I’ve been mentioning throughout the season that Justified, despite boasting a world populated by a host of tertiary characters that are as thoughtfully constructed as the main players, has always been a show about Raylan, Boyd, and Ava. Since the very first episode this has been a story about how the Givens and Crowder families share a history together, for better or for worse.
What’s particularly wonderful about “The Promise,” the series finale of Justified and easily one of the best series finales in television history, is that it doesn’t end on a note that this relationship, the one between the one Givens and the two Crowders, has been for the worse. The finale manages to subvert everything we know about how noir-tinged, contemporary Westerns should end (with a violent shootout, right?) while also never straying into easy sentimentality or a tidy finish.
That’s not to say that the finale doesn’t have its fair share of violence. In fact, if it weren’t for that motor home scene from a few episodes back, the confrontation here between Markham and Boyd, who’s come to Loretta’s barn after learning that Ava is being held there, would be one of the season’s bloodiest. The action isn’t drawn out, and that’s what makes the scene so brutal. These characters have no time to waste anymore, so they’re getting down to brass tacks.
Initially, it would seem that Boyd has shown up at Loretta’s barn because he’s run out of options, and therefore Ava, and her knowledge of where the $10 million is buried, represents his only ticket out of Harlan. But as the scene plays out, it becomes clear that Boyd isn’t looking for a way out, he’s looking for what went wrong.
He needs to confront Ava and ask her why she did what she did, and if that means dispensing of Markham in the meantime, so be it. Markham ends up not being much of a foil, having lost control of his operation long ago. He calls Boyd a “hillbilly” before he draws on him, a slur indicative of Markham’s constant underestimating of the people of Harlan. He’s always looked down on them as worthless “hillbillies,” and in the end, that kind of miscalculation leads to his demise, with Boyd using one of the crooked cops for cover before shooting Markham in the face.
Raylan, who, as Boyd notes, has the worst timing possible, stumbles upon the scene having heard that Boyd has evaded the police after throwing dynamite at them. He’s convinced Art to let him go, to let him do his job and get Boyd Crowder before bringing him into the office for questioning.
Raylan gets exactly what he wants, as Boyd is vulnerable and has nowhere to go. He tells Boyd to raise the gun so that he can draw on him and finally end this feud. Boyd refuses to raise the gun though, and instead asks Ava why she betrayed him. Ava’s answer, that she did what she thought Boyd would have done, is devastating. Earlier, he pulled the trigger on the gun twice while pointing it at Ava, but he knew the chamber was empty; he had no intention of killing her.
Still, there’s tension in the scene as Boyd tries to bait Raylan into shooting him. Once and for all, Boyd wants Raylan to admit to himself, by shooting Boyd, that he’s a bad man hiding behind the rule of law. The scene is composed like a Western shootout, with shots of Raylan and Boyd switching back and forth, each one moving closer and closer to their face as the inevitable is about to happen.
NEXT: Not with a bang but a whimper
And then the inevitable doesn’t happen. There’s no shootout, no final, bloody confrontation. Instead, we get a shot of Boyd Crowder being led away in handcuffs as Raylan hops in a car with Ava to transport her back to the office where she’ll then be sent back to prison.
There’s no Givens-Crowder shootout, but Justified knows some violence is needed to placate the audience, so they put Boon in Raylan’s way. In a truck with Loretta, he chases down the car with Ava and Raylan and smashes into them. He draws Raylan out for a classic high noon showdown. The two draw on each other quickly and both men go down. Neither man moves until Boon lifts his head, already half dead, and starts to lift his gun to put one final bullet in Raylan. That’s when Loretta steps on his hand and removes the gun, moving toward Raylan to see if he’s still alive.
He’s bloodied, a bullet passing through his hat and leaving a nasty wound on the side of his head, but he’s alive. He wakes up just in time to see Ava driving off with his car and a backpack full of money. You can’t win every battle.
Still, with Boyd in cuffs, Raylan can finally ride off into the sunset. He grabs a drink with Art back at the office, and says some sweet, but not too tender, goodbyes to the people he’s worked with over the years.
The episode then flashes forward four years, where Raylan, back in Florida, is rewarding his daughter with money for coming up with the most disgusting flavor of ice cream she can think of while he works a much more low-key police beat than in Harlan. Things are going swimmingly until he stumbles upon a newspaper clipping with Ava in the background.
He tracks her down and the two catch up like old friends who also have this big elephant in the room; you know, the one where she took off with a bag full of money and left Raylan for dead in the road? That elephant. Raylan tells Ava that he’s not going to bring her in though, especially after he sees that Ava has a son, and that it’s Boyd’s; he’s even wearing an outfit that, in a larger form, would suit the outlaw himself!
Having left Ava to live her life and start over, Raylan heads to visit Boyd in prison, where he’s taken up preaching again, detailing to his congregation the ways in which his troubled life has led him to God. After getting pulled from his sermon, we get the true final “confrontation” between Boyd and Raylan, where they sit across from each other, separated by that thick prison glass, each speaking with surprising warmth.
Raylan tells Boyd that while he’s never believed much of what he said, he’s always known how much he loved Ava. The acknowledgement brings a tear to Boyd’s eye, and that’s when Raylan really drops a bomb. He tells Boyd that Ava was killed in a car crash years ago after fleeing from the police, and that they only found out now because the person’s whose identity she stole recently made a complaint.
The pain in Boyd’s eyes is devastating. “Okay then,” he manages to mutter, accepting that that part of his life, that final link to everything he once knew, is gone for good. He says it’s probably for the better, because the past has a way of following you, and that’s especially true when you come from Harlan.
So as much as this story has been about how adversarial Boyd and Raylan are, it’s also been a story about Harlan, about how violence begets violence and how family lineage can be hard to escape, especially when the systems in place in such a small town work to oppress just about everybody.
In the series’ final moments, there’s no gunshots, no bloodshed, and not even any hostility. There’s just these two men finally understanding who they are. For Boyd, that’s reckoning with his past and doing what he can to reform himself in prison. For Raylan, that means that he finally empathizes with Boyd, that he finally understands that the two of them aren’t so different. They both grew up in a culture of violence (both physical and economic). Raylan escaped though, and Boyd didn’t. For Raylan, that’s always been because Boyd chose to be an outlaw. Now though, he understands that he could have just as easily ended up behind that glass.
The two men have tears in their eyes as they close out the arduous journey they’ve been on. It’s fitting that the series ends like this, with a moment of understanding, compassion, and even, in some way, friendship. After all, these two dug coal together.