The writing of the late, great Elmore Leonard that inspired “Justified” – which begins its sixth and final season tonight at 10 on FX – could be incredibly self-aware at times. Characters in Leonard stories tend to be big fans of popular culture, and they know exactly which archetypes to compare themselves to, which roles they are playing (or think they're playing) in their particular story, and even like to predict how the story is will conclude.
That level of meta commentary has waxed and waned over the previous five seasons of “Justified,” but it's at top volume early in the new year (I've seen the first three episodes). Raylan (Timothy Olyphant), Boyd (Walton Goggins) and Ava (Joelle Carter) all know the story they've been tangled up in these last few years is about to finish up, and the only question is how.
There's much talk of the way Harlan County itself has begun its death rattle, and Boyd sadly tells an old partner in crime, “It's all coming to an end.” Raylan and his recuperating boss Art (Nick Searcy) discuss ways in which the attempt to use Ava as an informant to build a RICO case against Boyd could go, and Art wonders if Raylan is planning to once again maneuver his opponent into a position where he'll be allowed to kill him under the cover of the badge he wears.
“Or, Raylan, there's another way it goes,” Art suggests, “where you try and you fail, and the bullet finds you.”
“Unlikely,” Raylan says, confident as ever, even though we know anything can happen when a cable drama reaches the finish line.
“Justified” is coming off a down season, where virtually everything that could go wrong creatively did. A show that had so often had such a brilliant knack for casting for some reason thought Michael Rapaport would be convincing as the Florida swamp rat at the head of the Crowe crime family, and compelling as the season's big bad. (Meanwhile, more charismatic villains were either kept in minor roles, or in one case bumped off early because the actor was unhappy.) Ava, who needed some toughening up to prepare her for this season's undercover arc, went to jail, and her scenes felt like they were part of a wholly different, less interesting show. Whether with the Crowes or on his own, Boyd's adventures became hopelessly convoluted – a dull, blatant stall for the Boyd/Raylan battle the show had to save for this final season.
The good news is that nearly everything that went wrong last season goes right at the start of this one. Raylan's pursuit of Boyd has always been the show's most compelling storyline, but it's been on hold more often than not over recent seasons. (In years when the show had a great villain like Margo Martindale's Mags Bennett, it could get away with keeping its two leads mostly separate; when the best the show could give us was Daryl Crowe, the foot-dragging became an irritant.) Now it's what the entire season is about – along with the question of whether Ava is loyal to Boyd, to ex-lover Raylan, or only to herself – and everything feels quicker, more confident and more gripping than it has going back at least to season 3, if not to the show's season 2 peak.
“Justified” has a tendency to overcomplicate its stories, but everything here is heading down the same narrow, thrilling path. Even the introduction of new villains played by Garret Dillahunt and Sam Elliott is tied closely to what's going on between Raylan and Boyd, and to the business Boyd has going with Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns, not used a lot in the early going, but still marvelously reacting to the craziness of Harlan) and Katherine Hale (Mary Steenburgen). All the loose threads have tied back together into one taut rope, which is certain to string up a whole lot of people before the end.
That the big guest stars are played by Dillahunt (the show's latest reunion between Olyphant and one of his “Deadwood” co-stars) and Elliott (shorn of his trademark mustache, in a role that ultimately feels like the ol' handlebar wouldn't belong) is also incredibly reassuring. Not only are both excellent actors – Dillahunt's alternating amusement and bewilderment at how things are run in Harlan is a delight – but you watch them (and “Friday Night Lights” alum Brad Leland, who pops up as a sketchy realtor) and wonder how it took “Justified” so long to bring them in.
It's still early in the season, with plenty of time for things to get too busy again before the end. But “Justified” was a show that had a clear end game from the moment producer Graham Yost decided to spare Boyd's life at the end of the first episode. (In “Fire in the Hole,” the Leonard short story that led to the series, Raylan kills him.) Over the weekend at press tour, Yost admitted he still wasn't sure exactly what shape the finale would take, but it seems sure to involve one last showdown between Raylan and Boyd. And as a result, “Justified” is again fun and scary and thrilling – in some ways more, because both the show and the people on it know how little time they have left.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org