'Justified' Finale: Graham Yost on Who Survived — and Those Elmore Leonard Tributes

The showrunner talks with THR about how the end of the FX series changed from his original plan and more.
Prashant Gupta/FX Networks

[Warning: This post contains spoilers from Justified's series finale.]

Justified concluded its six-season run with a subdued series finale Tuesday that may not have have been as deadly as many had come to expect.

Although the FX drama regularly featured elaborate and alarming death sequences, only two characters of note ended up being killed off in the show's final hour: Markham (Sam Elliott), who — after taking Ava (Joelle Carter) hostage — was killed by Boyd (Walton Goggins); and Boon (Jonathan Tucker), who was on the losing side of a gun duel with Raylan (Timothy Olyphant).

Raylan, however, did have the opportunity to shoot friend-turned-foe Boyd after Markham's death — but when Boyd refused to draw his weapon, Raylan decided to merely arrest Boyd (and Ava). For a moment, it seemed that Raylan would actually be to close to closing the case, but his unexpected confrontation with Boon — which occurred as Raylan was trying to transport Ava to jail — led to an injured Raylan being unable to stop Ava from stealing his car and escaping.

With Boyd in jail, Raylan was finally able to make good on his promise to leave Harlan, and head to Florida to reunite with Winona (Natalie Zea) and their daughter, Willa. That's when the series jumped four years into the future and revealed the duo were in a good place, but had split. It also took that long for Ava to resurface — though they only caught wind of her thanks to her unplanned appearance in a pumpkin patch photo.

When Raylan went to apprehend Ava, he was greeted with a surprise: she had been pregnant with Boyd's son, Zachariah, when she escaped. Raylan agreed not to take her in and went a step further to protect her: he went to prison and told a heartbroken Boyd that Ava had died.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Justified showrunner Graham Yost to discuss keeping the show's main trio alive, jumping forward in time and more.

At what point did you decide that Raylan, Boyd and Ava would all survive?

It really came down to Boyd. It's not the kind of show where we'd kill off Raylan, though hopefully that moment [in the finale] works well enough that people will think, "Wait a second, did they just kill off Raylan?" But then they'll look at their watches and go, "But there's another 15 minutes in the episode, so probably not." There was no way we were going to kill off Ava. We loved her too much and felt she was a victim. In Elmore [Leonard]'s world, often the women get away with the money — or at least they get away. So that felt like it was Elmore. So it came down to Boyd. We felt Boyd might deserve [to die], but it wouldn't reflect well on Raylan. It would show he hadn't grown. We wanted Raylan to have a small, incremental growth over the series. That comes down to the line [in the finale] of Winona saying, "You're the most stubborn man I've ever known," and he says, "It beats angry." [Winona told Raylan that he was the angriest man she had ever known in the Justified pilot.] That's really what it came down to: given the opportunity, Raylan is not going to kill Boyd. Raylan really thinks he was going to, but when it comes down to it, he can't.

Did that decision come down to the final seconds for Raylan? Or was that bubbling beneath the surface over the past few episodes that he wouldn't be able to pull the trigger?

It really came down to the final seconds. It's all well and good to talk about it in theory. Even in the previous episode when he shoots at Boyd in the woods at night ... It's not a high-percentage shot, so how much is his heart really in it? He's faced with a guy who's not going to pull on him, but if Boyd had pulled, he would have put him down. He wouldn't have shot him in the leg, he would have killed him. But if the guy's not going to do it, it's essentially murder. As much as [Boyd] deserves to be taken out of the equation, it's just not something Raylan can do as a lawman. It just ultimately wouldn't be justified.

In the sequence where Raylan got shot, his beloved hat was destroyed. Was the new hat Raylan wore designed to be a bit of a tribute to Elmore?

It is an Elmore tribute! Gregg Sutter, who was Elmore's researcher for 30 years said he feels Elmore would have gotten a kick out of that. It's still not the hat Elmore wanted. But it's at least a little closer, because it has the flatter brim.

There were some surprising match-ups in terms of he hour's two fatalities: Boyd killed Markham, and Raylan killed Boon. Was that always the way you intended it, or were there other people you had thought might be the ones to take them out?

For a while, we had Loretta (Kaitlyn Dever) was going to be in the whole barn sequence [with Markham]. I [can't remember] how we were going to get Boon out of there, but we knew we wanted to separate Boyd and Raylan, and that Raylan and Boon would be a separate thing. But for a while, Loretta was going to kill Markham. But it just didn't feel right. It felt like we would get something better if we had her with Boon.

Although the series often stuck close to real-time, there was a four-year jump in the finale. What made you land on that particular number?

We originally [had it] as five years, but we thought maybe five years was a little too much. It felt too simple. Four felt more real. It also would allow Boyd and Ava's child to be 3½- to 4 years old — not as old as Willa.

That also places Ava and Boyd's son at an age where you might not be able to tell what path he's going on ...

Yes, but his shirt is buttoned up to the top! He is taking after his father in some respect.

What do you see Zachariah's destiny to be? Do you think that Ava getting her son out of Harlan is enough to give them a genuine clean slate, or is he destined to follow in his father's footsteps?

We were down in Harlan this weekend, and a number of people mentioned, "Hey, you could do a spinoff that's 20 years in the future, and it's Willa versus Zachariah!" I think he has a shot [at a clean slate]. I think Ava was a good person; she was not a crook. She was someone who got pulled into a criminal life, but she didn't grow up in a criminal family. Half of the DNA is her, and the other half you hope is the openhearted, goodwill gesture side of Boyd as opposed to the sociopathic side.

What were the conversations with the writers like about whether Raylan would take Ava in or whether he'd let her go free? Was Raylan truly conflicted in the moments before he told her he wasn't going to take her in?

This is one of the fantastic things Tim contributed. In my first outline of the scene, I had Raylan show up, and he sees the kid immediately, and Tim said, "What if Raylan doesn't see the kid until toward the end of the sequence? And that's what tips the balance of not taking Ava in?" So the kid becomes very important in that regard. I think he would have thought very seriously about [bringing her in]; he's a marshal, she's broken the law. But, even if he hadn't taken her in, he would have tortured her more about it. I think he would have wanted [to do that] — he's mad! He says, "You ran on me three times. Once at gunpoint." He's not happy about it. But the kid was the tipping point.

Raylan and Winona's long, complicated relationship seemed to be veering toward the two of them being able to make it work earlier in the season. What led to the decision to ultimately not have them end up together?

There was almost no debate. The feeling was pretty strong right from the beginning that Raylan and Winona are always going to be Raylan and Winona. Which is to say, it would be very hard for them to make it work, even with a kid in the balance. But they will always love each other, there will always be a strong attraction, and you know as he watches her walk away that — man — he wishes he could somehow be with her, but it just didn't work out. [Justified executive producer] Sarah Timberman came up with the idea; originally we had a scene in the playground, and then you'd go back to Richard (Jason Gedrick) and Winona's house. But for scheduling reasons, we needed to combine everything, so she had the idea of Raylan and Winona sitting down for a minute, watching their daughter playing. So we think, "Oh, great, they're together, everything is fine!" But then the twist comes when Willa says, "Can Daddy come stay for dinner?" and Richard walks up. That was a very sweet gesture on Jason Gedrick's part — to just show up for a day. We worked together on Boomtown, and it was very nice. We needed someone who was a bona fide romantic rival for Raylan. He's an incredibly charming manly man.

Since Raylan didn't end up with Winona, where do you see him in that time period? Is there another woman in his life? Is he content with his life?

Raylan being Raylan, there's always a woman in his life. Whether or not he's ever going to work that out is a really good question. He's only going to grow so much. In many ways, the best woman he had was Amy Smart's character [Alison Brander] from last year, who was in law enforcement. She was in that world, so she got it. But even then, that didn't work out. It's tough for him. It's just hard for him.

Meanwhile, Boyd is back in jail, and has turned to religion ... again. Can Boyd become a better person? Or is he in a cycle of repetition where he's doomed to make the same mistakes over again?

That was a thing Walton suggested: "What if we have a scene of me preaching in prison?" I said, "That sounds great." And when I told Tim that, he said, "Raylan should say, 'You know you're repeating yourself, right?' " That seemed just the perfect thing to have in that scene. But I think he is repeating himself, and that's the thing: in Elmore's world, the characters tend to repeat themselves, as people do in life.

As the writers were setting out to craft that final Raylan and Boyd scene in jail — especially as Raylan was lying to Boyd's face about Ava being dead — what was the process like?

When Boyd says, "I know you haven't believed a word coming out of my mouth, but I've harbored the secret hope you've nevertheless enjoyed hearing them," that was something Elmore Leonard said about Boyd when he came into the writers' office and we took him into the editing bay and we showed him some scenes back in the first season. That's what he said: "I don't believe a word coming out of his mouth, but I sure do enjoy hearing him say them." And so that was a nod to him. Going back to "We dug coal together," at the end — that was Walton's idea. That was great because it brought us full-circle to near the end of the pilot when [Raylan] shot [Boyd] and Ava says, "Why did you say you were sorry," and [Raylan] says, "Well, we dug coal together." That just felt right.

What was it like to film that final scene between these two men?

It was very emotional. It was on our final day on our stages, and it was very emotional. It's strange to get to this point, though we knew it was inevitable. Years ago, we could always say, "Oh, we have another three seasons, two seasons, one season." Well, now we're down to one episode, and then one day. And it's a bit breathtaking when it comes. It was one of the best scenes we've had between those characters and those actors, and we're very proud of that.

Wynn Duffy, somehow, managed to survive everything. We didn't get much of him in the finale, but where do you see him?

I think he got $9 million and he's surfing in Fiji. The alternate version is that he was unable to get the money, and he's still up in the hills — just off somewhere else, making his Wynn Duffy life in whatever bizarre capacity.

How about Rachel (Erica Tazel), Tim (Jacob Pitts) and Art (Nick Searcy)? Where do you see them in the future?

We don't say anything about Gutterson. We assume that Art retired. After four years, he'd be out of the line of service. But there is a clue about Rachel [in the finale]. When Art and Raylan are saying goodbye, Nelson comes in and says, "There's a call from the Seattle chief, where's Rachel?" ... and then when Raylan gets that envelope with the picture of Ava in the newspaper, up in the corner, it says, "Seattle Office, U.S. Marshal Service." And written above that, in handwriting, is Rachel Brooks. So she's in Seattle. She's maybe not the chief yet, but she's on her way.

Where did Loretta end up?

If she doesn't go to jail, she'll make a living for herself. Everyone else is talking about leaving Harlan, and she's going to stay.

Were there any scenes filmed that didn't make the final cut that you can share?

When we did those little pops showing Raylan's imagination of who [helped Ava] get out, you see Ellen May, you see Limehouse, [and] I had originally written in that Raylan says, "We thought for a moment that maybe we were wrong about Dewey (Damon Herriman) being dead" and then we would see Dewey for a second. [And then he'd continue,] "But then we found his body." But first of all, it was a bit of a downer, because [the other ones] were funny, but also because Damon was in Australia and we couldn't get him.

What did you think of the Justified series finale? Sound off in the comments section, below. 

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