Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Promise,” the series finale of “Justified.”
“Justified” was always about transcending something, which makes it appropriate that the show's ending transcended my expectations. It zigged when I sort of expected it to zag, and yet the whole thing was very satisfying and even -- lawman Raylan Givens would roll his eyes at this word -- sweet.
The expected confrontations arrived, of course, and produced moments of excitement: Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) throwing dynamite down a mountain at pursuing law enforcement was, well, dynamite. The ongoing chase involving Ava (Joelle Carter) and Boyd resulted in gunfire and a number of deaths, and then at the midpoint, there was that classic showdown between Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and Avery Markham’s protégé, Boon (Jonathan Tucker).
White hat, black hat: Two men quick on the draw faced each other on a lonely road. It was an iconic image, a tip of the hat to the cowboy-lawman cinematic traditions the show expanded on for six seasons. And yet that confrontation, like so many others in this slippery, delightful final season, didn’t necessarily follow a predictable pattern. Well, to some degree it did -- our hero lived and the bad guy died. And yet it’s to the show's great credit that most of us probably experienced a moment of doubt. Was Raylan dead? Seriously wounded? Or would he emerge with just a scratch?
Fortunately for him (and for us), his minor wound didn’t slow him down. And if I wanted to get fancy, I would say that the moment he rose from the blacktop represented the final stage of Raylan’s rebirth. All those years ago, he returned to Kentucky as an angry man who liked using his gun a little too much, and there are still elements of that anger and twitchy trigger finger in him.
But he resisted the urge to kill Boyd and he would have loved to avoid the confrontation with Boon, who thought he understood the codes that Raylan and Boyd lived by but was actually a toxic combination of both men’s worst qualities. Boon -- a man with a truly frightening gleam in his eye -- was a dangerous narcissist who cared about increasing his personal glory; he committed the cardinal sin of trying too hard to seem cool. But it was the self-consciousness of his quest for glory that did Boon in. Raylan and Boyd always had healthy egos, but we cared about them for six seasons because they had other concerns on their minds: Family, community, doing the right thing for those they cared about, carving out a bit of autonomy in a world designed to crush individuals.
They got it wrong a lot of the time and were often their own worst enemies, but they gave a sh-t about something other than themselves, and thus, for all their rebellious ways, could be vulnerable and even afraid. But they were Elmore Leonard dudes, so that never showed on the surface. Without trying, they actually were cool.
Leonard’s universes are always full of wry amusement and his characters are put through any number of inconveniences and indignities, but he was an ultimately compassionate writer, and that spirit of generosity clearly influenced the ending of “Justified.” Everything turned out more or less all right in the end. Boyd, Ava and Raylan lived, which ties into another one of “Justified’s” themes: It might seem cool to go out in a blaze of glory, but the pursuit of that kind of reflexively angry life is ultimately limiting and self-defeating.
A violent end, for any of the central trio, would have meant that they weren’t able to transcend their genetics, their family histories and their own self-destructive tendencies. They didn’t get everything they wanted, but they got to live, which is enough. It was quite possibly more than they expected.
Life is about grinding out the day to day and just trying to get through each moment with a modicum of dignity and intelligence. Confrontations, danger and a quick trigger finger can give an individual a certain amount of power, but that’s no way to live. Through ingenuity, wiliness and just plain endurance, all three members of the final season’s central trio got out of Harlan alive. Even if they’re not necessarily living the lives they’d always dreamed of, that represents a step forward.
The finale was titled “The Promise,” and that may have referred to Raylan’s promise to finally leave Kentucky and be a father to his daughter down in Miami. Or it could have referred to Raylan’s promise to Ava to never reveal her whereabouts or the existence of Boyd’s son. It was probably about the implicit promise that two men who dug coal side by side made to each other -- the idea was, they’d always have each other’s backs.
And in a way, they did. Raylan resisted the urge to kill Boyd, and then did him a favor by not making him aware of his son’s existence. The boy deserved a chance at life, and as a man who’s all too aware of the influence of scheming fathers, he wasn’t about to put little Zachariah in the path of the force of nature known as Boyd Crowder. Even from inside a prison, Boyd would have been capable of turning his boy's life upside down.
Some things don’t change: Zachariah wore a shirt buttoned all the way up, just like his daddy, and one of the many callbacks in the episode was the shot of the boy digging with a shovel; minutes earlier, we'd seen his father desperately using a shovel when he was trying to find the buried money. Many things came full circle: Boyd went back to preaching the way he did in the show’s pilot, and Winona and Raylan, once again, just couldn’t make it work.
But in the big picture, a lot did change for Raylan. “You pull on me, I put you down.” That part of Raylan still existed, as evidenced by his quick dispatch of Boon. But he wouldn’t give in to the narrative that both he and Boyd were both drawn to -- the one in which one of them shot the other or they both ended up dead. That would have been the flashy way to go out, but, on second thought, why go out at all? Why not bury your father, give away the farm and try to be a more evolved person capable of raising a child? Worth a shot, right?
In honor of its passing and in honor of its fine six-season run, here are six reasons I’ll miss this show:
- It loved language. Sure, on some level, it was about Marshals doing their duty and catching bad guys, up in Harlan and other places too. But “Justified” was ultimately a show about people who liked to talk, and when they spoke, gems just kept falling out of their mouths. From Boyd’s ornate locutions to Raylan’s laconic wisecracks to the sardonic observations from any number of other characters, this was an endlessly quotable show that saw the English language the way Boyd viewed explosives: It was something to have fun with while using it to its fullest advantage.
Now that time is up. Thanks, “Justified.”