R.V.s and Stolen Kidneys: Life on the Fringes in ‘Justified’
By Jeremy Egner, The New York Times
- Jan. 25, 2015
The FX crime drama “Justified,” which began its sixth and final season last Tuesday, unfolds in a fictional version of Harlan County, Ky. — a place of cellphones and late-model sedans that nonetheless “may as well be wherever ‘Harry Potter’ takes place,” said Jere Burns, whose conniving Wynn Duffy is a fan favorite. “I don’t know what that’s called, but it may as well be that, because you have people there who would not seem to exist anywhere else.”
Such eccentrics are key to the gonzo tone of “Justified,” which is based on stories by the crime laureate Elmore Leonard. Timothy Olyphant, as Raylan Givens, and Walton Goggins, as Boyd Crowder, represent the bourbon-soaked yin and yang of the series. But a galaxy of guest stars — whether fretting over stolen kidneys, living in R.V.s or stuffing bills into dead pigs — have over the years added both outré detail and a geographical constancy to what might otherwise be a more methodical, rural cops-and-robbers show.
Most began as bit players well aware of the fragility of life on a series with a high body count. David Meunier, who played Johnny Crowder, Boyd’s cousin-emy, said that a seemingly innocent inquiry — Have you read the next script? — became a frequent joke among the guest stars.
“The response was: ‘No I haven’t, do I die?! Am I dead?’ ” he said. “There was always that sort of hanging question.”
But due in part to a fluid production process, which welcomed last-minute script tweaks and input from all participants, most of the characters here had multiple death sentences commuted — those who grasped the show’s morally complicated, Leonardian sensibility could be un-terminated with extreme prejudice.
“If you get that tone and can be believable and funny and scary, and all of those things at once,” Mr. Burns said, “then they’re going to hold on to you.”
(This article may contain spoilers.)
JERE BURNS, Wynn Duffy
Mr. Burns, a sitcom star in the 1990s, has found a second career playing villains on cable series like “Burn Notice” and “Bates Motel,” as well as “Justified.”
Wynn Duffy, an arch, scheming middle manager in the show’s Dixie Mafia, arrived in Season 1 for what was supposed to be a two-episode arc ending in a fatal standoff with Raylan. But a writers’ reprieve kept him around, and he’s since been at least tangentially connected to nearly every criminal enterprise on the show.
A confirmed murderer, drug dealer and extortionist, Duffy remains oddly likable, something even Mr. Burns has a hard time explaining.
“Maybe everybody relates to Duffy’s just trying to figure out a way to survive,” he said. “If he has to kill people, so be it. If he has to grovel, so be it. If he has to live in a motor home, so be it.”
Ah yes, the motor home, which is Duffy’s permanent residence in an inspired bit of quirky detail that also has logistical production benefits. “We can just drive the motor home to wherever we happen to be that day and shoot a Duffy scene,” Mr. Burns said.
He can’t reveal whether Duffy survives the final season, but he did suggest what a happy ending might look like for him, whether it ever comes to pass: “Just getting out of Harlan with a little cash and some dignity intact.”
“Well no, dignity doesn’t really play into it,” he corrected. “Getting out of Harlan alive, with some cash and a full tank of gas in the Winnebago.”
DAVID MEUNIER, Johnny Crowder
Mr. Meunier’s Johnny Crowder, the sometime sidekick, sometime Judas to Boyd, reached the end of his rope last season when his cousin killed him in a Mexican desert.
Making it that far was an achievement, however, considering that Bo Crowder, Boyd’s dad, blasted Johnny off a porch with a shotgun at the end of Season 1. True to the fluid nature of the show, Mr. Meunier went home after filming, not knowing if he’d ever be back. “They said, ‘We don’t know if Johnny’s going to live or die,’ ” he said.
Months later, Mr. Meunier had given up on returning when he was suddenly asked to report to the set the next day. He arrived for his costume fitting, confused to find “a whole rack of sweatpants and pajamas and bathrobes,” he said.
“The costume designer said: ‘Oh you don’t know? You’re in a wheelchair with a colostomy bag,’ ” he said. “And I went: ‘Great! I’ll take the sweatpants.’ ”
Mr. Meunier is the only one of the “Justified” actors assembled here to have died before this season, but he doesn’t expect to get lonely in the boneyard. The producers have said that they aim to take things back to the core three characters from the pilot — Raylan, Boyd and Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter) — which means “the landscape has to be stripped clean,” Mr. Meunier said. “I imagine everyone’s gonna get taken out.”
ABBY MILLER, Ellen May
Ms. Miller’s Ellen May, a sweetly dim, doe-eyed prostitute with a knack for seeing too much, was marked for death so many times, a reporter can be forgiven for forgetting recently that the ax never actually fell.
“It doesn’t surprise me that you thought I was dead,” Ms. Miller said, kindly, responding to a misguided query. “I seriously almost died four or five times.”
Ellen May arrived in Season 2 and went on to witness multiple murders, the primary source of her troubles. The writers planned to kill her off twice in Season 3 and at least twice more in Season 4, Ms. Miller said, before deciding to keep her around to contribute comic relief and a little heart.
“The story became, when are we going to kill her?” she said. “And then it just never happened.” Season 4, her last, ended with Ellen May in protective custody.
Ms. Miller still marvels that a one-episode bit part blossomed into a role that was pivotal by the end of her run. Though she hasn’t been tapped for the final season (yet), she wishes that Ellen May, wherever she is, would hang up her hooking shoes for good and maybe start a family.
“I hope she has a good life,” she said. “She probably doesn’t, but I hope for her sake that she does.”
DAMON HERRIMAN, Dewey Crowe
“Justified” is full of untimely demises, but Dewey Crowe’s, in Tuesday’s season premiere, felt like one of the show’s cruelest cuts. Because for all of the villainy Dewey aspired to as a would-be pimp, gangster or white supremacist enforcer, his general ineffectualness made him more of a sacrificial lamb, or a “mangy dog,” as Mr. Herriman put it. “You kind of feel sorry for the dog, because it’s pathetic.”
A sort of dunce Zelig since the pilot episode, Dewey probably peaked early last season, Mr. Herriman said, when a court settlement allowed him to buy the local bar and brothel. “That’s about as successful as that guy could imagine being,” he said.
That dream lasted about as long as it took for Raylan Givens, his perpetual tormentor, to shoot a hole in his above-ground swimming pool. But the character’s showpiece came in Season 3, when Dewey’s knack for both baroque victimization and abject gullibility coalesced in an episode in which he was convinced that his kidneys had been stolen. (Spoiler alert: They hadn’t.)
On Tuesday, Dewey was perhaps a coal-mine canary for the final season, clinging to the old days while everyone else was moving on, including Boyd, who executed him. Mr. Herriman allowed that finally letting go of the character felt strange but “satisfying as well.”
“The Dewey Crowe story, from the pilot through to the end, was such an amazing experience for me,” he said. “I can’t feel anything but satisfaction.”
MYKELTI WILLIAMSON, Ellstin Limehouse
A few years ago Graham Yost, the creator of “Justified,” called Mr. Williamson with a proposition to play a “black hillbilly godfather.”
“He says, ‘Don’t laugh,’ and I said, ‘Well I gotta get the laugh out, because it’s pretty funny,’ ” Mr. Williamson said.
Ellstin Limehouse, who will have a significant role in the final season, emerged more or less as advertised: the boss of an insular African-American community who dabbles in protection, underworld banking and world-class barbecue. His porkers are the Swiss Army knives of the operation, serving as dinner, authentic piggy banks — their carcasses are occasionally stuffed with cash — and cleanup crew. “All those hogs are there for more than just barbecue — Limehouse will make you disappear,” Mr. Williamson said.
This season brings a “more elevated level of desperation,” Mr. Williamson said, and he promised plenty of machete play for Limehouse, something loyal viewers will recall from the Season 3 finale. That was when, in one of the show’s more outrageous moments, Limehouse quite literally disarmed a sleeve-gun-wielding mobster played by Neal McDonough. Mr. Williamson recalled that an excited Mr. McDonough, an old friend, called him after reading the script.
“He screams, ‘Dude! You’re gonna chop my arm off!’ ” he said. “There’s so much cool stuff going on with this show — it’s gonna be missed.”