“We dug coal together.”-Boyd Crowder
A classic Elmore Leonard character was a good man with a violent heart. A man on the right side of the law who had the ability to do bad things and feel like his actions were justified in the end. One of the many reasons the FX show Justified, inspired by Leonard’s stories, which wrapped up its series finale on Tuesday, was able to be so good for so long was because it honored Leonard’s original vision for the character of Raylan Givens and never gave into network television norms or turned him into a retread of stereotype.
Justified brought back the cowboy and made the Western cool again. Wearing a Stetson is allowed because Timothy Olyphant’s character rocked one on this show for years. In the end, Justified delivered the best series finale I’ve seen because it ended with the two men it started with and never wavered.
Showrunner Graham Yost took Leonard’s short story, Fire in The Hole, and created a pilot episode with the same name and the same feel to it back in 2010 and made the story simple. U.S Marshall Raylan Givens comes back to his hometown, Harlan, Kentucky, to help the Marshals catch the elusive criminal, Boyd Crowder(Walter Goggins).
Raylan and Boyd have a history together, one that is linked by their families association with each other and the fact that they once dug coal together in the mines as young men before they split off onto opposite sides of the law. Once Raylan came back to Harlan, he got roped into a lot of messy shit. His lost love Winona(Natalie Zea) living with a man he doesn’t respect. His father Arlo(Raymond Barry bringing the dead back up from the ground with his rotten father routine) and Ava(Joelle Carter) a woman he had ties to that now run through Boyd.
The pilot could have been a movie in itself. Raylan coming back, ruffling feathers, pissing off Boyd, and coming over to Ava’s house for a fateful dinner that set up the entire series. The scene where Raylan disables the hilarious Dewey Crowe in front of Ava’s house was the preemptive battle before the main event. This was supposed to develop our protagonist as a deadly man but one who has morals and could be reasoned with..until you went for the weapon. The entire hour was set up as a collision course between Raylan and Boyd, and the meeting at Ava’s at the end culminated everything their history had stored and every direction these characters would go. No matter where the series went, these three characters would be at the center of it. A woman caught between two men she has feelings for but two men who could never make her happy without an itch pulling back to a bloody past.
Raylan sat at one end of the table with Boyd sitting at the other. A revolver tingling Boyd’s fingertips as Raylan’s sidearm remained holstered. This is the bread and butter of the series. For example, the pilot opened with Givens taking out a fugitive in Miami(Peter Greene in a killer cameo), a man Raylan had given 24 hours to leave town but instead found him on top of a luxurious building.
This kind of showdown would complement the entire series, a throwback to real action films where it came down to two men with a past linked in loose chains that was suddenly being pulled by the suggestive force of violence. Justified covered a lot of territory. Out of town gangsters. A native with a magic killer cider. Heroes and villains, young and old. At the end of the rope was a two trigger showdown.
Boyd asked Raylan about taking out someone on the job and what type of gun he used. Raylan offered up the type, but declined when Boyd asked about the gun he had under the table. In the cool words of Leonard’s writing, Raylan told him, “You’ll pay to find that out.” Ava walks in with a shotgun pointed at Boyd and this isn’t unfamiliar to the man. Ava shot her own husband, Boyd’s brother in story that took place before the pilot. We know this woman is capable of violence. However, tonight, it’s Raylan and Boyd. When Boyd makes a move towards Ava, Raylan shot him in what seemed to be pretty close to the heart.
Here’s the thing. Originally, Yost didn’t plan t keep Goggins’ Boyd around for more than an hour. Olyphant was friends with Goggins and asked him to shoot the pilot as a favor. In what a was a stroke of genius on the spot thinking, FX and Yost decided to have that bullet miss Boyd’s heart and nearly put him up for a little while. I can’t imagine the series without these two man staring each other down for five years and six seasons. Olyphant and Goggins’ work on this show will live on as one of the best all time battle of adversaries on television. It doesn’t get much better than two gunslingers fighting off their past, present, and future up in the hills of Kentucky.
Over the course of the seasons, Raylan would get pulled away on other matters and Boyd went from criminal to religious savior back to criminal but the forces of nature always kept these two in their vision. They were two different devils dancing around the same fire of temptation so when the final season came around centered on their final showdown, it was more than fitting. It was perfect. One more round of cops and robbers. When the final scene aired last year, the perfection was evident. The creators and writers knew when to end it and how to end it.
Tuesday’s finale set Raylan on a final collision course with Boyd. First, he had to be taken into custody by his boss, Art(Nick Searcy) and simultaneously released because that’s what needs to happen when stories need to resolved. The hero is unleashed for one last ride after his mortal enemy. There was the matter of Sam Elliott’s Markham and his need to recover the money Boyd and Ava stole, along with her uncle, Zachariah(Jeff Fahey, another juicy piece of casting).
When Raylan walks into the cabin where Boyd and Ava are standing and the two men prepare to draw down on each other, you think this is it between the two of them. One last battle. It turns into something else entirely different. A testimonial for the characters to unleash all the demons on each other that they have. Boyd asking Ava why she betrayed him(yeah in Season 4 they kind of got together but eventually greed and anguish pushed them apart). Raylan demanding Boyd draw his weapon so they can end this. Boyd refusing to because he isn’t that kind of killer. The fact that Raylan arrested Boyd was his character not only finding out there was a fine line between killing a man and true justice but being able to walk it as well.
The series pivoted off the tortured soul that followed Raylan around. His ability to kill a man and tell himself it was the right call was the crutch that got stuck in his boot. When he decided to cuff Boyd instead of shoot him, there was an epiphany happening for both these characters. For the first time in their life, they resorted away from violence to solve a matter. While Boyd threatened to kill them when he got out, nobody really believed him. He was done but wouldn’t engage his rival in a final draw.
That didn’t mean Raylan was getting away without indulging in another roadside showdown. While Elliott’s Markham was killed, his henchman, Book(Jonathan Tucker, having as much fun as a guest star can with a role), was waiting for Raylan on his ride back to the city. This was what fans had been waiting for all season. The younger Boon, who wore a six shooter around his waist and looked up to Raylan as the ultimate foe, and Givens seeing one last killer stand between him and an exit out of Harlan.
The cinematography by Stefan Von Bjorn here was magnificent. panning behind Raylan as he laid his fingers on top of his holster and the camera shooting back up at Boon several feet away. The final shot, where the camera goes wide as the shooters unleash a round and fall to the ground together with the sound echoing throughout the mountains, was as good as it gets. If Boyd and Raylan didn’t produce enough action packed fireworks, Boon provided one last hurrah for our hero. At first, there was the notion that the younger man caught Givens but it wasn’t meant to be. Boon was struck in the heart and Raylan was merely grazed. However, Ava got away and Raylan didn’t close the chapter so the hour couldn’t be over.
The finale didn’t just close up Boyd and Raylan’s story. It bound together all the ties that could bind throughout this series. Raylan and Art enjoying bourbon. Raylan saying farewell to his sniper shooter partner Tim(Jacob Pitts, who will never be as good as he was here) and Rachel(Erica Tazel). The series stretching four years ahead and seeing Raylan enjoy ice cream with his daughter as the audience finds out it didn’t work out between Winona and Raylan but there is a healthy connection between the two.
Raylan being at peace with himself for the most part before a file falls on his Miami desk with a newspaper clipping showing Ava at a pumpkin patch. You could literally hear the shoe drop in Raylan’s head as he hustled out to California to find Ava….house sitting at someone’s home and raising a kid. This scene was the second best acted scene in the hour. Two people with a past that won’t die and an urge for one lawman to do his job or let this one go. Carter and Olyphant are pros and it shows here because nothing is overplayed or pushed too hard.
Would he bring her in or let her get away for good? This was the last wrench churning inside his head. The case that didn’t get closed until he saw she was changed and it was for the better and in the right place. After all, Raylan knew he wasn’t perfect and he got out of Harlan alive. So, why couldn’t Ava as well?
The best scene was the last. Boyd, rediscovering his religious roots in the prison church, talking other bad man off the ledge of temptation and finding a certain measure of peace after criminality had its way with him. Of course, that was until Raylan showed up with news.
In order to protect Ava and agree to her wishes, Raylan couldn’t tell Boyd she was alive and raising his kid. It just wouldn’t work so Givens told his old nemesis that she died in a car crash a few years back, under a different name and running from the law. In a way, it was good for everybody. Boyd wouldn’t chase her down until his last breath and he couldn’t harm her or the kid. He also could close off that chapter just as Raylan did. A place where the lights had to go out.
The best part came after, when Boyd asked Raylan why he came all the way up to this jail from Miami to tell him. There had to be a reason. After deflecting to no avail, Raylan started it, “Well, if I allowed myself be sentimental I’d say there is one thing I keep coming back to..” and Boyd finished it, “We dug coal together.” Raylan adding at the end, “That’s right.” A moment as powerful as it was understated. No bullets. No blood. No agony. Just two men making peace with themselves, noticing that violence sometimes isn’t the answer to being free in this world. Sometimes, you have to swallow your pride and just admit what’s done is done. While Raylan is there to lie to Boyd about Ava’s fate, he is doing both of them a favor in the end and it’s fitting. Raylan, as he tells Winona, is moving from angry to stubborn and Boyd is still getting what he deserves while being given a classy finish.
The story started with Raylan and Boyd sitting at a table with Ava nearby, and it ended with the two men staring each other down again, but under a less harsher light. A civil one, if I will.
It would be rude to not observe how good Olyphant was in the title role. Another magical lost and found between an iconic role and a good actor needing that one great performance to cement his career. Olyphant will get plenty of work after this. I promise you. As will Goggins, a gifted actor with exceptional linguistic panache throughout the series. However, Olyphant will never come close to the reverence and power he found in Givens. It was like the man was a distant relative of the HBO series Deadwood where he played another lawman, Seth Bullock. Givens drew the best out of Olyphant. He walked like a cowboy, talked like one, and brought back the coolness in it all. Throughout the portrayal, he never forgot about the vulnerability and pain in the man. Along with the coolness and the ability for violence, Olyphant grounded the character sometimes with a look and other times with a few lines. Marvelous work that will go down smooth decades from now when my son and his family digest the series that reminded his dad that cowboys never die if the right treatment is involved.
Justified ended on its own moral code, one that was drawn from two men’s past up until the eventual end of their stories. It didn’t end in guns blazing or excessive bloodshed. A touch of class met the maker at the end of its run Tuesday night. As the title of the episode, The Promise, produced this sense of closure, there is hope for more Justified around the corner. For now, the characters are in their resting positions, keen on kicking back up at some point. There wasn’t a screen full of black to exit the characters but instead one last look between two men hellbent on escaping their past in two completely different ways. There was a quiet dignity in telling the audience that the hardest way to die is knowing you didn’t do everything you could to make things right. In the end, Raylan Givens didn’t shed the violence that took up residence in his soul. He didn’t resolve every matter in his life. He didn’t stay with the love of his life in Winona. He did capture his nemesis in a way that allows both men to sleep at night and eventually..maybe…become truly free men.
That sounds justified to me.