Saying goodbye to Justified, maybe the last great TV show of the pre-binge era

Justified Raylan and Boyd

Maybe Justified didn’t have the best final season in recent TV history, but it might have taken the greatest victory lap. In its sixth and final year, the kickass western-flavored FX crime drama brought back a bunch of great recurring characters from seasons past (Loretta, Constable Bob, Limehouse, Dickie Bennett) and mixed them in with a bevy of new characters, all played by actors who seem tailor-made for the series (Sam Elliott, Garret Dillahunt, Jeff Fahey). The combination created a hurricane of awesomeness, with Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens and Walt Goggins’ Boyd Crowder standing together in the eye, facing each other down, drawing hands inching toward their guns. I don’t know if it has been my favorite season of Justified — the Maggs Bennett-dominated second season probably still holds the crown — but year six, which wraps up with tonight’s series finale, hasn’t lagged too far behind. That’s quite an accomplishment when you consider the show lost a bit of its mojo in year four before becoming borderline stale in season five.

Not that the series’ legacy was ever in much danger. Justified‘s first three seasons — all documenting the adventures of Kentucky lawman Raylan Givens, returned home to fight the ghosts of his past as well as hillbilly scum galore — ensured the show’s spot as one of TV’s best of the 2010s. And it’s not like year four and five were terrible. It’s just that a case of diminishing returns had set in hard. The series had lost its guiding muse — Elmore Leonard, on whose works Justified is based, died in the summer of 2013 — and showrunner Graham Yost seemed to be running out of creative bad guys for Raylan to triumph over. (Sorry Michael Rapaport. You never quite cut it.) So when Yost and Olyphant jointly decided to wrap up the series with season six, most of us nodded our heads and thought, “Yep, it’s time.”

Except now that season six has been so spectacular, piling up hour after hour of relentlessly entertaining television, one has to wonder if they made the right call. The truth is they probably did, and the fact that they knew this would be the end is what allowed them to return the series to the quality of those first three seasons. I swear last week’s penultimate episode felt like it lasted 12 minutes tops, so breathless and effective was Raylan and Boyd’s shootout in the fogged backwoods of Kentucky. Year in and year out, Justified has featured one of the best groups of recurring characters on TV, from Margo Martindale’s pot-dealing matriarch Maggs to Neal McDonough’s psychotic mobster Robert Quarles to memorable single-episode players like Alan Tudyk’s irate hitman.

But it has been Olyphant and Goggins’ twin leads who have powered this show above all. Ironically, Goggins’ character was originally supposed to die in the pilot, but Yost and his team liked Boyd so much they convinced Goggins to stick around and serve as an eternal foil for Olyphant. It was a wise decision, one that led to many of the show’s best moments, but it also meant Yost and the writers room had to spin a lot of plates to keep Raylan and Boyd antagonistic without making it utterly ridiculous that the former hadn’t yet killed or arrested the latter. Ending the series has allowed them to take all those spinning plates and smash them violently against a wall, This season has been building to a Raylan and Boyd showdown — with Joelle Carter’s Ava stuck in the middle, just trying to survive — and I expect the resolution of that confrontation will be worth the wait.

As for some more concrete predictions for tonight’s finale, I think Wynn Duffy ends up with Markham’s money. In a February episode of our podcast I called Wynn Harlan County’s biggest cockroach — disgusting yet unkillable. Nothing that’s happened since has changed my mind, and while Markham, Boyd and the rest will surely get their comeuppance in one form or another, it’s easy to see Wynn sneaking out the back door with money in hand. I’ve seen some folks theorize that Raylan will die — the song is called “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” after all — but I’m not buying it. Raylan isn’t an anti-hero; he’s a hero with a capital “H.” And while Justified has had its share of violence and dealt with some heavy themes (mostly notably the sins of the father), it really hasn’t been a dark show. It’s not Breaking Bad or The Sopranos by any stretch. So I’m almost certain Raylan will ride off into the sunset toward Florida. Though, if I’m wrong, I’d guess it’s going to be Boon, the kid gunslinger, who takes him down. Raylan underestimates him, and I’m wary of how much Yost and company have spent the last few episodes building that guy up. Although maybe it’s just in service of giving Raylan one last punk to put in their place. Yeah, it’s probably just that. Watching Raylan put punks in their place is the best.

Suffice to say, I’m going to miss Justified a bunch. In a way, it feels like one of the last great shows from the pre-binge era. I’m an old-school grump who thinks TV was best watched week to week, with seven days to savor each episode and wonder what would come next before moving on to the next chapter. I limited myself to three episodes of Daredevil this past weekend while everyone else I know was burning through the entire season. But Justified launched before Netflix and Amazon were making TV shows. DVR usage was growing quickly, but the device didn’t have the penetration or the HD space it does today. Most everyone I know who watched Justified watched it week to week, and even this year, I’ve enjoyed talking with my friend (and Cult Spark contributor) Stew Smith each Wednesday morning about what we had seen the night before. It was a show worth savoring, and I’ve no doubt those who tuned in throughout the years will end up with a finer appreciation of the series than those who, upon the recommendation of their friends, will binge-watch it down the line.

It’s practically absurd that both Olyphant and Goggins had already starred in iconic television series before they even got to Justified — Olyphant in HBO’s western Deadwood and Goggins in FX’s groundbreaking The Shield. In the pantheon, I don’t think I’d put Justified above either of those series, but it’s also far too good to be considered sloppy seconds for either actor. At the least, it’s the best adaptation of Leonard’s works to ever hit the screen. (Yes, even better than Jackie Brown, Get Shorty and Out of Sight, fine films they all may be.) And it provided a showcase for not just Olyphant and Goggins, but also for a bevy of cool character actors who took the colorful characters of Harlan County and turned them into TV gold. Every episode of Justified offered up a surprising double-cross or a memorable showdown, and television will suffer from the show’s absence. As for me, I’ll just follow Raylan’s lead by tipping my imaginary Stetson to the cast and crew and nodding silently in honor of a job very well done.