Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Justified Praise of Excellent Dialogue

My wife and I don't watch a lot of television. In fact, during our entire marriage we've only followed two shows, Pushing Daisies and Lost, and those we've watched on iTunes rather than a TV set. (Incidentally, we've haven't yet gotten to the Lost finale, so if you all ruin it for me in the comments I'll send a gout of shape-shifting black smoke to tear you limb from limb.) Recently, though, we've tuned in to the hardboiled hillbilly drama Justified, a sharp-edged and sometimes brutal show that somehow captured both of our interest. No small feat, given that I like SF and horror while my wife's preferences run toward romance.

How did it win us over? Easy: winning dialogue. Look at three examples of what Justified's writers do with the words they put in their characters' mouths.

(Note: ISLF aims to be a more-or-less family friendly blog, at least in the language department. However, hardboiled characters are rather known for their salty elocution, and those in Justified are no exception. Consider yourself warned.)

In the climax of the pilot episode, straight-talking, straight-shooting and cowboy-hat-wearing U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens is facing down a white supremacist named Boyd Crowder over a meal of fried chicken. The confrontation is taking place in the home of Ava Crowder, Boyd's sister-in-law who recently ended her marriage to his abusive brother with a .30-06 slug to the chest while he ate dinner at the very same table.
RAYLAN: The .45's on the table, I have to pull. Is that how we do it?

BOYD: Well, I appreciate that, Raylan. Yes, I do believe it is my call. What are you packing?

RAYLAN: You'll pay to find that out.

BOYD: Ooh, you got ice-cold water running through your veins. [pause] Well, should we just do us a shot of Jim Beam? Just for old time's sake?

[Raylan shrugs.]

BOYD: Ava, get us a shot of Jim --

[Ava comes in from the hallway with a shotgun.]

AVA: You wanna know what Bowman said when he looked up and he saw me with his deer rifle?

BOYD: Damn, woman, you only shoot people when they're eating supper?

AVA: He had his mouth full of sweet potato. He said, "The hell you doing with that?"

BOYD: Ava, put the gun down, please.

AVA: You wanna know what I said? I said, "I'm gonna shoot you -- dummy."
In "Blowback," Raylan tries to defuse a hostage situation with an ex-con named Cal Wallace who is holding a shiv to the throat of a guard in the U.S. Marshall's office.
WALLACE: Hey, you like having a boss?

RAYLAN: Can't say I think about it much.

WALLACE: Well, I had a boss once. I hired on roughnecking right after I dropped out of high school. [yells] I brained my boss with a heavy chain! [laughs] This one we used to trick pipe. Well, when I said I brained him, I mean literally you could see brains coming out his nose.

RAYLAN: Didn't you say Simone was the first man you killed? You did that before high school?

WALLACE: Oh, no, no, no. That foreman, he didn't die. I got forty-two months out of it, but that son of a bitch, he held on. [laughs] I don't think he's much of a conversationalist anymore, though!
"The Collection" features a scene in which Raylan has a heart-to-heart talk with his ex-wife Winona.
RAYLAN: Um. [takes off his hat, turns it in his hands] Why did you leave me?

WINONA: You want to talk about that right now? Okay. I didn't leave you, Raylan. You left me when you took that job in Miami.

RAYLAN: You were gonna sell the house and join me. Instead, you ended up banging the realtor.

WINONA: You think our marriage was a bed of roses up until I stepped out? Weren't you just the littlest bit relieved when I took up with Gary?

RAYLAN: Was it money?


RAYLAN: Well, did you want someone who --

WINONA: Raylan, you know me. Do you think I give a shit about money?

RAYLAN: Everyone gives a shit about money.

WINONA: What's going on with you, Raylan?

RAYLAN: I wanna know. Was he funnier than me? Smarter? Does he have more money, a bigger house, bigger dick?

WINONA: Yes, no, no, uh, I didn't measure.

RAYLAN: Wait, run the order of that by me again. [pauses, smiles, shakes his head] I know I played my part. Losing someone like you, it ... I guess it eats at a guy.
The dialogue of Justified is many things, as you tell. Chatty. Idiosyncratic. Raw. Tender. Gut-bustingly funny. But I notice two things especially. First, it's highly stylized, not at all what you'd hear people saying on the street. Second, it does so much more than simply convey information. It entertains, and isn't delight what we're supposed to be fostering in audiences in the first place?

(Picture: CC 2006 by
Shannon K)


dolorah said...

I can see how the dialogue could hook you. I'm intrigued myself. That last one was especially entertaining.

I like how specific this review is. Thanks for sharing.


B. Nagel said...

I do like an ISLF review.

As Donna says, the specificity is invigorating. Well, she didn't say those exact words. But I did.

Loren Eaton said...


It's a very good show, well worth checking out. I was surprised at how much my wife enjoyed it, but it has a lot of humor and some touching parts.

Loren Eaton said...


Yay! Someone likes me!

Hmmm, looks like is trailing some episodes. "Blind Spot" is the best one so far, in my humble opinion.

Anne R. Allen said...

I love Justified. It's one of the few TV shows that doesn't make me feel like I've just given away an hour of my life for nothing.

Now you make it clear why. I remember that fantastic scene with Winona--so much going on in so few words--but it's all about the words.

I know Elmore Leonard isn't writing the scripts, but his inspiration comes through, and the writers certainly have studied his craft.

Jessica (The Bluestocking Society) said...

My husband loves this show, and I usually end up enthralled too. The dialog is killer, as are some of the one liners. My favorite is the exchange between Raylan and the bong shop owner regarding his pink eye. :)

Jessica @ The Bluestocking Society

Loren Eaton said...


Seriously, I haven't been so excited about a show in at least a decade. It isn't flashy, but it gets all the fundamental down pat. Also, isn't Leonard executive producer?

Loren Eaton said...


Yeah, that was a great scene. And then when Raylan gets all "clumsy" while handling the bongs? Gold.

doucheball said...

In "The Collection", after Raylan says " eats at a guy", Wynona says something. I replayed it at least 10 times and couldn't figure out what her line was there. Do you know what she said? Raylan gives a look afterwards, as if she said something pretty significant.

Loren Eaton said...

Sorry for the late reply. Took me a bit to clear time to look over the clip again.

Yeah, that's hard to hear, isn't it? I think she's saying, "That's the first you ever said that." Like she never knew Raylan had felt that way before.

two bells said...

Justified has the best writing of any tv show on air bar Boardwalk Empire and sometimes superior.

two bells said...

"Raylan, You're the angriest man I know."

Loren Eaton said...

Yes, I love it. I don't watch a lot of TV, but Justified really has hooked me in.

Let the new season roll ...