Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens is something of a 19th-century–style, Old West lawman living in modern times, whose unconventional enforcement of justice makes him a target of criminals and a problem child to his U.S. Marshals Service superior. In response to his controversial but "justified" quick-draw shooting of mob hitman Tommy Bucks in Miami, Givens is reassigned to Lexington, Kentucky. The Lexington Marshals office's jurisdiction includes Harlan County, where Raylan was raised and which he thought he had escaped for good in his youth.
The story arc of season one concentrates on the crimes of the Crowder family. Raylan seeks to protect Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter) from the rest of the Crowder clan after she shoots her husband, Bowman Crowder, dead in retaliation for years of abuse. Her biggest threat initially comes from Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), a local criminal masquerading as a white supremacist whom Raylan shoots in a stand-off. Boyd survives the shot to the chest and claims it is a sign from God that he should change his ways. Raylan hesitates to believe him, but Boyd is soon sent to prison, where he spends his time reading the Bible and preaching to convicts. The season builds towards the release of family patriarch Bo (M.C. Gainey), who wishes to rebuild his family's drug trade and to settle old scores, including one with Raylan's father, Arlo (Raymond J. Barry), who has cheated him out of money. Bo's release is soon followed by Boyd's, after a technicality prevents him from being further incarcerated. While Bo works on gaining dominance over the local drug trade, Boyd collects a camp of spiritually reformed criminals whom he trains to blow up meth houses in the county to "clean up Harlan". The explosions cause a few casualties, leading Raylan and the other U.S. Marshals to keep an eye on the team.
In the meantime, Raylan is dealing with personal dilemmas, including working in the same building as his ex-wife (Natalie Zea), for whom he still has feelings. His continuing visits to Harlan are peppered with small crimes and big shootings, and his success in dealing with these matters draws Bo's attention. Bo promises the niece and nephew of Gio Reyes, head of a Miami drug cartel, that he will deliver Raylan to them in exchange for a large shipment of drugs. Boyd catches word of this and, with his "flock" of reformed prisoners, blows up the truck carrying the shipment, leading the niece and nephew to hold Bo accountable for the damages. This leads Bo to go to Boyd's camp and threaten to kill his own son, illustrating the harsh family relations that provide some insight into how Boyd turned out the way he has. Instead of killing Boyd, though, Bo offers his son the option to abandon his group, after which Bo will leave all of them alone. Boyd walks away into the forest, where he hears gunshots, and returns to see that all of his followers have been killed. This sends him, depressed, to Raylan's door, saying he will help Raylan find Bo as long as he is allowed to be the one to kill him.
An earlier plan is foiled, involving Arlo's shooting Raylan, to deliver Raylan into Bo's clutches, then handing him over to Gio, but Bo has taken Ava hostage. This is the turning point that drives Boyd and Raylan to join forces for the first time, and Boyd leads him to the Crowder cabin. There, Raylan manages to kill one of Bo's henchmen. As Raylan and Bo are walking to the cabin, Boyd appears ready to shoot and kill Bo. Before Boyd has an opportunity, Bo is shot and killed by a sniper, who then starts shooting at Raylan and Boyd, who take cover in the cabin. They discover they are surrounded by Gio's niece and nephew plus two other gunmen, who then attack the cabin with machine guns. Boyd, Ava, and Raylan are trapped; the niece and nephew demand Raylan be turned over to them.
After Boyd attempts to pass himself off as Raylan, and Raylan kills two of the gunmen, Raylan tells Boyd and Ava to leave out the back way, and he walks forward, hands in the air. As the niece steps out from behind her car, the nephew attempts to shoot Raylan, Boyd shoots the nephew, and the niece drives away. Boyd wants to chase her, but Raylan stops him, saying it is against the law. However, Boyd absconds in Bo's car, but doesn't use violence. This signifies the beginning of an uneasy friendship between the two characters that will continue throughout the series.
Season 2 deals primarily with the criminal dealings of the Bennett clan. Family matriarch Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) and her three sons Dickie (Jeremy Davies), Coover (Brad William Henke), and Corbin-Knox County Police Chief Doyle (Joseph Lyle Taylor) plan to expand their marijuana business into Crowder territory following Bo's death, as Boyd has proven somewhat reluctant to follow in his father's footsteps. Raylan gets involved in the struggle between the two criminal organizations, and because of a long-standing feud between the Givens and Bennett families centering on an incident between Raylan and Dickie in their youth (which left Dickie with a lame leg), matters grow very complicated, with the pair's pasts catching up with them. Meanwhile, an effort by a mining conglomerate to secure access rights to the mountain results in Raylan and Boyd becoming involved on opposite sides of the operation. This provokes a local backlash against the Bennetts, after Boyd reveals Mags' secret involvement in negotiations with the conglomerate, to the detriment of her neighbors.
Season 3 introduces a new main villain, Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough) of Detroit. The criminal organization connected to the Frankfort, Kentucky, mob has exiled Quarles to Kentucky. Quarles allies himself with local enforcer Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) and begins to supplant the local criminals when Raylan begins investigating. Quarles' efforts also bring him into conflict with Boyd's group, resulting in the deaths of several locals. Simultaneously, Dickie Bennett, the lone survivor of the Bennett clan, seeks the aid of the African-American residents of Noble's Holler and their leader, Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson), to recover his inheritance. Limehouse attempts to keep his people out of the struggle between the criminal groups but becomes involved when Boyd gets the upper hand on Quarles, leading to a series of betrayals and deaths, some of them sexual and deviant.
Season 4 is about a mystery which was left unsolved for 30 years. On January 21, 1983, a man wearing a defective parachute plummets onto a residential street in Corbin, Kentucky, dying instantly. His body is surrounded by bags full of cocaine and an ID tag for a "Waldo Truth". Raylan learns of the mystery when a vintage diplomatic bag is found hidden at Arlo's house containing only Waldo Truth's ID tag. Further investigation indicates that the parachutist died and Raylan's father Arlo hid the bag, but he refuses to divulge any information.
As the investigation continues to unfold, information is revealed that could lead to the arrest of a major mafia figure. Raylan is now living above a bar and attempting to stash extra money away to provide for his unborn child and is in a questionable relationship with the bartender, Lindsey Salazar. Boyd Crowder seeks to expand his empire with help from an old army buddy Colton "Colt" Rhodes (Ron Eldard). Boyd's efforts are complicated by the arrival of a snake handling revival preacher named Billy St. Cyr (Joe Mazzello). Billy's success is cutting into Boyd's profits, as his users and dealers are getting hooked on faith instead of drugs. Boyd's cousin Johnny (David Meunier) grows ever more resentful of Boyd's success and plans to betray him to Wynn Duffy. Boyd's ambition has him force a deal with Duffy that involves Boyd chasing down leads in the same parachutist mystery, eventually bringing Boyd to an unexpected crossroads that threatens his personal or professional destruction.
Season 5 features the alligator-farming Crowe crime family, led by Darryl Crowe, Jr. (played by Michael Rapaport). Also, Jere Burns, who recurred throughout the first four seasons as Wynn Duffy, was made a series regular.
Season 6 revolves around the culmination of Raylan and Boyd's rivalry, complicated by Ava's betrayal, the machinations of Avery Markham, and a plot to rob him by Boyd, Wynn Duffy and Markham's secret adversary. Boyd succeeds in robbing Markham, but Raylan's plan to entrap him with Ava's help has tragic consequences. Raylan's job, life, and future are all threatened in a way they have never been before.Timothy Olyphant as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, a trigger-happy lawman who, after making headlines killing a fugitive, is sent to Kentucky, where he gets deeply involved in the criminal element of his hometown. Raylan was born and raised in Harlan, Kentucky, where his father was a well-known career criminal. Raylan suffered emotional and likely physical abuse from his father Arlo. During high school, Raylan played baseball and eventually went to work in the Kentucky coal mines, where he worked with Boyd Crowder. Raylan went on to join the Marines, and later became a deputy U.S. Marshal, driving him back to Kentucky. He is divorced from Winona Hawkins, a court stenographer, and is often involved with a variety of women. Raylan is known for wearing a distinctive cowboy hat.
Nick Searcy as Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Art Mullen, who knows Raylan from Glynco. He generally follows the law, but gives Raylan some leeway when he trusts his judgement. Art is more of a father figure to Raylan than Arlo, but becomes distrustful of him after he demonstrates his inability to separate his personal and professional lives, frequently toeing the line between right and wrong.
Joelle Carter as Ava Crowder, a woman from Harlan who grew up with Raylan and Boyd. Prior to the events of the show, she is married to Boyd's abusive brother Bowman, whom she killed. As the show progresses, Ava becomes central to Harlan's crime syndicate in her own right.
Jacob Pitts as Deputy U.S. Marshal Tim Gutterson, a sardonic marshal and former Army Ranger sniper who is generally unimpressed by Raylan's antics. Art worries that Tim bottles down his PTSD and is likely to blow at any minute.
Erica Tazel as Deputy U.S. Marshal Rachel Brooks, a straight-and-narrow marshal who frequently imparts onto Raylan he wouldn't get away with his behavior if he wasn't white, male, and handsome.
Natalie Zea as Winona Hawkins (regular seasons 1–3, recurring seasons 4–6), Raylan's ex-wife. At the show's start, she is married to Gary, a real estate agent. She works at the same courthouse as Raylan as a court scribe. She still loves Raylan, but doesn't trust he is a safe choice given his profession and his tendency to get himself into trouble.
Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder (recurring season 1, regular seasons 2–6), the son of one of Harlan's biggest career criminals. Boyd is known for robbing banks and use of pyrotechnics, which brings Raylan, with whom he used to dig coal, back to Harlan. Boyd is a born-again, tent-preaching white supremacist.
Jere Burns as Wynn Duffy (recurring seasons 1–4, regular seasons 5–6), a shady Dixie Mafia businessman who travels around in a motor home and who becomes involved in Harlan crime.
Justified (originally titled Lawman) was given a 13-episode order by FX on July 28, 2009, and premiered on March 16, 2010. FX renewed the show for a second season, which premiered on February 9, 2011. A third season of 13 episodes was announced on March 29, 2011, and premiered January 17, 2012. A fourth season of 13 episodes was announced on March 6, 2012, and premiered January 8, 2013. The show was renewed for a fifth season, which premiered on January 7, 2014. On January 14, 2014, the series was renewed for a sixth and final season, which premiered on January 20, 2015. The decision to end the show was primarily based on lead actor Timothy Olyphant and series developer Graham Yost. FX network president John Landgraf said that, "They [Yost and Olyphant] felt that the arc of the show and what they had to say would be best served by six seasons instead of seven. Regretfully, I accepted their decision." Yost's comments were "Our biggest concern is running out of story and repeating ourselves. This was a long conversation. There were financial incentives to keep going, but it really felt, in terms of story, that six years felt about right."
The working title for the series was Lawman. The first episode was referred to as the "Fire in the Hole pilot" during shooting and retains this as the name of the episode itself.
While the pilot was shot in Pittsburgh and suburban Kittaning and Washington, Pennsylvania, the subsequent 38 episodes were shot in California. The small town of Green Valley, California often doubles for Harlan, Kentucky. In the pilot, Pittsburgh's David L. Lawrence Convention Center appears on film as the small town "airport", and the construction of the new Consol Energy Center serves as the "new courthouse".
The series began filming using the EPIC camera, manufactured by Red Digital Cinema Camera Company, with the third season. Director of photography Francis Kenny, said: "We persuaded Sony Entertainment that by shooting with Epic cameras production would be increased tenfold and it would look spectacular." After filming the first two episodes of the season, Kenny said, "Episode one of season three is now complete and our dreams have come true. The show looks better than ever and the producers are now true believers of the Red System."
Graham Yost developed the series for television based on the character U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, with the onscreen credit giving the source as Leonard's short story "Fire in the Hole". Both Yost and Leonard are credited as executive producers on the project. Yost is also the series head writer and showrunner. Other executive producers for the series include Sarah Timberman, Carl Beverly, and Michael Dinner. Dinner also directed the series pilot, the second episode of the first season, and the second-season finale.
The show's theme song, "Long Hard Times to Come", was performed by the New York City–based Gangstagrass and produced by Rench, and features rapper T.O.N.E-z, Matt Check on banjo, Gerald Menke on resonator guitar, and Jason Cade on fiddle. The song was nominated for a 2010 Emmy Award for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music.
The pilot episode that aired on March 16, 2010 was watched by 4.2 million viewers and was the highest debut show for FX since The Shield.
Throughout its run, Justified received largely positive reviews from critics. On the review aggregation website Metacritic, the first season scored 80/100, based on reviews from 27 critics. The second season scored 91/100, based on reviews from 12 critics. The third season scored 89/100, based on reviews from 14 critics. The fourth season scored 90/100, based on reviews from 14 critics. The fifth season scored 84/100, based on reviews from 14 critics. The sixth season scored 89/100, based on reviews from 11 critics. All seasons' scores but the first, which was one point short, indicate "universal acclaim."
Author Elmore Leonard ranked Justified as one of the best adaptations of his work, which includes Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, 3:10 to Yuma and Out of Sight. Leonard also praised the casting of Olyphant as Raylan, describing the actor as “the kind of guy I saw when I wrote his lines."
For the first season, the series received very positive reviews. TV Guide critic Matt Roush said, "The show is grounded in Olyphant's low-key but high-impact star-making performance, the work of a confident and cunning leading man who's always good company." Chicago Tribune critic Maureen Ryan stated, "The shaggily delightful dialogue, the deft pacing, the authentic sense of place, the rock-solid supporting cast and the feeling that you are in the hands of writers, actors and directors who really know what they're doing—all of these are worthy reasons to watch Justified." Mike Hale of The New York Times noted the show's "modest virtues", but was critical of the first season's pace and characterisation, writing: “Justified can feel so low-key that even the crisis points drift past without making much of an impression... It feels as if the attention that should have gone to the storytelling all went to the atmosphere and the repartee."
The second season received universal acclaim from critics. Robert Bianco of USA Today praised Margo Martindale's performance, stating: "Like the show itself, Margo Martindale's performance is smart, chilling, amusing, convincing and unfailingly entertaining. And like the show, you really don't want to miss it.". Slant Magazine critic Scott Von Doviak observed that, "Justified's rich vein of gallows humor, convincing sense of place, and twisty hillbilly-noir narratives are all selling points, but it's Olyphant's devilish grin that seals the deal."
The third season received largely positive reviews. Jeremy Enger of The New York Times said the series "captures his darkly funny, morally murky tone and spikes the traditional crime procedural with hooch and Oxycontin, tracking its hero's attempts to thwart colorful drug dealers and gunrunners and negotiate his own fractured relationships. The series unspools in an oddly captivating alternate South peopled by whimsically twisted archetypes and marked by sudden shifts between folksy black comedy and graphic violence."
Verne Gay of Newsday said of the third season, "Lean, laconic, precise and as carefully word-crafted as any series on TV, there's pretty much nothing here to suggest that the third season won't be as good as the second -- or better."
Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker was critical of the third season, writing: "Extended storytelling has its own conventions and clichés, all of which appeared in Season 3... it echoed every cable drama, in the worst way."
The fourth season received high acclaim from critics. Tom Gliatto of People Weekly wrote that, "What gives the show its kick is the gleefully childish lack of repentance shown by most of these rascals—countered by Olyphant's coolly amused control." Verne Gay of Newsday found that, "Character—as the old saying goes—is a long-standing habit, and their habits remain very much intact. The same could be said of Justified." Chuck Bowen of Slant Magazine found that, "Justified is the strongest, liveliest, and most tonally accurate adaptation of the writer's work to date, and the latest season bracingly suggests that isn't likely to change anytime soon."
The fifth season received very positive reviews from television critics, and has a Metacritic rating of 84 out of 100 based on 14 reviews.
The sixth season received critical acclaim from critics. Rotten Tomatoes gave the sixth season a 100% rating based on reviews from 22 critics, with an average score of 9.1/10. The critical consensus reads "Justified returns to form for its endgame, rebounding with crisp storytelling and colorful characters who never take themselves too seriously." Many considered the series finale to be a very satisfying conclusion.
Justified received a 2010 Peabody Award. The series has received eight Primetime Emmy Award nominations. For the first season, the series received a single nomination, for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music. For the second season, it received four acting nominations for the 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards—Timothy Olyphant for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, Walton Goggins for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, Margo Martindale for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, and Jeremy Davies for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series, with Martindale winning. For the third season, it received two nominations for the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards, with Jeremy Davies winning for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series, and a nomination for Outstanding Art Direction for a Single-Camera Series. For its fifth season, it received a nomination for Outstanding Art Direction for a Contemporary or Fantasy Series (Single-Camera). The sixth season received five nominations at the 5th Critics' Choice Television Awards, the most of any other programs nominated. It received nominations for Best Drama Series, Timothy Olyphant for Best Actor in a Drama Series, Walton Goggins for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, Joelle Carter for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series and Sam Elliott for Best Guest Performer in a Drama Series, with Elliot winning.
The DVD and Blu-ray sets were released in region 1 on January 18, 2011, for season one, January 3, 2012, for season two, December 31, 2012, for season three, December 17, 2013, for season four, December 2, 2014, for season five, and June 2, 2015, for season six.