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Review: Justified: City Primeval, “City Primeval” & “The Oklahoma Wildman” | Episodes 1 & 2
Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens is back on the case, in a whole new world
Welcome to Episodic Medium’s coverage of Justified: City Primeval, the revival and extension of FX’s hit drama series. As always, the first review is free, but subsequent reviews will be exclusively for paid subscribers. To learn more, check out our summer schedule, or check out our About Page.
One of the bright spots of my year thus far has been rewatching all six seasons of Justified in preparation for this Justified: City Primeval miniseries. Returning to Graham Yost’s interpretation of Elmore Leonard’s 21st-century Wild West world served as a reminder of not only how good Justified was—even during its nadir, the “too big” penultimate season—but how good television of the 2010s was, especially those prestige dramas that could blend said drama with genuinely funny comedy and moments of levity. Shows like Mad Men, The Good Wife, and Justified. I had honestly forgotten just how funny Justified was and could be, with its depiction of the quirks and eccentricities of its Kentucky residents (both in Lexington and Harlan) anchored by an all-time performance by Timothy Olyphant. This rewatch allowed me to get even more excited for the miniseries, thanks to the combination of returning creative forces and the man in the hat himself.
Like the original series, City Primeval is based on Elmore Leonard’s work. But this time, instead of taking an established Raylan Givens story1, showrunners Dave Andron and Michael Dinner—both returning from the original series, as well as co-writing these first two episodes, with Dinner also directing—decided to drop Raylan into someone else’s. The 1980 novel City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit follows Detroit homicide detective Raymond Cruz as he tries to take down the psychopath known as the “Oklahoma Wildman,” Clement Mansell, playing fast and loose with the rules, en route to a one-on-one showdown. Essentially, Andron and Dinner saw it as the kind of story that could make sense with Raylan—and make sense as a reason to bring back the show in any form at all—and now here we are, eight years after the original series ended.
Set 15 years after the end of the original series (maybe don’t try to do the math), the synopsis for City Primeval describes Raylan Givens as “a walking anachronism;” “his hair is grayer, his hat is dirtier, and the road in front of him is suddenly a lot shorter than the road behind.” He’s also seemingly not as trigger-happy, but you can probably bet that he’ll get his gun off on Mansell by the end of things. Gone are the hollers of Kentucky and the familiarity of Raylan’s hometown surroundings, as we quickly end up in the cold, blue-tinted (as established in Season 5, just like how Mexico was yellow-tinted) world of Detroit, Michigan. While Raylan stuck out like a sore thumb in Harlan because his choices placed him on the opposite side of the law from essentially everyone he knew growing up, he was never quite the fish out of water. That all changes in the eponymous premiere of City Primeval.
After some time in the Everglades to kick things off, “City Primeval” officially places Olyphant’s Raylan as the fish out of water in Detroit, on a collision course with Clement Mansell (Boyd Holbrook). Immediately, characters are letting Raylan know just how things are done in Detroit, a typical sign that someone isn’t in Kansas (or Kentucky, as it were) anymore. To be fair to the writing in this series opener, Justified has always been a show about letting characters know “just how things are done” or that “we do things differently,” whether the characters are in Harlan or Detroit. That’s simply part of its charm. It only makes sense to do it in a new setting. And despite the stark change in location and all the discussion of how things are done, City Primeval still provides the Justified audience with a loquacious Southern narcissist as Raylan’s antagonist.
But Raylan isn’t just a fish out of water in this series. City Primeval is clearly interested in telling a story of what a lawman like Raylan Givens looks like in 2023—in a world where police behavior is, appropriately, under a microscope. Even during the original run of Justified, Raylan was the problem child of the Lexington U.S. Marshals Field Office, with an exasperated Art (Nick Searcy) trying everything he could to rein him in. The series premiere even ended with his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea, unfortunately absent here) calling him "the angriest man [she has] ever known” but being very good at hiding it. Because his anger wasn’t exactly shown in bursts of rage; Raylan Givens was the coolest character you could ever see at the time. A major part of that was tied to his avoidance of addressing his inner demons and problems like his issues with his career criminal father Arlo (Raymond Barry).2 But Raylan was a cowboy in the 21st century Wild West known as Harlan, and even when his behavior created a mess, he was able to clean up that mess because of his familiarity with that world.
Raylan doesn’t necessarily have that luxury here in Detroit in 2023. Part of the appeal of the return of Justified is to see how a character like Raylan is able to navigate what the world looks like now in reaction to police brutality and corruption. Raylan was never corrupt, as much as characters wanted to point the finger at him in that direction. But his metaphorical white hat was never that clean. Season 5 featured Eric Roberts as a DEA agent and sobering glimpse into what Raylan’s future would be like if he didn’t change, so obviously, there was some movement in the right direction for him by the time things ended. But in City Primeval, while he’s definitely not some dinosaur or good old boy or even hotshot cop3 who’s incapable of change—look at how he handles the two busts in the episode compared to the loudmouth detective Norbert Bryl (Norbert Leo Butz), who only wants to tell him “how we get shit done in Detroit”—that doesn’t mean he’s figured out how to fully navigate the current system. Especially outside of his comfort zone of the South.
Which is why the courtroom scene works so well. The original series established just how awful Raylan is when it comes to testifying in court, and here, it’s compounded with him being in a foreign setting and the way the world has changed. Andron and Dinner immediately give us Raylan Givens doing “Raylan Given things” on the stand, only for them to bite him in the ass. Now, Raylan’s terrible track record on the stand is “sabotaged” even more by his typical behavior, as we quickly learn he pulled the old Raylan classic: taking perps “straight to the courthouse”... after a number of pit stops and threatening to (as opposed of just plain doing it, as he is wont to do) place one of them in the trunk of his car. The audience is given the POV to be on Raylan’s side in this situation, as the pair of would-be carjackers were stupid and malicious enough to mess with the wrong man (and his daughter), but unfortunately, this happens to be the wrong time and wrong place for Raylan Givens to be Raylan Givens.
His testimony comes right after an annoyed Judge Alvin Guy (Keith David) was just the target of a recent car bombing in this “racist ass city” (to him, the result of thriving in this “racist ass system”), with defense attorney Carolyn Wilder (Aunjanue Ellis) zeroing in on the fact that the trunk-threatened perp (and her client) was also Black. It doesn’t help that Raylan pulls the “behaving in a threatening manner” cop card, even though he’s honest about the fact he “would’ve put a white man in there too.” Throw in Raylan also getting on Judge Guy’s last nerve (as Judge Guy’s bad mood extends to holding Raylan’s teenage daughter—and then Raylan—in contempt of the court), and it’s all a beautiful mess, settling the audience back into the tempo and vibe of Justified, even though we’re not in Harlan anymore.
Of course, the tempo and vibe of Justified now include Raylan having to juggle work and family with his teenage daughter, Willa (Vivian Olyphant, Timothy’s real-life daughter), in tow. If there’s anything to really “worry” about with this revival, it’s probably the fact that there’s a kid here now, one who is (of course) acting out. While Raylan brought Willa to court—where it’s revealed that, like her father, Willa can’t get enough of cat videos on the internet—City Primeval isn’t just one big “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” As we see here and in the second episode, while Willa (like her mother did) has to experience being second fiddle to Raylan’s job as Marshal, her very presence also signifies that Raylan has been and remained a present parent after all these years, a feat in and of itself.
And all of this is set up for the aforementioned collision course between Raylan and the Big Bad of the piece, Clement Mansell. From the first episode, we learn there’s a nothingness in the way Mansell looks at even the most important people around him. But it really all comes together with the second episode, “The Oklahoma Wildman.” The way Mansell can just flip on a dime is what sets the course for the rest of the series, as his dogged pursuit of Judge Guy in a seeming bout of road rage (though, like Raylan most of the time, “rage” isn’t something Mansell really ever shows) is depicted as what he considers a bit of fun. (Dinner really has his own fun in his direction of this piece, capturing both what Mansell considers fun and the judge and his assistant, understandably, consider terrifying.) He’s supposed to be tailing his girl, Sandy Stanton (Adelaide Clemens), and their rich Albanian mark, Skender Lulgjaraj4 (Alexander Pobutsky), but in just losing them for a moment, he has no problem turning his focus on something else and causing a huge mess in the process. (And then later is more upset there’s no bounty on his head than anything else.) Up top, a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of revealing who Mansell really is is done by things like this chase set piece and Marcus “Sweety” Sweeton’s (Vondie Curtis Hall, really selling Mansell as a terror) brief scenes with him. Maybe not so much him singing along to his own demo cover of “Seven Nation Army,” even though a murderer-slash-failed musician does make quite a bit of sense in the Justified world. But the rest really tracks as we get into things.
So, what starts as a simple, 24-hour collaboration with a Detroit PD task force—including Detectives Wendell Robinson (Victor Williams) and Maureen Downey (Marin Ireland), in addition to Norbert—leads to Raylan having to stay in Detroit to look into the deaths of Judge Guy and his assistant Rose (Rae Gray). As it currently stands, City Primeval puts viewers (both returning and first-time) in a now familiar place: Marshal work preventing Raylan from going back to Miami. But now that work also shows us just how they do things in Detroit.
While “City Primeval” serves as a fine return to form for Raylan Givens and a suitable introduction to what his life is like now, “The Oklahoma Wildman” really provides a solid glimpse of “the man who would be fucking king,” Clement Mansell—as well as the whirlwind he creates (without abandon) for the people surround him. Raylan asks Wendell if Mansell is really lucky or if he’s just that good, considering he got away with killing a bunch of drug dealers and his own crew back in 2017, and it looks like he’s about to get away with killing a high-profile judge and his assistant in the present day. Wendell doesn’t think luck has anything to do with it, and the way things shake out by the end of this episode, it’s hard to doubt Mansell knows what he’s doing. He’s certainly playing with fire, but it appears he loves to get burned, even if those around him absolutely do not.
After building Mansell up in the premiere, he and Raylan clash here, with Mansell actively revealing himself when he’s still just a case file to Raylan. Mansell knows the Marshal and Detective are looking into him for Judge Guy (and Rose’s) death, but he clearly has no problem putting a target on his Teflon back, clearly to the chagrin of Carolyn (his attorney, thanks to Sweety). In just two episodes, Boyd Holbrook already pulls off an impressive tightrope act in terms of his charismatic detachment and charming coldness. His ability to blend in to an outsider could make this character and performance so much different, but the fact that he refuses to blend in, refuses to really keep up the act—even though he can—is what makes things already so interesting. The thrill for Mansell isn’t sticking in the background and getting away with things—it’s being as openly guilty as possible and walking away from it all unscathed, while everyone else in his wake suffers the consequences. (In the flashback, there’s no reason for Mansell to burn Sweety to the drug dealers he’s about to kill, other than because that’s what he considers “fun” or “playing.”) We see that with Sweety’s guilt for how things went down in 2017, as well as how he and Carolyn talk about Mansell after a day of defending that monster from Raylan and Wendell.
And the way Mansell treats the people around him is fascinating. He talks to Sweety like he respects him—and that he’d never betray him, because of musician solidarity—but how he treats him betrays that. Plus, the fact of the matter is he clearly doesn’t respect anyone. Even Carolyn—who he should be thankful for after getting him off in 2017—earns no respect from him, as he threatens her in her own office. And then there’s Sandy, who Raylan and Wendell at least find some amusement in talking to and tailing because she is completely in over her head. (And according to Raylan, “Maybe ‘in over her head’ is where she wants to be.”) The tactics she uses (like her fake cough and playing dumb, in general) obviously work on the casino high-rollers she scams with Mansell, but that’s a whole other set of skills for a whole different class of people. Sandy appears to be smart enough not to ask Mansell about his wrongdoings, but she’s enjoying the thrill too much to try to get out of being a part of them. Sure, she doesn’t ask him what he’s used his gun on (that now has her fingerprints), but she still gets rid of it for him (though he told her to dump it, not return it to Sweety’s bathroom). She already has the Albanian mark plan when Mansell shows up in the premiere, as well as access to high-roller Del Weems’ penthouse. She’s clearly, to quote Happy Endings, not as dumb as she is. But it’s hard not to see the writing on the wall for her in her dream Bonnie and Clyde lifestyle with Mansell, especially as she’s just another person in his whirlwind.
“Only two kinds of guys out in the street chasing bad guys at your age: ones who got passed over for the big chair and the ones that just love it so much they’re gonna have to be dragged off. Only question is will they be breathing when it happens.”
One thing about Justified: When Raylan Givens knows in his gut that someone is guilty and he wants to prove it, he is like a dog with a bone, often to the detriment of both his personal and professional lives. It’s part of why he—for seasons—put off being with Winona (and then Willa) in the original series, and on a smaller scale, why he puts off returning to the hotel in “a couple hours” to be with Willa in this episode, though he has plenty of openings. And it’s part of why a psychopath like Mansell has absolutely no problem trying to ruin Raylan’s life for the fun of it, doing his research and heading to the man’s hotel after Carolyn had already told Raylan to stay away from her client.
But all of this still connects to how Raylan Givens has changed over the years. Sure, him (understandably) beating the crap out of a psychopathic murderer for openly, gleefully threatening his daughter doesn’t seem like much has changed in these past 15 years (it’s that rage), but stay with me here. As previously mentioned, the novel version of City Primeval was actually a Raymond Cruz story, not a Raylan Givens one. In “The Oklahoma Wildman,” we get a bit of Cruz (Paul Calderon), the arresting officer in Mansell’s case in 2017, with Wendell informing Raylan in the present that Cruz retired after 32 years on the job because “the world changed, Ray didn’t.” (He also describes him as a “hell of a detective who just had enough.”)
In the flashback, Cruz has his men (with Wendell leading the charge)5 knock down Mansell and Sandy’s motel room door. Because, as we saw in the premiere, that’s just how they do things in Detroit. But while a calm, cool, and collected Mansell tells Cruz they “could’ve just knocked,” it’s worth noting that, in the present, Raylan Givens is the type of lawman who is willing to match that energy. Raylan was the only one to consider doing something as simple as opening the door—or anything even tantamount to knocking compared to the Detroit alternative. He’s the one trying to talk things out with a man who brings a knife to his mom’s throat, while brute force is all the DPD has in mind. So while Mansell thinks he has Raylan pegged—and now knows all about the Miami shooting that opened the original series—he’s not giving him the benefit of the doubt about the type of man he is. Raylan might be older and grayer and set in his ways, but he is able to adapt. Maybe except for when a psychopath comes for him via his 15-year-old daughter, but we wouldn’t want Raylan to change too much.
There is one very important thing City Primeval is missing, and I think we all know it. So please, join me in listening to the Justified theme song/national anthem and reliving the hick-hop era of the 2010s. “God, get at your boy,” indeed.
Just to be clear, while the aforementioned “Raylan Givens things” come back to bite him in the ass in a courtroom surrounded by Black people who can use his words and actions against him, that’s not to say that Carolyn and Judge Guy are squeaky clean. Not at all. As a defense attorney, Carolyn is just doing her job, even though her job does mean getting really bad men acquitted. She later even admits to Raylan she knows he means well, but she’s gotten herself into this messy business. And Judge Guy was corrupt, threatening Raylan and the DPD detectives prior to his death. Maureen later reveals Rose was their confidential informant and that Judge Guy’s ledger—which Mansell steals—is key.
I think I’ll reserve full judgment for how I feel about the casting of Olyphant’s real-life daughter, Vivian (aka “the nepo daughter”), the further we get into the season. Adding a kid or a teen to an established property is always kind of an uphill battle anyway. The premiere does the character better justice than the second episode, though. For example, it’s a nice touch that she wants to visit Harlan, to see where she’s from. It’s also pretty funny to see her buy Carolyn “the dumbest drink on the menu” on Raylan’s behalf. However, while “The Oklahoma Wildman” tries to show how street-wise and capable she is when she’s off on her own, it kind of undoes all of that with how Mansell dupes her. The point is obviously that Mansell is just so good that even he could con the daughter of a Marshal who no doubt taught her how to stay safe (and he clearly did his research), but it really comes across as this teen who doesn’t listen choosing the absolute wrong thing not to listen about. And that’s the kind of trap shows very much not about kids fall into when including kids.
Very important to note: Watching these two episodes, I do think City Primeval actually makes for a pretty solid entry point for people who didn’t watch the original.
Mansell excluded, it’s nice to know Justified criminals are still as dumb as ever. Also, of course there’s a Confederate flag bumper sticker on the truck of one of the bombing perps. Nice touch.
Raylan: “Don’t need to talk tough. I’m just trying to help.”
Barry’s mother: “Jesus himself couldn’t help him! My son’s going to Hell in a handbasket!”
Barry: “Shut up, mom! What does that even mean?”
Aunjanue Ellis’ face when she receives “the dumbest drink on the menu?” Priceless.
Sandy (re: Raylan): “He was quiet. Polite, even. It’s funny, I get the sense there’s some meanness in him.”
How on earth is Raylan “unfamiliar” with “Atomic Dog?”
In 2017, Mansell explained why he robs drug dealers instead of the rich people up in Palmer Woods. He essentially breaks his own “code” in the premiere by trying to follow up after killing Judge Guy, not that I believe he actually has a code.
And thus begins our coverage of Justified: City Primeval. A reminder that if you want to keep up with LaToya’s reviews and continue reliving the 2010s with a community dedicated to bringing back the vibes from those days, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
There technically is an official Raylan Givens novel set in Detroit: 2018’s Raylan Goes to Detroit, written by Elmore Leonard’s son, Peter: “After an altercation with his superiors in Harlan County, Kentucky, Deputy US Marshal, Raylan Givens is offered two choices. He can either retire or finish his career on the fugitive task force in the crime-ridden precincts of Detroit.
Season 5 is a real struggle for a number of reasons that I’ve tweeted about, but rewatching it, it was especially frustrating to see all the ways Raylan would avoid and excuse avoiding seeing his newborn daughter in Miami. Some could call it a lower point for Raylan than actually allowing a mob boss to perform a hit on someone with him just feet away.
Norbert Leo Butz’s decision to do an upsetting amount of gun-chomping as scene business in the premiere is definitely… a decision.
Skender also plays a role in the novel City Primeval. I don’t know if he’s in the “hot dog” business in the book though.
Wendell is the most laidback DPD detective we’ve met so far, always snacking and getting on with Raylan pretty well thus far. He does tell Raylan he’s tired though, to which Raylan asks him, “What are you tired from?”