Is Raylan Givens Justified?: The Ethics of [Fictional] Harlan County

U.S. Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens does his job by a simple rule: shoot if it’s justified. Complete with his trademark stetson hat, the hero of FX’s crackerjack drama Justified is in every sense a modern day cowboy; a man who seemingly fears nothing and never winces when it comes to pull the trigger. It’s not so much that Raylan likes killing and shooting others, but rather he simply has no qualms with it. He loves his job and will do about anything to uphold the law, though not always through the traditional marshal methods. It’s because of this almost trigger happy attitude that Raylan is transferred from Miami back to his home state of Kentucky where he’s forced to encounter the various family members and hillbilly criminals he tried to get away from years ago. Upon returning home Raylan learns first hand that each character that makes up the colorful world of Harlan County, Kentucky seems to have their own moral code and ethic system that means to justify their actions.

Raylan is a man that believes in honesty. He doesn’t like surprises or using deception against his enemies. Every time he encounters a foe in a standoff, he gives the warning that if he pulls out his gun he means to shoot. Raylan isn’t going to point his gun at someone unless he fully means to pull the trigger. If he were to pull it out as an empty threat Raylan would be lying about his true motives and manipulating his opponents, and that would go against his nature. The way Raylan follows his code appears to be similar to Kantian philosophy. He adheres to a slightly modified version of the Categorical Imperative, and holds similar opinions on topics such as deception and theft. Raylan takes his job seriously and sees it his moral duty to chase down criminals and bring them to justice for their actions.

Despite this strong moral code there are several cases where Raylan knowingly breaks it. In the third episode of season three, entitled “Harlan Roulette”, Raylan tells a story about his childhood to a criminal named Wade Messer, who he’s run into outside their house. He explains that when he was younger his mother taught him that that you never go into someone’s house unless they’ve been invited in. After the story Wade asks to quickly change his shirt inside his house, but when he returns he’s disgruntled and still wearing the same dirty tee. Raylan points out his lack of new clothes and then reveals he went inside earlier and took Wade’s gun away, knowing that Wade would find an excuse to go into the house and get the gun. “We’ve all got lines we’ve got to cross,” says Raylan dryly. While he may be morally against deception, theft, and using tricks, he’s not above occasionally breaking his code if he feels it’s necessary.

Where Raylan is positioned as the heroic law-man of the series, former coal miner and explosives expert Boyd Crowder is placed as his dark mirror counterpart. He’s everything Raylan could have become if he didn’t get away from Harlan and its criminal grasp in time. When we met Boyd in the pilot episode, titled “Fire in the Hole”, he’s the leader of a neo-Nazi party plotting to blow up an African-American dominated church. At the end of the episode he takes a bullet to the chest courtesy of Raylan, and for the next few episodes he stays on bed rest at a prison hospital where he claims to see the error of his ways and becomes a born again Christian. He preaches to Raylan that he’s finally found the way in life, but throughout the season’s run it’s left ambiguous whether Boyd’s actually sincere about his transformation. Once he gets released from prison in “Blowback”, the eighth episode of the first season, he gains another group of followers under his new moral philosophy. Rather than go back to blowing up churches due to race, Boyd sets his eyes on destroying a meth lab under the claim that he’s called by God to weed out the county’s immoral scum. But by the second season he suddenly drops his short-lived Christian faith, and soon starts rebuilding his criminal empire, this time under the idea that it’s his right to rule Harlan County as the heir of the Crowder clan.

Scott Tobias over at The A.V. Club gets at the heart of Boyd’s character in his review of the first season episode “The Hammer”:

“Boyd’s carrot strategy is this: Establish himself as the charismatic voice of one ideology or another (neo-Nazism before, now Christianity) and make a redneck militia out of his converts. When Boyd resolves to take out a meth lab – no doubt a territorial threat to him, as he ramps up his own criminal operation – he can easily convince his followers they’re doing God’s work, ridding the world of this terrible scourge.”

Boyd never truly deep down believed the ideas of neo-Nazism or the high morality of Christianity. Rather he’s just a criminal seeking power, control, and loyal subjects of his own. Boyd can make any excuse for himself, but at the end of the day all he really cares about is making stuff go boom.

Raylan and Boyd’s relationship is the heart of Justified, but it’s all the villainous personalities found in Harlan County that give the show it’s flavor. Introduced as the main antagonist of the second season, Mags Bennett is the cunning matriarch of the Bennett clan, a family known for their pot business and delicious apple pie moonshine. When the oil company Black Pike attempts to buy various lands in Harlan, Mags rallies against  the corporation claiming they don’t have their best interest in mind. She, in more eloquent wording, claims that selling the land wouldn’t serve the greater good of the people. They would gain some quick cash, but they would be selling out their history and their homes, which would derive less pleasure in the long run would. She acts as an utilitarian, thinking the moral worth of their actions is best determined by the outcome of the situation. This is until the ninth episode of season two, “Brother’s Keeper”, where it turns out all her previous speeches about fighting against Black Pike was actually a con to get them even more desperate to buy the land, allowing Mags to have the upper hand in the financial settlement. She’s convinced the entire community of Harlan County that they must hold on to their land as it would give the citizens the greatest amount of happiness within the situation, but it turns out to be a ploy to getting the most money she can out of the corporation. Her exterior appears to be a utilitarian, but underneath she’s only out for what best benefits the Bennett family.

The third season introduces on a villain from the outside world in the form of Robert Quarles, a self-assured, mentally unstable Dixie mafia boss from Detroit who travels to Harlan County to start up an OxyContin drug ring. While he’s not a native to Harlan, he proves to have just as shifty moral reasoning as everyone else in this backwater part of Kentucky. Little is revealed about the character till late in the season, with even his name being left unspoken until several episode in. Though we do get a quick glimpse into his private life in “Harlan Roulette”, the third episode of the third season, when an open door to a room in Quarles’ temporary house reveals he keeps a nearly naked young male bound and gagged to his bed. It’s not until the tenth episode of the third season, “Guy Walks into a Bar”, that Quarles’ origin story is told. Turns out his father was a heroin addict who pimped his son out to other men in order to get money to fuel his habit, and now as an adult Quarles kidnaps and tortures young male hustlers. But when Donovan, an associate of the young hustler he had bound in his house, confronts him about the murder of his friend Quarles responds, “No son, I would never hurt him. I did everything I could to help him. And then I set him free.” Yet at the end of the episode we see Quarles strip down naked and enter a bathroom where Donovan is chained to a toilet whimpering in fear. Quarles defends his actions claiming he’s helping those who are suffering, he’s freeing them from the slavery of their lives. But his actions with Donovan suggest otherwise. Quarles isn’t a righteous killer who hurts others in order to save them; he’s a sadistic psychopath who derives pleasure from torturing and potentially sexual abusing young male hustlers who remind him of childhood.

Each character in Justified appears on the surface to adhere to a strict moral code and philosophy, but it always ends up being an excuse for their selfish motives. Boyd may claim he’s blowing up a meth lab for God, but he’s doing it because it sends a message to his father. Mags claims no one should sell their property to Black Pike as it’s for the greater good, but that’s only because she wants make the company desperate for her sale. Raylan may have a code that goes against deception, but if he needs to break he has no hesitations. All the various moral reasonings used by the characters of Harlan County are in-actuality attempts at defending their selfish actions. They might appear to be utilitarians or kantians, but in the end they’re all more aligned with the philosopher Machiavelli’s ideas expressed in his book The Prince. To each of these characters the ends always justify the means; not out of a sense of utilitarian greater good, but that the greater good comes out of these leaders serving their own self-interests. These charismatic figures tell their audiences anecdotes and lies with the goal of winning them over as supporters to carry out whatever they secretly desire, be it wealth or power.

If this is true, can any of these figures in Harlan County actually be considered justified? Well, if you were to ask any of them, they’d wax a long, complicated tale of hillbilly philosophy and morals that’d work to saying yes they are.

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One thought on “Is Raylan Givens Justified?: The Ethics of [Fictional] Harlan County

  1. Simply the best review — albeit, it’s much more than that — I’ve ever read of one of the best US drama series I’ve ever seen. Superb, Jamiesen. Absolutely superb.

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