FX’s Justified, based on characters created by novelist Elmore Leonard, revolves around criminals and lawmen who collide in a never-ending bloody battle. Unfolding largely in the backwoods of modern-day Harlan County, Kentucky, the show is grounded in a rough-and-tumble man’s world, one containing a very specific code of honor among the hairy-chested set. It’s a show about how we often stumble upon the path of darkness, how violence defines our worldview, how a gun can represent the law or criminality.
But it’s also a show that features one of the strongest women on television in Ava Crowder, one-time battered wife-turned outlaw who has emerged as a force to be reckoned with over the course of the last four seasons. As magnificently played by Joelle Carter in a tightrope performance, she’s a character who engages the viewer’s sympathies while indulging in all sorts of bad behavior: whacking uppity men with skillets, slaying vicious pimps, punching whores, and in Tuesday’s episode of Justified (“Decoy”), nearly setting a man on fire with little more than a cigarette lighter and a snifter of high-proof booze.
Ava’s behavior here is, well, absolutely justified. Her very much NSFW scene is fueled by a desire, both on the part of Ava and the audience, to see Mike O’Malley’s Nicky Augustine pay for treating the Harlan businesswoman as nothing more than a common whore. As Ava uses her sexuality—just one of the many weapons in her deadly arsenal—to get closer to Nicky, the audience cheers her on, wanting Nicky go up in flames, to be punished for his awful misogyny, and for reducing Ava to a simple girl who turns tricks.
Carter, 40, said that the scene is intended to be a “slow burn,” a taut sequence where Ava waits to discover if Boyd (Walton Goggins) has been killed, only to turn her attentions on the man jeopardizing her lover. “Ava reacts before she thinks, sometimes,” she said, laughing.
In person, Carter barely resembles Ava Crowder. Perched on a chair in a corner of a Beverly Hills bar on an unseasonably dreary Los Angeles day, her blonde hair is cut short and her eyebrows dyed for a futuristic short film that she’s producing and starring in. Gone is Ava’s Kentucky drawl, replaced with a rounded accent that could be from Anywhere, U.S.A. (“It’s always in my repertoire,” she said. “When I get drunk or lazy or something, you’ll hear the twang.”)
Last night’s explosive scene displays Ava at a high-wattage intensity, a dangerous cocktail of boiling rage and violent, sometimes unpredictable, self-empowerment.
“We wanted to see them on top of a mountain before the fall,” said Carter.
“Walton and Tim both fought for that scene, and they were like, ‘This is Ava's moment and we want to give it to her,’” said Carter. “But it was my choice how to do it, how to get out of it … It was a moment of empowerment and it felt good. I was so energized doing it. One time, I threw the glass all the way over his head. He was like, you didn't even get a drop on me. He took a few in the face for me. A gentleman.”
“At one point, the director was like, ‘I want to see her just light him on fire,’” she continued. “But then that would be the end of Nicky.”
In the show’s Harlan County, refraining from setting a man on fire makes you virtually a saint. Ava—who has slowly embraced the desperado mentality of her fiancé, Boyd Crowder—has come a long way from the pilot episode of Justified, in which she cooked her abusive husband his favorite dinner and then shot him with a rifle in their dining room. She explained to Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) that she used Lysol—“the best cleaning product”—to tidy up the mess.
“That scene was written so well because it gave me so much information about her,” said Carter. “Her life was at risk; one day, he's going to come home so fucked up and just beat her and she'll be done. Whatever lay ahead was going to be better than that. We're humans, we know we're going to die some day. But the ones who just fight and fight, and fight through all the shit, are the true survivors.”
Ava has proven herself adept at surviving, no matter what it takes or what alliances she needs to make, whether it be with murderous butcher Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) or the no-good Crowder clan. (In fact, nearly every Crowder man has carried a torch for Ava at one point or another. “There must be something that gets the Crowder blood going,” joked Carter. “Something in her chemistry, her essence.”) A recent episode acknowledged a sliver of Ava’s past—her mother was a housekeeper for the well-heeled crowd—in a “poetic” scene that had Ava and Boyd looking to buy the house her mother had cleaned.
“That was another scene that Walton was hot for, adamantly,” said Carter. “We wanted to see them on top of a mountain before the fall.”
In real life, Carter has lived nearly as many lives as Ava: an Army brat, a college scholarship-level swimmer, a model, an actress, a mother. She grew up in Georgia, but her father’s military work shuffled the family around the country, an experience that she said opened her mind to new possibilities and places.
“I was a daydreamer, so I’d go off into, ‘What if I was this or what if we were spies right now,’ on your way home from school and you’d dart between the bushes,” she said. “I was young and inventive and all you want to do is look across the room and imagine fading into someone else. Walking in someone else’s shoes. I’m not a murderer. I don’t plan on killing anyone in my lifetime, but I get to play these ballsy women that live in that world.”
For Carter, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their young daughter, the role of Ava Crowder came around at just the right point in her life. “Art reflects life in a way,” she said. “Right before I got Justified, I was really coming into my own. I was having to step up and I was going to take charge of my life, and I got to play this character who goes through the same development in some way. You learn from her and you let her learn from you, and you meld into each other.”
But she was surprised by how the audience reacted to the pairing of Ava and Boyd—initially, she said, viewers would come up to her and ask why she was with Boyd instead of Raylan—and to the dark places they’ve taken her character.
“I was nervous for the first season when they told me [Raylan] was going to break Ava’s heart,” said Carter. “I didn’t know how I was going to survive the show and Graham [Yost] would joke with me: you’re going to always be known as the girl that was Raylan’s first woman in Season 1. Then he approached me with the fact that Boyd and Ava were going to be living together and that she might go to the dark side. He said, ‘This is for the longevity of Ava.’ I said, ‘I’m on board. I can make it work.’”
Initially, she was the lawman’s woman, a flawed love interest who had murdered her husband and gotten away with it. She represented something of the world that Olyphant’s Raylan had left behind, and he represented something simpler and gentler than she had known in a long time. “Sometimes, when you’re young and you see the world, you don’t really taste it until you’re out there and then sometimes it’s too much,” Carter said. “You just want to go back to something more familiar and more tangible.”
And yet in Season 2, the show opened with Ava and Raylan split up and Ava living with Boyd. “I don’t think she intended to leech onto Boyd,” she said. “They were both in the same place. They were both knocked down and rebuilding and, as they were rebuilding, they found each other.” Over the course of the last few seasons, Ava and Boyd have slowly blossomed into Harlan’s power couple, a dangerous and volatile pair who can still incite tears from the audience during a marriage proposal. Somehow their flaws seem insignificant in the face of their tenderness toward each other.
“We really let the [Ava/Boyd] relationship grow and come into this beautiful thing,” she said. “These two people, for better or worse, will do anything for each other and for their love. It’s going to be to their detriment, but it’s also something to wake up to and to live for every day. I think people can embrace that.”
As for whether there is any chance of a possible happy ending for Ava Crowder, given the levels of violence and the body count this season, Carter was decidedly noncommittal.
“I guess you have to define your meaning of a happy ending.”