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'Justified' series finale review: 'We dug coal together'

#Justified closes on a bittersweet note, but it proves one thing: You can leave Harlan alive

For all the western imagery, slick dialogue and curling gun smoke, FX's "Justified" was always a series about cycles, about people trapped by circumstance or choices made without their input.

Raised under Arlo's cruel tutelage, surrounded by peers who were born into a dead sprint toward mediocrity in poverty-warped Harlan, was there any chance Raylan Givens wouldn't grow into, as Winona once described him, "the angriest person" we'd ever met?

Was there any chance Boyd Crowder wouldn't spend his life trying to fill his daddy's outlaw shoes after growing up watching Bo use drugs and graft to make himself king of the Harlan have-nots?

This could go on for awhile. All three Bennets were doomed by their parents' marijuana fiefdom. The Crowes, forgettable villains that they were, found their own misery in a similar fashion. Robert Quarles, though not born in Harlan, was sent on a path of madness and deviancy by his father's heroin addiction.

The quintessential question of "Justified," the same one posed by various country crooners over the finales of each of the series' six seasons, was simple: Can you ever leave Harlan alive?

"The Promise" does its best to answer that question for Raylan, Boyd and Ava. But this is Harlan, where the questions might be simple but the answers never are.

Yes, you can leave it alive. As long as you leave something behind.

"The Promise" cycles through a series of different possible endings for Raylan, putting his morals and life in jeopardy in separate showdowns with Boyd and Boon. After the four-year time jump, Raylan faces one more spiritual test, one that allows him to finally break the Harlan cycle and afford Ava's son a chance he never had.

As he walks through the California ranch, Raylan is finally the one making the choice, rather than outrunning choices made by Arlo, made for him. He can take Ava in, of course, be the devoted lawman we know him to be.

But the Raylan we see in the series' closing moments is mellowed, unguarded. He's been cowed, slightly, by this life. He knows the cost of it. He knows what lies ahead for Ava's boy if he takes his mother in. This child will end up in a foster system. He'll only know his parents through glass windows. That same rage that choked Raylan for years, that likely cost him Winona, will choke him. Hell, he could even end up with Boyd again, back in Harlan. 

Raylan's not letting this happen. So in a series sometimes defined by Raylan's ability to slap leather and his need to carry his Marshal's star, Givens saves the day in the calmest way possible. He walks away, calls it a day. Hangs it up.

"The Promise" is something of a muted finale for a show like "Justified," but it's the right finish, not quite excellent but certainly memorable. It hummed along, leaving me not entirely certain when it was going to end.

At a screening of the finale on Monday night, "Justified's" executive producer Graham Yost quoted one of Elmore Leonard's rules of writing -- "cut out the parts people tend to skip over" -- and "The Promise" accomplishes that neatly. There are no goodbyes for characters you don't care about, no sendoffs for characters about whom there's nothing more to say. No customary wave to the cast.

Vasquez? Unseen. Wynn Duffy, as much as we loved him, is barely even mentioned. (What else is there to say after that trailer scene from "Fugitive Number One"?) Even Markham, a villain who earned his place in Harlan's criminal hierarchy, is dispatched quickly by Boyd because, well, we had other things to accomplish this week.

This episode belonged to Raylan, Boyd and Ava. We never quite got that final gunfight between the Marshal and his arch-nemesis (we came close in last week's "Collateral"), but the standoff in Loretta's did well to wrap their story. Raylan was ready to murder Boyd last week, and he goes so far as to hand Boyd a loaded gun here, hoping to have their last showdown.

Raylan ultimately saves himself, refusing to shoot an unarmed man. But given the complexities of Boyd and Raylan's relationship, I have to wonder: was Crowder actually trying to save the Marshal, the man he once called "the only friend" he had left in the world? Sure, Boyd taunts Raylan that he'll kill Ava if he ever gets out of prison, but by refusing to engage in that gunfight, he spares him the weight of taking one more life. Hell, he saves him from having to find out if he's still fast enough to finish this fight. 

It's an excellent scene from Walton Goggins, who vacillates between cruel and heartbroken when he talks to Raylan and Ava respectively, and Timothy Olyphant matches him shot for shot. The series' lead has always had the benefit of a terribly expressive face, and Olyphant makes sure you know every muscle fiber in his body is involved in this decision. He's not quite sure he won't shoot Boyd. He knows he wants too. He knows he shouldn't, and that strain is evident.

And as for that final scene? Well, what other line of dialogue was "Justified" supposed to end on? "We dug coal together," has been Raylan's way of explaining his connection to all things Harlan over the course of the series. The line has always been an admission and sidestep at the same time. It's his answer to Ava way back in the pilot, when he shoots Boyd but won't leave him to die.

Yes, Raylan's lying to Boyd. But in a way, he's sparing him too. If we know anything about the "Justified" universe, we know Boyd will get out of prison some day. He's already cycled back into the street preacher skin he wore after his last release from prison in Season 1. At least this way, Raylan is sparing him the weight of killing Ava (which he might do) or pursuing her to the ends of the earth upon her release (which he will most certainly do).

So Raylan does the honorable thing by Ava. By Boyd. He leaves Harlan alive, and in a way, he helps them do the same. Sure, he didn't get Winona. Maybe he won't have the family life in Florida or Glynco he always dreamed of.

But he's still got the hat. The star. He never became Arlo. He wouldn't let himself become Boyd.

No one ever wins in Harlan County. No one really leaves alive.

But Raylan Givens got closer than most.

Stray rounds:

  • Better dramas have appeared on our television screens over the course of the series' run, but I can honestly say I will just flat out miss "Justified" more so than something like "Breaking Bad" or "Mad Men." This was a show you lived in. A show whose character's were relatable in a way someone like Walter White or Don Draper can't be. We've all felt like the deck was stacked long before we ever looked at the cards. We've all been Raylan. We've known a Boyd, an Ava. Even a Dewey Crowe.

  • The final gunfight between Raylan and Boon was set up perfectly in the weeks before. Boon's (likely correct) assumption that most everyone is wearing Kevlar caused him to go for the head, but he whiffed, murdering the Marshal's hat instead of the Marshal. It was satisfying to see Loretta stop his chance at a follow-up shot as well. Boon (Jonathan Tucker) was a worthy foe and I wish he'd shown up sooner.

  • Art and Raylan's final exchanges were perfect. One last bourbon. One last manhunt. Nick Searcy may have been the most well-cast actor of this show beyond Raylan and Boyd.

  • It occurs to me that I've said little about Ava here. Joelle Carter was her usual, intoxicating, self. I especially enjoyed her final scene in California, the nervous energy she rambled with in hopes of keeping Raylan from taking her in.
  • Well it wouldn't be a series finale without repeating the series' one six-year flaw -- Tim and Rachel, we hardly knew ye. Neither deputy marshal gets much to do here (Tim does have the pleasure of ducking dynamite tossed by Boyd). The show sort of figured out what to do with Jacob Pitts in the last two seasons, but Erica Tazel was largely wasted.

  • It's been a pleasure writing about this show for the past four years (three at the Star-Ledger back in Newark, N.J., and this final season here). If you're at all remotely interested in continuing to follow my rants and occasionally intelligent comments, you can find my latest "Daredevil" reviews here. I'm hoping to write up the rest of the season over the course of the week.

@JamesQueallyLAT will never leave Harlan alive. He doesn't want to. But you should follow him for "Daredevil" reviews and breaking news in the real world.

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