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It is also clear that Raylan and Winona’s relationship is not finished. When Aunt Helen was killed, whatever relationship Arlo and Raylan have left was finished, and the relationship reached its nadir at the end of season three, leading me to believe that season four may be when Raylan resolves his father issues, both with Arlo and with his unborn child. But regardless, Winona is gone from Raylan’s daily life, and this seems to suit Raylan, despite his temporary diving into a bottle to come to terms with her loss.

Raylan and Boyd Crowder

If there is a central relationship in the show, it is the one between Raylan and Boyd, two boys who came from the same background: gun-thug fathers, absent mothers, high school graduation followed by work in the mines followed by Boyd opting for the criminal life while Raylan defied his entire upbringing to attend the U.S. Marshal’s training academy at Glynco. And while Boyd and Raylan’s relationship has faded in and out of focus while other storylines have risen to the top, Raylan and Boyd have represented various permutations of a manhood that is at once defined in opposition to the fathers who raised them, while incorporating and sometimes wholeheartedly embracing the feminine characteristics of the women who love(d) them.

Raylan and Boyd are not quite mirror images of each other, but there is a mirroring aspect to their personalities that reflect 21st century masculinity. Both of them are capable of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. What’s interesting is that Boyd swings wildly between extremes: He started the show as a neo-Nazi terrorist, but, after Raylan put a bullet in his chest, he had a religious conversion and embraced a turn-the-other-cheek Christianity that his father, Bo, sought to destroy in the most cruel ways possible. When that world was destroyed, Boyd re-embraced the criminal life, and, as of last season, was running protection rackets, dealing drugs, and influencing Harlan County politics to create an atmosphere easier for him to operate in.

Boyd is the protector of home and kin. Boyd’s kin extends to Arlo Givens, who, rejecting Raylan, has made Boyd his pseudo-son; Johnny, Boyd’s cousin who took a bullet protecting him; and the love of Boyd’s life, Ava, who shot and killed her abusive husband — Boyd’s brother — and has evolved, over three seasons, from being a naïve, abused wife to a complex, fiery woman whose relationship with Boyd strengthens both of them. It softens Boyd and emboldens Ava, and vice versa. It’s a true partnership of equals.

I would argue that Raylan and Boyd’s is the true marriage that holds the show together. That while Raylan’s relationship with various characters, their tangled story arcs, and their shared histories are what keeps the show fascinating to watch, it is Boyd and Raylan’s relationship that is the magnetic pull that draws me to my couch on Tuesday nights.

Which brings me back to Raylan’s swagger. My partner calls it “righteous,” an adjective I’d have to agree with. It’s not self-righteousness, because that connotes an idea that Raylan thinks he knows better than those he goes up against. In many respects, he does, if one looks at it in black-and-white terms: that Raylan’s the lawman, and those he goes up against are criminals. But it is more that Raylan’s righteousness comes from having come up in an atmosphere in which the wrong thing was done nearly every day. It is only the intercession of his aunt Helen, and his own moral conscience, that has kept Raylan from being one of the brighter members of Harlan’s criminal underground. (It is not hard to imagine that, without the influence of Helen, Boyd and Raylan would be running buddies — or mortal enemies — in the Harlan criminal network.) But the ways of the holler are twisty, and Raylan knows those ways, and so he twists himself to get the right thing done even if he occasionally uses wrong ways to make it right. Raylan operates on just this side of the right side of the law, and yet carries within him a deep belief that the right side of the law is the place he needs to stay. He has to, unless he wants to turn out like his father, Arlo, and all that connotes.

Raylan always believes his actions are justified by the actions of others because he always gives the bad guys a choice: They can surrender, or he will put them down. It’s not false bravado: His reputation precedes him, and the writers make apparent that it’s only the truly dumb or malevolent criminals who will challenge him to a gunfight. Thus, when they get shot, it’s always a justified shooting. Raylan doesn’t spend a lot of time reflecting on the men (and one woman) that he’s killed. Why should he? He always gives criminals a choice; their decisions not to take him up on his offers are their choices.

While both Boyd and Raylan carry the scars of wounded boyhoods, those scars have shown up in different places. It’s not just that Boyd’s a criminal; it’s that his extremes in behavior in season one — neo-Nazi to loving pastor — have led him to an in-between world where he practices a compassionate brutality in his everyday life, a compassionate brutality he seems to have embraced. And while Raylan has shown great moments of compassion, his compassion and his brutality will only stretch so far. Raylan would never shoot an unarmed man, but neither will he make the changes in his life that Winona demands of him if he is to be her husband. His own knowledge of his self-history prevents him from either extreme. But in terms of his self-confidence? There’s no doubt that impending fatherhood has unnerved him, enough that I have found myself watching him walk, looking for a hitch in his step.

So, when season four premiered last Tuesday night, while it was surprising not to see the immediate identification of who Raylan’s season-long nemesis is going to be, it was not surprising to see how themes of manhood and what it means to operate on the right side of the law came quickly to the fore. Raylan, in an attempt to earn some extra money before the baby comes, is doing work that the state considers illegal, but which fits well within his mission as a U.S. marshal. He has been hired by a bailbondswoman to track down a bail jumper and report his whereabouts so that the police can pick up the fugitive. But, Raylan being Raylan, he confronts the man and opts to take him back to Tennessee himself. Bounty hunting is the illegal side of chasing down federal fugitives, but in Raylan’s mind, catching criminals is within his purview. And so, out of a sense of paternal obligation, he’s willing to bend the law to get things done.

Boyd, meanwhile, is about to be plunged back into the world of the church. He has discovered that sales of Oxy are down, and he is told repeatedly that it is due to the arrival of a snake-handling preacher who is convincing Boyd’s regular customers to get off drugs. Given that Boyd has his own experience with being a charismatic preacher, it is clear that the two men will soon face off, and I can’t wait to see how the writers approach Christianity and the ultra-masculine practice of handling deadly snakes. The symbolism is delicious.

And Arlo? At the end of the first episode, Arlo killed a man in prison to protect a secret that the only thing we know so far is 30 years old, and somehow involves a Mexican courier bag and a parachutist who fell from the sky and landed in a cul-de-sac. Undoubtedly, Raylan will be forced to deal with his old man, and undoubtedly the father-son relationship will be explored at length this season under the guise of Raylan solving whatever crime Arlo is now going to murderous lengths to protect.

Will Raylan still possess his righteous swagger at the end of season four? Or will fatherhood — and being a son — unnerve him in ways that lend him a new humility? And what will happen in the marriage between Boyd and Raylan? Will they operate in closer realms? Or is something going to happen that will re-establish the boundaries of the law between them?

My partner and I will be keeping our Tuesday night appointments to find out.

Lorraine Berry is an associate editor at Talking Writing. Follow her on Twitter: @BerryFLW

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