Tuesday brings us the series finale of FX’s Justified, one of television’s most entertaining crime dramas. The series, adapted from the Elmore Leonard story Fire in the Hole, has run for six seasons and was the closest thing to a western on TV. Like the best dramatic series, each season played out like a standalone novel; and like a good book series, you didn’t have to familiar with what happened in the previous story to enjoy it. Justified was been a dependable player for FX, even if the storytelling over those six years has been inconsistent, and when the final chapter airs it may be some time before basic cable has a crime series as entertaining and intelligent as this one.
Timothy Olyphant (Deadwood) starred as Raylan Givens, a Deputy U.S. Marshal assigned to the Lexington, KY field office after a questionable incident in Miami. That incident, in which Raylan gunned down a mobster, cast shade on Raylan’s reputation the entire series. Raylan called the shooting “justified,” while some of his superiors questioned his ethics. By placing Raylan in Lexington, the Marshal’s office was both punishing him and hoping to keep him out of trouble. While cocky and quick to draw his piece, Raylan was excellent at his job and an asset to the force. Once in Kentucky, Raylan found himself working with an old associate, Art Mullen (the great Nick Searcy), the stoic Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts) and straight laced Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel).
The relocation complicated Raylan’s life more than expected, as it has placed him in the backyard of Harlan, Kentucky, the coal mining community where he grew up, worked the mines, and fled for a better life. Harlan is a place few people escape from, including his ex-wife, his ex-girlfriend, and his father, Arlo (Raymond J. Berry), a local gangster who ran drugs in Harlan. Raylan never worked in the family business, and the fact that Arlo has been in and out of prison his entire life added to the suspicion of Raylan’s character. Raylan hated Arlo and wasn’t too upset when he died.
The thorn in Raylan’s side for six years was the man he was originally assigned to bring down: Boyd Crowder. Although there were numerous cases and Raylan did excellent work for the Marshal’s office, Boyd remained the one criminal that Raylan couldn’t nail.
As played by The Shield’s Walton Goggins in a career-defining role, Boyd was a skinny, self-taught criminal sometimes too smart for his own good. Boyd and Raylan worked together in the mines back in the day, and while Raylan couldn’t get away fast enough, Boyd stayed in land where he was born. When first introduced, Boyd was a white supremacist with a pension for robbing banks. However, as Justified creator/show runner Graham Yost recently told NPR’s Terry Gross, white supremacy was just one in a series of opportunistic titles Boyd claimed in order to manipulate people to pull crimes for him.
As the series carried on, Boyd ditched his racist ways, found God and formed a religious cult, then took over a brothel, ran an oxy business, a weed business, sold heroin, and stole from some very powerful people in deep with the Dixie Mafia. Boyd always stayed one step ahead of the law and his enemies. And those times when it seemed like his number was up; the SOB talked his way out of danger and got away. We’ll see if he has enough to get away scot-free on Tuesday night, or if he finally gets sent away to prison… or six feet under.
I mentioned Raylan’s ex-girlfriend, and she’s been an important player throughout the course of the show. Ava Crowder was played by Joelle Carter with hardened compassion. Yes, Ava was married to his brother, Bowman. She killed him. Ava spent part of the series rekindling her love for Raylan, and then found her way into Boyd’s heart, making for one of the more complicated love affairs on television. Like a modern day Bonnie and Clyde, Ava and Boyd have pulled many schemes; attempts at finding happiness that all failed.
Last season, Ava spent most of her time in prison, enduring abuse from inmates and guards alike. It was so bad that when offered the chance to act as a snitch for Raylan, she didn’t hesitate. As this final season progressed, and Raylan used Ava as a chip in his final endgame to bring down Boyd, her allegiance to either man was in constant flux.
Yost and his team of writers nailed Leonard’s take on cops and robbers, and mastered his gift for crackling dialogue. Many of the long monologues these backwoods characters would deliver weren’t the way real people speak, but that was the fun of it. While the overall seasons fluctuated in consistency, almost by year, there were always enough interesting episodes and characters to make even the weak seasons fun to watch. Season two of Justified remains the high point, and I feel it stands as one of the greatest 13 episode seasons in modern television history. In it, Margo Martindale guest starred as Mags Bennett, the matriarch of a pot dealing crime family that controlled a major portion of Harlan. While Mags storyline was the central focus for Raylan, Boyd went on an existential journey, trying to go straight. Alas, he realized that being a criminal was in his blood and he could no longer deny it.
Besides the rich dialogue and its cinematic look, Justified featured an array of great character actors playing major roles in the show. Some of those people included Jere Burns as mobile home mobster Wynn Duffy, Jeremy Davis as the folically challenged Dickie Bennett, Mykelti Williamson as Butcher/gangster Ellstin Limehouse, Patton Oswalt as Constable Bob Sweeney, Kaitlyn Dever as take-no-shit teenage drug entrepreneur Loretta McCready, and Aussie Damon Herriman as southern dimwit Dewey Crowe.
This final season has been the series best since season two. With laudable guest stars like Mary Steenburgen and Sam Elliott, the final episodes included some of the richest episodes in the series run. Favorite characters from season’s past made appearances, and the show has propelled along to its conclusion on Tuesday night. Whatever fate awaits Raylan, Boyd and Ava, the series finale promises to be a thrilling end to Justified. Besides his final confrontation with Boyd, the previews imply a showdown between Raylan and a psychotic gunslinger played by Jonathan Tucker. Raylan, always the quickest draw in Kentucky, may have finally met his match. Considering that he just wants to go back to Florida to settle down with his ex-wife/soulmate, Winona (Natalie Zea) and their newborn daughter, will he be so cavalier with his gun now that he has a child to live for?
It’s become a tradition for Justified to feature a version of Darrell Scott’s song, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” in the season finale. Yost has stated that he plans to use it in the final episode. Another tradition has been for a bloody surprise or two before the final credits. As the writers have proven over six years, no character is safe on Justified, so I expect one of that major players to meet their demise. I predict that Raylan will somehow survive to ride off into the sunset. He may not be physically hurt, but the wounds of the things he’s done in Harlan may haunt him for the rest of his life. A character like Raylan just can’t bury the past; Harlan will always be a part of him. Although the show is ending, Justified will always be a part of me, as well.
Few series excited me on a weekly basis just to hear the words coming out of the characters mouths. Few characters required as many repeat viewings as Boyd when he got on a roll. The way Goggins delivered his line was like poetry, even though most of what Boyd said was bullshit. More than any recent show in memory, Justified truly felt like a series of novels. Thankfully, because the show remains alive via digital streaming, I can revisit it anytime, just like rereading my favorite Elmore Leonard novel.