Vast swaths of the country, whole regions, are barely explored by fictional television. It’s hard to name a popular TV show currently running set in the Mountain States, the Midwest (outside Chicago), New England (outside Boston), and the Southwest has only the brutal comfort of Breaking Bad. The South is represented by The Walking Dead, which is set in Georgia, but among that show’s many flaws is a complete lack of regional distinction. Its postapocalyptic vistas could be Anywhere, U.S.A. True Blood’s gruesome and ill-plotted frolicking chiefly takes place in Louisiana, although that rarely has meaningful bearing on the story.
One of the few contemporary shows that has made a real home in the South is FX’s Justified, which just finished its fourth season and is renewed for a fifth. Its characters are deeply rooted in Harlan County, Kentucky, and bound by complex webs of family, historical, and regional loyalties. It shares The Wire’s commitment to place, if not its interest in institutions and policy, and benefits further from basing its stories in rural and suburban areas, which are underrepresented in most fictional TV shows concerned with criminality.
Justified is based on an Elmore Leonard short story called “Fire in the Hole.” The pilot tracks the crime novelist’s story almost exactly. Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is a U.S. marshal with old-fashioned methods and a wide-brimmed Stetson hat to match. He is transferred after killing a top hitter for the mob in Miami—in broad daylight on the heavily populated terrace of a high-end hotel. Givens is exiled to Lexington, but he’s mostly assigned to cover the hills and hollows of eastern Kentucky, where he was born and raised. There he has to build a case against an old coal-mining buddy, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), who has added dashes of white supremacy, terrorism, and bank robbery to his long-standing love of “blowing shit up.” (He was their mine’s “powder man,” hence the story’s title.)
Series creator Graham Yost stated that the location was a key part of his interest in the story. “Just the notion of doing a series set somewhere other than Los Angeles, New York, Miami or Las Vegas,” Yost told the Lexington Herald Leader. “That’s sort of been about it for current TV, and we thought it would give the show something special, something extra. It would be about a part of the country that doesn’t get chronicled that much in television.”
In four seasons Justified has gradually built momentum, finding its strength by focusing on Harlan County’s thornily tangled clans and their various enterprises, most of them of a strictly off-the-books nature. It enjoys an amazing level of chemistry among its cast and the writers nail everything from the workplace banter in the marshals’ office to tense multi-layered negotiations between the chiefs of rival criminal fiefdoms. And the show must be a dream job for its supporting actors, who are often given roles just as complex and meaty as those enjoyed by Olyphant and Goggins. In 2011, Margo Martindale won an Emmy for her turn as the matriarch of the powerful Bennett family, who have lived in Harlan for 200 years, and Jeremy Davies won the next year for his role as her scheming, screw-up son. (The Bennetts are apparently based on a real, well-established family in Harlan that employs many people through their mining holdings.)
But the brief description above may raise the hackles of some Kentuckians, and rural denizens more generally. Meth dealers, neo-Nazis, murder? Not exactly the reputation any region wants to cultivate. While the Kentucky Department of Travel probably won’t be trumpeting Justified’s virtues anytime soon, the show does not condescend to the region where it is set, or the people who populate it. A Southerner himself, Goggins (born in Birmingham) altered a few aspects of the pilot to ensure Crowder didn’t come across as a mere racist hick. Goggins played up the character’s eloquence, which is used to great effect in contrast with Givens’s laconic wit. (“I'm gonna need Google translate on my phone if I keep talking with you,” a Detroit mobster grumbles during a confrontation with Crowder in season four.) The character he fine-tuned for the pilot was supposed to die at the end of the episode, as his counterpart does in the short story, but Goggins’s Boyd Crowder was so well-liked that they’ve kept him around for four seasons.
“I've been in quite a few Southern films,” Goggins told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2010. “And initially, when this was sent to me, I wasn't interested in playing another Southern guy labeled as a racist. You know, I think racism is a problem throughout our country, and it's not confined to those states below the Mason-Dixon line. And for me, I did not want to perpetuate a stereotype.”
The showrunners aren’t interested in setting their tales in a bland, featureless landscape either. As Goggins said in a March interview, “Always, in the back of our ears, are people from Kentucky whispering, ‘You'd better get it right.’”
There are false notes, particularly in the first season. In an early episode Givens waxes eloquent about “tornado weather,” which isn’t particularly relevant in hill country—Harlan saw its first twister in 2007. But according to reports from Kentucky, Justified mostly does get it right. Throughout the series, characters can be seen sipping Ale-8, a regional soda mostly sold in glass bottles. (One of the marshals fashioned a Molotov cocktail out of an Ale-8 bottle during the climactic episode of last season.) Early in the fourth season, Boyd’s partner, Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter), is tending bar and turns away a delivery man bearing several cases of Kentucky Ale, a Lexington-made brew that personal sources report tastes awful. “Uh-uh, why would I order two more cases of that shit? I got three I can’t move as it is,” she snorts. The line will be lost on most, but Kentuckians surely noticed.
Of greater interest than technical accuracy are the ways Justified makes use of the region’s unique attributes to create a show with a very definite sense of place. Set in badly impoverished southeastern Kentucky, the show does not skimp on what that poverty means. (Median household income in Harlan between 2007-2011 was $26,914, while 31.1 percent of the population lived below the poverty line.) An underground economy of petty thieving, prostitution, and “hillbilly heroin”—OxyContin—may provide a livelihood for some, but it never looks particularly glamorous. Few criminal acts go according to plan, from the half-baked schemes of two-bit criminals to the plots of the higher-level gangsters. Firearms are available in abundance, but that doesn’t mean everyone knows how to use them. Those who do tend to have a military background, which is relatively common because the armed services offer a steady paycheck and an escape from home, if not a permanent one. (10.4 percent of Harlan County’s civilian population served in the military, higher than the national percentage and greatly overshadowing Miami or Manhattan’s percentages.) Many of the show’s characters are veterans, and many suffer from PTSD, including Raylan Givens’s father Arlo (Raymond J. Barry).
The other prominently featured legal form of employment is more distinct to the region. Harlan County’s historic dependence on coal haunts the show. It provides the bond that sets Givens and Crowder on a collision course. Throughout the series old mine shafts provide convenient places to dump inconvenient bodies. The dangers and gloom of the coal mines provide one of the only reasonably paying private-sector jobs in the area, but the presence of a single, massive industry tends to drive away other enterprises. This is particularly true of coal mining, which scars the land, poisons the water, and makes the region unattractive for other types of commerce. Before launching into a racist diatribe in the pilot, Crowder lectures Givens on the industry’s malevolent influence: “It's cheaper to take the tops off mountains and let the slag run down and ruin the creeks.”
The underground bituminous coal mining common in Appalachia is especially dangerous, accounting for only a quarter of the nation’s coal production but well over half of the industry’s deaths and most of its major disasters. But in Harlan it’s also dangerous because of employer brutality. “Hey, you remember the picket lines, don't you? ... The company scabs and gun thugs,” Crowder says. This harkens back to the 1930s, when “Bloody Harlan” infamously saw numerous clashes between coal companies and striking workers, with many dead on both sides. Employer tactics hadn’t softened by the filming of the 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA, which documents a strike that culminated in the murder of a union miner. Solidarity in the face of such overwhelming force is the best way to survive. “You work a deep mine with a man, you look out for each other,” Givens says. It’s this sense of hardscrabble community that gives the show the emotional core that is lacking from the vast majority of cops and robbers shows. After shooting Crowder in the pilot, without aiming to kill, Givens explains, simply: “Boyd and I dug coal together.”
Justified expands far beyond their relationship in later seasons, showing the ways that the different clans of Harlan County express that solidarity, and with whom. The second season hinges on a coal company’s attempt to buy up enough land to begin mountaintop removal mining, which provokes some power players to sell out to provide their families means to escape crime and poverty. But community condemnation is swift. (“Your granddaddy and my granddaddy spilled blood to keep the companies from taking these hills,” an enraged resident cries.) In the third season we are introduced to Noble’s Holler, an isolated haven (based on an actual place) for the county’s tiny African-American population, and utilized as a hideout by abused women of all races. It is run by Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson), who is introduced as he disciplines a wayward henchman, while butchering a pig for emphasis. But instead of being a psychotic killer in a pop culture already saturated with them, Limehouse’s actions are almost all calculated to preserve his community.
It’s the regionally anchored tapestry of solidarity, history, and blood ties that give Harlan’s natives, and Justified, their winning edge. These values and ties are continually tested by good old-fashioned greed, often offered by big-time gangsters or corporations attempting to make inroads with little regard for Harlan or its residents. “I hate this place, I hate every last one of you knuckle-dragging shitheads,” says the first of many condescending out-of-town mobsters. “I'm only here because I have to be, the second I can I am out of this cesspool!” But time and again the local yokels outsmart, or at least outlive, the carpetbagging competition.
Far from condescending to southeastern Kentucky, or its residents, the show relies on an exaggerated version of the real thing. This grants Justified a sense of place, and its characters a home, that makes the story more durable, and far more interesting, than the millionth iteration of Law & Order or yet another serial killer drama. It may be one of the only good contemporary TV shows set in the South, but there should be some consolation in the fact that it’s better than most American shows, regardless of setting.