(SPOILERS) There have been more than enough damp squib or so-so show finales of late to have greeted the demise of Justified with some trepidation. Thankfully it avoids almost every pitfall it might have succumbed to and gives us a satisfying send-off that feels fitting for its characters. This is a series that, even at its weakest (the previous season) is leagues ahead of most fare in an increasingly saturated sphere, so it’s a relief – even if there was never much doubt on past form – that it doesn’t drop the ball.
And of those character fates? In a show that often pulls back from giving Raylan Givens the great hero moments (despite his maintaining a veneer of ultra-cool, and getting “supporting hero” moments as he does in the finale, 6.13 The Promise), it feels appropriate that his entire (stated) motivation for the season should be undermined. He doesn’t get to take down Boyd Crowder, except in an incarcerating sense, but as always he is sanguine about it. After all, “We dug coal together”. They’re enemies but, in a two-sides of the same coin way, also friends.
One of the pleasures of the season comes from scenes cutting between Raylan and Boyd outguessing the other’s latest manoeuvre. It’s appropriate that Boyd doesn’t give Raylan the opportunity to take him down a blaze of glory. More than that, we already had Boyd “killed” in the pilot. While there might be a certain circular satisfaction in doing it again, too much has been made of Raylan’s own pig-headedness and Boyd’s own guile to finish on such an obvious note.
Not that there isn’t enough effective nose-leading to make us think this might be where we’re heading. We see Boyd’s ruthlessness, Billy the Kid style, in the cameo from Shea Wingham in the penultimate episode, 6.12 Collateral, where Boyd shoots him in cold blood (“I’m an outlaw”) and it suggests no redemption will be in the offing. Yet come the final scene, it’s Boyd in business as usual mode, preaching from the pulpit. The real penance is not that he loses his life but that he doesn’t get to infect others with his larcenous ways; those being Ava and her young son (although, given Boyd’s shrewdness when it comes to Raylan, it wouldn’t be difficult to conceive of him tracking down his beloved should they ever wish to translate Justified to the big screen).
It’s Boyd who is granted the big cathartic kill, “Big Bad” villain Markham (Sam Elliot in sterling, ‘tache-less form), rather than Raylan, but much of the season’s emotional core is devoted to the fated-not-to-be relationship with Ava. It’s appropriate that this, through its twists and turns of trust and distrust, is shown to be a love with depth and substance but that just cannot work – at least for Ava. And on that subject, very sporting of the redundant Natalie Zea (although she had another show during the last couple of seasons) to come back as the relegated-to-cameoing Winona. Quite apart from fan backlash against her, it didn’t feel plausible that Raylan would settle down with Winona, but it’s nice to see a balance of responsibility taking hold in the “four years later” of him sharing custody of their daughter.
Ava particularly deserved some sort of happy ending, though, given the treatment she was receiving from the unsympathetic law enforcement agencies during the season. Raylan gets to be the good guy (“I ain’t gonna to take you in”), after being a complete bastard, as well as throwing shots at the podgy babe (“Looks like you fed him well”). The final season’s a believably fraught rollercoaster for Ava, put between a rock and a hard place at every turn.
There’s a sense, though that the series was shrewd to avoid OTT alterations to its status quo, ones that would be out of keeping with Raylan’s laidback “abiding” status. Their lives all do carry on after the final credits roll, yet the circle is complete too (he did what he was brought to Harlan to do five seasons before). Some roles change incrementally, others not at all; Art is on the way out (however far away that may be) just as Rachel is on the way up (whatever setbacks occur here) while Tim is just plain reliable.
Season Six is especially well served by the villains, and the twisty scheming they get up to. Admittedly, some of the plans here are pinch-of-salt, such as Markham’s conviction that weed will be legalised in Kentucky and hinging his land-buys on it (although Loretta at least puts in the maybe-not suggestion towards the end). And Boyd’s plot to go in under Markham’s vault is appealing but the stuff of only-in-the-movies (or on TV), particularly his decision to continue with the heist even after he knows Raylan is waiting for him.
Raylan: He got a long-winded, peculiar way of speaking?
There’s also Markham’s muscle, which never quite breaks out from the self-consciously written (or underwritten), with the exception of Duke Davis Roberts’ endearing Choo-Choo. Gareth Dillahunt is usually the most commanding of performers (he made an indelible mark in just three episodes of Burn Notice) but Ty Roberts never catches fire quite as he should, despite a loquacity that outdoes Boyd (“Hell, son, you done talk as much as I do”).
Jonathan Tucker steals every scene he’s in as replacement bug-eyed leering loon Boon, but that’s all he ever is; a bug-eyed leering loon. Fast on the draw, true, as Alan Arkin’s reprise of the road stand-off he directed in Season One shows, but lacking anything that would paint him as other than a cartoon.
But Mary Steenburgen’s Katherine Hale is a true steely villainess, going after exactly what she wants and unflinching about it; Markham’s warning to Ava is well-placed, as Ava lacks that ruthlessness and tunnel-visioned self-interest. As such, Katherine and Markham are perfectly matched for each other, and it’s a nice touch that even after discovering her duplicity Markham still wants her. That both their demises are particularly gruesome can’t be a coincidence.
Elliot’s image is a twinkly-eyed cowboy with a massive moustache (such that the Coen Brothers barely had to embellish it in The Big Lebwoski), and I’m trying to think of a role where he’s been asked to show such cold, calculated poise before. Steenburgen too, come to that, although I never had any doubt of her range.
The supporting troop has their moments. I’d have been disappointed if Jere Burns’ Wylie Coyote Wynn Duffy had been disposed of. He’s just too damn appealing, even with his indulged penchant for a nigh-on all-over tan this season. It’s nice to hear he was possibly spotted surfing in Fiji. Kaitlyn Dever, if confirmation was needed, is given a further chance to show what a great young actress she is as Loretta, thrown a series of juicy scenes against the likes of Markham and Boon and proving unflappable throughout.
There are also brief call outs to Mykelti Williamson’s Limehouse, Danny Strong’s Albert Fekus and Jeremy Davies’ Dickie Bennett. I’m never quite so sure about Patton Oswalt’s Bob Sweeney, who’s the only trace of the kind of indulgently self-conscious character Justified otherwise avoids. Rick Gomez gets to up the ante of David Vasquez’ prickish side in the later episodes, as he insists on Raylan’s potential culpability in Ava’s escape (it’s a wonder Raylan was allowed to escort her the last time, all things considered), which is good fun.
There’s also a great showing from Jeff Fahey as Ava’s uncle Zachariah, a crazy but well-meaning old-timer who goes out in a blaze of guts. Fahey may unfortunately for him always be The Lawnmower Man, but he’s etched out a solid niche on the small screen in recent years.
As always, there are some great show-stopping sequences. I’ve mentioned Raylan versus Boon, but the standout must be 6.11 Fugitive Number One’s visit by Catherine to take care of the snitch that is Winn Duffy. Mikey (Jonathan Kowalsky) has shopped him in, disenchanted by his boss’s lack of a code, but has second thoughts when she raises a gun on Duffy. The ensuing altercation, as she repeatedly shoots Mikey at point blank range while he strangles her and Duffy hides under a table is gripping TV of the first order. And then there’s the touching farewell to Mikey (“Will you hold me?”)
In the first episode Fate’s Right Hand Boyd shoots Dewey Crowe in the back of the head, which would be a shock except we know by now Justifiedthat has that kind offhand capacity with long running supporting characters (it happened with Johnny Crowder the previous season). There’s also the shootout in 6.6 Alive Day with Ty. But what works best about Season Six is where many shows go awry ultimately. It has its main characters entirely in focus and understood, knowing where they should end up.
Justified might be the most wholly satisfying new TV show of the last decade, one that knew when to bow out and not to bite off more than it could chew. One that knew itself through and through and didn’t commit to unwise continuance (Breaking Bad). Not that I’d be adverse to a movie at some point in the future, just as long as Raylan gets rid of that new hat first.
How the Seasons stack up
Obviously, I’m going to need to give them a back-to-back run through at some point, but just now I’m minded to rate them as follows: