Over the eight episodes of Justified: City Primeval, FX’s limited series reviving their classic Peak TV crime drama Justified, a vivid tapestry of relationships and personal history emerges, with the thread of Clement Mansell’s chaotic, brutal crimes running all the way through it.
Each relationship–aging lawman Raylan Givens and young criminal in his prime Clem; Clem and his regretful girlfriend Sandy Stanton; Clem and his former partner in crime Sweety Sweeton; Sweety and his beloved daughter-surrogate Carolyn Wilder; brilliant attorney Carolyn and Raylan—illuminates different facets of the characters while also imbuing the series with an air of dramatic, often tragic, inevitability.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead of Justified: City Primeval.)
Of course Raylan has to kill Clem; of course Clem is obsessed with reminding Carolyn (Aunjanue Ellis) that he’s both her client and a sociopath who can get to her at work or at home; of course he’s the one to kill Carolyn’s father figure Sweety (Vondie Curtis Hall). As showrunner Michael Dinner puts it in an interview with The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, “These characters are on a collision course, and you feel that there are bigger forces at work. Wherever Elmore Leonard’s stories take place, the characters are against a bigger backdrop, an existential crisis.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Dinner shared his insights into the series’ characters and how their relationships play out as Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) and Clem (Boyd Holbrook) approach their final confrontation. And of course, he also addressed the delightful elephant in the room: the tantalizing potential for a longer-term return of Walton Goggins as Raylan’s nemesis/spiritual brother, Boyd Crowder. There’s no guarantee that viewers will get to hear them talk about digging coal together one more time, but we can dare to dream.
Retiree Raylan Givens?
While the Raylan Givens of Justified: City Primeval is still (mostly) cool as a cucumber, he’s also past his prime and far more aware of his own mortality than he was in Justified’s original series run. His quarry in the eight-episode game of cat and mouse, Clement Mansell, is bright enough to see and exploit Raylan’s aging veteran status by the end of the second episode, taunting him with how easy it was to get to Raylan’s daughter Willa, but Clem can’t maintain the focus he needs to pull off his many, varied scams.
Dinner is philosophical about Clem’s summary execution in Carolyn’s kitchen during the season finale, noting that “we threaded the needle a little bit—in a way, it’s a mistake, he was reaching for that demo tape that meant so much to him, but it was a fitting end for where we needed to go.” Raylan being so decisive isn’t surprising; at this point in his career he wouldn’t want to draw out a confrontation with an unpredictable connoisseur of violence. The chances of it going wrong increase with every moment he doesn’t shoot Clem. Additionally, he can’t tolerate Carolyn being in danger, and at the back of Raylan’s mind is the reality that “this guy has gotten off before, thanks to Carolyn’s skill as a lawyer, and he’s wreaked more havoc” as a result.
Seemingly at peace with retirement—we see Raylan repainting his little seaside house and fishing with Willa in the finale’s closing moments—in the end, Raylan is still Raylan. The moral compass that’s been tested and even wobbled occasionally across the original run of Justified and Justified: City Primeval still points to his true north. He could have had a somewhat easier, cleaner end to his experiences with Mansell by leaving him in the storage unit where the Albanian mob had left him to die, alone and in the dark, but “he couldn’t live with Mansell being locked up by that wall. The mob boss says someone will open it up years in the future after wondering where he’d gone, but that’s not the way someone ends according to Raylan’s code.” His compulsion to face Clem fair and square sets up their final, far riskier confrontation.
A Tragic Opera Set in Motown
The richest and most wrenching set of relationships in Justified: City Primeval is the triad formed by gleefully violent Clement Mansell, his no-nonsense attorney Carolyn Wilder, and her father figure, the talented and caring Marcus “Sweety” Sweeton.
Winter is particularly proud of the gradual way viewers learn how profound the bonds and history between these three characters run, noting that although the depth of Carolyn and Sweety’s relationship is obvious from their first interaction on-screen. “We don’t front-load it,” he says. “We’re into the seventh episode when we see that flashback to who Sweety was and how he cared for this girl” who needed a loving and reliable adult in her life.
The irony of Carolyn becoming such a formidable and talented lawyer in adulthood is that Sweety’s far less salubrious partnership with Clem leads her to being stuck representing the Oklahoma Wildman to protect Sweety. Clem and Sweety’s relationship is a funhouse mirror of Carolyn and Sweety’s: Clem craves the approval and encouragement Sweety provides to Carolyn as easily as breathing, but the way Clem relishes murder makes real fatherliness impossible. And in the pitch-black comedy of Elmore Leonard’s Detroit, Clem’s talent-free musical ambitions are nearly as bad as the conscience-free swath of despair and grief he leaves in his wake.
More often than not, whenever Mansell is alone, he’s playing a demo—on a cassette tape, no less—of himself very amateurishly singing The White Stripes’ contemporary classic, “Seven Nation Army”. The idea came from Dinner and fellow showrunner Dave Andron’s conversations about how “it’d be cool to have something that linked these two characters together” in addition to their criminal partnership.
In Leonard’s novel, Sweety “was a minor character. Here, he’s kind of the face of Detroit” modeled on “James Jamerson, who was the bass player of the 1960s, who played all of the Motown sessions” as a member of the label’s legendary house band, The Funk Brothers. Upon his return to Detroit, Mansell is “anxious for Sweety to hear his demos” but the moment of truth comes late in the game. Desperate to get Clem out of his life, Sweety snaps, telling him, “‘Quit playing me this honky-ass cover shit. You’re not the real deal,’ which is the worst thing he could have said to Mansell.” Looking back on their arc, Dinner comments that the emotional intensity of that relationship and its end, where “this sociopath pulls the trigger on his surrogate father [is] Greek tragedy.”
As for what’s wrong with Clem’s cover of “Seven Nation Army,” Dinner reveals that the key to making that irresistibly pulsating song dull was to slow the instrumental track down very slightly, so that “you’re listening out of one ear with your head tilted, thinking that it was wasn’t so horrible, but bad enough to be bad.” Mansell “has a lot of bravado, but he’s not very good.”
Ultimately, Clem’s fate at the business end of Raylan’s gun was foreordained, but dragging Sweety into his hare-brained blackmail schemes, only to murder him and then daring to endanger Carolyn by stalking her at home put a final seal on it.
Carolyn Wilder, on Her Own Terms at Last
Carolyn’s home itself is almost a character in the series, a stand-in for her former husband Jamal (Amin Joseph), who is the epitome of the charming guy no self-respecting person should be with. Not unlike Karen Sisco, played so memorably by Jennifer Lopez in the objectively perfect film adaptation of Out of Sight, Carolyn’s history had been one of the ultra-competent professional woman with miserable taste in men. Dinner is quick to point out that since Carolyn and Jamal met so young, all of the heartache he causes her isn’t the result of “a relationship that went off the tracks, but the result of the world at large being such a nightmare” and Jamal’s failure to navigate it well.
The moment where she opens up to Raylan about how much she loathes their house, remarking that the only thing that was really hers is the luxurious bathtub, still knocks Dinner out. “It was Jamal’s vision and it’s so cold! That kind of sums up the relationship she had with him, and it’s a constant reminder of that guy” and how much their relationship has cost her over the years. The costs of caring about both Jamal and Sweety are heavy, but by the end of the series, Carolyn has played the game more skilfully than Sweety could manage. She ascends to the judicial bench in the process, and feels sufficiently free from the cares of the past that she can send Raylan a flirty note with a congratulatory bottle of top-quality bourbon.
The Surprising Sandy Stanton
As for Sandy, the other leading lady of Justified: City Primeval: Had Clem been able to wield just a touch more impulse control, he might have avoided Death By Marshal and wound up ensconced on a Caribbean beach with her. Sandy’s assiduous work prior to Clem’s return to Detroit—scouting and securing a seemingly lucrative mark, Skender, who was the nephew of the local Albanian mafia boss—handed her murderous beau a potentially huge score on a platter, but he blew it, giving into road rage and the pointless murder of Judge Alvin Guy and his clerk instead.
The morning after the robbery that wasn’t, Sandy has to pick up the pieces, running interference with Raylan and Detroit homicide Detective Robinson, then grappling with whether or not to dispose of Clem’s gun in the river. It’s not the most auspicious debut for their double act, and things don’t improve from there. The long and the short of why Sandy continues to have anything to do with Clem is best summed up by the lady herself: “He’s fun.”
Reflecting on Sandy, Dinner remarked that “in some ways, she’s maybe the biggest survivor of them all. [Unlike Sweety] she does get out of Dodge, and it may take Raylan to give her that little nudge, but she’s no shrinking violet. We used to joke that we should see Sandy at the end of this on some beach somewhere, working the next mark.”
Boyd Crowder (and Beyond?)
After nearly eight full episodes steeped in both One Last Job vibes and inevitability, the brief, tantalizing return of Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) at the end of the series finale could have been a ho-hum cliché. Instead, it’s a delicious, witty thrill that leaves the door ever so slightly open for one final act between Justified’s two great leads.
Dinner gives his fellow showrunner and creative partner Dave Andron all the credit for it. “Dave’s instinct was always to address it, because it’s the elephant in the room. The kneejerk reaction for viewers would be to ask, ‘Where’s Boyd?’ He said that if we had some guts, we would bring Boyd back, not in a cheap way at the beginning, or have him involved in the main story, but right at the end.”
After finding a logical, satisfying home for Boyd to stage a shrewd prison break coda in the finale, and subsequently learning that Goggins was available to shoot it, they went ahead. “We knew we wanted to do that from the beginning, we felt very satisfied doing it. And mainly, we did it not because we wanted to say ‘Oh, we have to have another year of Justified.’ We did it because we wanted to have a good time, and we wanted to see Boyd again.”