Whether it’s Hollywood’s inability to spawn new blockbuster icons or the entertainment industry’s commitment to placating an audience with an insatiable desire for nostalgia, the summer of 2023 has taken on a distinct Twilight-of-the-Action-Gods feeling.
The season started with Arnold Schwarzenegger doing the streaming equivalent of a ’90s Arnold Schwarzenegger classic, now with meditations on fatherhood and approaching retirement, in Netflix’s FUBAR. Then Harrison Ford added meditations on godfatherhood and approaching retirement in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. The only reason Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One isn’t about fatherhood and approaching retirement is a fear that if Tom Cruise were ever to actually confront, or even address, his own aging, the metaphorical dream factory would implode.
Into this fray of graying tough guy icons strides Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens. For 78 episodes on FX’s Justified, Raylan Givens was a throwback personification of anger-fueled masculinity, a classic Western square peg jammed into a sentimental, modern round hole. Superb genre storytelling for five of its six seasons — sorry, season five — Justified had an all-time great series finale and, after “We dug coal together,” there was seemingly no place for that show to go.
The relief of FX’s eight-part Justified: City Primeval is that not only does it not besmirch the near-perfect conclusion of the original, but it carves out new and distinctive terrain for Givens and a fresh, sometimes spectacular supporting cast of characters. If showrunners Dave Andron and Michael Dinner haven’t equalled Justified season two — nothing could — they’ve given a welcome reminder of how remarkable Olyphant is in this role and considered, thoughtfully if not extensively, how this character functions in a contemporary landscape.
The limited series begins with Olyphant’s Givens now stationed back in Florida, pausing his U.S. Marshal duties — no retirement or even desk job for Raylan — to transport 15-year-old daughter Willa (Vivian Olyphant) to a disciplinary summer camp. Sullen and generally glued to her phone, Willa is a chip off the ol’ block, earning her sanction for punching a classmate in the nose.
This brief opportunity for father-daughter bonding goes astray when a botched carjacking leads to Raylan testifying at a hearing in Detroit in front of an easily irritated judge (Keith David) and a savvy defense attorney (Aunjanue Ellis’s Carolyn Wilder), neither of whom is particularly tolerant of his retro law-and-order antics. As Carolyn puts it later in the season, echoing a memorable line from the original pilot, “You’re angry. I get it. I’d be angry too. But everybody doesn’t get to be angry the way you do.”
Soon, Raylan is forced into a shared investigation with the Detroit police department — Victor Williams, Marin Ireland and Norbert Leo Butz take the generally thankless roles as partners to the lone wolf Givens — on a pair of confusing murders tied to slippery sociopath Clement Mansel (Boyd Holbrook), a man so devoid of moral compass he’s called “The Oklahoma Wildman.” The case, which leaves Willa stuck in a Detroit hotel room, also involves veteran session musician, bar owner and drug dealer Sweety (Vondie Curtis-Hall), Clement’s weed-loving girlfriend Sandy (Adelaide Clemens) and the entire Albanian mob.
Raylan spent most of the original series in Kentucky, surrounded by estranged family and former acquaintances; his deep roots allowed him to know places and things with utter comfort. That story ended with the 2015 series finale. The smartest thing that Andron and Dinner, among an assortment of Justified veterans returning, did here is start with an Elmore Leonard book — City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit — that was not, actually, a Raylan Givens novel.
Shoehorning Raylan into City Primeval doesn’t just make him a fish out of water; it strips him of every vestige of his Justified support structure. This is not a callback machine. So don’t expect Raylan to be making prison visits to a Hannibal Lecter-esque Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), getting supportive calls from Nick Searcy’s Art or helpful visits from his Marshal colleagues. Honestly, I missed Gangstagrass’ absent “Long Hard Times to Come” much more than Tim or Rachel, but I endorse the need for differentiation.
Although Dinner, the original show’s most prolific director, is behind the camera for three episodes, City Primeval has an entirely different color palette and feel, replacing the overheated, hard-boiled Southern yellows, browns and greens with shadowy, urban gothic blacks and blues. The Chicago locations that stand in for Detroit won’t be hugely convincing to anybody who knows either city, just as the various locations that stood in for Harlan County were just a simulacrum of Kentucky. The goal, achieved, is to make it feel separate from what we and Raylan recognize. This is a chillier, moodier season, with less of the trademark Leonard humor that Graham Yost — still an executive producer but more creatively secondary — so capably delivered.
Raylan has changed as well, if not as much as the world around him. The City Primeval premiere hints at a reckoning for the unreconstructed shoot-first lawman, facing the entrenched inequalities of the judicial system and his own role in perpetuating those inequalities. But the series wants to acknowledge, rather than have a conversation. What has changed Raylan — stubble flecked with gray but abs exhibiting a still-rigorous routine of core maintenance — is Willa. She’s a mirror through which he sees the consequences of his behavior, a source of shame and self-reflection that didn’t exist previously.
In her first screen role, Vivian Olyphant is not, in any conventional sense, an actress. It takes a few minutes to get used to her high, whispery voice and lack of affect on a show in which nearly every supporting actor is trying out an accent or tough-guy mannerisms. But before the end of the premiere, I had settled into appreciating what Vivian was doing on-screen and, more importantly, what she was doing for the show. Justified: City Primeval is better for her presence. Raylan is never going to be a soft man, but Willa softens him and Vivian Olyphant softens her father’s performance, becoming enough of an asset that I missed her when the season shelves the paternal introspection in favor of familiar Justified-style standoffs and looming menace.
The other major asset for Timothy Olyphant’s performance is getting to share scenes with the tremendous Ellis. When Ellis and Olyphant go head to head, whether in confrontation or eventual flirtation, there’s a new gravity and even poignance that comes from two people who realize that their time for playing games is diminishing, with added urgency courtesy of the escalating bodycount in Clement’s wake. Adding to the show’s no-bullshit tone is Hall, perfect as a man whose every decision is fueled by regret. The lack of scenes teaming Hall, Ellis and Olyphant may be the season’s biggest sin.
The Kentucky-born Holbrook, having a standout summer as mustachioed antagonist to over-the-hill action stars, is an instantly natural addition to the Justified roster of twang-y bad guys. He’s fierce and fearsome, though, as the nickname might suggest, the Oklahoma Wildman fits more into the category of unhinged forces of nature than grounded nightmares — more like Jonathan Tucker’s Boon than a Boyd Crowder or Margo Martindale’s never-to-be-topped Mags Bennett. It’s a character ultimately weakened by the failure to give Clemens’ Sandy any sort of arc in the season’s second half, a pity since the endlessly likable Rectify veteran deserved more.
Whether it’s a primary villain who borders on supernatural, an occasional deficit of humor or an exploration of inequities in law enforcement that dwindles midway through the season, most of my criticisms of City Primeval are real, but minor. More frequently, City Primeval achieves the near-impossible: It takes a story that was concluded impeccably and reopens that world with confidence, standing alone and yet honoring what came before. Whether or not there’s room in the real world for a more mature Raylan Givens — for Raylan Givens: Girl Dad — still isn’t clear, but there’s definitely room on TV to keep periodically checking in on this character and his mellowed, still righteous anger and quick trigger.