04/02/2013 10:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2013

'Justified' Season Finale Review: Peace Comes At A Price

justified finale

Spoiler Alert: Don't read on unless you've seen the Season 4 finale of "Justified."

Why won't they learn? When bad guys are on the receiving end of Raylan Givens' Glare of Extreme Hatred, they often don't recognize that they are about to die. Take the knuckleheads who put a gun to the head of Raylan's pregnant ex, Winona. These idiots received the Glare of Extreme Hatred from both Raylan and Winona, so you'd think they'd have figured out that they were not long for this world. Well, the fact is, some dummies only figure it out after they've eaten lead.

The shoot-out in the baby's nursery was only the start to an excellent season finale, which took the show back to basics: Raylan, Boyd, tough choices and terrible consequences. There may have been some bumps along the way -- I found the middle of the fourth season convoluted at times -- but the season certainly ended in a very satisfying fashion. What kind of man is Raylan Givens and where does he draw the line, morally speaking? What makes him different from Boyd Crowder, or from Nicky Augustine, for that matter? The season finale answered those questions in ways that were simultaneously thought-provoking and enjoyable, and that's a pretty good short description of the show as a whole.

Would Raylan draw on a man who was unarmed? No, but he'd make damn sure that man didn't survive the night. He is a lawman, but if there's one thing Raylan knows, it's that there will always be bad guys like Theo Tonin, Augustine and Sammy Tonin. Raylan has said in the past that he doesn't care about shitkicker-on-shitkicker crime, and he clearly feels similarly about wiseguy-on-wiseguy murder, especially if the wiseguy who goes down in a hail of gunfire had put his family in harm's way. You don't have to be from Harlan to understand that kind of fierce desire to protect your kin.

Raylan takes no pleasure in that death, however, and "Justified" is as concerned with morality as it ever was, and that's just one of the things that elevates it into television's higher realms. (It's other main claim to greatness: It has the best dialogue on television.)

In last scenes of the finale, Boyd and Raylan both end up alone, clearly as a result of the way they've chosen to live their lives. But Winona is safe and out of harm's way, and this is partly because Raylan has not chosen violence and intimidation as a way of life. Bad, bloody things occur with regularity in his general vicinity, but he tries very hard to resist the Arlo Givens side of his nature. That side may win out on occasion, but it's the resistance that matters.

Boyd, on the other hand, has chosen to engage in and improve on the criminal life that Arlo lived for decades, and the further that life draws Boyd in -- he'll surely be able to afford that Clover Hill house thanks to the heroin trade -- the more he puts those closest to him in danger. Johnny Crowder is out of his gang, obviously; but much more importantly, Ava probably faces jail time for a murder that wouldn't have occurred had she not been so caught up in Boyd's world. Ava chose the criminal life just as surely as Boyd did, and thus a wedding and a peaceful life on Clover Hill is just as likely to evade her. In that great car conversation (the show has never, ever gone wrong putting these two men in the same space), Boyd tried hard to make it seem as though he and Raylan are the same, but the fact that he has to try so hard to make that sound true leaves you wondering if Boyd's belief is, yes, justified.

Drew Thompson was the MacGuffin of the season -- and an entertaining former MacGuffin once we knew Drew was Shelby -- but it occurred to me late in Season 4 that there was a parallel story of greater moral importance. Ellen May was a whore with a heart of gold, but the character avoided all the usual trappings of the cliche. For all her awkwardness and tentative perseverance, she served as a moral litmus test for many key characters: Colt couldn't bring himself to kill her, nor could Ava. They have darkness in them, but they couldn't bring themselves to let it win so completely.

The question this show often asks is not "Can you resist your darkest impulses?" but "Can you help preserve innocence and kindness wherever they are found?" These are very Elmore Leonard-esque questions, and they allow the show to be both light and serious, often at the same time. "Justified" would be a very different show if both questions didn't matter.

The fact that Boyd is willing to kill Ellen May, and that Ava and Colt come close, is an indication of how far they have fallen. The fact that Drew and Raylan, despite the bad choices they've made, go out of their way to help her proves that they are not beyond redemption.

Remember way back at the start of the season, when there was a revival preacher in Harlan County? He may have gone away in short order (I wouldn't have minded more screen time for that brother-and-sister duo), but this show is always asking questions about salvation. Raylan may not be a believer, but the fact that Arlo died not just a sinner but a cold, murderous man has to eat at Raylan -- and that's just one reason his Glare of Hatred is something to fear.

The hunt for Drew ultimately served as a distraction for Raylan, one that allowed him to turn away from his grief about his father's choices and focus on something else. And Arlo's passing was actually an opportunity for "Justified" to show, yet again, how good it is at zagging when we expect it to zig, and doing so in a way that serves the characters. Few shows on television are as genuinely interested in their characters as "Justified" is, and it constantly illuminates their natures in ways that feel right and real, not slick and predictable.

Anyone expecting a reconciliation at Arlo's deathbed saw the show expertly sidestep yet another cliche: We know both men too well to expect them to forgive and forget after decades of mistrust and hostility. And when Raylan -- clenched, as normal-seeming as he could force himself to be -- told Art later that he'd known of Arlo's death for a few hours, that may well have been the high point of the season. How very "Justified" to avoid sloppy sentiment while perfectly expressing a deeply buried emotion. Raylan's feelings about his dad run deeper than any seam of coal in Harlan County, and he dealt with his grief in a very Raylan way, which is to say he didn't.

Not on the surface, at least. After the life he's had, all he could do was protect his daughter and her mother, and promise his daughter that he would not give in to the Arlo side of himself. He may have caused Augustine's death, but Winona and the baby are fine, Ellen May is alive and Drew is in custody. As he sat with a drink after fixing the wall in Arlo's house, I imagine he promised himself, again, that would not become as craven, selfish and amoral as his old man -- because Raylan's daughter deserves more.

I may have found the middle section of the season's Drew plot a bit dense for my taste, but this was, overall, an excellent, enjoyable season with many high points. Here are just a few of the high points of the season and the finale:

  • Tim's phone conversation with Colt in the chock-full-of-awesome episode "Decoy," which Alan Sepinwall described so well (and let's hear it for more of both Tim and Rachel this season).

  • I was reminded of "Sons of Anarchy's" most recent finale when Ava was taken away. Joelle Carter played the hell out of her finale scenes, but I guess I wondered if Ava's time in jail was destined to be short? My guess is that she'll have been out on bail for a while by the time Season 5 rolls around.
  • Another great guest performance from Ron Eldard as Colt, whose death scene carried a great deal of poignancy. And I'd be remiss if I didn't recall his best line: "I would like a young Gerard Depardieu to play me in the movie."
  • Art's various tirades and speeches were once again perfectly performed by Nick Searcy -- in fact, everything Art did and said brought a smile to my face this season. He's not allowed to ever retire, by the way, in part because we need more Art speeches like this appreciation of Shelby/Drew's resume: "I mean, he shoots Theo Tonin, fakes his own death in spectacular fashion, pushes a guy out of an airplane while he's flying it, parachutes into Harlan County with enough coke and cash to jumpstart the economy of small country, and then he has the balls to get a job in law enforcement, not once, but two times! He spends a couple days riding around with you while you're looking for him, and now he's run off with a hooker half his age. That's some badass shit." That it is, sir. That it is.
  • Once again, "Justified" expands the rich and rewarding universe of Harlan and brings us a fantastic character like Constable Bob. His "Drewbacca" scene was one for the ages, and I loved the Patton Oswalt character well before that. As I noted on Twitter, if the planned FXX channel doesn't have room for a show about this Harlan County law-enforcement badass, that is one hell of an opportunity missed.
  • I can't say anything about Jim Beaver's portrayal of Shelby/Drew that Phil Dyess-Nugent didn't say in this fabulous essay about Beaver's work in "Justified," "Deadwood" and "Supernatural."
  • Mike O'Malley was unsurprisingly excellent as tough guy Nicky Augustine, who had some classic lines in his exchanges with Boyd ("Man, I love the way you talk, using 40 words when four will do."). And I always enjoy seeing Wynn Duffy and his RV on the show. There's another show FXX ought to commission: "Life in the Wynn-ebago" with Jere Burns, who would travel America in character as Duffy and occasionally react to surprising things.
  • I keep talking about how crucial Ellen May was to this season, and I can't keep doing that without saying what a terrific job Abby Miller has done with the character for several seasons now. I hope we see her again, though I understand that residing in Harlan County would be bad for her continued health and safety.
  • It goes without saying that seeing Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins together as Raylan and Boyd is always fantastic, and though we didn't see them together a ton this season, they always felt connected and their scenes in the finale were typically great.
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