You have to watch Justified now; it’s no longer optional. I’ve recommended this series before, but any recommendation for an ongoing show comes with that big glowing asterix. How many hordes would’ve recommended Lost during it’s heyday, and would now, at best, recommend it alongside a menagerie of cautionary remarks and caveats. Recommending a narrative-heavy series before it’s finished is a bit like recommending a recipe you’ve only half-cooked. Sure the half you bothered to finish is the most transcendent use of starfish imaginable, but god knows what that gelatinous cheese sauce will add to the affair. Well Justified got it’s cheese sauce, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the perfect compliment to the rest of the show’s starfish.
That was a surprisingly echinoderm heavy introductory paragraph. I make no apologies.
Justified’s show-runner, Graham Yost, made some pretty brilliant decisions between the show’s pilot and it’s season one finale, a lot of which carried through the rest of the show, elevating it far beyond it’s initial case-of-the-week format. The pilot of Justified is based around Raylan Givens (played by Timothy Olyphant), a Miami marshal who tells a gun runner he has 24 hours to leave town before he gets shot, then carries through on the threat. This doesn’t fly with his superiors, and he gets shuffled off to Kentucky, his hometown. There he helps the local marshal service catch a Neo-Nazi with an affinity for explosives. The Neo-Nazi is one Boyd Crowder, a local boy that Raylan knew growing up. The character is played wonderfully by Walton Goggins, and this is where the show’s first brilliant decision comes in. Boyd was meant to die at the end of the pilot, and the show decided to change that at the last minute, after Goggins’ take on the character blew them away. They tucked the character away in jail until they figured out what to do with him.
The first season takes the Elmore Leonard style characters and plot and uses them to create sharply written characters. The character writing is good right from the beginning, taking the show’s first season and improving on what could have been just another crime show. All the way through, the characters in the show are written perfectly. That’s a pretty hyperbolic term to bandy around, but Justified really, really gets character writing right. Raylan is a brooding, angry, slightly cruel man who hides his damage under a veneer of cowboy swagger and quipping cockiness. His problems with crime, and his rage, all come from his dad, an unrepentant jerk and “wannabe-warlord.” He likes vanilla ice cream and scotch, and adheres to a code that tends to fall just a little bit away from actually legality. He tends to fall for women pretty hard and stands by his friends loyally. That may not all sound like the most original TV protagonist, but the consistency, depth, and effectiveness of the writing take it to the next level. How many shows could you do that sort of protagonist summary for, and have it consist of conscious choices, not just a collection of things that happen on the show. Way less than you’d think.
All the characters work like this, to varying degrees. The show’s funny when it wants to be, surprising when it wants to be, and tense when it wants to be. The first season’s slightly less overarching plot and themes evolve as it goes along, which brings us to the other brilliant choice the show made. The end of the first season is one of the show’s best episodes, because everything clicks. Boyd returns a few episodes before, having become a born-again preacher who preaches exclusively to criminals. In the woods. While attacking drug shipments with rocket-launchers. The ambiguity of his allegiances through this is brilliant, and it all culminates in an incredible episode that sees Boyd’s father hanging Boyd’s congregation and Boyd and Raylan face off against Boyd’s dad in a real-life town called Bulletville. It’s so good it’s easy to forget most of it happens in one episode, and it’s brilliant for two very, very important reasons.
Reason the first: the show figures out its core dynamic. From this point on the show is pretty much about Boyd Crowder as much as Raylan Givens. We get to see one combat crime while the other attempts to climb the local criminal ranks and make his fortune. Boyd Crowder was meant to die, and Graham Yost and his team realized that the show shone when Boyd was bouncing off Raylan, and that they’d discovered the heart of the show. While parts of the first season feel a little directionless, “Bulletville”, and the episodes that build up to it, see the writers finding the direction in which they’d continue till the finale.
Reason the second: they find the show’s core theme. Raylan’s dad first turns up in the fifth episode of the first season. He and Boyd’s dad have a history, and all this plays into the plot. Arguably this proves they knew what they were doing prior to the finale, but regardless the finale crystallizes all this. The show’s themes really revolve around the idea of fathers and family. Both Boyd and Raylan are results of their upbringing, which is tackled in a finale that sees both characters’ fathers trying to kill them. This is an idea that comes up again and again, and is addressed in a multigenerational aspect. Raylan and Boyd are both pretty broken in different ways, but both want families. The show is very interested in how much they would fuck this up. Maybe this theme was on the table when the show started, but it really seems like something the writing team started doing, and then realized it matched up to the rest of the show perfectly and kept returning to it with ever-increasing skill.
Not only did the show slowly realize what was really making the series, showing a level of insight and understanding many writers and directors lack, it pretty much figured this out in every incident. The last season pulls a lot of long-running characters into the fold, and it’s excellent across the board. Characters like Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns), who’s slightly threatening in the first season, but then reappears in every season. As we get to know Wynn Duffy better he becomes increasingly hilarious and compelling, and the fact that the show includes him heavily in the final season is great. It also never feels like fan-service. Including a much-liked character simply because he’s entertaining isn’t necessarily good writing. Instead characters like Wynn Duffy lead to amazing scenes and bring a lot of additional complexity to the plot. The other incredibly key character in the series is also present in the first season, specifically the pilot. Ava Crowder (played by Joelle Carter) seemed like the kind of character who was doomed to get killed off as some sort of dramatic twist or motivator. She was married to Boyd’s brother, who she killed after he abused her. She also had a sputtering relationship with Raylan. This already seems to prime her character for use as dramatic ammunition, and that’s before you get to the seasons where she gets involved with Boyd and his criminal schemes. Graham Yost and his writing team instead made her one of the show’s main characters, using her in a less obvious and ultimately more satisfying long game.
The first five seasons of the show were great, there’s no question about that, and I felt like the show would pull off their six and final season. Simply put, the series seems to understand it’s characters, it’s dynamics, and it’s themes. That’s pretty much the prerequisite for a good series finale, and the set-up they start at the beginning of the season seems to support this. The show brings in Sam Elliot to serve as the season’s main crime boss, and Mary Steenburgen to play his ex-lover turned vengeful schemer. Wynn Duffy was tied in with the character’s history, and they decide to hire Boyd to rob Avery Markham (Elliot) of his millions. Avery’s scheme is fascinating too. He is going to any lengths to buy up arable Harlan property, planning to make a fortune when weed gets legalized in Kentucky. Even this brilliantly ties in with another important character, Loretta (Kaitlyn Dever), who is essentially Raylan’s substitute daughter figure in past seasons. Loretta has a history (basically the great second season of the show) working with Harlan’s biggest weed growers, making her an obvious character to get involved in the legal weed scheme. The show twists these threads and sets them up beautifully. You just spend every other episode on the edge of your seat. That many main characters all involved in the same scheme seems like a recipe for a major bloodbath, something the show was pretty willing to do in it’s routinely manic and shocking fifth season.
Hell even before this set up, the mere fact that the show hired Sam Elliot and Garret Dillahunt for it’s last season had me excited. For those who haven’t stumbled across my Garret Dillahunt rant he’s a brilliant actor with as much range as a mimic octopus. Sam Elliot, by the way, shaved his moustache for the role, which was a shockingly clever choice. Sam Elliot without his moustache looks a little like a satanic turtle or Jim Carrey’s Grinch, which rather distances the character of Avery Markham from the personality that is Sam Elliot, making the character more threatening.
Every step the season progresses adds a new brilliant piece, like the character of Boon (Jonathan Tucker, who played that dude who almost murdered Hannibal on Hannibal). Boon seems a little bit inspired by the image-conscious characters in Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid, but is essentially a mirror image of Raylan. He’s just as focused on looking like a cowboy, on maintaining a bit of a swagger, he’s a quick-draw like Raylan, and sports a memorable costume too. More importantly he takes a psychopathic and joyful approach to his work. It’s clever commentary on Raylan’s character.
All this set up is wonderful. Ava spying on Boyd for Raylan, who plans to leave Harlan when Boyd’s behind bars. A dark commentary on Raylan who seems fixated on Loretta, and works for Markham. Boyd greedily and murderously pursuing his final big break and his new life with Ava. An incredibly ambiguous and unstable series of allegiances between Avery Markham, Mary Steenburgen’s character, Wynn Duffy, and Boyd. It’s a lot like watching someone set up a domino set made from C4 bricks and then stand next to it smoking a cigarette and waiting. This leads to some absolute series highlights.
Like the return to Bulletville in an episode titled “The Hunt.” This is an incredibly tense episode (the show has a few episodes that play with unbearable and occasionally Hitchcockian tension) that is also incredibly thematic. It contrasts the relationship between Boyd and Ava with the relationship between Raylan and his ex-wife in an impeccably dramatic way. The very next episode, “As Dark as a Dungeon”, is a similar high point, and sees Raylan literally confronting the ghost of his father. It’s wonderfully driven by pure thematics. The last scene between Mary Steenburgen and Wynn Duffy is similarly brilliant, and way too easy to spoil so that’s all I’ll say.
Then of course, there’s the show’s finale. I don’t want to directly spoil anything, but basically all those C4 blocks go untouched until the finale. If a bloodbath seemed inevitable before it is even more inevitable now. That guy with the cigarette is dropping it on the explosives. As the episode progresses the metaphorical explosions start. And then the guy with the cigarette kicks a couple of blocks and breaks the chain before that much could happen. The whole second half of the final episode is driven by character and theme, all of it culminating in a final scene that I will, without a trace of hyperbole, call perfect.