We’re still a few episodes away from what’s sure to be an explosive Justified series finale, but “Burned” gives us a sense of everything that’s to come. In a season full of great episodes, this is perhaps the best in terms of execution and engagement with the show’s overarching themes. “Burned” brings almost the entire cast of Harlan together in one way or another—sorry baby Givens, you and your heart murmur will have to find a home on another episode—and that always makes for something combustible and memorable.
The beauty of this final season has been that while the narrative is certainly focused on the inevitable cathartic clash between Boyd and Raylan, a settling of a lifelong feud, Justified hasn’t shied away from moving its story outside of Harlan, bringing in characters and storylines that deepen our understanding of the world these cops, criminals, and citizens inhabit.
Justified has always been a show about a small town and its often-oppressed habitants, but just because the setting is small doesn’t mean the show’s scope is limited. This is especially true this season, and specifically evident in “Burned,” as evidenced by the consistent focus on the story of Grady Hale’s murder, and even Markham’s attempts to exploit the people and land of Harlan.
“Burned” understands that the best episodes of Justified are the ones that use Harlan and its people to make a larger point about social and economic issues in America. Sure, the show is also a darkly comic noir and a slow-burning Western, but at its heart, it’s a critique of the American Dream. More specifically, the show is often a critique of the political and economic systems that relegate access to the American Dream to a select few people.
Just look at how this season has taken more time than ever to draw parallels between Boyd and Raylan. When Raylan, at the beginning of “Burned,” slams Duffy into his tanning bed and holds him there in the hopes of getting information out of him, it’s not hard to imagine Boyd doing the same to any of his rivals. The line between criminal and lawman in Harlan is a thin one, and the suggestion seems to be that Boyd and Raylan are practically interchangeable; the fact that they share a coal-mining background only further bolsters the similarities between the two. The paths that have led them to their current destinations are just as much influenced by factors outside of their control than by the choices they’ve made.
Then there’s the fact that both men are using Ava to their advantage, using her to one-up one another. Ava has spent much of this season trying to find a way out of her current situation, but she’s just a pawn in a much larger, and deeply rooted feud between these two men. Boyd and Raylan both purport to care for Ava, but that’s only partially true. “Burned,” along with the previous few episodes, makes clear that Ava has no real agency, no real control over her life. Raylan and Boyd control what she does. They do it under the guise of love and care, but it’s really manipulation.
Manipulation, and using people for selfish reasons, is the name of the game for just about everyone in “Burned.” Raylan, after getting Duffy to admit that he was the snitch who got Grady Hale locked up—a reveal that, in my opinion, felt pretty tossed off and inconsequential after a few weeks of making it seem like a huge deal—tells him that if Duffy doesn’t want him to leak that information to Katherine, he’ll have to work with the Marshals to help get Boyd.
Such coercion is obviously part of the police work, but it’s also a way of showing how shady the dealings of even a legitimate government force like the Marshals Service can be. Raylan and Art have to resort to nefarious means (blackmail) to get what they want, just as Boyd has to. The scale of their crimes isn’t directly comparable, but it’s an intriguing parallel.
NEXT: Seabass sleeps with the fishes