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“We dug coal together.”
In the pantheon of pairs of characters that worked best together over the course of a television series, the Justified duo of Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder deserve to be placed prominently. The two achieved a grandeur, almost in spite of the deficiencies that surrounded them.
That is to say, Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins — whose character was supposed to die in the first season but was brought to life with such authority by the immensely talented Goggins that plans were changed — and a bevy of writers under the deft stewardship of series creator Graham Yost managed to create a tapestry of intrigue surrounding two characters on either side of the law that thrilled and entertained for six full seasons to such a mesmerizing degree that it drew attention away from other, more problematic aspects of the series that periodically detracted from its overall quality. And even in the glow of the applause-worthy season finale, that dynamic cannot be ignored.
Raylan and Boyd were such majestic creations that it harkens back first to Elmore Leonard‘s magnificent story and then to how Yost and FX managed to take that and flesh it out into one of the most entertaining and smart dramas on television. Leonard himself, before he passed away, praised Justified as the best of so many attempts to take his books, characters and stories and move them from the page to the screen — big and small. It was clear Leonard absolutely adored what Yost had done with Justified, a series created out of his 60-page novella Fire in the Hole, praising the drama for keeping his characters alive and adding depth well beyond his intentions.
Yost and his writers did such an impressive job with Justified that it moved Leonard to revisit the Raylan character (who had appeared in Pronto, Riding the Rap and then Fire in the Hole) with the 2012 book Raylan: A Novel. That is high praise indeed.
Early on in the making of Justified, Yost gave everyone in the writers room rubber bracelets with the inscription”WWED?” It stands for “What would Elmore do?” and served as a reminder, as they prepped scripts, to keep as close to the author’s spirit as possible. (Yost wore his bracelet everywhere without fail — and I jokingly checked in with him over many years about it.) Where they succeeded so grandly was obviously in the dynamic between Raylan and Boyd.
As a series, Yost and the writers also masterfully nailed the connection between those two and Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter), who served as love interest, pawn, deadly obsession and soft spot through all six seasons, culminating with relevance in Tuesday’s finale.
That finale should be considered a high point of the series (along with the masterful second season). All series finales are difficult, and more so when you’ve got a protagonist/antagonist situation where both characters are, in some ways, equally beloved by the audience. Add in Ava, plus the various characters orbiting their lives, and sticking the landing was no easy feat. With “The Promise,” Yost and company managed to give a satisfying end to viewers without pandering — or, if you want to be more critical, without pandering more than usual. In either case, it’s important to remember that series finales are so fraught with peril that judging them is always a difficult task — but this one was a resounding success.
We got Raylan and Boyd in the showdown viewers have been waiting for, but it didn’t end as predicted, with Raylan “putting down” Boyd. It ended with Boyd in jail, a Marshal capture “done right,” according to Raylan’s long-suffering boss, Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), who was pretty sure Raylan was going to kill Boyd and claim that it was “justified” — how the show got its name.
Raylan got shot in one of those old-fashioned gunfighter scenes he always wins, so that was a bit of a change (though he was just grazed, of course, and lived). Ava got away, slipped through a dragnet by fan favorite Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns, in a role that stands out in a lifetime of great roles), and in the end we got to see how Raylan tracked down Ava, living in California with a 4-year-old boy that Boyd doesn’t know he has. Raylan doesn’t arrest Ava — he had promised her she’d get through this just fine when she agreed to inform on Boyd. So he kept that promise. And, finally, in a series that was ultimately so much more about the words spoken than the shots fired, Raylan and Boyd had one of those prison phone talks that did the whole conceit infinite justice and should be salve for fans who maybe wanted bullets over banter.
It was a great scene, one that might have induced a few tears, as the mortal enemies, former friends and Harlan County natives ended up agreeing that, despite all their differences, they had a bond in life that goes very, very deep: they dug coal together.
It’s an awful Kentucky life, one that Leonard and Yost went out of their way to note, and, for a series rooted in a distinct place (of strange hollers, generations of like-minded family, Southern ways, etc.), seemed a fitting way to make a final connection.
The ending kept everyone alive, and it’s hard to argue against that. Justified was always at its best when Raylan and Boyd, whose grandiose, twang-inflected speeches could have fit in nicely anywhere in the hallowed Deadwood pantheon, were simply talking to each other. And that’s why this ending felt right.
And it’s no sideways compliment to credit Olyphant and Goggins (and Leonard, Yost and the show’s rubber-wristband-wearing writers) with creating two truly original and remarkable characters who were able to otherwise eclipse the parts of Justified that didn’t quite reach the same heights.
This is a series that for whatever reasons failed its supporting cast, except for Searcy and Carter, as it serviced the Raylan-Boyd story. Both Searcy and Carter never really got the attention they deserved for some truly wonderful acting. But beyond that, Jacob Pitts as Deputy U.S. Marshal Tim Gutterson and Erica Tazel as Deputy U.S. Marshal Rachel Brooks were conspicuously and sloppily underwritten and underused for numerous seasons, though more sincere attempts were made in the fifth and sixth seasons to make their characters shine. Mostly, though, they did nothing for four seasons. Add to that the mishandled Raylan love affair with ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea), who was not only mother to his child but anchor to his wayward life, and you’ve got some supporting character issues that Justified could never justify.
Of course, another thing Justified did well was bring in a succession of bad guys and side players every season — characters who were, in fact, much more interesting and better written than either Tim or Rachel. They included Burns as Duffy, the astounding Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett, Mykelti Williamson as Limehouse, Jeremy Davies as Dickie Bennett, Damon Herriman as Dewey Crowe and, somewhat less successfully, numerous others.
While those mentioned above truly stood out, others just seemed like the bad guys du jour, and there was little doubt that Raylan would always come out on top.
Another possibly more egregious issue when considering the show’s legacy was that in the early going, Raylan shot a whole lot of people, justified or not. And as the legend of Boyd grew, the writers put him in so many impossible scenarios that he wriggled out of that there wasn’t much drama left at the end. You couldn’t kill or contain Boyd, whether it was via gunfire, dynamite or a mine implosion — and ultimately that made him more cartoonish than he needed to be. Without Goggins there to make Boyd one of television’s richest characters, Justified would have been in a lot of trouble.
So, in the end, Justified won’t sit beside shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men or Breaking Bad, but somewhere high on the tier below. However, Raylan and Boyd will certainly take their place with the best of any of the characters from those other shows. And that’s a mighty accomplishment.
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