The wise-ass Kentucky crime drama Justified had the good fortune to premiere in the spring of 2010, Tuesdays at 10 p.m., which means it accidentally got the best possible lead-in, even if that lead-in aired on another channel: the final season of Lost, over on ABC.
You will recall that the final season of Lost was a fucking disaster, somehow triangulating Mitch Albom and the Wu Tang Clan via a goopy, confusing, schizophrenic, colossally unsatisfying denouement that explained nothing and insulted everybody. (Marnie Stern said it best.) It sucked. But as it mercifully wound down, the enraged viewer could, having fully absorbed each new Lost episode's fresh indignity, immediately click over to Justified on FX and watch Timothy Olyphant wear a hat, reel off some quips worthy of series inspiration/oracle Elmore Leonard, and shoot some dudes. It felt so right, it felt so comforting, it felt so logical.
Premise: Olyphant is Raylan Givens (a reoccurring EL character; the show was initially based on his 2002 short story "Fire in the Hole"), a studly U.S. marshal forcibly relocated from Florida (after he shoots a dude) to his rural Kentucky hometown, whereupon he encounters all manner of riotously well-spoken ne'er-do-wells, half of whom he shoots, the other half of whom shoot each other, generally. Five seasons now, the fifth concluding last night (with Michael Rapaport getting shot in the nuts). It has never been the best show on TV; it is still my favorite, in part because it has never tried to be the best. The next season is the last, and unlike, oh, say, Lost's, it will probably be rad—perhaps the raddest yet. Let's help make it more so.
Raylan's arch-nemesis is the loquacious and magnificently coiffed Boyd Crowder, who was supposed to die at the end of the pilot (he gets shot), but everyone liked him too much. This happens on long-running TV shows, the surprise reprieve—see Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman—but what made Boyd's situation so odd is that he is introduced in the pilot as a sociopath with a swastika arm tattoo who blows up a black church (empty, at night, but still) with a rocket launcher. They spared and redeemed that guy, via an immediate religious conversion and racial-matters enlightenment that all Boyd's enemies (including Raylan) assumed was cynical and fake; brilliantly, the show never actually settled the issue. It still comes up, five seasons on, the sincerity of this change of heart, and Boyd still has the tattoo.
That profound weirdness (plus all the gunplay) makes season one my favorite, even now. Justified has never vastly improved nor appallingly fallen off since then: Most people prefer season two (featuring Margo Martindale as a semi-evil, bootleg-liquor-poisoning matriarch, winning the show its only major Emmy), but any of 'em will do, really. There's usually a new charismatic-sociopath "big bad"; there's usually a tough but sympathetic kid in peril; there's invariably a byzantine new assemblage of henchmen to shoot-and-be-shot.
The plot usually doesn't quite make sense and never matters: This is a character/dialogue show, suffused in Elmore Leonard's whimsical, erudite malice. What do we do about all these dead bodies? "Don't worry, Cousin Dewey," drawls a deadpan, pre-nut-shot Michael Rapaport, in an Internet-reviled backwoods accent to which he showed no loyalty episode to episode, or even scene to scene. "We'll hide 'em under all the heroin." The third-funniest moment this season was when a low-level henchmen got shot in the leg and yelled, "THIS IS THE WORST JOB EVER!" The funniest was a five-second cutaway of Boyd and another U.S. Marshall playing Scrabble.
The low-key, low-stakes thing cuts both ways. Justified did not benefit this year from the mere existence of HBO's True Detective, which had a vaguely similar rot-of-the-rural-South premise but way bigger stars, a way bigger cinematography budget, and an inclination to take itself about 50 billion times more seriously, enrapturing the Reddit-prognosticator wing of the Internet to a degree not seen since at least Breaking Bad and possibly since Lost itself. (Way better finale, it's true, though all the über-machismo and Yellow King hysteria seems a little silly now—in retrospect, the badass six-minute long take in which Matt McConaughey suddenly becomes a coked-out biker-gang member robbing a projects stash house feels just a wee bit random.)
Here, we're dealing with a lower ceiling, Event Television-wise, but also a higher floor. The only Justified plotline with any real emotional weight this season involved the most prominent female character (Ava Crowder, a lot of relation to Boyd, it's complicated) and her season-long stint in prison, a way more heroin- and shiv-heavy spin on Orange Is the New Black. Otherwise it was a random mélange of bad guys killed off in random ways (occasionally in Mexico, occasionally at an irritated actor's request), meant to distract from the show's only real problem, which is that Raylan vs. Boyd is the obvious focal point, but each season has to contrive ways that they might face off half a dozen times or so (invariably the best scenes) without ever resolving anything. At one point this season all the main bad guys, including Boyd, got in one room to divide the profits from a Mexican heroin score; Raylan barged in with another lawman, the least-vital bad guy (here defined as "the black dude who hadn't been on The Wire") got shot (after quoting from King Lear), and everyone scattered again, no questions asked. In my experience, profits from a Mexican heroin score are generally not divided so casually/inconsequentially.
But "w/e," as Elmore Leonard would definitely not have said. A fixed endpoint tends to help all shows that do not involve plane crashes and mysterious islands; next season might be transcendent precisely because it'll force Raylan vs. Boyd to a definitive conclusion. To that end, a modest proposal: no new characters. Justified already has too many underused fan favorites who work wonders with, like, one line per episode—take especially charismatic sociopath Wynn Duffy, whose eyebrows are the eighth and ninth wonders of the world, and who says things like, "I would love to be of more help, but I've got to get back to watching women's tennis." We don't need a new big bad, or any new bads at all, really. The fifth-season finale, whatever its faults—Alicia Witt really sells the line, "That would be a real ballsy move, wouldn't it, Darryl. How're ya gonna do it without your balls?"—sets us for a clean, uncluttered, rebooted finale involving all the people we've come to care about, and absolutely no one else.
There is a danger in this, of over-reaching, of attempting to "stick the landing" when being too humble and laid-back to ever really get airborne in the first place has been central to your show's charm. But there's a difference between a genuinely character-driven show and a plot-driven show that fucks things up royally and has to pretend it was really a character-driven show all along to save face. I have loved Justified all these years for the genial, comforting way it contrasts with the pompous melodrama that surrounds it, the way it conforms to Elmore Leonard's fabled 10 rules for good writing: no weather, no unnecessary details, no adverbs, no exclamation points. "Perpetrating hooptedoodle," is the way he described writing that felt like writing (and thus needed to be rewritten). "Good in a sea of terrible" was a fine look for this show for five years. But it never needed hooptedoodle to be truly great. It's time.
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