Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Promise,” the series finale of “Justified.”
“Justified” was always about transcending something, which makes it appropriate that the show's ending transcended my expectations. It zigged when I sort of expected it to zag, and yet the whole thing was very satisfying and even -- lawman Raylan Givens would roll his eyes at this word -- sweet.
The expected confrontations arrived, of course, and produced moments of excitement: Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) throwing dynamite down a mountain at pursuing law enforcement was, well, dynamite. The ongoing chase involving Ava (Joelle Carter) and Boyd resulted in gunfire and a number of deaths, and then at the midpoint, there was that classic showdown between Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and Avery Markham’s protégé, Boon (Jonathan Tucker).
White hat, black hat: Two men quick on the draw faced each other on a lonely road. It was an iconic image, a tip of the hat to the cowboy-lawman cinematic traditions the show expanded on for six seasons. And yet that confrontation, like so many others in this slippery, delightful final season, didn’t necessarily follow a predictable pattern. Well, to some degree it did -- our hero lived and the bad guy died. And yet it’s to the show's great credit that most of us probably experienced a moment of doubt. Was Raylan dead? Seriously wounded? Or would he emerge with just a scratch?
Fortunately for him (and for us), his minor wound didn’t slow him down. And if I wanted to get fancy, I would say that the moment he rose from the blacktop represented the final stage of Raylan’s rebirth. All those years ago, he returned to Kentucky as an angry man who liked using his gun a little too much, and there are still elements of that anger and twitchy trigger finger in him.
But he resisted the urge to kill Boyd and he would have loved to avoid the confrontation with Boon, who thought he understood the codes that Raylan and Boyd lived by but was actually a toxic combination of both men’s worst qualities. Boon -- a man with a truly frightening gleam in his eye -- was a dangerous narcissist who cared about increasing his personal glory; he committed the cardinal sin of trying too hard to seem cool. But it was the self-consciousness of his quest for glory that did Boon in. Raylan and Boyd always had healthy egos, but we cared about them for six seasons because they had other concerns on their minds: Family, community, doing the right thing for those they cared about, carving out a bit of autonomy in a world designed to crush individuals.
They got it wrong a lot of the time and were often their own worst enemies, but they gave a sh-t about something other than themselves, and thus, for all their rebellious ways, could be vulnerable and even afraid. But they were Elmore Leonard dudes, so that never showed on the surface. Without trying, they actually were cool.
Leonard’s universes are always full of wry amusement and his characters are put through any number of inconveniences and indignities, but he was an ultimately compassionate writer, and that spirit of generosity clearly influenced the ending of “Justified.” Everything turned out more or less all right in the end. Boyd, Ava and Raylan lived, which ties into another one of “Justified’s” themes: It might seem cool to go out in a blaze of glory, but the pursuit of that kind of reflexively angry life is ultimately limiting and self-defeating.
A violent end, for any of the central trio, would have meant that they weren’t able to transcend their genetics, their family histories and their own self-destructive tendencies. They didn’t get everything they wanted, but they got to live, which is enough. It was quite possibly more than they expected.
Life is about grinding out the day to day and just trying to get through each moment with a modicum of dignity and intelligence. Confrontations, danger and a quick trigger finger can give an individual a certain amount of power, but that’s no way to live. Through ingenuity, wiliness and just plain endurance, all three members of the final season’s central trio got out of Harlan alive. Even if they’re not necessarily living the lives they’d always dreamed of, that represents a step forward.
The finale was titled “The Promise,” and that may have referred to Raylan’s promise to finally leave Kentucky and be a father to his daughter down in Miami. Or it could have referred to Raylan’s promise to Ava to never reveal her whereabouts or the existence of Boyd’s son. It was probably about the implicit promise that two men who dug coal side by side made to each other -- the idea was, they’d always have each other’s backs.
And in a way, they did. Raylan resisted the urge to kill Boyd, and then did him a favor by not making him aware of his son’s existence. The boy deserved a chance at life, and as a man who’s all too aware of the influence of scheming fathers, he wasn’t about to put little Zachariah in the path of the force of nature known as Boyd Crowder. Even from inside a prison, Boyd would have been capable of turning his boy's life upside down.
Some things don’t change: Zachariah wore a shirt buttoned all the way up, just like his daddy, and one of the many callbacks in the episode was the shot of the boy digging with a shovel; minutes earlier, we'd seen his father desperately using a shovel when he was trying to find the buried money. Many things came full circle: Boyd went back to preaching the way he did in the show’s pilot, and Winona and Raylan, once again, just couldn’t make it work.
But in the big picture, a lot did change for Raylan. “You pull on me, I put you down.” That part of Raylan still existed, as evidenced by his quick dispatch of Boon. But he wouldn’t give in to the narrative that both he and Boyd were both drawn to -- the one in which one of them shot the other or they both ended up dead. That would have been the flashy way to go out, but, on second thought, why go out at all? Why not bury your father, give away the farm and try to be a more evolved person capable of raising a child? Worth a shot, right?
In honor of its passing and in honor of its fine six-season run, here are six reasons I’ll miss this show:
- It loved language. Sure, on some level, it was about Marshals doing their duty and catching bad guys, up in Harlan and other places too. But “Justified” was ultimately a show about people who liked to talk, and when they spoke, gems just kept falling out of their mouths. From Boyd’s ornate locutions to Raylan’s laconic wisecracks to the sardonic observations from any number of other characters, this was an endlessly quotable show that saw the English language the way Boyd viewed explosives: It was something to have fun with while using it to its fullest advantage.
- It had an amazing rotating crew of actors. Season 5 was off in a lot of ways, but let’s not talk about it because it was such an extreme anomaly in that regard. “Justified” recovered strongly, finishing with one of its very best seasons, and it was a grand, delectable finish in part due to the courtly, steely presence of Sam Elliott, who played Markham. He was just so much damn fun, able to out-act everyone on the screen merely by looking at things with a twinkling eye or lowering his voice an octave or two. “Justified” was like a good U.K. drama; they’re always loaded to the rafters with character actors who have such presence and smarts that their characters are instantly interesting. Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) was the gift that never stopped giving (inexplicably, my favorite finale line belonged to Wynn: “I have sensitive gums.”) So many notable guest stars, from Margo Martindale to Kaitlyn Dever to Mykelti Williamson and Damon Herriman, knew exactly what kind of spin to put on the show’s endlessly entertaining dialogue, and the regular cast -- Nick Searcy, Joelle Carter, Jacob Pitts, Erica Tazel and of course the fantastic Goggins and the versatile Olyphant -- continually found ways to make almost every scene sing.
- It valued intelligence. The show gave almost every character a shred or two of dignity, even intellectually challenged characters like Choo Choo and the endlessly moronic Dewey Crowe, who was mocked for his poor decision-making and yet somehow ended up a sympathetic figure. That said, what “Justified” really valued was intelligence and demonstrations of tactical genius. There were any number of physical confrontations over the course of the show’s history, but time and again, “Justified” had great fun depicting a character thinking his or her way out of a jam. There were narrative pile-ups almost every season, when the threads of the plots got so tangled that I felt like Dewey Crowe in an advanced physics class, but there was something truly inspirational about the way “Justified” celebrated street smarts and devious cleverness. In a world where most characters’ lives were constricted by a lack of opportunity, the only way they could fight back was with their brains, and many of them fought those battles very well indeed.
- It had some pretty great female characters. The drama was mainly about two damaged men and their strange dance of enmity and friendship, but over the years, “Justified” brought us a series of iconic ladies, as well. Margo Martindale stole the second season by bringing her charisma and masterful range to Harlan County, and Kaitlyn Dever has played Mags Bennett’s young kin with wary, delightful precision. Joelle Carter brought a great urgency to Ava’s desperate quests in the final season, and Mary Steenburgen was clearly having a blast as Avery Markham’s duplicitous lover. And I still hold out hope that Ellen May is somehow surviving out there in the cold cruel world. I can’t forget that luckless prostitute thanks to Abby Miller’s relentlessly honest, layered and vulnerable performance.
- It was about working-class characters just trying to get by. As I noted in a recent piece about “Jane the Virgin,” you almost never see characters on TV punching a time clock anymore, and the other day “Mad Men” broadcast an episode in which a waitress’ hair smelled “great” after a long shift (and her uniform was spotless). “Mad Men” is great in a lot of ways, but like most of TV, it doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on characters who work for an hourly wage, and I get the sense a number of TV writers don’t really know how they live. Harlan County, Kentucky, is not portrayed on “Justified” as a paradise of enlightenment -- folks there are just as prone to greed and violence as anyone else in this country. But “Justified” continually showed why members of that hardscrabble community fought the law and interlopers. Despite their affinities for hard work and self-reliance, they'd been screwed over again and again, and they were sick of it -- a sentiment that gave Mags’ Season 2 fight against a big coal company a great deal of moral weight. “Justified” never forgot the plight of the working man and working woman, and saw those citizens’ lack of trust in various forms of authority as being, well, justified.
- “Justified” had the best hang time. Episodes of the show regularly had what felt like abrupt endings, but maybe that’s because the show was really at its best when it was simply hanging out with its characters. There was an expansive, relaxed quality to “Justified,” a show that liked to simply spend time with its characters and listen to them talk. What pleasure we got from those hours spent with these men and women for six seasons.
Now that time is up. Thanks, “Justified.”
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