I was meaning to write this piece back towards the end of Season 3 of Justified, but things got in the way. All the same, it works just as well now as Season 4 is upon us. Lucky us then, as it allows a greater examination.
I, like many people, can’t get enough of Justified, FX’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s works about US Marshall Raylan Givens, who is forced to return home to Kentucky against his desires and has to confront his past while battling the lowlifes, criminal bosses and other evildoers who plague the back roads and country highways. The show does a great job of setting up villains of the week while also building larger, stronger story arcs that spread throughout an entire season – and sometimes beyond. Likewise, thanks to great writing and great acting, characters can be complex and multi-faceted and not just snarling, black-hat wearing villains.
Speaking of the hat, the obvious archetype Raylan is giving off is that of a cowboy. I mean, it’s not just the hat. It’s his Southern drawl and the way he carries himself. Oh, and the very obvious fact he seems quite comfortable drawing on people and shooting them. How many times does Raylan face a foe, apparently ready for a gunfight? The very obvious analogy of the cowboy, riding into town to right wrongs while trying to escape his past deeds, can be drawn with Raylan’s path – forced to return to Kentucky due to his shooting of a drug cartel killer, which leads to killers being sent after him. At the same time, a lot of the nasty past he left in Kentucky bubbles up to the surface to re-engage Raylan into a life he had no desire in continuing – from Boyd and the Crowders to Mags and the Bennetts and, of course, ex-wife Winona and criminal dad, Arlo.
So, with all that said, what kind of cowboy is Raylan Givens?
The White Hat: The first obvious comparison is to Gary Cooper’s Will Kane, the Marshall in High Noon that must face off approaching killers bent on revenge. Like Will Kane, Raylan is a US Marshall who has a past that he is trying to forego while it continues to seek him out. Also, like Kane, Raylan is someone who will not run from a fight. However, Will Kane is recognized as one of the great moral heroes of Westerns – the man who stands up for what’s right in the face of everyone telling him to run. In Western terms, Will Kane is the ultimate “white hat.” Raylan may often be right and he may wear a white hat, but he’s not necessarily righteous. He’s quick to anger and quicker to draw. And one can say that he draws a great deal of pleasure in the shield that his position as a Marshall gives him to dole out his own brand of justice. Will Kane would stand up to fight but he wouldn’t necessarily have liked it.
The Troubled Loner: If not Will Kane, then perhaps Raylan is more akin to Ethan Edwards, John Wayne’s iconic cowboy from The Searchers. Again, Raylan and Ethan both have bloody, violent experiences in their pasts – Ethan starts his story as a decorated veteran from the Mexican revolutionary war while Raylan’s first scene hints at stops in places like Nicaragua. And just like Ethan, Raylan will carry out a quest to its bitter and final end. Just remember how he tracked down the cartel killers who’d been sent after him at the start of Season 2? Ethan Edwards represents the next type of cowboy hero: the outcast looking for redemption. Alan Ladd’s Shane and even Harrison Ford’s Han Solo are of a similar vein. Ethan’s quest to save his niece becomes his means of redeeming himself for past deeds. The question here though is, Is Raylan looking for redemption for his past? If so, he’s going about it the wrong way. His pregnant, reconciled wife has left him again and his father hates him.
The Gunslinger: So could Raylan Givens be more akin to The Man with No Name, Clint Eastwood’s famous bounty-killer? Like “Blondie”, Raylan seems far more comfortable drifting in and out of places. He hasn’t bought a home – choosing to live in hotels or in lofts above bars. While he did reconcile with Winona, he exhibits no clear, discernable desire for a steady life. On the contrary, his willingness to get into the difficult situations that put him at risk are what force her to leave him. Foremost, like “Manco”, Raylan is quite comfortable in dealing a brand of justice that is not in keeping with the mandates of his position as US Marshall – with a high body count to go along with it. That said, unlike TMWNN, Raylan can feel remorse for what he’s done and what it has cost him. I never thought The Man With No Name felt he ever did any wrong that couldn’t be set to right or that he hadn’t shot a person who didn’t deserve it.
The Settler: One of the biggest archetypes of the West is that of the man who brings civilization to it – guys like Breck Coleman (John Wayne’s character in The Big Trail) or even Seth Bullock, Olyphant’s own character from Deadwood. Like those characters, Raylan is bringing a sense of law, order and justice to the mountains of Kentucky, where things have, for far too long, been left in the hands of clan leaders like Maggs Bennett or Bo Crowder or Ellstin Limehouse. Raylan can be seen as the hand of civilization that is looking to tame the wildness out of people. The difference between this archetype and others is that these are men who have come to stay in the wild lands to tame them. There is some of that in Raylan, but, at the same time, he is also making plans to leave Kentucky – wishing nothing more than to run away from his past. So can that be him?
Wyatt Earp: Perhaps the closest approximation to Raylan is that of another famous US Marshall. That is, of course, the notorious Wyatt Earp. Take your pick as to his portrayal – Burt Lancaster’s in Gunfight at the OK Corral, Kurt Russell’s in Tombstone, Kevin Costner’s in Wyatt Earp. Any of them will do. I say this one might be the closest because it’s one that combines elements of the others above. Earp was a gunslinger who moved from place to place, help bring justice and order to wild places and looked to settle on more than one occasion. Likewise, Earp had a problem with relationships – three marriages attest to that. While he was a lawman, Earp had no problems stepping out of its boundaries when his own code felt it needed to happen – just like Raylan. And, like Earp, it’s the legend that gets remembered far more than the facts with Raylan.
Just don’t touch the hat.