In the 2010 pilot episode of Justified, there’s a moment between Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder during their first meeting in decades that has threaded through just about every episode of the show’s six-season run. Raylan has come calling on his old mining buddy during his first day working out of the Lexington office, and in the middle of their conversation — thick with double meaning and bullshit-cutting — Boyd says this:
Yeah, all those days, good and bad, they all long gone now. Everything’s changed. It’s all changed.
The moment is not lingered on. It’s in the middle of one of Boyd’s signature monologues and it sails right by — but it’s as good a central thesis for Justified as any. Time moves on. Everything evolves. And wouldn’t you know it, contrary to every possible chance and indication of the dark, violent history we’ve seen unspool over the last six years, Ava, Raylan, and Boyd all leave Harlan alive.
The application of mercy has been an ever-present plot engine in Justified, never more potently than in the series’ first and final episodes. The parallels between those two hours run thick, in overarching themes and small actions and even the tiniest visual cues. A story that began with an act of vengeance that brought Raylan to Kentucky, and with the subsequent act of kindness that paved the way for his primary antagonist to remain alive, winds up its central plot with one more moment of mercy sprung from decades-old shared hardship. An awful lot has changed, but not the omnipresent ache of life in a coal holler, not the sting of lost potential bled onto hard ground and down into mineshafts.
The finale wastes little time1 in repairing the relationship between Art and Raylan, and it’s as welcome a return as the sight of Nick Searcy in one final action sequence. As victory laps go, Art drolly extolling the relative exercise benefits of target shooting is way, way up there, but for more serious reasons later on in the hour, it’s a very good thing to have Art back in Raylan’s corner.
1. The only detour is a welcome one: Look how much the local officer who’s transporting Raylan looks and talks like him. He even threatens to put Raylan in the trunk! There’s an immediate, immaculate “so that’s what that feels like” shot of Timothy Olyphant, who may have the best bewildered-reaction faces in the business.
And just like that, we’re up to the final standoff, beautifully blocked by Adam Arkin, in which everybody involved makes the jaw-dropping choice to do the right thing, or as close to an approximation of the right thing as exists in Harlan. It’s Boyd, of all people, who makes the first decision to cease inflicting new wounds in the name of old ones. It’s Ava who tells him unvarnished truth for the first time all season: that she made the decision to betray him in her right mind2 and with plenty of good intel. And it’s Raylan who puts everyone alive in the building who isn’t Raylan into police custody, leaving the choice to die in the old Bennett drying shed well enough alone.
2. Crucial pilot callback here: Boyd, in his truck, musing to Devil shortly after Bowman’s murder, “Only reason I don’t take Ava out and shoot her is I see she had no choice in what she done.”
“What’s it prove, letting him live?” asks Ava in the car, a little while later. “Maybe nothing,” says Raylan. He’s not giving himself full credit here, or maybe he just surprised himself, but remember the very last scene in the show’s first episode, with Raylan and Winona on the deck in the dark? The one where he says that ever since he shot Tommy Bucks in Miami, “I’ve been thinking, what if he hadn’t [drawn]? What if he just sat there and let the clock run out? Would I’ve killed him anyway? I know I wanted to.” That’s not nothing. That’s the opposite of nothing.
And right as the familiar strains of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” are getting going, right as we’re all gritting our teeth and sending up a final prayer for this show’s surely beleaguered location personnel, who’ve gamely tried to turn California exteriors into Kentucky for five long years now, here comes the second standoff, with Boon, and here’s Raylan slipping back into his Raylan face, a transition you can watch happen in real time. This is where I really, truly thought Raylan might bite it. Instead, he escapes his dark passenger for the second time in a single day, and Loretta gets a hell of a victory lap of her own.
And just like that, we’re into the good-bye portion of the evening, but not before watching Raylan saunter into the Lexington office — and without knowing it, into a third standoff. “Something feels somehow incomplete,” he says of leaving Kentucky with Ava still in the wind, and here’s where we wind up being eternally grateful for Art getting on speaking terms with him again. It’s the best father figure Raylan’s ever had who talks him back into getting on with his life. “You did it. You got Boyd Crowder. And you got him right.” Bless Art forever for saving Raylan here as surely as Boyd did in that mine however many years ago. Their farewell is necessarily truncated before they both start crying. The sendoffs of Tim3 and Rachel are gruff and sweet.
3. There’s a convoluted salute to Elmore Leonard right here, where Raylan hands Tim a worn copy of The Friends of Eddie Coyle. You can watch the movie, a 1973 Robert Mitchum flick, or you can look in here and see what Leonard himself thought of the book. They can’t exactly have Raylan reading Riding the Rap, but this is close.
Following a four-year time jump, we’re treated to the sage decision to have Winona happily remarried to Not Raylan, because the half-eaten, melting vanilla cone is literally the best that Raylan can offer Winona, and it is super-great that they both recognize that now. Good for them. We see our intrepid hero filling his time off by spoiling his daughter, preening at being downgraded from World’s Angriest Man to Stubbornest in the space of six whole seasons of television, and delivering gruff proclamations out of earshot of Winona’s new husband, who Raylan has graciously managed not to get killed yet. The new hat has settled in, but not much. And thanks to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it piece of mail delivered from Rachel, now in Seattle, we see Raylan off to catch Ava again. It’s nice that she’s safe, and it’s funny how she got there,4 and it’s a driver for the final scene of the series, which ranks among its very finest without feeling anything like recency bias.
4. Law enforcement wasn’t looking for a pregnant woman, so in a way Boyd helped Ava escape too. He’s good at that: Remember how Boyd tried to get Raylan out of Harlan first thing, way back in the first episode?
Look at how happy Raylan and Boyd are to see each other, here at the end. Remember how happy they looked to see each other in the pilot, affection overlaying malice. In the finale, it’s malice trying to overlay affection and failing, and Raylan and Boyd can be fully honest with each other about each other. It’s a rare moment in this scene when you can’t see all of their teeth, and it makes you forget, amazingly, that Raylan’s there to lie to him. It’s jarring to realize that with “Sometimes I think the only way to get out of our town alive is to have never been born there,” Boyd does know what’s best for the son he’ll never know exists. It’s the entire why of Raylan’s return to Kentucky, this lie, and it’s outshone wire to wire with what looks an awful lot like brotherly love, born of long-ago trips into the earth, of having to strip their homeland’s resources for a meager living with the land itself trying to kill them all the while.
“I suppose if I allow myself to be sentimental, despite all that’s occurred, there is one thing I wander back to.”
“We dug coal together.”
Let your mind reach back to that first onscreen meeting between Raylan and Boyd. The song that plays as the Marshal’s town car pulls up is “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven for This,” performed by Justin Townes Earle. In “The Promise,” Raylan finds his someday is upon him.
And so it was that in the unlikeliest, most inevitable possible fashion, Justified closed some circles. Raylan gets to feel a little more self-aware, but not too self-aware. Shit-Together Ava gets to reassert herself. And Boyd gets to be the one to snap, however provisionally, a cycle of family violence that stretches back to before the pilot, when Bowman’s beating of Ava is driven by the realization that he’ll never see the outside of Harlan. It’s an entirely fitting end for a show that, for all of its regional specificity, dealt during the full span of its run with themes that were largely universal. Take out the gator poaching and the coal mines, swap Harlan with any other kind of company town, and you could find many of the same kinds of stories, I imagine.
It’s also as fuzzy an ending as could be imagined from a show that, body count and bloody material aside, has never made a habit of killing for killing’s sake. The conclusions we get to see are satisfying, and most of the ones we don’t, we can live with. More than that: They’re tantalizing, in their own passive ways. You’re free to imagine the brightest possible future for Loretta, the most sterling of careers for Rachel.
But maybe more importantly, and I say “maybe” only because I wonder if Elmore Leonard would tell me I was full of shit for prioritizing this way, but: Freeing these characters to go on with their lives, however we choose to do that in each of our heads, allows the widest arc of the Leonard universe we’ve ever seen onscreen stretch on a while longer. Justified, with the conclusion of “The Promise,” stands with Out of Sight and Jackie Brown as the greatest adaptations of this great American storyteller, and Raylan and Ava going on out there somewhere (and Boyd going on in there) lends a kind of echoing vibrancy to their stories. Leonard was gone by the time the show finished its run, but he’d have to be proud of the way it ended. So would Raylan’s mom, I bet.
Anyway. That’s all from me. It was Loretta Lynn’s birthday yesterday, did you know? Take us home, girl: