Greatest TV Pilots: Justified’s “Fire in the Hole” explores the man within the iconography

Justified season 1 promo poster

Justified season 1 promo poster

Justified, “Fire in the Hole”
Teleplay by Graham Yost
Directed by Michael Dinner
Aired March 16th, 2010 on FX

From its opening pan down to its final moment, the pilot of Justified, “Fire in the Hole”, is focused on one thing- introducing audiences to its lead, US Marshal Raylan Givens, played by the wonderfully iconic Timothy Olyphant. He enters in grand fashion, shot from behind in a suit and white hat, striding forward determinedly to parley with a baddie and run him out of town. It’s a scene lifted directly from any number of Westerns, with slight tweaks that let the audience know Raylan isn’t in his proper place. The bright sun, latin music, and white surroundings of the Miami poolside table where we first meet Raylan are visually striking, and upon first viewing he looks at ease in this setting. As we’ll discover later in the episode, however, this is not where Raylan is meant to be- he belongs, much as he would hate to admit it, in his home of Kentucky.

Each scene in the pilot builds on the previous to give us a clearer picture of Raylan. First we see a basic sketch, the White Hat riding up to save the day. Then we find out Raylan’s becoming a liability and he’s shipped back to Kentucky. We spend time in Harlan, get to know Art and the other Marshals in the Lexington office, are introduced to Winona, and meet Boyd and Ava, two characters from his past. More than the specifics of these characters, though, we get a strong sense of the environment Raylan was raised in, for better and worse. Yost and Dinner don’t shy away from the darker side of Harlan. Boyd and his white supremacists are appropriately scary, and while there’s plenty of fantastic humor mined from Raylan’s interactions with Dewey and Devil, they still feel dangerous. By the end of the pilot, we think we have a good sense of the man at the center of the action, as does he, but in a wonderful final touch, we learn that perhaps we’ve only scratched the surface, as Winona intimates.

Screenshot from the opening scene of the Justified pilot, Fire in the Hole

While we explore much of Raylan’s background in the pilot, perhaps the single most important element of his development is notably absent- his father, Arlo. Returning to the pilot after four seasons, it’s notable how early Yost introduces Raylan’s troubled relationship with his father. With Elmore Leonard’s short stories as a blueprint, Yost and co. have a very clear picture of their lead and this surety comes through onscreen. It takes a particular presence to slip into the boots and hat of someone like Raylan without seeming like a kid in fancy dress.  His outfit is a costume of a sort, clearly, but it’s one Raylan is very comfortable in, one he chose for himself, and without the right actor, the character could easily become a joke. Fortunately, Olyphant, already a veteran of traditional and deconstructionist Western television (thanks to his time on Deadwood), is utterly confident in his role.

Along with its clear focus on Raylan, “Fire in the Hole” also firmly establishes Harlan. The scenery is gorgeous, with the rolling greens standing out in stark contrast to the bright whites of the opening Miami sequence. There’s a sense of history to every building we see, from Ava’s house to Boyd’s church, and the feeling that long after these characters leave, they’ll still be there. Unfortunately the series isn’t able to film in Kentucky due to budget constraints, but loving, detailed attention is paid to make sure these people, and these places, feel as authentic as possible. When Raylan says of Boyd, “We dug coal together”, that may not mean much to the audience, but it has true power to them and speaks of an experience unique to this part of the country and perhaps even this town.

Walton Goggins in the Justified pilot, Fire in the HoleBoyd, and his relationship with Raylan, is the final important element of the pilot. Raylan casts a long shadow, as does Olyphant; he’s a larger-than-life character who commands the attention of the audience. For Justified to be wholly satisfying, Raylan needs an antagonist who can match him, in charisma as well as intelligence. Boyd Crowder, as played by Walton Goggins, fills this role beautifully. It’s no surprise that Yost changed the end of Leonard’s short story of the same title to keep Boyd alive. With Raylan being such a notoriously accurate shot, him wounding Boyd rather than killing him, apparently unintentionally, is far more interesting and provides fertile ground for the writers to explore later in the series.

With its strong identity, sense of place, and focus, Justified‘s “Fire in the Hole” serves as an incredibly satisfying, yet intriguing pilot. It’s a perfect introduction to Elmore Leonard’s Harlan County and, more specifically, Raylan Givens.

Kate Kulzick

This article is part of our month long theme dedicated to the greatest TV pilots.  

Scroll to Top