‘Justified” went out like a smooth Kentucky bourbon Tuesday night: It had a little kick, then left a warm, lingering feeling when it was done.
All three of the main characters – Raylan, Boyd and Ava – lived at the close of the superb and volatile FX series. And the love-to-hate relationship between childhood friends turned enemies on opposite sides of the law ended with a surprisingly tender moment rather than a hail of gunfire.
It was magnificent.
For six seasons, we watched Modesto-bred actor Timothy Olyphant shine as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, the son of a Kentucky criminal who left the back country to become a trigger-happy but incredibly effective lawman, only to end up where he started, fighting crime back home in Harlan County.
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“Justified” was a critical hit from the get-go, with fascinating characters, explosive, edge-of-your-seat plot lines and acting that never disappointed.
I fretted going into Tuesday night’s episode that Raylan would die with his boots on in the finale. Equally fret-worthy was the idea that his nemesis, Boyd Crowder, would perish. As much a cold-blooded criminal as Boyd always has been, the character created so deftly by actor Walton Goggins crept under your skin and made you hope for a happy ending.
And it kind of was.
The happy ending for Boyd was supposed to be that final big-haul theft and a life away from Harlan County with his love, Ava. Of course, Ava had turned on Boyd to get herself out of prison, serving as a snitch for the marshal’s office. Boyd found her out, as we always knew this master chess player at criminal life would. But love won out – until she shot him for all that big-haul loot, of course.
Death on a grand scale seemed inevitable, but Tuesday night’s swan song managed to surprise viewers, just as the show has during its entire run. Sure, there was a kill toll – wrapping up the last of the season’s guest bad guys – but fewer bullets flew than expected.
The final bullets that didn’t fly were between Raylan and Boyd. Not that Raylan wasn’t willing. He provided Boyd with a gun to draw on him with for a shoot-to-the-death end. But Boyd opted out, accepting prison over Raylan’s fast-trigger prowess.
And Ava got away, fled to California, where – four years later in a series epilogue – Raylan found her living a quiet but fearful life with the young son Boyd never knew he had. Instead of taking her back to prison, Raylan – maybe seeing himself in the eyes of the small child – walked away.
But it was the final moment, right before the screen went to black, that felt the most right. Raylan and Boyd sat with prison glass between them, Boyd on the losing side. Raylan told Boyd that Ava was dead, giving her the out she needed to live in peace. Why did he travel all that way just to tell Boyd in person something he could have done in a phone call? Both men had a dampness in their eyes.
Raylan: “Well, I suppose if I allow myself to be sentimental, despite all that has occurred, there is one thing I wander back to.”
Boyd: “We dug coal together.”
Raylan: “That’s right.”
It was a simple bit of final dialogue, small but nonetheless amazingly effective.
Indeed, it was always the dialogue that set “Justified” apart – lines like “I’ve shot people I like more for less,” imparted by Raylan to perennial guest criminal Wynn Duffy; or “Your neck is just as red as mine,” as Ava pointed out to Raylan, reminding him that he never really escaped their Harlan County upbringing.
The dialogue was like Shakespeare transported to the Kentucky hills, and the actors always delivered. Indeed, if the dialogue set “Justified” apart, the acting knocked it out of the stratosphere.
Olyphant was the ideal man for the starring role as Raylan Givens, a point that series creator Graham Yost made to Bee entertainment writer Marijke Rowland in last week’s Scene story about the finale:
“Raylan needed to have a sense of humor and charm, a sense of romance,” Yost said. “He needed to be very cool, but also had to be dangerous, with an undercurrent of anger. He needed to be smart, but not pretentious and intellectual. Tim’s got all of those things, and not every actor does. In fact, very few do. So there was a feeling he would fit in perfectly.”
He fit so perfectly, he was nominated in 2011 for an Emmy Award for his performance. It’s been an annual frustration since that the television academy has passed him over for another nod. Maybe this year, Olyphant will get his final due.
But awards never will matter because “Justified” managed something Tuesday night that so many other great series fail. It went out sublimely, doing – yes – justice to its six seasons and to the critics and fans who cherished it all along the way.
Not with the bang we might have expected, but leaving that smooth-as-silk bourbon warmth lingering in our bellies.
Reach Scene editor Pat Clark at email@example.com.