Series finale review: ‘Justified’ – ‘The Promise’: Fire in the hole!

“Justified” has come to an end. Yesterday, I published some overall thoughts on the series. Tonight, I have an interview with Graham Yost about who lived, who died, and why, and I have a review of the series finale coming up just as soon as we identify the worst possible ice cream flavor…

“We dug coal together.” -Boyd

Given all the plates left spinning at the end of “Collateral,” Yost – who wrote the finale with longtime “Justified” writers Fred Golan, Dave Andron and Benjamin Cavell – could have very easily gone to FX and requested 90 minutes or more in order to properly wrap things up. Instead, “The Promise” clocks in at only a few minutes longer than average (there was at least one episode last season that was longer than this), and it all but concludes the season's many intersecting plotlines by the halfway point, even putting on “You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive” (the Darrell Scott original) long before the final credits roll.

It's an unexpected approach, and one that reveals much of what's gone on this season involving Markham and his goons as window dressing for the final clash between Raylan and Boyd. But even though Wynn Duffy doesn't get a more elaborate curtain call (in retrospect, that was in his exit from the interview with David Vasquez last week), Tim and Rachel are (as usual) largely ignored, and Markham dispatched with fairly easily in spite of Boyd's many recent injuries, the structure of “The Promise” worked for me. It was in the spirit of both the series and the many Elmore Leonard stories from which it drew inspiration.

Start with the decision to allow all three central characters to defy the song and get out of Harlan alive, even though Boyd will be incarcerated for decades on cop-killings alone, while Ava will forever have to live a life in the shadows, worried that either law-enforcement or a former associate of Boyd's will recognize her. Though “Justified” debuted at the tail end of TV's peak anti-hero age, it's always been a more classically positioned series than that. Raylan has his flaws and commits his crimes, but he's always been presented as a hero, just as Boyd has almost always been treated as a villain, no matter how charming Walton Goggins made him. The heroes don't die in Leonard stories, and while I could picture a version of an ending where Boyd or (more likely) Boon was quicker on the draw than Raylan, it didn't feel right.

That leaves Boyd and Ava, and as Yost noted in our interview, Boyd's fate had less to do with all the terrible acts he committed than in what it would say about Raylan. “Justified” begins with Raylan manipulating Tommy Bucks into a position where he can murder him and get away with it legally, and he's done similarly shady things since. (The series forgives him for it because its world was better off with guys like Tommy and Nicky Augustine dead.) We know he's much better with a gun than Boyd (whose skills lay more in demolitions, even though he's able to out-shoot an old man and a few incompetent, crooked cops here), so even a fair fight with pistols isn't really fair, and the situation Raylan tried presenting to Boyd was essentially the same as he gave Tommy Bucks. 

Their confrontation in the shed was as electric as it was stomach-churning, with Boyd apparently deciding suicide-by-cop was preferable to living with Ava's betrayal and low opinion of him – asked why she shot him and stole the money she bluntly tells him, “Honestly, Boyd? I put myself in your shoes. I did what I thought you would do” – and every muscle of Raylan's body twitching with a desire to put a bullet in this a-hole once and for all. Raylan kicks over a loaded gun to replace the one Boyd emptied killing Markham and his men, but in the end, he can't bring himself to kill Boyd even in this circumstance. That's either a tiny bit of growth – all those years of listening to Art yell at him for not doing things the right way – or it's the same reason he didn't take a kill shot way back in the pilot episode: for all the horrible things Boyd has done and may continue to do, they dug coal together, and that's a bond that runs deeper for these two than badges, laws or potential vendettas.

And the finale gets to have its cake and eat it, too, by avoiding a Raylan/Boyd gunfight and instead giving us one between our hero and his mustachioed imitator – and, in a continuation of Raylan's slight maturity, making it a duel that Boon wants far more than our hero. Adam Arkin, directing one last time, films the confrontation to look like every bit the Wild West showdown Boon so badly wants it to be, and the payoff is both thrilling and funny: both men draw at almost exactly the same speed, but Boon's attempt to go for a head shot(*) goes astray and mainly ruins Raylan's hat (which he wore, as Boyd noted in the pilot, high on his head, which no doubt messed with Boon's aim), forcing him to take Boon's as a trophy(**). It's a beautiful sequence, made all the more powerful because Loretta – who winds up the last crook standing in the battle for weed supremacy in Harlan – gets to stand tall over Boon and kick his pistol away, before running to check on her old friend Raylan. Not everyone got a big final moment like her, but as the spiritual and financial successor of the series' best single-season villain, as well as one of the show's best characters in her own right, she more than deserved it.

(*) So it wasn't Chekhov's Empty Chamber that got him killed, but Chekhov's Head Shot!

(**) I wasn't entirely positive it was Boon's, simply because the hat sits so differently on Timothy Olyphant's head than it did on Jonathan Tucker's, but Yost confirmed it. This is also a way to pay a posthumous debt to Elmore Leonard, who never liked the hat Raylan wore on the show, picturing it as a much smaller Stetson like Boon's. As soon as I saw Raylan put it on as he left the Lexington field office, I have to admit to feeling some dust in the room, remembering how worked up Leonard got talking about Olyphant's hat when I interviewed him before the series began.

By resolving the Markham and Boyd situations with so much time remaining, Yost and company were able to give us an extended epilogue showing where the three principles (and Winona) wind up four years later, and making room for a whole lot of references to the series' beginnings. Among the finale's many callbacks:

* In the shed, Boyd quotes his first conversation with Raylan in the pilot – “You make me pull, I put you down” – even as he's refusing to play along;

* After Boyd is led away in handcuffs, Art reminds Raylan that he brought him to Kentucky specifically to put this guy away, even if it took much longer than anyone planned for;

* As Raylan is on his way out of the field office, Rachel makes note of the new hat, and he replies with the exact same line he gave her when she asked about the bigger Stetson in the show's second episode;

* Our first glimpse of Raylan in Miami is him eating ice cream with Willa; in “Bloody Harlan,” when Winona asked what he could do if he quit being a marshal, he suggested he could sell ice cream;

* Winona calls Raylan the most stubborn man she's ever met, which Raylan notes is an improvement from the scene at the very end of the pilot where she called him the angriest one;

* When Raylan finds Ava in California, their dialogue about what drinks she has to offer is a mirror of their first conversation when he visits her home in the pilot;

* Boyd is once again a jailhouse preacher, and Raylan calls him out on repeating himself;

* Boyd and Raylan can now joke about Boyd's Jew-hating white supremacist incarnation; and, of course;

* Boyd, searching for a reason why Raylan would come to see him in person – and not realizing it's part of a con to trick him into never looking for Ava and the son he doesn't know he has – decides that it's the same reason Raylan couldn't kill him all those years ago at Ava's supper table: because they dug coal together.

One of the running elements of Leonard's stories is how the characters are aware of how the world may view them, what their pop culture analogue is, and what archetype they're playing in this particular story. That so many of these people would remember things said to each other, word-for-word, from years in the past paid tribute not only to Leonard's writing, but also to the notion that Raylan Givens is the sort of larger-than-life figure who forces you to remember every last detail, whether you like him or not. Raylan was an enormous pain in the ass for Tim and Rachel to work with, but they'll be dining out on Raylan Givens stories for the rest of their careers.

Now, there are scenarios where Raylan could have shot Boyd, or where both of them had to live knowing that their actions got Ava killed, or even one where Boon wound up being too fast for old man Raylan. And those could have each felt true to the spirit of the show in different ways, assuming they were presented with the same craft that was present throughout this season, and for so much of the series. But I watched Boyd being escorted out of the shed in handcuffs, and I watched the epilogue, and I said to myself, “Yeah, that seems about right.”

This is a show that has had plenty of room for tragedy, particularly in the Mags season, but at its core, it was fun. It popped and snapped and crackled like my favorite breakfast cereal, and it so often put a smile on my face as I got to watch a parade of great actors deliver the wonderful dialogue Yost and company had given them. So an ending where things are not so terrible – where Raylan's out of Kentucky and in his daughter's life (even if Winona has, wisely, moved on), where Ava is free to raise her son (even if she's a fugitive), and where Boyd can preach and hustle and joke around with his old pal Raylan Givens, even though he'll likely never breathe free air again – felt awfully satisfying, and awfully true to the origins of both the show and its main character. And the state in which things were left allowed us for one final piece of banter between our hero and his archenemy, in the same light but sharp fashion that typified so many of their best encounters, and that wouldn't have been possible under more fatal circumstances. With Ava in the wind and Boyd locked up forever, Raylan can feel free to enjoy this particular game one more time.

Some finales (like the one for Walton Goggins' previous show) can elevate how you feel about the entire series that led up to it. Some (“HIMYM” for me, “Lost” for some people) can completely sour the memory of all that came before. “The Promise” was neither of those things. It was a definitive, entertaining conclusion to the story of Raylan's time in Kentucky, and I suppose that will make the show both easier to recommend to newcomers and more enticing to revisit one day for us. It felt very much of a piece of all that came before it.

I will miss these characters and this world, all the sharp things people said and all the exciting things they did. All stories end, though, and this was a very good end to an often great story.

Some other thoughts:

* Again, go read the Yost interview for clarification on a lot of issues, including Constable Bob's fate, the paternity of Ava's son, what exactly “The Promise” refers to, and lots more.

* A nice touch to do a title card paying tribute to both the residents of Harlan and the men and women of the U.S. Marshals Service before the expected tribute to Elmore Leonard.

* Ultimately, Avery Markham turned out to be more bark than bite, but the show got away with it because Sam Elliott's bark was so impressive and, at times, chilling. Also, I will remain forever grateful that he didn't have his mustache when he took the role, because otherwise Markham's reaction to seeing how little of his cash was in Ava's backpack would not have inspired this: 

* The choreography and editing of Boyd's escape up the mountain was a bit on the iffy side – even if Rachel ordered all of the people on foot to pull back, there were helicopters keeping an eye on Boyd – but I did like the image of Boyd blowing things up one last time, and in fairly primitive fashion with Zachariah's dynamite.

* It's a small bit of business that could have easily been cut in order to dwell more on the ongoing characters, but I really enjoyed Jeffrey Pierce's performance as the cop who has Raylan in the back of his patrol car at the start of the episode. This guy walks and talks just like Raylan, and it was fun to see Raylan's dumbfounded reaction to being on the receiving end of that attitude – and complete lack of interest in his story – for once.

* One last time, not much for Tim and Rachel to do, or say. I think they were hurt more than anyone by the series' shift from being a procedural about U.S. Marshals to a serialized crime epic that had to introduce a new big bad each season, and give Boyd lots to do, and deal with Raylan's personal life, and check in on anyone who hadn't died in previous seasons, etc., etc. The show wound up with far more moving parts than it started out having, and I imagine in a version of the show where “Long in the Tooth” was the model, Tim and Rachel would have taken turns as Raylan's partner, having their moments along the way. As the show wound up functioning, there was barely even room for Art to matter at times. (I certainly would have liked to see more this season of Rachel dealing with the unique challenges of being Raylan Givens' boss, but would I have wanted to sacrifice time with Markham, Katherine, Wynn, the mercs, et al to get that?)  

* In saying goodbye to Tim, Raylan gives him his dog-eared copy of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” which Elmore Leonard praised as the best crime novel ever written, and the one that inspired him to stop writing Westerns and give that genre a try.

* In situations like the one with Ava calling Zachariah, why do bad guys never insist on their end of the call happening on speaker phone?

* Ellen May finally pops up, but only for a few moments as Raylan imagines who might have helped spirit Ava past all the roadblocks in Harlan, in a sequence that also gives us our final glimpses of both Limehouse and Wynn. Given Wynn's cockroach-like nature, it's not the least bit surprising that he would end up alive and surfing in Fiji with all of Markham's remaining cash.

* The return to the Miami field office brings with it the return of Dave Koechner as Deputy Greg Sutter, but not the return of Matt Craven as Raylan's once and future boss Dan Grant.

* Yost worked in one final “Boomtown” cameo by casting Jason Gedrick as Winona's new husband.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at