‘Justified’ Creator Graham Yost: ‘Were We Crazy to Kill Off Mags?’

“Any time I turn on my computer, that’s what I see, (a photo of) Margo just flipping me the bird”

Graham Yost is coming off a critically acclaimed second season of "Justified," built around backwoods mafia mama Mags Bennett, a role that won Margo Martindale an Emmy. But she won't be back — he killed her off. So you can understand the question that's frequently posed to him heading into the third season: Was it crazy to kill off Mags?

"Well, it wasn't so tough letting the character go, because I didn't really know where else we were going to go with Mags," he told TheWrap. "It felt that with two of her sons dead and another one going off to prison and her probably looking at time, it just … I just didn't know where we would go," says Yost.

"I was just terrified of treading water with her or going back and repeating ourselves. And also, a show like this can't just keep accumulating bad guys. We've already got Boyd (Walton Goggins). He's our in‑house antagonist. So I don't regret killing off Mags. What I do regret is just not having Margo on the show, in that she's such a tremendous actress and such a great person. That was the hard part."

With season three premiering on FX tonight at 10/9c, Yost talked to TheWrap about the new direction for the new season, the fun of bringing author Elmore Leonard's characters to the tube, and making a return trip to space with his "From Earth to the Moon" collaborator Tom Hanks.

Also read: 'Justified' Season 3 Preview: Raylan and Boyd, Working Together? (Video)

Season two was so incredibly intense and fantastic. How did you start breaking out the story for this season, after ending it on such a crazy high?
Well, as I like to tell people, the background on my computer … for many months it has been a photograph that Sarah Timberman, one of the other producers on "Justified," took of Margo (Martindale) backstage at some event giving me the finger. So any time I turn on my computer that's what I see, Margo just flipping me the bird. (Laughing)

Listen, we all regrouped and gnashed our teeth and said, "What did we do? Were we crazy to kill off Mags?" But we also knew that it was good to contain that within a season. Fred Golan, who is the number two on this show, he said, "Let's look at each season as a book. There's one big story, lots of little stories, but one big story." Last season the story was about the feud between the Bennetts and the Givens. So we wanted to conclude that.

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Then this season we just had to come up with a new book and a new story. We've been borrowing stuff from Elmore (Leonard)'s new novel "Raylan," which he wrote partly just to give us something to "hang up and strip for parts," as he says.

I've seen the first four episodes, and it feels very much like we're kind of back to the Raylan and Boyd relationship more this season than we were last season. Is that ultimately the central relationship of the show?
Don't you think so? I've always felt that. Listen, we got so lucky to cast Walton (Goggins) in the pilot. Then he was so great and the character's so wonderful, the way Elmore created Boyd, that we made a big switch from the novella, which is we kept Boyd alive. So we've always felt that Boyd is the dark mirror for Raylan. There's always going to be this odd friendship, this push and pull, this desire to put him into jail and at the same time … Raylan gets a kick out of him.

We felt that that was one of the other goals of the second season. After we had taken him to such lows at the end of the first season, dear Boyd, that we wanted to get him back to being a criminal. Then also, that folded into the notion of him having a relationship with Ava.

So in our third season, yeah, we're kind of back to that, the Raylan and Boyd of it all. Then we introduced, as well, our two main antagonists. Although while Quarles, played by Neal McDonough, is obviously an antagonist, we also liked the idea of creating this enigmatic character Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson). Is he good? Is he bad? Can you trust him? Can't you? And just play with that for a season.

And you also have Jere Burns back as Wynn Duffy … you have a wealth of potential baddies there.
Yes, and Dickie (Bennett, played by Jeremy Davies) and the occasional bit of Dewey, as you'll see in the fifth episode … it's pretty Dewey‑centric. Damon Herriman is just one of our favorite people, one of our favorite actors in the world. So getting him … we don't want to overdo our Dewey, just maybe a handful of episodes every season as long as he wants to keep playing him. The same goes with Jeremy. Jeremy obviously had a bigger presence in season two than he will have in season three, but he's still … he's an important wild card for us to have in our deck.

Will Limehouse and Quarles' paths eventually cross?
Why would I tell you that? Then you're not going to watch. (Laughing) No, of course, I trust you'd watch anyway. Yes, and the fun part about that is I worked with both Neal and Mykelti on "Boomtown." And they didn't work together that much on "Boomtown" … so it's fun for them to get back together.

Which comes first for you, the character or the actor?
Listen, there have been a couple things where … For example, in the second episode, when Carla Gugino comes in … we just knew we wanted to put her in the show. ("Justified" producer) Michael Dinner has worked with her in the past. Tim (Olyphant) has. We all just love her and (said) "Let's get her in." So then we came up with the character. But in terms of Quarles and Neal McDonough and Limehouse and Mykelti … It was really the character first, and then I just go through my mental Rolodex and it's, "Well, what about Neal?"

Then as soon as I think of Neal, it's like, "Well, how can we craft this character so it's something that's fun for him to play?" He just didn't want to be another generic bad guy, which we would never do because we're living in Elmore's world and there's no such thing as a generic bad guy in Elmore's world. So they were pretty close together.

The same with Limehouse and T, as soon as we thought of this character, I just thought someone with a great deal of charm, dignity, and the ability to have underlying menace is something that T can just do to, well, a T.

Speaking of Carla, she played Karen Sisco in another Elmore Leonard TV project, "Karen Sisco," and James LeGros, who's also back this season, actually played Raylan Givens in …
Yeah, he played Raylan in a version of "Pronto" on Showtime. James, listen, he's just a great guy and he sent out word last year that if there was anything, he'd be happy to play. Oh, that sounds so Hollywood, "Happy to play." But he'd love to do a role. So we came up with the character at the end of last season, this guy Wade Messer, and he was just so great that when we were thinking of trouble we can get Raylan into and things going wrong, we thought, "Well, we never heard what happened to Wade Messer at the end of (season two), so let's explore that."

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And he fits so well in that world.
Oh, he does. It's just … and his relationship with Raylan and this kind of tired sadness that he brings, and yet this intelligence. He's just wonderful.

You talked about Walt's performance earlier. His character is just so rich, and it's his performance, obviously, but also, from a writing standpoint, how do you keep Boyd from becoming one-dimensional when he has done some pretty rotten things?
Again, this is part of the thing of Elmore's world, which is, if a character is entertaining, you forgive them a certain amount, or at least you're willing to watch them. And in the case of Boyd, as I said, he's sort of a dark mirror to Raylan, but he has his own codes. His codes shift, but whatever it is he decides to believe in, he believes in 100 percent. When he became a born again preacher in the first season, man, he believed that. Then in the second season, even his dissolution, he believed in that. Then his rise to crime again, he believed in that. So there is that passionate intensity that comes with him. I think that that makes him entertaining, but also sympathetic.

And the fact that he can see into Raylan lets us like him even more, because he doesn't try to belittle Raylan. He's far more affectionate towards Raylan than Raylan is to him. And he forgives Raylan his sins far more than Raylan forgives Boyd his sins. Of course, Boyd has many more, but still. It's an interesting relationship and, listen, Walton's just incredibly charming.

Season three also starts out with a much more playful vibe between Raylan and Winona, and Raylan has some surprising domestic plans that maybe we wouldn't expect from him. As a couple, are we going to see them settled in for a while? Has she finally accepted the danger of his job is just part of what she has to deal with or will that continue to be a problem for them?
I would say keep watching. You'll see more. You'll see stuff in five and six and seven and eight. That's as far as we're shooting right now. We start shooting nine (this week).

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Talking about Walt and Boyd and the playfulness between Raylan and Winona, I think that's in general one of the aspects of the show that's so great, is that you can go back and forth with tone, with the humor. There are some really funny moments with the new Dewey and Dickie friendship this season, too … how do you walk that line, between the violence and the intense drama and the humor?

You know, listen, again … I hope it never comes off as I'm just paying lip service to Elmore. The reality is, we always follow the template of Elmore Leonard. He, in his books, it'll go from funny and sweet to scary as hell within a couple of pages. Sometimes in the same page. And the other thing that he'll do is, there will be moments that will be both terrifying and funny. Strangely funny.

And so that's just really one of the goals of the show, is to be a funny show. And then surprise people with sudden bursts of excitement, violence, terror. And hopefully moments of humanity and emotion, too. But, again, that's Elmore's world.

You're also working on "The Americans," another drama for FX … have you started production on it?
We're just trying to cast that and find a director. We'll see what happens.

What's the general storyline?
Have they not announced that?

A little bit. It's about a couple, Russian spies, living in the United States?
Yes, that is true. In the 1980s.

Will it focus more on their domestic life, or their spy life?
You know, I'm not really comfortable talking about that right now. First of all, I'm not the writer. So I'm just supervising Joe Weisberg, who is just this brilliant writer. And it's just been a joy to work with him, and I've been working with him … I supervised him on a pilot for FX a couple of years ago, and then when I did a few months' work on "Falling Skies" last year, I brought him on to get him some experience in a room. He's pretty much the only writer from the first season of "Falling Skies" who's working on the second one. He's just great. But it's his show. I'm just sort of sprinkling pixie dust.

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Are you working on "Falling Skies" for the second season?
No. Truly one of my dearest friends, Remi Aubuchon, is the show runner of that this year.

You're also working on writing a movie project, "Major Matt Mason"? Is that with Tom Hanks?
Yeah. Who knows what's going to happen with that, because Tom is very busy now acting in a bunch of things. I think he's doing "Cloud Atlas" now over in Europe. And then there's the -‑ I think probably going into the Maersk Alabama ("Captain Phillips") thing. So we'll see if it happens. I hope it does, because we both love lunar exploration. The story is set on the moon, near future, and it's a team of people on a base on the moon, on the south pole of the moon. And of course everything goes wrong. There's no bad guys. There's no aliens. Nothing like that. It's just, can you survive? It's really fun, and it's just been a blast working with Tom on that. We had such a good time on "From Earth to the Moon" that it's sort of like, "We've got to go back to the moon. Some way, somehow, let's go back to the moon."

What do you watch on TV when you have time?
In terms of hour‑long, the big thing is "Game of Thrones." My son got me into that. I've still been catching up on it. I haven't gotten all the way through it, but I've got them on TiVo. I just think it's a brilliant show.

And I watch a fair amount of half‑hour. I love the FX comedies. I'm very excited that "Archer" is coming back, that I get to see new "Archer" soon. I've been watching "It's Always Sunny" for a number of years. I watch that with my son and, oh, boy, we just laugh, and we just cringe. There was a high school reunion, a two‑parter, that was one of the hardest things I've ever had to watch. It was just so gut‑wrenchingly wince‑inducing. But hilarious. "Modern Family." That's something we all watch as a family. Sometimes not together, because of TiVo. It's like, "I've already see it." But that's a big favorite. And frankly, Colbert and "Daily Show."