By Jeff Jensen
April 14, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT
Prashant Gupta/FX`
  • TV Show

The crackling neo-western pulp of Justified always wore its heft and depth as casually as Raylan Givens wore his Stetson. An image from this fine, final season, from the episode “Fugitive Number One,” summed up the stakes of the series and foreshadowed its end: Raylan on one side of the frame, his silhouette cast on the other, looking the other way. He’s trying to leave a room through a clearly visible door, yet he’s called back to indulge his coal-digging soul bro nemesis, Boyd Crowder, the foul, loquacious Loki to his tempestuous, righteous Thor. For six seasons, our white hat hero lived at right odds with his dark half, the smoldering part of him full of furious anger for his past, his people, the Harlan County hellhole that made him, his own cracked character. He always had the option to walk away, but he always balked at the exit, drawn back by bad business he refused to abandon. Would he ever settle what needed to be settled? Could he do it without being owned by his shade? Or would the way of the gun claim his character or his life or both the way it claimed his god damn daddy and so many of his wretched kinfolk?

Justified’s last stand promised to address these matters—and entertain us—with one final showdown between Raylan and Boyd, one final tussle between the actors who played them, Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins. Part of the beauty of these 13 episodes was in how executive producer Graham Yost and company subverted our expectations for how these conflicts might be resolved. The rest of that beauty was found in simply being a top notch season of Justified, stuffed with quotable pulp poetry spare and ornate and richly drawn antagonists big and small (hats off to Sam Elliot’s Avery Markham, Mary Steenburgen’s Katherine Hale, Garret Dillahunt’s Ty Walker, Jonathan Tucker’s Boon, Jere Burns’ Wynn Duffy, and the delightful, indelibly imbecilic Choo-Choo, played by Duke Davis Roberts). Despite the inconsistencies that most long-running shows accrue over time (season 5 in particular was mediocre), Justified departs as that rare series that succeeds as saga, as a cohesive, thematically clear whole. It takes with it a portion of the zeitgeist that informed it, our romance with violent, cynical, doomed anti-heroes, but also leaves something valuable behind, a tempered portrayal of redemption and nuanced reconstruction of heroic character that merits admiration.

There were plenty of shots fired and sticks of dynamite thrown in the finale, but holstered revolvers and quiet conversation produced the most thrilling and meaningful action. The power of “The Promise” was set up by the sequence of episodes that blew up our assumptions that Raylan the lawman and Boyd the outlaw would sort their s— of their tortured past with guns drawn under a blazing sun at high noon. The most peculiar of these scenes saw Raylan and Boyd engage in a stupid, futile shoot-out, a wild exchange of pointed, bitter barbs and poorly aimed bullets, that took place under a full moon on a chilly night, on the slopes of a metaphorically loaded mountain, all cold and misty, cluttered with the debris of Holler history. It felt like the show was mocking the folly of their grudge, and maybe gently ribbing us for wanting to see them play it out with glib bloodshed.

And yet the sequence had mythic signifiance, slyly rendered. Raylan—stripped of his badges of authority and illusions; an outlaw vigilante without apology —hunted his demon doppelganger in the gloom, firing bullets at the shadow, the shadow firing back, both missing their marks. Boyd slipped away, but not before doing as doppelganger demons do, showing Raylan the worst in himself and the cost of his blindness. The episode ended with Raylan trying to save his longtime ally whose car he stole—poor Bob Sweeney (Patton Oswald): He was bleeding out while Raylan was indulging his obsession with Boyd—and surrendering to the law, literally and spiritually. Asked if he was indeed Raylan Givens, our “hero” responded: “I don’t suppose you’d believe me if I said no?” In that moment, Raylan had no idea who he was anymore.

Going into the finale, I worried that Justified had left way too many story lines for the show to wrap up in satisfying fashion. And yet, Yost, his fellow writers, director Adam Arkin and the cast managed to do everything they needed to do and then some, making every scene and every beat count for something, every moment of important getting exactly the amount of time it needed, no more, no less. There were curious compressions, but the quality of everything else made the clunk easy to ignore.

“The Promise” continued the final stages of Raylan’s journey by continuing to court self-destruction with more misguided, ironic tests of machismo and moral character. Raylan—his badge and authority restored—cornered Boyd, but didn’t cuff him right away. Instead, he kicked Boyd a loaded gun and gave him the choice on how he wanted to end things. Maybe Raylan hoped to kill him. Maybe Raylan wanted to find out something about himself or prove something to himself. Boyd—not one to play by anyone else’s rules except his own—resented the provocation. He tried to tempt Raylan’s “You pull on me, “I’ll put you down” code by needling his rage triggers. It was a reckless game of righteous—and self-righteous—chicken, and in the end, it ended with an ironic draw, with both men sticking to their guns and refusing to fire first. But the tie went to Raylan, and Boyd was hauled away.

It seemed that Raylan had escaped his past, eluded his worst self, and put Harlan behind him. But no sooner had he cruised beyond the county line, one more doppelganger came tearing out of the Holler like a bat out of hell: Boon, hard-boiled killer, a black-hatted gunslinger as proud of his quick-draw as Raylan himself. Boone had always wanted to prove himself Raylan; now, Raylan would give him the chance, in a showdown that would allow Raylan to prove something to himself, about himself, one more time. Both got shots off. Raylan’s fire found Boon’s heart. Boon’s fire blew a hole in Raylan’s big fat hat and set him on his ass. Boone only grazed his scalp, but Raylan looked every bit like a man who had dodged a bullet with his name in it, and who had been humbled and humanized in the ways that he needed to be. As always, Raylan lingered at the exit and tried to stay longer—to catch runaway Ava, he rationalized—but Art wouldn’t have it, and Raylan didn’t fight him. The last temptation, resisted. He left Kentucky wearing a new hat, darker and smaller, more like the businessman’s Stetson that the late, great Elmore Leonard put on him in Justified’s native text, the novella “Fire In The Hole.” I like to think of it as a reminder of the shadow that he bested, the final battles that finally took the angry hot air out of him and right-sized him. 

Yet this wasn’t the end of “The Promise.” Justified ended with an extended epilogue that further shaded Raylan’s redemption and heroic correction. These scenes, set four years later, revealed that while Raylan enjoyed a fulfilling relationship with daughter, he had lost Winona (Natalie Zea) to another man (the well-traveled Jason Gedrick in a cameo). This was a bittersweet revelation, yet one befitting a season in which the women of the show fought against being prizes or tools for the men and/or paid for playing those parts. (See: the tragedy of Katherine Hale, the ambivalent, doomed gangster’s wife; and Joelle Carter’s Ava, who spent the first half of the season trapped by Raylan and Boyd, and the second half trying to sabotage, subvert, and escape them.)

We saw Raylan enjoying some ice cream with his daughter, dressed down with no hat, his kick-back, take-it-easy visage suggesting that he’d given up the marshal’s service. In an episode chockablock with echoes and allusions to past episodes—the pilot in particular—the ice cream winks at the season 2 finale “Bloody Harlan,” and a conversation between Winona and Raylan about his capacity for change. What would he do with his life if he couldn’t shoot guns and chase bad guys? “Maybe I’ll sell ice cream. I like ice cream.” The ice cream, then, is given to us as a marker to measure Raylan’s growth across the life of the series. The result is certainly winning, but his victory qualified. “You are the most stubborn man I have ever known,” Winona tells him. “Beats being angry,” he replied, referring to the judgment she passed on him in the pilot. “Raylan, you do a good job of hiding it, and I suppose most folks don’t see it, but honestly, you’re the angriest man I’ve ever known.”

The sequence following Winona’s send-off surveyed the extent of Raylan’s stubbornness, but also affirmed his ability to change. Raylan—still very much a marshal, still sporting his fitted black hat, still all business to a pitliess degree —tracked down the last bit of unfinished business from the donnybrook in the Holler: Ava. He found her in California, hiding out on a farm, playing out her fugitive days by doing good deeds wherever she could find them. Raylan wasn’t too impressed. But when exactly did he decide that he wasn’t going to take her to jail? Was it before he arrived at her home, or after seeing her young boy, her son with Boyd? We can debate, but I say after: I think Raylan—a soul shaped by sins-of-the-father generational legacy—saw himself in that kid, and knew well what was at stake if he took him away from a mother determined to raise him well, and even more so what might happen if Boyd ever got his hands on him. He couldn’t be all business with Ava. It was personal. And it always was.

I wish Justified had found a way to let Ava change Raylan’s mind and keep her freedom without playing the kid card. But it was effective in completing some circuits in Raylan’s growth arc, and specifically the elements that made the show’s final scene so charged and moving.

It took us back to prison, where we found Boyd doing as Boyd does, leading and lying, amassing a flock of followers by preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, and extolling himself as proof of redemption. “Any man can walk toward temptation,” he thundered, “but it takes a real man to walk away from it.” He was technically referring to Jesus, but we knew he was referring to himself—how he resisted Raylan’s baiting four years earlier in that barn—or Raylan, or both of them. Ironies within ironies within ironies: Just three episodes earlier, Raylan said he’d never live long enough to hear — how did he put it a couple eps back? — “The Ballad of the Outlaw Boyd Crowder.” Now here he was, spending the rest of his days, singing a warped version of it. 

Boyd was pulled out of the chapel to meet with a visitor.You know who. Raylan called b.s. on Boyd’s preacher routine (“You know you’re repeating yourself, right?” he said, referring to his season 2 bid at religion) and reminded him that he’s never believed most of the things this “emperor of lies” has ever said, including the most vile (like the racist patter of season 1), except for his professions of love for Ava. Their banter was chop-bustingly light, but the Ava bit at cut Boyd to the quick.

Then, Raylan fed Boyd some of his own line b.s. He told Boyd that Ava was dead, presenting him with fabricated proof. Boyd was skeptical at first — and we might wonder if Boyd knew Raylan was snowing him, but went with it anyway. Was Raylan only trying to do Ava a favor? Or was he also trying to do something for Boyd? By reminding Boyd of his love for Ava and creating a fiction that allowed him to grieve her, Raylan was helping Boyd liberate him from bitterness over Ava’s betrayal. One recovering rage-a-holic helping another, using truth and lies to set him free.

The last lines suggested that Raylan had come to a new, gracious understanding about himself and Boyd and their history. Boyd pressed Raylan, in a way that was endearlingly sad and needy: Had he only come to tell him about Ava? That’s it? Nothing more? Nothing more from him? I got the sense that Boyd wanted to coax Raylan into confessing something that I’m thinking he had long wanted to hear, and something he needed to hear more than ever, now that the dream of Ava was dead and gone and he was all alone in the world: An admission of kinship, that they meant something to each other, that maybe, even now, they needed each other. Raylan couldn’t let Boyd have his son. But he could give him a brother.  

“I suppose if I allowed myself to be sentimental, despite all that has occurred, there is one thing I wander back to…” 

“We dug coal together,” said Boyd.

“That’s right,” Raylan replied. Sincere, no b.s., his nod a conferring of grace that can only come from a man who has made peace with his shadow, a man justified.

Wouldn’t it be great if once a year, Olyphant and Goggins got together to shoot Raylan’s annual visit to Boyd?

“Raylan Givens, I know you have never believed a word that has ever come out of my mouth, but I have harbored a secret hope that you never less enjoyed hearing them.”

I know I did. Thanks for the ride, Justified.

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