Over the past couple months in my quest for new things to watch during this endless pandemic, I caught up on some shows I missed. This includes Justified, the FX show from the early 2010s about US Marshal Raylan Givens (played by Timothy Olyphant) returning to his home in Harlan County, Kentucky to amongst other things bring his old acquaintance Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) to justice. It’s an incredible show full of masterful acting performance from its leads and smart writing throughout. I’m not here to talk about Boyd or Raylan or how you should watch it, though (you should watch it). I’m here to talk about Wynn Duffy, the slimy, self-absorbed, delight that steals every scene he’s in.
(Some spoilers ahead, obviously)
Played by the excellent Jere Burns, Wynn first arrives on Justified in a small, but memorable role. Raylan’s ex-wife’s current husband owes the Dixie Mafia some money, and Wynn is the man he owes it too. Upon first glance, Wynn isn’t anything special beyond the usual organized crime guy, making veiled threats and being shady. But the writers almost immediately put their own spin on him that elevates him to the type of memorable, unapologetic asshole that makes these types of shows shine.
Wynn lives in an RV alongside his “bodyguard” Mikey. The writers call the duo “ambiguously gay,” which they clearly coded into the show and results in a lot of the humanity Wynn shows, as Mikey is maybe the one person he cares about other than himself. Why does he live in an RV? Because that’s just the kind of eccentric guy he is. He cares deeply about his own appearance, often seen grooming or tanning. And he is involved in SO MUCH crime.
The success and enduring love of Wynn as a character comes from how deftly he’s used in the show. For the first four seasons, he’s just sprinkled in. A couple episodes here, a couple episodes there. At the same time, he’s deeply involved in the plot throughout the show, a shameless opportunist who will always cut a deal to get in on what he sees as his next profitable venture. Across the show’s run Wynn is involved in real estate fraud, drug running, bank robberies, and various other small crimes. It’s the perfect way to tie all of the various factions together, and Burns’ portrayal helped elevate him to a series regular in the last two seasons.
Burns plays Wynn to perfection. There’s a detached annoyance to every interaction he has, like he’s upset he can’t focus on himself and instead has to do some crimes with people. At the same time, he does have his charming side. He’s well dressed, well spoken, and knows how to play to other people’s own sense of vanity.
That last skills comes in handy in relation to Wynn’s most enduring quality: the ability to worm out of any longterm consequences for anything. In a show who’s starting cast is considerably smaller by the time the final credits roll, Wynn is still on the right side of the ground despite facing death or imprisonment numerous times. Make no mistake, it’s not all smooth sailing for him. Over the course of the show he’s shot, beaten, loses staggering amounts of money, and is in the room for multiple shootings, explosions, and other unsavory acts. Still, he always manages to talk or run his way out of extended consequences. It’s the hallmark of the character, and while it’s gotten uncomfortably close to real life in recent years, it makes him a delightful character to follow and root against.
There are bigger stars and bigger roles in Justified that are praised and remembered as key to the show. But Jere Burns as Wynn Duffy is the one who stands out to me the most, a perfect mixture of the criminal, comical, and human elements of what made Justified great. Whatever he’d be doing in 2021, he’d be doing great. And it would still be so much fun to hate him.