Justified: City Primeval recap - Ep. 1 "City Primeval"

The last time we saw Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens, he seemed to have finally let go of the darkness inside him. He had finally cleaned the Dixie Mafia out of Kentucky, put his dark reflection Boyd Crowder in prison, and moved on to a sunny future in Miami where he could co-parent his little girl properly and find something more important to live for than the hefty chip on his shoulder. It was not quite a definitive walk into the sunset, but if you asked Raylan, he'd probably say, "Works just fine for me."

Timothy Olyphant was reportedly in agreement with his most famous role, until he got to chatting with Quentin Tarantino on the set of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. The two shared a common love for a novel written by Raylan's creator Elmore Leonard. Even though Deputy Givens did not appear in the book City Primeval, the two toyed with the idea that it would make a great season of Justified.

And the rest, as they say, is an eight-episode revival streaming on Hulu. So far, Justified: City Primeval is an exciting new swerve for the crime thriller series with just the right amount of classic ingredients that made the original one of the best shows on television from 2010 to 2015. Of course, the number-one caveat is that Walton Goggins' mesmerizing performance as Boyd Crowder shall not appear. That chapter is closed so definitively that I personally don't mind too much, but I worry after City Primeval's naked attempt to meet the demand for an equally captivating adversary.

Look at me, getting entirely too far ahead of myself.

The premiere episode tries to balance the candy--Raylan's triumphant return to the screen, the Leonard brand of wry humor attached to petty crime, and the moody blend of neo-western and mystery thriller--with a massive amount of table setting. To begin, Raylan and his teen daughter Willa are waylaid from their awkward summer road trip so he can join the investigation of an attempted assassination of a Detroit judge via car bomb. Simply put, Olyphant hasn't missed a beat. He plays an older Raylan with a touch more weariness, a little more grizzle. But he's still funny, effortlessly cool, and you believe that if he took a swing at you, you'd drop like a sack of fertilizer. 

The real surprise for me is his daughter, Vivian Olyphant. She has a very unique voice and look as Willa. Not precocious, not whiny or sarcastic, but a proper and authentic depiction of a bored teen with her face half-glued to her phone screen. Their chemistry together is clearly what drew the elder Olyphant back into his Stetson, and both appear to be having a ball tossing quips back and forth. It has shades of Raylan's relationship with Loretta McCready, which first revealed the squinty lawman's skill for honesty and empathy with teen girls. I hope we get more of it beyond this first episode, and I really hope Willa is not confined to a hotel room for most of the season.

Its a maddeningly straightforward A plot, and had this been Season 1 of OG Justified, it would have made for a fantastic case-of-the-week. As a matter of fact, its very similar to a Season 1 episode in which Stephen Root's oddball judge is threatened. Except this time around, we are given the absolute treat of a curmudgeonly judge played by Keith David, whose iconic voice and sharp comedic timing instantly endear him to an audience even if his character is slowly revealed to be something of a shitbird. 

Unfortunately, the car bomber's story is rushed through immediately to the climax in about fifteen minutes. The mope's mother cooks him pot roast as bait so Raylan's new squad of local cops can surround the house and coax him out of a barricaded cellar. It's a fun sequence, but it feels like Justified played on fast-forward. The whole thing is wrapped up halfway through the episode. 

It also features some truly garbage CGI assets. The judge's car is engulfed in a Playstation 2 explosion, and the bomber's escape motorbike coughs out the smoke monster from Lost. I don't normally complain about this sort of thing, but the cartoon fire at the top of Clerks II was more convincing. The show is definitely shot gorgeously, however, with a distinct color palette that contrasts Detroit from the hollers of Eastern Kentucky. 

Arguably, the B plot has far more meat on the bone. It introduces--with an amount of flair that seems a tad forced--Boyd Holbrook as the impulsive sociopath Clement Mansell. Holbrook plays the music-obsessed scumbag to the rafters, and...what can I say. I've never been entirely sold on him. He is definitely having a blast here, and his character is suitably colorful for a Justified season Big Bad, but more along the lines of Neal McDonough's villain from Season 3. I just don't know how he's going to hold up once he comes face to face with the man in the hat. While Olyphant and Goggins both played their characters with a natural, effortless swagger, Mansell has a swagger that seems entirely fabricated and calculated. Like a long history of Elmore Leonard villains, I suspect there's a lot of stupid, pathetic desperation buried under all that compensation. If that gets revealed at all, I'll be a happy guy. 

Until then, it's too bad his introduction mostly consists of him arriving in Motor City and gallivanting around with his girl, Sandy. Clement eventually makes the devil-may-care decision to brutally gank the Judge and his assistant for merely getting in his way, and that's the true kickoff point for the season. That's interesting, because usually the moment a mustache-twirling black hat commits cold-blooded murder, that's when the opening credits to a Justified episode roll. Its almost like this hour of TV is merely the cold open, and the rest will likely play out like one long movie. I realize that's the gold standard for a limited, eight-episode arc on a streaming service. It still isn't ideal pacing for television, in my opinion, but I forgive it wholeheartedly if it means a little more time with the handsome cowboy man.

There's also a C plot involving a defense attorney named Carolyn with some skeletons in her closet and a playful resentment of Raylan, who she compares to Kevin Costner's Yellowstone character. Not much there, as of yet, but she carries a lot of potential as either a professional adversary or a begrudging ally for Givens down the line. It's a little too cute by half that all these seemingly separate threads finally start to intersect in the last fifteen minutes. Raylan and Willa have dinner in the same bar and grill as Carolyn, while the judge and his assistant chill in the same casino where Clement and Sandy are orchestrating a honey trap scheme. It does smack of Elmore Leonard and Justified; random happenstance and plain dumbassery are typically the catalysts that force these bold characters into each other's orbits. But it also feels less random and more contrived in a big city like Detroit instead of rural Harlan County. 

Overall, the first foray into City Primeval is a damn fun first chapter. The episode packs a lot of what we know and love from the original series, including lots of razor-sharp comedy and also some tense standoffs and thrilling chases and arrests. The real headline, however, is that Raylan is no longer the icy cowboy who gives deadly ultimatums and then draws faster than the other guy. He's less angry. Or more tired. Or both. I'm encouraged that while this revival seems to have a good grasp on the original, there is a concentrated focus on how time, fatherhood, and peace of mind have changed our old pal Raylan Givens.

Episode grade: B+

Stray Notes:

-Per Hulu's description, this takes place 15 years after Raylan left Kentucky, even though it's been only 8 years in real time. Keep in mind that the final episode, "The Promise," had a four-year time jump as well. That would mean City Primeval takes place in 2030. Unless, of course, we assume the last scenes of "The Promise" (after the time jump) take place when it aired in 2015, in which case this new season takes place in 2026. None of this matters at all, and it's likely all just a byproduct of casting 20-year-old Vivian Olyphant as a 15-year-old Willa.

-Willa: "I barely touched her."
 Raylan: "You broke her nose."
 Willa: "She deserved it."
 It's fun to hear that the Givens temper and the, ahem, justification of violence live on in Gen Z. 

-Raylan name-checking the model of Cadillac that is destroyed is quite the forced bit of product placement. It doesn't help that all Cadillac sedans these days look exactly the same, and their names are all just a jumble of letters and numbers. Makes it extremely unnatural when a character refers to one by their precise jumble.

-Between this show and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Boyd Holbrook must be getting quite accustomed to these German pistols. He uses a period-accurate Walther in Jones, and Clement retrieves something that looks like a Luger and uses it to kill Keith David. It's a very unexpected choice of gun for Mansell, but it's certainly villainous and distinctive.

-Turns out the Judge's assistant was an informant for Detroit PD, which likely has something to do with the small ledger Clement steals from the Judge's corpse. Earlier, the book was waved around in reference to all the nasty things the Judge knew about in the city. So...it's 50/50 that the book will make Clement a suddenly powerful force in the Detroit crime world, or he will carry it around for days not understanding how valuable it is until it bites him in the ass. Its a good McGuffin. I'm intrigued to see where it goes.

Previous Post Next Post