By Will Robinson
April 10, 2015 at 05:30 PM EDT
Michael Bulbenko for Paley Center for Media
  • TV Show

Elmore Leonard’s influence is all over Justified, a show that boasts an expansive ensemble cast, sharp dialogue, and plenty of shootouts. But those aren’t the only signatures of a Leonard work: It also needs its women to kick ass. Karen Sisco spars Jack Foley to a draw in Out of Sight. Jackie Brown outsmarts the guys that tried to use her and comes out on top. And Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter) and Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel) more than deserve spots in the pantheon of Leonard heroines after six years on screen.

Having three-dimensional women in Justified‘s cast “was critically important, because the female characters in Elmore were every bit as strong and as fun and as interesting as the men were,” executive producer Graham Yost told EW before Wednesday night’s Paley Center panel. “He credited a lot of that to his second wife, who said, ‘Come on! Give us some fun, too.'” Tazel echoed Yost’s thinking: “The circumstances just sort of dictate that there has to be a certain amount of grounding and strength there. Otherwise, you know, we get eaten up and spit out.”

Ava and Rachel, who stand firmly on opposite sides of the blurred legal line, are plenty grounded, strong, and tough. The pilot shows Ava pointing the shotgun she used to kill her husband at her no-good brother-in-law Boyd. Immediately, Carter knew she would be in for an awesome role. “She was really written well in that first pilot, almost, like, diagnosed for destruction and strength and perseverance,” she said to EW ahead of the Paley event. “I think [the writers] always wanted to justify anything really evil and bad that Ava did, but then also keep her strong and keep her attached to one or two of the lead storylines.”

And the law-abiding Rachel was instrumental in transporting Drew Thompson to safe custody—not to mention regularly emasculating stupid criminals. But she wasn’t an original Leonard creation: the writers and Erica Tazel had to bring her to life. In doing so, they made Leonard proud—so much so the author’s final novel, Raylan, included the appearance of Rachel. Tazel tabbed the nod as ” probably the biggest compliment that could have come” from doing the show.

It’s Ava, though, who really endured hell and heartbreak—and prison. Her combination of sexiness that could be deployed when necessary and self-preservation made Carter a weekly must-watch—particularly in season 6, when she played for and against both the hero and the villain.

“She started with very little choices, and she proved to be a woman of strength and some power in a man-dominated world,” the actress told EW.In a male-dominated show, I think I got to shine, and I give that to the writers.”

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

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