Interview: 'Justified' showrunner Graham Yost post-mortems season 3
"Justified" just concluded its third season, and in addition to reviewing the finale, I interviewed showrunner Graham Yost about the many villains who paraded through Harlan this season, what he felt worked, what didn't, and what some of his initial thoughts are about season 4, all coming up just as soon as I have a taste for pig tongue...
I was just chatting online with another critic as they watched the finale, and she just sent me an "OH SHIT" message. I think you can guess what she just saw.
The wrist chop. Or was it the reveal about Arlo?
No, it was the wrist chop.
So we've spent a lot of the season speculating on what's going to happen with Quarles' sleeve gun, and with Limehouse's meat cleaver, and the two of them come together for the climax. How long had you been building towards that moment?
It was something that came together all kind of at once. One was, when we saw the first scene where we introduced Limehouse in the slaughterhouse, that was Ben Cavell's episode, and he came back going, "Man, that set is fantastic. We have to do something with those knives and the cleaver," and we all kind of felt that would be a good place to head for. And then we thought that the slide gun was Quarles' superpower; wouldn't it be cool if that was nullified? If they just defeat his superpower by chopping off his arm. So we were headed for that from early November on.
Because there were a bunch of scenes where characters, starting with Sammy Tonin, got a look at the thing and said, "What if that jams?" Was that you trying to misdirect the audience, or was that something you were also toying with?
I would say that that was something we were thinking: what if it came out in a fight with Raylan and it just jammed? But we also started thinking that we were building this expectation that Raylan was going to have a showdown with him and that Raylan could pull his gun and beat him, but what would happen with Quarles and his gun? It just felt like it was too expected, and so we were looking for that little spin on what was expected.
In working on my review of the finale, it occurred to me that Raylan kills an awful lot of people in the first season finale, and he doesn't shoot anyone at all in the second, and here he pulls the trigger on Wynn a couple of times but never actually shoots anyone. Was that by design?
That's been an overall thing that we've been trying to do: just get a little bit towards the reality of the Marshals service, that if Raylan killed that many people, he wouldn't be a marshal anymore. I mean, we're making a television show, so we've got a certain amount of license. That's just been a general thing, and Tim (Olyphant) has advocatedfor that. Early in the season, in the episode where Dickie and Dewey get out, and it's focused more on Dickie and Raylan has tracked down the corrupt guard Ash, and Ash comes back with food for the guys, we originally scripted it as Ash pulls his gun and Raylan shoots him with the groceries. And Tim said, "Can I hit him with the car?" So that became that scene. It's often, "What else can we do, other than just have Raylan shoot someone?" We're always on the lookout for that.
You brought up the Arlo thing, which is a big moment for Raylan, even if he's faced a version of it before when Arlo was going to serve him up to Bo Crowder. Talk to me about ending the season on such a bleak, despairing note for Raylan and how you came to that.
It's interesting. We had several drafts of that last scene. One was going to be more about Raylan looking at the kind of father his father was, and what kind of father will he be. We had Winona saying, "You'll be the kind of father you decide to be." We liked that, and that hung around for a while. And then in the process, I was giving notes on the last scene or doing a pass myself of the previous scene where Arlo's talking about killing Trooper Bergin and also having killed Devil, taking the fall for Boyd, and I threw in the line, "I just saw a guy in a hat and I pulled the trigger." And that resonated with everyone. We thought, "Wait a second, that's pretty cool." We landed on that, and we got a call from the writer of the second to last episode, Taylor Elmore, saying they were having difficulty staging the scene where Tom gets out of his car and confronts Quarles. They were having trouble getting his hat on his head. He wouldn't drive with it on, and it's sort of cumbersome. And I told Taylor, "Please, you have to get it on." We had him put it on fast. It's like he's getting set to be a trooper going into that confrontation. That was about when we landed on it, and that then changed the scene with Winona.
Because this has been a season with so many different characters running around — good guys, bad guys, whatever you want to call them — and then you bring the focus entirely back to Raylan in that final moment, and then suddenly, it's not about Limehouse or Quarles or Dickie or anybody else. It's about him. Was that important to you?
Yes, that was a goal. There was also a feeling that we wanted, in the final sequence, to give Raylan a bunch of victories and then have that all pulled away from him, so that he's not on top of the world at the end of the season. And that gives us, hopefully, someplace more interesting to go in the subsequent season. He vanquishes Quarles, but then Quarles sticks him with this information about his father killing Tom. He gets Boyd, but then Arlo takes the fall for Boyd, so Boyd's going to be released. And then the additional information that Arlo was ready and willing to shoot the cop in the hat, even if it was Raylan. It's nice to have a hero have to suffer, so that it's not all easy for him.
In terms of heroism, there's that great early scene where he's playing Russian Roulette with Wynn. Is there a bullet in that gun, or is that stagecraft by Raylan?
We thought of having a shot, it's a revolver, that we'd be back behind Raylan and see there's no bullet in the gun. And we thought, "Eh, let's not let the audience know." My feeling is Raylan palmed the bullet, just as Glenn Fogle did the first time we saw him play it.
Okay, but to your audience member who doesn't make that leap with you and assumes the gun's loaded, that's taking your hero to a very dark place.
Well, it is a dark place, and one of the themes of the season is crossing a line: who is willing to cross it and what happens when you do? We have that with Art in the second episode when he beats the crap out of Frank John Hughes, we have it with Boyd killing Devil, we have the arc of Ava and the whores. She crosses a couple of lines there. So we wanted to land on that with Raylan in the final episode. What's the kind of thing that would push him over the line? He toys earlier in the season with planting the gun that Quarles used to kill Gary. Would he plant that on him? And he kind of does, and that's the gun where, when Quarles takes it out of his waistband, Raylan says, "You can keep that one."
Okay, so that's how Quarles winds up with that gun! I was going to ask about that, because that's one thing I didn't entirely follow.
It's such a small little thing. That was the intent on that. And Raylan had said to Duffy at the end of the eighth episode, that his mother told him to return things that didn't belong to him. And it's not really crossing the line, because he's just giving it back to Quarles where it belongs.
So he just kept it with him, assuming he was going to run into Quarles again?
That's the idea, that somewhere in the drive over, he got the gun out of the glovebox or wherever he had it and put it in his pants.
Given what we've talked about in terms of how many people were marching through this season and how much was going on, how satisfied are you with how it turned out?
On the one hand, pretty satisfied, because people have enjoyed it, but on the other hand, there are always things you wonder if you could have done differently. Certain episodes, you go, "Boy, we could have spent more time on that." Sometimes, we'll go forward with ideas that aren't fully cooked, that maybe we haven't found all the subtleties and depth that we could find in something. But overall, reasonably satisfied, in that it's an entertaining season. I don't think it has the emotional impact of the second season, but part of that is we don't have a 14-year-old girl in jeopardy. That carried a lot of weight last year, and we didn't want to redo that: "Maybe there's a puppy that's in danger!" So reasonably satisfied.
I'll tell you that I'm very happy that people have enjoyed it, and it's fun to have this stuff for Tim to do as Raylan. He got to show a lot interesting colors here, the stuff with Winona, we figured out an interesting line for that so they could end up in this adult detente where they support each other and love each other, and just can't be together. And specifically, in that final episode, the scene with Wynn Duffy, and the scene with Raylan and Limehouse, it's one of my favorite scenes. The way Dean Parisot directed that, he and Tim came up with the idea of the salt shaker, which is just a fun little bit. And then that final scene with Winona, the look on his face when he says, "Yeah, he saw a man in a hat, and shot him," and then he puts on his hat and walks out — what Tim does there, you say, "There you go. That's why this show is still on the air."
So seeing what did and didn't work this season and last season, has that affected how you're going to plan the fourth season? Are you even into that stage of things yet?
We've started to think about it. We've got a certain number of story questions: what's going to happen with Johnny, Limehouse, Boyd and Ava? What's going to happen between Raylan and Winona, once the baby is born? We're also wondering, do we want to do another bad guy of the year? Do we try and mix that up? Do we want to do one story? We've been thinking about Elmore's "Raylan" book, which came out this year, which is three stories: do we want to do that? Three four episode chunks rather than one big thing? So we don't know. And we're also looking for that thematic unity, which also gives us something to look at, poke at, turn around and see what we can find out by looking at things from different directions. Certainly, I think that the idea of betrayal as something that will come up in a fourth season, in what's going on with Boyd and Johnny and Limehouse.
So you'd like to have Limehouse return, then?
Yes. Given Mykelti's availability and all that, and how the stories are starting to shake out. But, yeah. I think Limehouse is a keeper. He just did great work, and it's a fun character. People get a kick out of him.
And Dickie is still alive, correct? Raylan does not kill Dickie.
Dickie, listen, he was shot, so if we needed to, we could say he died, but we're probably going to play it that he goes off to prison. I find it better on this show to warehouse characters before making the final pronouncement of death. I also, though, feel like the story of the Bennets has kind of come to a conclusion at this point. We know where the money is, Dickie is going back to prison. I don't know how much else we would want to explore, but Jeremy's doing wonderful work as Dickie, so it would be hard not to see him again. I just don't know when and where and how.
Speaking of the resolution of that and where the money was, my understanding of network series regular contracts is that they at most will let an actor out for 1 or 2 episodes to do another show. Was this the most you could use Kaitlyn (Dever) as Loretta?
I think we probably could have gotten 3. "Last Man Standing" was very accommodating. It helped that it's two very different shows with different audiences. But that just felt right, it was a nice resolve. And man, it's fun to have her in the show even for five minutes. That's another of my favorite scenes of the season, from the 12th episode with Raylan and Loretta.
I loved that line: "Marshal, I strike you in any way as a Van Halen fan?"
That was, I think it was Dave Andron covering the set, even though it was Taylor Elmore's episode, the scene was shot during a different episode because of Kaitlyn's availability, and I think it was Andron who came up with that line. That's a perfect Loretta: sort of smartass and endearing.
And Natalie Zea is doing a network pilot.
She's doing a pilot, and I believe we've carved out three episodes subject to availability that we can use her in if her pilot goes to series. I would foresee seeing Winona in some way for the life of the series. It was fun for us to get to that last scene: to restore her to the position she's in in the pilot, which is despite all their problems, she's the one person Raylan can go to to really open up a little bit, and that would be fun to keep on using her in that way. We'll see where Winona's life goes: is she going to meet someone else, where is the baby going to live, is Raylan going to meet other people? Exactly what the path is, I don't know, but they are fun to have together, and I'm happy to have gotten to a point where we can use her in that way.
Natalie has said in interviews that there are times when she got frustrated with the amount she got to do. Is her leaving the result of all of you recognizing that there's only so far you can take Winona as an ongoing, every episode kind of character?
There was that feeling at the end of the second season, which is why she only appeared in the number she did this year. We worked out a different feeling for the third year. We love her, and we love Winona, but at the same time, you can even sense in the character, she doesn't want to be the person who says, "Don't go save the 14-year-old girl." And yet she felt compelled to say it, and that makes her unsympathetic. We really felt it was our goal in the third season to rehabilitate her character in the eyes of the audience, so they could see how Raylan and Winona could be in happier times and get along if she's not riding him, not upset that he's not coming home, and she's just accepting of him. And then the kicker is that she's accepting because shes' already made the decision to leave. But she still was accepting, and she enjoyed that time with him. That was a goal for the season.
I wrote a few times this season that because of all you were doing with Quarles and Limehouse and other people like Dickie and Wynn, there were times where it seemed like Boyd and Ava were being lost in the shuffle, even though you had to keep using them because of how good Walton and Joelle are. Did it ever feel difficult to keep them in play?
It wasn't really difficult to keep them in play, because Boyd always has some plans, something he was heading for. There were a lot of competing stories, so it could feel like we weren't spending a lot of time with them. But I think we actually ended up spending a little less time with Raylan this year than we previously do. And that's the nature of Elmore's world: you spend time with the bad guys. You spend a fair amount of time with Quarles, a fair amount with Limehouse — though I don't really think of Limehouse as a bad guy. But there were instances where we were a little bit short, and we came up with the idea of adding the scene between Boyd and Ava where they show each other their bullet wounds, and that became a wonderful scene. We knew certain episodes would be heavier on Boyd, we knew that 9, where Ava kills Delroy, would be a big Ava episode, and Joelle enjoyed the hell out of that. That was a fun, fun episode for her.
There is a lot of balancing we have to do. I would say that the characters I feel we give short shrift to are Tim and Rachel. Each year I plan on giving more to them, and then I start to feel at the end of the third season, like I'm Lucy with Charlie Brown and the football. The thing is, they're great, and it's sort of like having these two thoroughbreds in the barn, and you're only using them occasionally. But that is a goal for the fourth season and subsequent season. For one thing, it's just fun to have Raylan along one of them, just as it is to have them with Art. That's something that Tim Olyphant is always putting forward, saying, "How about in this episode, I'm with Art? Or how about in this one, I go on the road with Rachel?" I did feel like we had a fairly nice three-episode arc for Raylan and Tim and their relationship in the middle of the season, culminating in Tim letting him go to try and find the murder weapon. That felt good, but we need more of that.
I want to talk about Quarles' backstory with his father, which we don't learn about until pretty late into the season. Is that something you had planned from the beginning, and what do you feel it added to that character?
It wasn't there from the beginning. What we knew from the beginning, before we started writing scripts, is you go from the amorphous idea of a carpetbagger, a slick guy in a suit from Detroit, and we knew it would be Neal, and that started to narrow it down The room came up with the idea of him being an adopted son of the crime boss of Detroit, and that the crime boss' real son rose to surpass him because of blood, and that Quarles had to set out on his own to find his own territory and make his own bones. So we had that, and the network was interested in what more we could find out about Quarles. And frankly, I put in the episode where Quarles goes into the back room and you see a 19-year-old boy chained to the bed, and I put that in as a half joke. I was floating a trial balloon: is this the kind of thing the network would like? And what would Neal feel about this? And it goes back to a joke I made with the network when I was writing the pilot. We didn't have that final scene yet between Raylan and Winona, and I go, "Oh, I know this. You're FX. I know what you want. At the end of the episode, you want Raylan to go into his basement and there's a 19-year-old boy chained to the wall." Everyone laughed, "Ha ha ha." So I put that in there just as a callback to that joke from the pilot, and everyone loved it. And I got a call from Neal, and I was afraid he was going to hate it, and his only comment was that, since it was scripted as a very pretty 19-year-old was, "Does he have to be that pretty?" And that gave him something to play. And then we went from that to where the story ended up going, to the origin story. We just sort of found our way.
We have a certain amount of faith in the process, in that that's our job, and more will be revealed as you go into the season and the characters. Which is actually great for us, it's great for whoever's writing the episodes, and it's great for the actor, 'cause there's more to find out, rather than being handed everything at the beginning and knowing where you're going. I think it makes it a little more fun. I may be wrong. Maybe they would like it all upfront.
And getting back to Limehouse, you said before you don't consider him a villain, and that was the big reveal last week: that he's just the man behind the curtain who wants to be left alone. Did you know that all along?
That was a goal for me right from the beginning: Limehouse is a mysterious character, and yet he's not. He states very clearly to anyone who asks what he wants, "I want to be left alone," which is "I want Noble's Holler to be left alone." He wants his whole way of life, and his family and friends, to be left alone. And he may be mistaken, it may be time for the Holler to step into the 21st century, but he doesn't trust the world, so he wants to keep that community intact and isolated. So everything he does is towards that end, and people will second-guess him, but in reality, that's what he said he wanted, and that's what he wanted.
We planned fairly early on that toward the end of the season, he would set up something to ensnare both Boyd and Quarles. In one version, he would try to get them to kill each other, but then we thought, "What if he turns them over to Raylan?" And that was something that I wanted to see. I knew fairly early on that we'd have him working with Boyd, then working with Quarles, and we can't trust him. And then we get to 12, and Raylan goes to Limheouse and Limehouse saying, "Here, you can have them both." We just liked that idea of this guy who will work with anyone, and no one can trust him, and yet he is absolutely true to his own aims and his own goals. So that was something from the beginning. I just liked this idea of this explosion between all these people fighting, and he's just the last man standing. In my mind, I had this image of him in a pool of light, and just stepping back into the shadows again. And he kind of does that.
So did he actually burn Errol's hand? Or is that something he just takes advantage of to scare people?
No, no, he's not a saint. He's a criminal. He works in that world of intimidation and fear, but he's very straightforward. His job is still holding money for criminals, but he himself is not a drug dealer, not a murderer, but if it needs to happen, it happens. Our assumption is that that's something that was handed down to him by his father, and his father's father to keep his people in line.
A lot of people were really taken with the creation of Noble's Holler and the sociology of that community. Did you do much research into it? And how satisfied were you with how it turned out?
We didn't do a lot of research. Nichelle Tramble Spellman came across a story about Coe Ridge and shared that with the room. Others, I think it was Ingrid Escajeda, found out the story that Mags Bailey, who was a very loose inspiration for Mags Bennet, had stored her money under a black church because she knew no one would look for it there, and we put those stories together. Part of the story of Coe Ridge is that it served as a haven for battered white women. The real one fell apart in the '60s, and in our version, it's still going. I think there is still more to go in there.
As for how satisfied I feel, I think there is more still to go in there. The next question would be what would it take for Limehouse to step out and take an action? He feels so protective of the community, so where would he actually move to stop something? What would get him out of the Holler? That intrigues me.
In reading a bunch of stories today about the end of the season, I saw one in The Atlantic that used the phrase "fourth and rumored final season." This is the first I've heard that rumor.
Listen, if we screwed it up, if we really blew it next year and the ratings tanked, yeah, I guess it could be the last season. There's the reason they only upped us for one season. That's the nature of the business. I hope that we don't screw it up, and it's certainly in our planning, we're thinking more about six than we are about four or five. Beyond that, the fear is you always wear out your welcome, and how many different stories can you do? This is the great thing about basic cable: even at the end of six years, we'd have only done 78 episodes. At the end of six years on network, you'd be on a hundred and thirtysomething. We feel like that's a boon now.
Given that NBC pulled the plug pretty early in the second season, how many episodes of "Boomtown" did you wind up doing?
We did 18 episodes the first year, and 6 the second, so only 24 in total, and never got to a third season, let alone a fourth. This is all kind of new territory. So fingers crossed. The thing is, this is such a big team effort, and the great thing about that is that if the show were to go down after four years, there are a lot of people I can blame. (laughs) No, it's a real team effort, from Tim and Walton, all the writers, all the directors, the studio and the network, and a really dedicated crew, and our guest cast, we've been really lucky in that regard. It's been nice to have a show that's achieved a certain amount of respect within the business. We don't pay a lot, but actors are willing to come and do an episode or three for us. That makes our lives a lot easier, knowing there's a lot of great actors out there who can have a fun turn on "Justified" — including Adam Arkin, who's one of our best directors. We just went, "Adam, please play Theo Tonin!" And he said, "Okay."
Will Theo be back next season? Or will he be too busy going to the house in Detroit to get his "Somebody Up There Likes Me" DVD?
Hee hee hee. That was totally Fred (Golan). That was all Fred. I think Adam would be more than willing to play Theo a few more times. We just have to see how the stories shake out. It wasn't a revelation to us. We knew how good Jere Burns was and is on the show, but it was so much fun to have him in so many episodes? And is there still mileage there with Wynn Duffy? He's one of the characters we're most proud of creating, and he started in an episode in the first season, but we're very happy to have him as part of the team.
I love that scream of "JESUS CHRIST!" he delivers right as you cut to the main title sequence.
Oh, my God! Well, it was great to really push him, because he usually maintains such a level of cool, even in harsh circumstances and to have him just lose it was fantastic. And my other favorite scene of Jere's work as Wynn, is in the 10th episode, when Quarles has been confronted by Donovan, the street hustler with the gun, and he tells his life story, we kept on cutting back to Wynn Duffy, and Jere's expression really grounded the scene.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org