The opening minutes of Justified: City Primeval establishes three things: 1) Willa Givens inherited her father’s love of ice cream, 2) the writers of Justified can still deliver a handsomely turned phrase, and 3) Raylan Givens is back, baby. Timothy Olyphant returns as Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens, the man in the cowboy hat, the coolest cat on TV, only now it’s 15 years on from the finale of Justified. Raylan is older, greyer, and questionably wiser, and he now has his teenaged daughter, Willa (Vivian Olyphant), in tow. After a coincidental run-in with a wanted fugitive from Detroit, Raylan finds himself entangled with shady lawyers, judges, and a dangerous criminal known as “the Oklahoma Wildman” in the Motor City.
The first two episodes of City Primeval, both directed by Michael Dinner and co-written by Dinner and Dave Andron, bring us back into the world of Raylan Givens, though not the world of Kentucky’s hills and hollers. Raylan has settled in Miami, but a roadside run-in takes him to Detroit, where he gets sucked into an attempted murder investigation against Judge Alvin Guy (Keith David). Someone blew up the judge’s car, and though the judge clearly does not like Raylan, he does want Raylan to investigate the attempt on his life. “It takes an angry white guy to catch an angry white guy,” he says, summing up Justified perfectly. Though Raylan and the Detroit police are successful in finding the man responsible for the car bomb, things escalate when someone actually does murder Judge Guy and his assistant, Rose (Rae Gray).
In Elmore Leonard’s books and short stories, Raylan is most often not a protagonist, but a side character who comes and goes through other people’s stories. While Justified was built around him and his world and past in Kentucky, City Primeval feels truer to Leonard’s work in which Raylan drops into someone else’s story and provides a colorful aside to a darker, grittier story. Though there are strong ties between Detroit and Kentucky (see also: the “Hillbilly highway”), in Detroit, Raylan is almost comically out of place, with his cowboy boots and Stetson. The Detroit cops don’t seem to take him seriously—he doesn’t know these people, and they don’t know him—boasting he should “stick around and see how they do it in Detroit”.
But this older Raylan has seen too much to be surprised or impressed by anything. A couple of the sharper, less psychotic Detroit detectives, Wendell Robinson (Victor Williams) and Maureen Downey (Marin Ireland), quickly catch on that Raylan, cowboy-isms aside, is a sharp investigator himself. (The other prominent character among the Detroit PD, Norbert, played by two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz, seems to exist solely to be a worse cop than Raylan, thus providing contextual cover for Raylan’s questionable policing.) Once the judge is murdered, Wendell becomes Raylan’s de facto partner in investigating the case, and the two experienced investigators fall into an easy rapport.
Complicating everything for Raylan is the presence of his daughter, Willa. She’s 15, rebellious, not as tough as she thinks she is, and maybe more sheltered than she realizes. She postures like her steely daddy but can’t recognize danger when it walks right up to her in the form of Clement Mansell (Boyd Holbrook), a Joker-esque character who has a tendency to do a lot of murders. Clement can’t resist challenging Raylan, even though his attorney, the shady, sexy Carolyn Wilder (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), does her best to throw up legal and civil rights walls between her client and Raylan.
There is a larger plot at play, the judge might have been dirty, Clement possesses a coded notebook that is full of Macguffin potential, Wendell previously crossed paths with Clement, and there’s a bartender, Sweetie (Vondie Curtis Hall), who is somehow connected to all of it. But while the first two episodes introduce and then kick over the judge’s hornet nest, the main focus is on establishing Clement as Raylan’s new archnemesis. He’s not charming or loquacious like Boyd Crowder—whose scenery chewing monologues are sorely missed, Raylan’s pithy one-liners hit harder when contrasted with Boyd’s borderline rambling—but he immediately feels like a much bigger problem for Raylan.
Boyd, at least, has a code. He has his own morality and sense of justice, corrupt though it may be. And the criminals Raylan previously dealt with all had something to lose if Raylan bested them. Clement, though, doesn’t seem to care about anything. He has a girlfriend/partner, Sandy (Adelaide Clemens), but there is never a sense he would do anything for her, as Boyd would Ava. If anything, it feels more like Clement would murder Sandy the moment she inconvenienced him. He has no family, no friends, only connections he intimidates into cooperation, like Carolyn and Sweetie. And Clement isn’t trying to be the king of any mountain, he has no dreams of a Dairy Queen franchise, he does crime because…he does crime. At one point, he is likened to Apopis, the Egyptian snake demon of chaos, a fitting comparison.
Raylan might have met his match, simply because he has something to lose—Willa—and Clement does not. As yet, Raylan has no leverage on Clement beyond sheer intimidation, and frankly, that doesn’t work on Clement. While these first two episodes miss Boyd’s showy monologues for sheer sparkle, Justified also misses his warm charisma. City Primeval is a colder, darker series, which is fitting, as this story finds Raylan as a fish out of water, not only out of step with Detroit, but with modern policing, the criminals surrounding him, and with his own daughter. As smooth as Raylan usually is, there is an unease, a sense of one too many threads to pull at a time. Has Raylan Givens finally met his match?
This review was published during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of writers and actors. Justified: City Primeval airs new episodes on FX every Tuesday, and streams on Wednesdays on FX On Hulu. If you’re interested in weekly recaps of City Primeval, I will be providing those on the Decoding TV Podcast with Dave Chen.