When they first announced that Justified would end after Season 6, I was prepared to be heartbroken at the news, but after the recently ended and quite lackluster season 5, I think it’s a good decision. In fact, I wonder it might not have been better if Graham Yost had decided to end “Justified” in five seasons, perhaps doing a Breaking Bad and giving us an extra long fifth season split into two parts.
I say this not because Season 5 was terrible, though I do think it will go down as the weakest one for this usually stellar show, but because it now seems like the entire season was just a setup for the final confrontation we’re going to get in Season 6 between Boyd and Raylan. That confrontation has been brewing from the very first episode of the series, when the TV show let Boyd survive Raylan’s gunshot to the chest. In “Fire in the Hole”, the Elmore Leonard short story that introduces Raylan Givens, Boyd dies, and it’s hard to even contemplate how very different the show would have been if they’d followed the plot of the short story.
Ultimately, no matter how much it dresses itself in the trappings of procedural police work, Justified has a very strong undercurrent of “classic Western” running through it. Raylan is the lone Marshal, either because of the show’s budgetary constraints or because the point is that Raylan prefers to be alone, often operating without backup, sometimes with disastrous results. He has been dispensing vigilante justice since the pilot episode of the series, and he did it again in the Season 5 finale, setting up Daryl Crowe, even though it was actually Daryl’s sister Wendy who pulled the trigger to protect her son. Timothy Olyphant played a variant of this character before in Sheriff Bullock, of HBO’s late, great Deadwood, a man wound so tight you could see his teeth being ground to powder as he clenched his jaw.
The narrative of a Western demands that the quick-draw Marshal must face one final opponent, and in the world of Harlan County, there’s simply no one other than Boyd Crowder who could possibly play the black-hat gunslinger Raylan must confront at a metaphorical high noon. Boyd is Raylan’s dark shadow, the man Raylan might have become if he hadn’t had Aunt Helen to help him escape the emotional black hole that was Arlo Givens. (Another brilliant departure from Leonard’s written work was that the show, rather than having Raylan’s coalminer father die of some disease related to his profession, changed Arlo into a terrifying, conscienceless grifter, a man who so hated his only child that he killed a Kentucky state trooper whom he mistook for Raylan.)
“We dug coal together,” Raylan says in the first season, explaining the mysterious bond he shares with Boyd Crowder. That experience of extreme, life-threatening danger made these two men into something less than friends and more than enemies. Boyd is the brother Raylan never had; Raylan is the brother who’s far more Boyd’s equal than the deceased Beauman. Raylan’s father Arlo cared for Boyd far more than he ever did for his own son; Boyd killed his own father to save Raylan. They’re two sides of the same coin, yin and yang, dark and light, so of course“Raylan’s last case” is going to be salvaging what he screwed up so long ago, thanks to his inability to resist the seductive Ava Crowder: widow of Beaman, then lover of Raylan, then paramour of Boyd.
Ava’s season-long stint in prison, one of the weaker arcs the show has ever done, did have an amazing payoff, however. Thanks to Boyd’s numerous failed attempts to get her out of prison—where she faced trial ironically for the relatively selfless act of killing the abusive pimp Delroy—Ava faced an unendurable level of daily misery, in which she was warned that she’d literally have to fight for her life every single day. Unable to stomach that thought, Ava turned State’s Evidence. It was her affair with Raylan that initially undermined the case against Boyd Crowder way back in Season 1, and now it will be her affair with Boyd that will (I presume) help Raylan to bring Boyd to justice.
I wouldn’t say that this makes the entire prison arc completely worthwhile (it could have been a lot shorter, and I could have certainly lived with checking on Ava ever two or three episodes), but it certainly does make the medicine go down. Ava as Boyd’s Achilles’ heel is a delightful prospect. There’s wonderful irony that Boyd’s love for Ava, which drove him to raise money for her defense, which drove him to embark on his ill-fated collaboration with a Mexican drug cartel, will be the means to destroy him.
Speaking of Mexican drug cartels, I must say that I really wish TV shows would declare a moratorium on them in future. As fictional constructs, they almost never work. On Breaking Bad, the drug cartel storyline was sort of okay, because they were a MacGuffin, and the real story was about Gus and El Pollo Loco. On Sons of Anarchy, the Mexican drug cartel storyline was just one more piece in an ill-fitting and sometimes nonsensical jigsaw puzzle of overly complicated storylines. The cartel storyline sort of worked on Justified, if only to show how out of his element Boyd was (though he did manage to rid himself of troublesome Cousin Johnny), but I’ll be happy if the show retires that storyline with perhaps an occasional drug delivery to Boyd, just as the “Cuban mafia” storyline died a quiet and welcome death early in Season 2!
So ultimately, Season 5 of Justified may rise a little in my estimation if Season 6 delivers everything I hope it will, but I fear it will never be something I want to re-watch in its entirety. (In contrast, I could happily watch Seasons 2 and 4 on an endless loop.) Here’s hoping Justified goes out with a big, glorious bang next March!
Regina Thorne is an avid reader of just about everything, an aspiring writer, a lover of old movies and current TV shows, and a hopeless romantic.