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'Justified': Graham Yost talks 'very propulsive, very exciting' series finale

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Prashant Gupta/FX

Four of Justified’s five season finales (so far) ended with the song “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” a reflexive statement about the show’s home county. But executive producer Graham Yost has always viewed it instead as a question: Who will leave Harlan alive?

Yost promises we’ll learn just that in Tuesday night’s kinetic conclusion, which finds Raylan, Boyd, and Ava on a three-way collision course—with jail time, kingpin Avery Markham’s $10 million, and their lives at stake. EW chatted with Yost ahead of the finale, previewing what’s to come and looking back at the series’ great six-season run. (Spoiler alert: Sadly, while Wynn Duffy will appear, the Winnebago is no more.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Raylan is a prideful, strong-headed guy. To what degree will hubris doom him in the finale?

GRAHAM YOST: There’s a line that Raylan says when Boyd asks him in the pilot, what kind of gun does Raylan have now? And Raylan says, “You’ll pay to find that out.” So, you will pay to find that out. That’s obviously the question that we’re raising: What is Raylan going to do after all these long years? What is he going to do?

Episode 12 was the first time Raylan openly expressed his desire to move to Florida to be with Winona and his daughter. That doesn’t seem to bode well for happy endings. How big of a body count can we expect?

Thousands. No. The last episode is, I think, very propulsive, very exciting. There will be things that people will be very surprised at. It’s a finale of a season and of a series. There is a body count. Beyond that, I’m not going to say.

On to some of the other characters. Rachel was Raylan’s interim boss while Art was out recovering. She knows his antics and trusts him to run Ava as a confidential informant. But she kind of gets screwed.

She did get screwed. But in the recap going into 11, there is that moment earlier where she’s talking to Art—he’s still got his beard in his recuperation phase. And he advises her to do one thing, which is to pull Raylan off. She says, “Yeah, but what would you do?” There is that feeling of, yeah, she’s thrown her lot in with Raylan, and there is a cost. But [she] probably would do the same thing again; she trusts him. There are ramifications, but you’ll see.

The Loretta and Markham alliance was surprising. What made him want to team up with her?

I think that there is also an aspect to Loretta which we really brought to the fore in the ninth episode, where she gives her big speech in the Pizza Portal. You see a glimpse, and Markham says this much to her in 12: “I saw some of Mags in you, and some of Catherine in you.” There’s aspects of that [that] are key to Loretta’s character. She is in that Elmore [Leonard] world, is a very cool character, doesn’t freak out. She understands what she’s chosen to live in, and she is going to do what she can and what she needs to do in order to survive.

How long is the finale?

It’s maybe five minutes over, something like that. Not super long.

Not Kurt Sutter-esque.

No. We got into trouble with that last season. We were noticing that Sons [of Anarchy] was going way long in their episodes, so we said to FX, “Is it okay if we go long?” And they said, “Yeah, sure. We don’t really care anymore, because the secondary market is Netflix”—Amazon Prime, in our case. The trouble we got into is we were shooting longer scripts, and just took longer production lines, whereas Sons, they would have a shootable script, and they would shoot in the days allowed; the material would play out longer. We tried to be cognizant of that, this last season. Where some episodes were a little longer, there were a couple that were a little shorter. We didn’t set out to go long—it’s just the way it played.

How do you think fans will react?

That’s a big question, and I would say this: We made some big, bold choices. We stand behind them. We’re very proud of the final episode, yet we have no control over how people will react. I think some people will love it, and others might not as much. But I have no idea. The other thing I would say is that people have really embraced this season. The final episode is not different from the rest of the season…and we told the story that we set out to do. I’m hoping that they’ll love it.

How definitive is the finale?

I would say that we come to a conclusion in all our stories, but without trying to wrap everything up neatly.

NEXT: Yost runs through highlights of the series

[pagebreak]

Let’s talk about the series as a whole. Were there any storylines you wish you had more time for, or any ideas that you couldn’t get around to?

To be honest, right now, we’re focused on just finishing this up. We’re ending the series the way we wanted, the way we decided pretty much back in September. There are characters [who] if we’d had more episodes per season, or if we were a different type of show, yeah, we’d want to spend more time with each and every one of them—especially Art and Rachel and Tim. They got more play this season, in different ways, but there could always be more. But I think it’s really a question that I won’t be able to answer for some time, when I really look back at the whole series and say: “Okay, now what could have we done differently?” I’ve certainly felt that way with other projects, like, “Boy, would have been great to spend another episode on this or that.”

What’s the thing you’re most proud of?

There’s a bunch of things, so it’s hard to narrow it down. Again, one of the things that always attracted [me] the most were moments we saw Raylan’s vulnerability and emotion came out. That has happened here and there throughout the series. I think in the first season, the episode “Hatless,” when he endeavors to save Winona’s new husband from himself and delivers him back alive to her—that’s a quintessential hero moment. I think all of Raylan’s stuff about his father, there have been just great scenes. Like when he founds out Arlo has died—when the previous season, Arlo shot a man, a law enforcement officer in a hat, in trying to save Boyd. He didn’t know if it was Raylan or not. That sense of betrayal was pretty extreme. So there’s those moments, and believe me, there is stuff in the finale that I hope has that level of emotion.

But then there are the crazy  Elmore Leonard scenes of wild violence and mayhem that were exciting and horrifying and amusing—oddly amusing. I think the end of season 3, in the slaughterhouse, when Limehouse chops off Quarles’ arm, and he reaches it for the arm, and Raylan pulls it away…

I’ll go back to the Winnebago scene in this season’s 11th episode. I took Joelle [Carter] to watch that; we were pretty excited by that scene. When Fred Golan and I watched it the first time, we were just kind of awestruck, a mix of emotions—excitement, terror, astonishment, and emotion. The last moments between Duffy and Mikey were pretty strong.

You may still be too close to the show, but could you pick out any regrets?

It’s pretty hard right now. Here’s the thing: When you’re involved with the day-to-day workings of the show and breakings of the stories and everything, there can be things you think of—”boy, wouldn’t it be cool if we did this?” And we come up with a great idea for an action sequence or a great turn for a character. And when we get into the actual mechanics of making the story work, we find that it doesn’t work with what we’re trying to do in that episode, or it doesn’t entirely track with a character as we understand them. So we abandon it.

I worked on a show years ago called Full House, and one of the jokes in the room was [that] there was an Island of Lost Pitches—sort of like in Rudolph, the Island of Misfit Toys. And on the Island of Lost Pitches were all these cool moments. Recently, I’ve had to review the scenes that will be on the [Justified] season 6 DVD package, and we have deleted scenes. I watched them, and almost [every] scene that I found, I went, “Wow, man, did we a mistake in not putting that scene in? Because that was a pretty cool scene between Art and Rachel,” or, “That was a pretty cool scene between Art and Raylan.” There was a wonderful scene in the fourth episode after the Wiz was blown up where we actually went back to the Wiz’s house, and they have a confrontation with the Wiz’s girlfriend that ended very violently. We just took it out because we felt it was slowing the story down; we need the other stories to be rolling along.

Those are the regrets—either stuff we imagined [that] just didn’t ultimately work out, or stuff we actually shot that didn’t ultimately fit the episodes. [We] took ’em out, but they’re still good work.

How has your relationship with Timothy Olyphant evolved through the years?

He’s essentially been a producer since the very first episode. He’s had a lot of input. It’s his name above the title, his face on the poster. The only times of contention [were] where our opinions diverged, but we figured out a way to work that out. It wasn’t always easy. But at the end of the day, I think that Justified is some of the best, if not the best, work that either one of us has done. We’re both incredibly proud of the show and incredibly grateful to have been a part of it. We got to do six years of this and end it in the fashion we wanted to end it. We didn’t outstay our welcome. So that’s ultimately a pretty good feeling.

What’s next for you? Are you exhausted?

Listen: The reality of doing this show for basic cable, and in particular for FX, is they gave us a lot of freedom. We only had to do 13 episodes a year, so we always had downtime at the end of every season: basically, three or four months off for the writers, six or seven months off for the actors. So it’s not a bad life. It’s not as though that I’m carrying with me now the exhaustion of six years; I’m really just carrying the partial exhaustion of doing another 13 episodes. But even then, we wrapped shooting over a month ago now. The work just kind of slowly trickles off. And it’s onto other things—some relaxation, some just sitting around. I’m not encouraged to jump right into another show, I’ll tell you that. I was tired when we wrapped, but I’ve gotten sleep back since then.

Any other general thoughts from the last six years?

The thing about the modern era of television is the ability to run your course and go out the way you want to go out. We end up with shorter runs, and that’s kind of a gift, too. We were not contractually obligated to keep going for 10 years, because I think we would have just killed the show: We would have run out of story. I think even going an extra-long season and dividing it into two would have hurt us. So we got to go out the way we wanted.

But also, part of that thing is we didn’t have a lot of cast rollover. We had new people each season, but that core cast remained the same from the first season. Similarly, the writers’ room didn’t have huge amount of turnover. Some people left, we got some new writers along the way, but there was a core group that was there, basically. That’s going to be the hard part: not getting back together, and the actors not re-gathering in September. That will be strange. That’s the way it goes. Better to go out feeling proud of what we’ve done then to have a show that ends with people saying, “Wait, was that still on the air?”

Justified‘s series finale airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET on FX.