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'Justified' postmortem: Sam Elliott on the death of Katherine Hale and Markham's final stand

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Prashant Gupta/FX

Spoiler alert! Sam Elliott, who plays prospective weed mogul Avery Markham on FX’s Justified, joined us again to talk about “Collateral,” the penultimate episode of the final season, and how Avery Markham is losing control of everything in his life. If you haven’t watched the episode yet you might want to stop reading right about now…

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We’re getting down to it now, Sam! As an audience member, it’s almost too intense.

SAM ELLIOTT: It got intense for us on the acting side, or on the production side, too. It was a lot of fun those last few episodes.

So when a story starts to coalesce and come to the end, does that momentum come through on the set too?

Well, I think good drama is good drama, and it’s always fun doing it. It certainly amped up story- and character-wise, and I suppose energy-wise as well. I can only imagine what it was like for people who had been there for the whole run. I sure was happy to be there at the end, working with Joelle [Carter] and Jonathan Tucker and Walton Goggins. It was a sweet way to go out.

Jonathan Tucker is doing some scary work on this show.

Jonathan Tucker, to me, is one of the great actors. He just doesn’t miss a beat. He’s got those wild eyes, and man, he uses them. He’s just got it. I don’t see it so much…I mean, it’s incredible working with him because he’s so responsive and in the moment, but when you see him on film, it’s just astounding.

And that’s the kind of character that had the potential to be too cartoonish when he first appeared, but he’s really grounded the character over time.

He dances a fine line.

With Katherine now dead, what’s keeping Markham in Harlan? Is it the money? Does he want revenge? Why doesn’t he just cut his losses and get the hell out of Dodge?

I think it’s the money. He says that to Katherine when she’s laying on the slab, that he’d love nothing more than to gut Wynn Duffy, but right now it’s, “I’m going to get my goddamn money.” He’s focused on that. Losing her was a big deal, but I don’t think he’s ready to cut his losses and get out of town. I’m not sure he’s all that rational at this point in time. I think he loses his focus a bit on what the hell he’s up to. It all comes crashing down, to a certain degree.

Is part of his loss of control because of Katherine being killed?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, when we talked before, I touched on that I felt one of Markham’s flaws is his love for this woman.

Raylan kind of puts Katherine’s death at Markham’s feet. Does Markham feel responsible at all?

That’s a tough call. I don’t think so because she got involved with Wynn Duffy totally unbeknownst to Markham. That was the downfall. She’s always played both ends against the middle, it seems like. She was playing everybody, and it just caught up with her. There’s no doubt that Markham loved her, but it’s like he said in that last episode, “I’ll always love you, but I don’t trust you.” What the f— is that all about? [Laughs] That’s back to his flaw. But at the same time, with practicality speaking, he knew better than to trust her. She threw in with everybody to try and get that money.

It’s been interesting to watch as Markham, over the course of the season, has gone from being an intimidating figure to someone who’s kind of exhausted by the business. It’s as if he’s never encountered a place like Harlan before.

I think he definitely bit off more than he can chew. I think when he came there, he had that vision that he was going to buy up all this land and just kick back and wait for them to legalize marijuana. I think he was kidding himself; I don’t think he knew what he was getting into. He might have had this background and grew up in Kentucky, but it sure wasn’t in Harlan. I think he is exhausted; he’s lost his soldiers; he’s lost the woman he loves. He’s lost control of the game, and he’s lost his f—ing money on top of it. [Laughs]

Which is kind of a big deal.

Yeah. And he had a fire in the Pizza Portal, so he can’t even make a pizza right now!

So what’s so different about Harlan that Markham can’t handle it?

I’m not sure. I think Markham is used to working on a different level, maybe not so much in the trenches that he found himself in. Maybe he was more about giving orders than getting his hands dirty. And when it got down to it, he had to get his hands dirty. He’s always having someone else do his killing.

There was a scene in the last episode where he orders Boon to kill Loretta’s last living relative, and it seems as if the deaths in his life are starting to weigh on him.

I think they are. He is a human. I don’t think Markham is a total wacko by any means. I think he’s got a conscience. When you’ve got somebody else doing your dirty work for you, it’s because you can’t deal with it yourself. Maybe it separates him from it; I’m not sure.

Maybe that’s another one of his flaws, that in a place like Harlan, you have to be more hands on.

Maybe he’s just not tough enough; maybe that’s the truth of it. He’s very idealistic, I know that. He’s kidding himself on every count. First, coming back for the woman was a mistake, but then coming back there thinking he was going to buy up the town and slide in there and do his dope game, that too is a pipe dream.

At the end of the episode, we see Markham sitting down with Loretta and she’s offering him a deal on growing dope in Harlan. Does he still thinks he can get what he wants in this town?

I think it’s all about getting his money back. I think he’s just fishing; he brought her there thinking that she would know where Ava was. I think all the focus is about getting his money back.

It does seem like he’s just playing Loretta.

And I think he is. I keep mentioning the woman issue; I don’t know if it was only Katherine that was his fatal flaw. I think this guy fancies himself as a ladies man, or he loves women generally, and he’s taken by this young kid who’s smart and cute and is dancing on the edge of being some sort of criminal, operating outside of the law in the dope business. I think he likes her and thinks he can get something out of her. I think he feels the same way about Ava.

He’s the kind of guy who thinks he can mentor and guide these women, but he might not be equipped to even do that.

Exactly, I think you’re right. I think it’s a fantasy. He hasn’t got it anymore, but he doesn’t want to let go. He’s an old man, comparatively speaking, to these other kids.

And now everyone’s closing in on him. Both Raylan and Boyd are a threat to him.

Raylan’s always there, but I suppose Boyd would be his biggest concern, because Boyd is clearly wacky. Both he and Raylan are willing to go the distance at all costs, and we’ve seen that over the long haul, but Raylan’s a lawman, so he has a certain amount of integrity.

That seems to be a theme this season, that there’s not a whole lot of difference between the good guys and bad guys, that they’re only separated by a few bad decisions.

Yeah, but I still think good wins out. Like Brooks, and Tim, and Art. You can’t get better than Nick Searcy, in terms of character. He’s a good guy in real life, but he’s a real good guy in the piece. He’s the voice of reason.

So in the finale, is Markham’s going to be sitting back and biding his time, or is he going to be aggressive with whatever play he makes?

He’s aggressive in that he’s in pursuit, but he is where he is now. He doesn’t get out of that barn again, which is perfect, because he’s in there surrounded by weed.

So he’s holding on to the dream until the very end.

He’ll see it until he can’t see it anymore.

The Justified finale airs Tue., April 14 at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

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