At the end of Justified‘s very first episode, Raylan shoots Boyd in Ava’s kitchen, but unlike at the end of Elmore Leonard’s short story, “Fire in the Hole,” he doesn’t kill him. When they’re putting Boyd into the ambulance, Art makes a comment to Raylan about the shot he took, saying that he thought Raylan taught his students at Glencoe to aim for the heart, so how did he miss? From a creative standpoint, the explanation is easy: the Justified writers realized how good of a character Boyd was and how great Walton Goggins was in the role. However, the reason why Raylan would intentionally miss, on a character level, is also quite simple: Raylan and Boyd dug coal together.
Back in Justified‘s pilot, it was this bond shared between the two men on opposite sides of the law that prevented Raylan from killing Boyd, and in Justified‘s series finale tonight, it’s what brought them together again. Raylan comes and visits Boyd not because it’s the “right thing to do,” or because he wants to see his hometown again after having escaped it in order to be with his daughter down in Florida. No, what makes Raylan come back to Harlan to see Boyd and tell him that Ava’s dead (even though she isn’t) in person is that singular, shared experience, the fact that the two of them dug coal together, something that no other character on the series can understand, and a connection that, in many ways, will keep Raylan and Boyd linked together for life. It might not be what you call love or friendship or admiration, but it’s special and unique to these two specific individuals–it’s the unbreakable, everlasting coil that will forever bind the two them.
And really, when you get right down to it, the story of these two men and their relationship is the story that Justified has always been telling since its beginning. There’s been other Marshals, plenty of major criminals, and a few love interests for both of them, but Raylan and Boyd, and how they mirror one another, has always been the most important and interesting part of Justified, and it’s fitting and touching that the series ends with the two of them having one more conversation in which Boyd speaks too many words, and Raylan cracks jokes at him, and they reflect on their history and the town and the people that forged them into the men they are today. But as wonderful as a last scene of the finale is, the 50-something minutes leading up to it is just as good.
Justified‘s series finale is titled “The Promise,” and it’s a title that refers to many promises Raylan makes not just in the episode but ones that he has made throughout the series’ run: his promise to Boyd back in the first episode that he would put him down if he pulled on him; his promise to Art that he would take down Boyd the right way; his promise to Winona that he would make it down to Florida and be a father to their daughter; his promise to Ava that he would not tell Boyd that she was pregnant and had his child, who she named Zachariah after her uncle; and, of course, Raylan’s promise to Ava on the bridge in the Season 5 finale, where he tells her that she will be “fine,” a promise he had been making to her ever since he walked through her front door in the show’s first episode, when she told him that, with him there, everything was going to be okay.
Ultimately, it’s that last promise Raylan made to Ava that informs so many of his actions in the second half of the finale. After reaching its bloody, violent climax about thirty or so minutes in, with Markham and Boon dead, Boyd in handcuffs, and Ava on the run, “The Promise” becomes a much quieter, more reflective episode in its second half, as the action jumps forward four years later, with Raylan now a father to a walking and talking Willa, Boyd stuck in prison, and Ava hiding out in California. It’s there, after spotting Ava’s photo in the newspaper, that Raylan finds her, and even though he considers taking her back into custody, once he sees little Zachariah, there’s no way that he’ll separate mother from son. Raylan’s main priority, particularly for much of this final season, has been to keep Ava safe, to continue to fulfill that unspoken promise that was made when he walked through her door upon his return to Harlan County, and he knows that in order to do that Ava should stay with her son, and that he has to lie to Boyd so that, if he ever does get out of prison, he’ll never go looking for them.
If you’ve read any of my previous reviews throughout this final season, you’ll know that I was expecting a much bloodier and deadlier finale from Justified. I believed that the series would live up to its unofficial theme song’s title and not let some of its most important characters, even Raylan, leave Harlan alive. Instead, all three of the show’s principal players survived, along with Loretta, Art, Tim, and Rachel, with only Markham and his goons finding themselves on the wrong sides of a few guns. Sure, there were some close calls, like the bullet from Boon that grazes Raylan’s head and Boyd pulling the trigger to an empty pistol on Ava, but Graham Yost and the Justified writers ultimately realized how much more satisfying the conclusion to this story would be with Raylan, Boyd, and Ava somehow walking away alive. That the journeys we’ve watched these fantastic characters go through would not end with the simple destination of a bullet from a gun but instead in much more interesting and compelling places, ones that feel fitting and right for each one of them: Raylan ends up in Florida to be a father to his daughter but he’s still a lawman and is not with Winona; Ava works hard, takes care of her son, and keeps out trouble out on the West Coast; and Boyd reclaims his preacher position while in prison, with us (and Raylan) still not knowing if we actually believe what he’s saying (although, as he says to Raylan in their final conversation, it sure is fun to listen to).
Justified was never a show about who lives and who dies, or a simple tale of good versus evil. Over the course of its six seasons, the series gave us the rich and vibrant world of Harlan County and the odd, eccentric, and distinct individuals that populated it. But when it comes down to it, Justified was a show about choices and their consequences, whether they were good or bad, and how each decision we make on our own defines us, no matter what those in our family who have come before us have done.
Both Raylan and Boyd were two men with very similar fathers and similar backgrounds, who got to know each other through the same job of digging coal. But it wasn’t what their last names were or the town they grew up in that made them who they are, that caused Raylan to be sitting on one side of the prison glass and Boyd on the other. It’s their beliefs and actions that created the paths they both ended up taking, but Justified showed that, no matter how far away they walked from each other, they could always meet again back in the mines, where neither of them was a Marshal or a criminal–just two Kentucky boys, digging coal together.
– I didn’t touch upon it too much in my review, but the scene between Raylan and Boyd, where you really aren’t sure if Raylan’s going to shoot him or not, after Boyd says he won’t pull, was tense and terrific. It showed how much Raylan has grown since we first met him back in Justified‘s pilot and was much better than the bloody showdown I was expecting.
– But we did get one bloody showdown, between Raylan and Boon, and it was also great, particularly the fact that, afterward, as Boon laid on the ground, bleeidng out, Loretta was the one to step on his hand and stop him from shooting again. I also loved that Raylan took his hat, as it was both a funny sort of trophy that he claimed from his last Western-like shootout and also a nice nod to the actual hat that the character of Raylan wears in Elmore Leonard’s books.
– I’m so happy we got to hear “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” one more time, even if it was in the middle of the episode instead of at the end.
– And speaking of the end, can we all agree just how amazing that final scene was between Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins? They deserve all the awards (which they won’t get cause the Emmys are stupid and don’t recognize Justified).
– I haven’t mentioned him much in my reviews this year, but Sam Elliott was always sensational in this final season of Justified, particularly in the scene tonight where he put the gun to Ava’s head and threatened her. Markham had never been as terrifying as he was in that moment.
– All of Raylan’s goodbyes to everyone at the Marshals’ office were pretty perfect, but I loved that he and Art got to share one last drink before they said farewell to each other. Also, it was followed by this great exchange about Winona: Art: “I still don’t see what she sees in you.” Raylan: “It’d be weird if you did.”
– After hearing from many critics that rewatching the Justified pilot would let you enjoy the finale even more, I grabbed my Season 1 DVDs and fired the episode up earlier today. Not only is it still a tremendous pilot, but it really added to tonight’s finale, with so many repeated lines taken directly from the first episode. Just so many good callbacks, which made everything feel like it had come full circle even more so.
– There’s been a lot of great TV dramas over the past two decades, but I don’t think any other “great drama” has been nearly as fun and just downright entertaining as Justified has been throughout all six of its seasons.
– “Art, show him your tits.”
– “I think the only way to get out of our town alive is to never been born there.”
– “We dug coal together.”
– For those who have read, commented, and shared these reviews, thank you so much. It’s been an incredible treat writing about Justified during its final season, and I’ve loved getting the opportunity to spend some more time with these fantastic characters, even after the credits have rolled, and hearing from some of you intelligent, passionate fans. I’ll miss Raylan, Boyd, Ava, Tim, Art, Rachel, Wynn, Loretta, Constable Bob, and the rest of the memorable faces that have appeared in Harlan County over the years. However, I’ll never forget them, and I’ll never forget how much joy Justified brought me every week when I watched it. It truly is an incredible show.
What did everyone else think of the series finale of Justified?
[Photos via FX]