You think you know me? Well, I know you Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens. I know you like to shoot bad people…I heard about you shooting that gun thug in Miami, but you know? At any point, when you were looking at that gun thug, did you see your daddy’s face?
These are the words of Boyd Crowder, longtime friend and archenemy of Raylan Givens, in the show’s pilot episode. In the modern carriage of the Western Sheriff trope, Givens represents the unbending, truth-toting hand of justice. And with this trope—of law and order and “shooting bad people”—comes the necessary prospect any Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill has had to face; who is bad? And am I good?
The answer seems to be a sticky one for the Harlan backdrop of Justified. Givens sips bourbon and makes nice with criminals, sleeps with witnesses, shoots to kill more often than not…and for him, it’s “justified,” kind of. In defending the death of that same gun thug, he tells ex-wife Winona:
He pulled first, so I was justified…but what troubles me is what if he hadn’t? Would I have killed him anyway? I know I wanted to. I guess I never thought of myself as an angry man.
For Raylan, returning to a Kentucky (a past) he thought he left for good, justice is shorthand for self-justice, proving to himself that he is, in fact, a good person shooting bad people. Raylan, thus, sees being the Law as making the Law, crooking it to barricade himself from the self he’s afraid of seeing. But as Winona reminds him: “Raylan, you do a good job of hiding it, but honestly, you are the angriest man I’ve ever known.”
And then there’s this:
If Raylan is today’s Wyatt Earp, Walter White is his Curly Bill, or his Huckleberry. Vince Gilligan imagines the contemporary cowboy in Breaking Bad, not as a lawless renegade or as some thieving casino doorswinger, but instead as a principled man on his own road to glory. He is not so much a villain devoid of law as he is a man who must deal with the consequences of having made his own laws as a means to escape the real ones. As White’s power and wealth grows, so, too, does his need to cover up what his power and wealth has earned him.
So given a Tombstone shootout kind of scenario, what would we see? In this nouveau Western television setting, I want to argue that the train heists and chases and comeuppances happen within. I want to argue that, for Walter White and Raylan Givens, we might see heads and tails of the same coin. Both men, while being on opposing sides of the badge, are as justified as they are criminal. Someone must atone for who they are: