'Justified' showrunner explains that bittersweet series finale
[Contains spoilers from the final episode of FX’s Justified].
Boyd lives! And so does Raylan. And Ava. And Tim, Rachel, Art, Wynn, and even Constable Bob. FX’s Justified concluded six seasons Tuesday night with a series finale, “The Promise,” that left its core cast of characters alive and (mostly) well, yet still struck a bittersweet note after an unexpected four-year time jump that gave a glimpse of Raylan’s life in Miami with his daughter. Below, showrunner Graham Yost explains the choices made for the modern-day Western’s final hour, and how one longtime character was almost killed off.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I guess one big surprise is that Boyd survived — again! So let’s just start there.
Graham Yost: Yeah. We felt that it came down to Raylan. It needed to be Raylan’s choice and the idea was to basically answer the question that was posed at the end of the pilot: What would he have done with Tommy Bucks if Tommy Bucks hadn’t drawn? And in this case Boyd’s got a gun but he refuses to pull, so it’s kind of this same situation. Lord knows over the years, what Boyd’s done, in particular in the last couple of episodes, he warrants a bullet — as much as we love him. So we needed to have Raylan have to make that choice. The other thing was just looking at Elmore Leonard’s world and his works. Sometimes the bad guy dies and sometimes he doesn’t, and it depends who it is. And if he had a real affection for a bad guy, he’d let him live, maybe to use him again, and then kill him off. I got an email from Gregg Sutter, Elmore’s researcher for 30 years, asking me how we were going to end it. He said basically, “Well, you can’t kill Boyd. Elmore already tried that in the pilot, in [Leonard’s short story that served as the basis for Justified], ‘Fire In The Hole,’ and it didn’t stick. You can’t do it again.”
It’s funny because you tried to do it in the pilot, then went back on that and changed it for the series, and then it’s like the finale comes along and it’s like, “Let’s still not do it.”
I think it would have been a bummer. That was part of it, too. We wanted the show to be entertaining for six years. That was always our goal, and it’s not really a tragedy. We felt this was the right way.
It was interesting, too, at the very end, that lovely exchange with Boyd in prison, to focus on their bond rather than their antagonism.
Again, part of the thing we wanted to do was bring the whole series full circle. When Raylan first saw Boyd back six seasons ago at Boyd’s church, there was this history between them. No matter what was going on between them at the present, there was a history. It’s Elmore’s line in “Fire In The Hole” after he’s shot and killed Boyd in the story he says “I’m sorry,” and Ava says, “Why did you say that?” And Raylan says, “Well, we dug coal together.” So that was in the pilot and then when we were talking about that final scene, it was actually Walton’s idea to echo that and it seemed to fit.
You sort of had another big showdown with Raylan and Boon, which was very classically done, with a gunfight in the street. Was there any different outcome that was like a really close runner-up?
No. Once we decided that Raylan wouldn’t kill Boyd, we felt we wanted to have Raylan in a situation where it looks like he could lose his life, and so that was one of the reasons why we introduced Boon. We wanted someone who was a young gun, like Raylan of 20 years ago, and have him go up against himself of the past. And then we just lucked out with the location and lucked out with having Adam Arkin directing it. The way he staged it was just awesome. And Jonathan Tucker, man, he was just a welcome addition to the whole run.
This season’s bad guys got theirs, like we expected, but pretty much all the regulars that we cared about survived.
There was one point where we thought in the third-to-last episode, that when Boyd gets out of the hospital, we talked about him killing Gutterson at the hospital. But two things swayed us from that. It wasn’t Jacob Pitts, he said, “Yeah, great, cool.” Part of it was Charlie Almanza. He was our technical advisor. He’s retired former Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal, and he said if [a U.S. Marshal was killed], then it’s basically the eighth Army invades, and the sky is black with helicopters, and it just would become such a huge thing that it would be very hard for us to do other moves that we wanted to do in the story. It would become so overpowering that everything else would just fall to the side. And we wanted to keep the story focused on Raylan, Boyd, and Ava. And we’ve thought of killing poor Nelson Dunlop, who’s always been our whipping boy on the show, played by Mel Fair. But the same thing would hold — that you kill a marshal and you’re done. And the other thing was is that I was afraid that if we killed Gutterson that we would actually feel unsatisfied if Raylan didn’t kill Boyd. That it would also feel to the audience like we were justifying — pun not intended, or kind of intended — Raylan killing Boyd, and we felt that would be manipulative.
I think that last point is probably the best argument against not killing off that character because those last few scenes would have played differently had that happened.
We wouldn’t have even had the last few scenes. We wouldn’t have had the fourth act. I mean, Raylan would have had to kill him and that would have been the end of the show, and I think that would have been a real bummer. We’ve killed off characters we’ve liked over the years, there’s no question. But it felt like when you get down to our core group that would be sort of wanton slaughter other than something that would feel organic to the show.
Was it made clear whether Patton Oswalt’s character survived, Constable Bob?
That was one of those things after the episode was done I sort of woke up with a cold sweat going, “Oh my God, we never actually addressed it and had someone say, ‘Constable Bob is doing okay.'” But on the other hand, that could also feel like that’s what it is — making the audience feel okay about Patton’s character. My standard line in Justified is “if you don’t see someone zipped up in a body bag, they’re alive.”
The time jump was cool, to see Raylan in a graphic T-shirt with his daughter. I loved the callback exchange to the “angriest man I’ve ever known” line in the pilot — now he’s stubborn, but not angry, so that’s progress.
The whole episode is filled with callbacks, but we thought it was nice to go to that.
What were some others?
When Raylan says, “I tried it on and it fit,” about his hat, that’s a callback to the second episode. When Raylan says goodbye to Art, he’s getting a call into the Seattle chief [and mentions Rachel]. In Miami four years later, with the photo from the local newspaper envelope, it says from Seattle office of Marshals Service, so that’s where Rachel is now.
And Raylan didn’t end up getting back together with Winona, which I guess is not a surprise.
It’s not. In episode 7 they give each other a 50-50 shot, or as he puts it, “51-49 just to be generous,” and those are pretty even odds. And the thing in Elmore is people end up doing the same thing over and over again. I like the idea that Raylan and Winona will probably always be in some version of this dance. I remember when [producer] Fred Golan saw the cut of the episode. When Raylan’s watching her walk away, he said, “Oh, they’re still sleeping together.” I don’t believe they are at this point, but they’re always going to love each other, they just can’t live together. And then it was a nice treat and really a sweet gesture from Jason Gedrick to agree to play the part of her new husband. We worked together years ago on Boomtown and we’ve stayed in touch over the time.
Ava drove the bulk of the action of the final season. Episodes frequently hinged on her decisions. Can you talk about putting her in the narrative driver’s seat for the final lap?
When [Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins] would visit the writer’s room, they would bring us questions and notes. When [Joelle Carter] came to visit, she brought cupcakes. So we just thought we owed her. And listen, she’s just a tremendous actress and we had so much fun with her over the years and loved Ava. We just thought it would be great to have her at the center of the whole thing, and she just did spectacular work this year, and she has throughout.
I’m sure the writers’ room was delighted by the Down On All Fours Mobile Grooming van, “The Experts of Doggy Style.” Wynn Duffy was my favorite secondary character on the show. What in your mind did he end up doing?
We haven’t decided. But Ava, when she was running down the hill in episode 12, that’s who she was calling on the phone. So our belief is that he picked her up. He was lurking in the shadows when all this was going down. He got her in the dog-grooming van and put her in the hidden compartment, and feel that a dog-grooming van would throw off any inspection — that the scents would just make it hard for [police dogs] to smell anyone in there. He got her out in exchange for the location of the money. Beyond that point we don’t know. Did he actually get the $9 million? Jere Burns was actually in Fiji over the Christmas break and I asked him to get footage on a GoPro of him surfing in case we wanted to throw that in at the end of the episode. He wasn’t able to do it and I’m glad because I think it would have been a little too neat. But that was always our fantasy.
The scene in the mobile home in the previous episode was one of the most shocking, maybe even the most shocking, scene in the show’s history. It suddenly went from the show’s usual eloquent casualness to very visceral alarming horrific action.
Yes. I would say that scene is one of those scenes we are most proud of in terms of doing something that is terrifying and exciting and funny and heartbreaking. The other ones for me are Limehouse chopping off Quarles’ arm at the end of season 3, and the beat-down of Bob in the episode “Decoy” in season 4.
I had this post where I ranked the show’s all-time best showdowns with video clips for each. I’m just wondering: What was your favorite?
My favorite was Raylan with Fletcher Nix in the motel room.
Oh good, I picked the right one.
I think you picked the right one, but it makes me realize that [it should had have] had Bob versus Yolo in there. It was just a fight, but it still had elements of a showdown.
So is this it? Or is there any thought to a spinoff?
I think we’re just going to kind of take our breath and think about it and just enjoy having done this before we think any further. If there’s a demand or an appetite, I think we would be open pending availability and all. It was a great run and we had a lot of fun doing it with a great group of people.