‘Justified’ producer on who lived and who died in the finale, and a Mags cameo that wasn’t

With “Justified” over (here’s my series finale review), I got on the phone with showrunner Graham Yost to discuss why certain characters lived, others died, and which characters (Mags? Quarles?) he might have brought back under different circumstances, all coming up just as soon as I come back here with a jackhammer…

I want to start with the hat, because I know it was one of the few significant creative disagreements you ever had with Elmore (Leonard). At what point did you decide you wanted Raylan to end the series wearing the smaller Stetson that met with his approval?

Graham Yost: Pretty early on in the season, we knew we wanted to create a character who really modeled himself after Raylan to one degree or another, and he would get a hat, and Raylan would end up with the bad guy’s hat. It’s still not a perfect match for what Elmore wanted, but Greg Sutter – Elmore’s researcher of 30 years – says he thinks Elmore would have gotten a big kick out of it.

You called the finale “The Promise,” and Boyd even references the promise Raylan made to him in the pilot about what would happen if he made Raylan pull. But Raylan winds up not keeping that promise. Why not?

Graham Yost: He fulfills a different promise. He says to Ava on the bridge at the end of season 5 – she says, “I’m scared,” and he says, “You’ll be fine.” And that’s his promise to her. And it also actually goes back to the pilot when Ava says that when she saw Raylan at the door, she knew everything was going to be okay. That’s ultimately the promise that he keeps.

You could have killed off one or all of the members of that core trio, yet Raylan, Boyd and Ava all survive the finale. How did you come to that decision?

Graham Yost: It was a number of things. We didn’t feel like we were a kind of show that would kill of Raylan. We’re not a tragedy. In Elmore’s stuff, tragedies happen, but usually the good guy survives. Often, the Elmore women get away with the money, or at least get away. So it came down to Boyd. And while Boyd may have deserved a bullet for all the heinous stuff he did, it came down to Raylan. If he was the one to kill Boyd, we felt that would be a sign that Raylan hadn’t grown over the course of the series. Often in Elmore’s world, the hero will grow just a smidge. I think of the guy in “Pagan Babies,” with all he goes through, he ends up going back to Rwanda with the money, and he’s going to put it to good use. He’s not so much of a criminal anymore. I think that the idea is that Raylan would just grow enough that he wouldn’t put Boyd down. That felt right.

It felt like this season was really leaning heavily on the notion of Boyd as a genuine bad guy, as opposed to the charismatic, lovable rogue so many of the fans had come to love. How intentional was that?

Graham Yost: A little bit. We toyed in (episode) 611, when Boyd gets out of the hospital by killing Carl, we also had an idea that he was going to have a shootout and kill Nelson, or even Tim Gutterson. The problem is our marshal adviser, Charlie Almanza said, “Then it’s really Blackhawk helicopter time. The 8th Army invades if a marshal is killed.” It would have really disturbed the whole track of the final run. The other thing was that Boyd has done enough bad things to deserve a bullet, especially killing poor Shea Whigham’s character, Hagan. Yeah, he’s a bad guy. I would have to have conversations with Walton about it sometimes, and I would have to remind him, “Walton, Boyd is a villain. He murders people. He’s charismatic and he’s enjoyable and we love him. But he is a bad guy.” So we wanted to bring it back to that. The Boyd that we met in the pilot is a bad guy. That was part of the whole circular motion of the final season.

You mentioned circular motion, and so much of this final season has been peppered with callbacks to earlier events from the series, and it feels like half the dialogue in the finale is people repeating things they said to Raylan when they first met him.

Graham Yost: That’s just the fun of doing a final episode. You’re trying to quote these things one more time. As much as we’re having characters reappear, we’re also having bits of dialogue and conversations come back to haunt them.

It really did seem like the dialogue was next-level this season, like you guys were pushing hard to squeeze every last drop out of those characters and put the most Elmore Leonard-ian lines in their mouths before you went.

Graham Yost: Absolutely. It was one of the great pleasures we had for six seasons, was to write like Elmore Leonard. We don’t get to do that anymore. That’s it. So we wanted to, as you say, squeeze out every last drop that we could.

You knew you were going to lose Garret Dillahunt halfway through the season to another commitment, so you had the mercs for a while, and then Boon came in. Knowing that you had Garret for a limited amount of time, how did you decide that was how you wanted to build that character, while having someone else be the rival gunslinger?

Graham Yost: It was a kind of a two-fer thing. We had Garret only until Christmas, so we knew we wanted to bring in someone else. And the idea of bringing in someone younger, so it’s Raylan 20 years ago – that was really appealing. The young gun is a part of Western myth: the gunfighter up against his younger self. So we wanted to create a character who was a bonafide threat, who really could shoot Raylan.

Not only was Boon echoing Raylan, but the Jeffrey Pierce cop character in the finale. He’s walking and talking like Raylan, and Raylan seems dumbfounded to be on the receiving end of those insults. And Ty Walker talked a bit like Boyd. Was it intentional to have these other echoes of your main characters?

Graham Yost: Ty Walker talking like Boyd was just something that developed out of the evolution of Walker’s character. It was Taylor Elmore and Ben Cavell who developed that in the scene at the bar in the third episode, where Boyd says, “Damn, man, you like to talk as much as I do.” That just sort of happened. (As for Pierce), he was great. Jeffrey was in Alcatraz, which was co-created by someone Fred (Golan) and I worked with on “Boomtown,” so we had that connection. But Tim got a real kick out of those scenes, having those things said to Raylan that he’s said to so many people for all of those years.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much Loretta was in this season. What kind of negotiations did you have to have with the “Last Man Standing” producers to let Kaitlyn Dever work so much for you?

Graham Yost: It was an ask. We asked. Kaitlyn asked, and Tim Allen and the whole “Last Man Standing” team were just incredibly generous. We were limited in terms of the days we could get her, and it was a scheduling nightmare for the last bunch of episodes. Walton was off doing Tarantino’s film, Mary (Steenburgen) was doing something else, and Jere Burns is already on the TBS show, so it was really tough to get everyone available. But they were incredible to let us have her. It’s not a show that’s in competition with “Justified.” It’s two very different worlds, but it was still very generous of them.

Why was it so important to have her there?

Graham Yost: Listen, we love Loretta, we love Kaitlyn. That’s been one of the joys of the series: to watch that actress grow up. When she started, she was 13, and by the end, she was driving herself to the set. But she’s such a great actor. Every scene she’s in just has an extra punch to it because she’s in it. And it’s also a sense of the future. That she is the one Harlan person who’s sticking around, and she’s going to try to make things work. She’s not leaving. Everyone else is talking about leaving, and she’s not. We thought that was important, too.

In the episode that ended with Raylan and Ava kissing, did anything more happen between them that night?

Graham Yost: No, Boyd showed up three minutes later.

So there was no question about the paternity of Ava’s baby?

Graham Yost: We’d had one run where Ava was going to be helped by Constable Bob in the final run, and we just couldn’t make it work. Then there might have been a question.

Did Constable Bob survive being shot by Boyd?

Graham Yost: Dave Andron and I had a moment where it was all over where we went, “Wait a second, we forgot to say that Bob’s alive!” What I fell back on was two things. One is the “Justified” rule that unless you see someone zipped up in a body bag, they’re probably okay. And the other thing was that if we had dropped a line into the final episode, it would have felt like that. It would have felt like we were just making everything seem okay. But Bob’s fine.

Speaking of the rule of no one being dead without a body bag, was there talk of bringing a one-armed Robert Quarles back at some point?

Graham Yost: Oh, god, yes. We talked about it. It just would have involved us spending more time in prison, because he would be in prison. It just never organically came into the story, much to my chagrin. Because I love Neal (McDonough) and I love Quarles.

Wynn, Limehouse and Ellen May appear briefly as Raylan speculates about who helped Ava get out of town. Was there more planned for any of them, or was the idea to really focus on Raylan, Boyd and Ava in that extended epilogue?

Graham Yost: We had scheduling difficulties. Mykelti (Williamson) was doing something else, Abby (Miller) was doing something else. It was hard to arrange that. When I first wrote it, there was also going to be a pop of Dewey – that Raylan was going to say, “Maybe we were wrong about Dewey, but then we found his body in a slurry pond.” But Damon (Herriman) was in Australia and we couldn’t get him. Then the stars aligned, Abby and Mykelti said they could make it work, and that was the first shot on the last day of shooting: Ava driving up and seeing Ellen Mae. The second shot was seeing Limehouse, and the third was seeing Wynn Duffy, and that was how our final day started.

Was there anyone else you wanted to bring back for the final season but couldn’t?

Graham Yost: The big one would have been Mags. We had thought of doing flashbacks at one point when we were first breaking the season. It’s not as though the people at FX were going (enthusiastic voice), “Oh, fantastic! Yes, do flashbacks!” It was (neutral voice), “Oh, that’s interesting. If you can make it work.” So the stream dribbled out of it, and we didn’t pursue it. But that would have been a big one. Getting Arlo back, that was Chris Provenzano’s idea. Fred and I hadn’t heard that idea until we read the script, and it was a great piece.

These last few episodes, David Vasquez was off the reservation in terms of believing Raylan was in cahoots with Ava. Given that she escaped his custody yet again, did he just let it go because Raylan got shot in the head?

Graham Yost: I think he was pursuing it as hard as he could, but she had Wynn Duffy on her side. That’s our belief. And she got away. Eventually, the hunt for her continues, but in talking to Charlie Almanza, our technical adviser, he said, “Yeah, they’d always be on the lookout for her, but they got Boyd. And the money was not theirs to begin with, it was a dead man’s – so they wouldn’t have Ava on a high priority.” No matter how much Vasquez might have jumped up and down, it wouldn’t have mattered. He had two stated purposes. One was to get Boyd Crowder, and the other was to get Katherine Hale for being responsible for the death of his boss. Well, she ends up dead, so you can’t get her more than that. And Boyd, he gets arrested. So he ends up with a pretty big win. We did want to make Vasquez completely unhinged and angry by the end, restoring him to his initial antagonism towards Raylan and the marshals. That’s how he started in season 1.

You said before that Tim might have died when Boyd escaped. Was there anyone else who might have had a different fate – whether living or dying – than they ultimately experienced?

Graham Yost: The big one was Zachariah. Initially, he was going to die down in the mine when he was trying to blow up Boyd. Then we thought it would be good if he stayed alive longer. First of all, Jeff Fahey was fantastic, and was really fun to work with. He came into the whole story wanting to get Boyd for the Crowder sins against Ava, and it felt good he would be the one to at least help Ava try to get away.

Was the nature of Wynn and Mikey’s relationship strictly professional? Their interaction as Mikey died seemed to disprove my theory that they were more than just two grown men sharing an RV, but I was curious what was discussed about them in the room.

Graham Yost: We liked the appearance of greater intimacy, but felt it was more interesting as a question. And, given that Mike never mentioned a deeper connection when he was railing against Duffy being a rat — and in fact says what bothers him most is that Wynn was like family — then I think it was professional, with the intimacy that comes become boss and employee when sharing a Winnebago.

With Jason Gedrick coming in at the end, you got almost all of the “Boomtown” cast in here.

Graham Yost: There was nothing that we could get Donnie (Wahlberg) for, or Lana (Parilla) for, and Nina Garbiras left the business pretty much. But I was always looking for something for Jason, and it was really sweet of him to agree to play Winona’s new husband. And I wanted Jason because he feels like a real romantic rival to Raylan. He’s a terifically handsome, manly guy, has a cool demeanor, and it makes it harder for the audience to think, “Oh, it’s just like Gary, and Raylan’s going to get her again.” Maybe not this time. Maybe she’s found someone who’s actually a better fit for her, although they’ll always love each other.

How does it feel to be done with this show?

Graham Yost: It’s strange. It’s really bittersweet. We’re happy with how we decided to end it. We hope the audience responds. We showed it to people in Harlan this weekend, and they got a kick out of it. It’s fun to see it with a group of people. Everything’s gotta end at some point. We think that we ended it in the vicinity of what Elmore would do. People have asked me over the years how it ends, and I would say, “Read Elmore Leonard.” And this is pretty much, I think, how he would have chosen to do it.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com