In the so-called “Golden Age” of the television antihero, the mere consistent excellence — not quite transcendence — of the Elmore Leonard adaptation Justified on FX has rendered it a bit of an also-ran in a time where shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and whatever’s on HBO this season have been taking up all the airspace and think-piece space. But for five seasons, Justified has been a very good show about a conflicted US Marshal, Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, silvering fox, lady-Viagra in human form), and his tendency to shoot first and ask questions later, coming back to his hated hometown of Harlan County, Kentucky, in order to solve crime and wrestle with literal and figurative ghosts. Inspired by Leonard’s writing, and shot through with his spirit and inimitable zesty dialogue, Justified has been the best example of the late crime giant’s work on screen to date.
At its heart, Justified speeds past its procedural roots by making itself into a show about community. By following Raylan as he puts on his ten-gallon hat and tries to solve crime, we learn more about the hill towns of Harlan County, where you’re born into redneck culture and poverty, set on a path to the mines or a path to drug-dealing. This rugged land shaped Raylan into who he is: the kinda asshole “wild card” of his US Marshals unit, alongside his forever-underused peers, glorified extras Rachel and Tim (actors Erica Tazel and Jacob Pitts have been in the opening credits all five seasons and maybe have five lines an episode if they’re lucky; when the show is at its best, they have many lines). Not for nothing was Justified‘s second and best season rooted in the community, with Margo Martindale as a Harlan County drug lord, the matriarch of a family. Her actions started a landslide: an innocent child in peril, fracking, and (actor Walton Goggins) clogging. It was the perfect combination of Harlan County coming to hit Raylan back in all his vulnerable places.
Because Justified, when it isn’t about a place and how it shapes people, is also a love story between Raylan Givens and his former fellow mine worker, current charismatic criminal, and sometime pillar of the community Boyd Crowder, a character who’s always evolving, from his beginnings as a neo-Nazi to a preacher to a heroin pusher. And Boyd is played with wild charisma by the hilarious-of-hairline Walter Goggins, a man with fine teeth, a lovely drawl, and the ability to illuminate Boyd’s wild intelligence and snake charmer skills. Justified is at its liveliest when Boyd and Raylan are on the same page, either at odds or, very occasionally, needing something from each other. Boyd is essentially the criminal that Raylan could’ve been, the devil over his shoulder made flesh.
The frisson between Boyd and Raylan makes the show. So why were they completely separated for most of the fifth season, which ended last night? In “X,” the plots that have been building for most of the season come to their inevitable conclusion, and mostly, what the audience learned was that Justified is a little bit long in the tooth for a show, spinning its wheels around inferior characters when it has a lot of talent on the bench.
Unlike last season’s old-man character-actor party, which all spun around a missing bag of cash, this season was starting with the redemption of comic-relief character Dewey Crowe, awarded 300,000 dollars in response to Raylan’s consistent abuse of his badge. But, of course, give an idiot some money and his idiot family comes sniffing around. The Crowe family, based in Florida, appeared to be an exercise in casting against type, with consummate New Yawker Michael Rapaport pulling a wavering Southern accent as Darryl Crowe, Dewey’s cousin, a silent Haitian man unduly murdered quickly in the season, the angry redneck brother with a mean dog, and teenage Kendall (the excellent Jacob Lofland from Mud), a 15-year-old-boy in peril as a consequence of his relatives’ selfishness and stupidity. Alicia Witt also appeared as the smart one, Wendy (of course), and mostly she was there to occasionally get the family out of scrapes or to be the damsel in distress.
The Crowe family was a ragtag group to hang much of the season on, even if the acting was solid; in Leonard’s work, he was deft at illustrating the stupidity of criminals, however, those criminals usually messed up and life got to them. The Crowes just kept popping up in plots like bad weeds, separated from Harlan County’s soil and too dumb to be so lucky. Boyd tried to become a drug lord, smuggling heroin from Mexico and getting into a bad place, and the Crowes screwed that up too. Meanwhile, Boyd’s fiancee, the once-badass Lady MacBeth Ava Crowder, was sent to prison for an action at the end of Season 4, and her whole C-plot suffered mightily from feeling far too much like an inferior version of Orange Is the New Black, down to the nice blonde lady figuring out the rules of the pokey.
And then, for some reason, each episode also generally had a guest star comedian type, from Dave Foley to Alan Tudyk, playing a gangster or something. There was a lot of plot going on, but none of it was working towards revealing anything about the characters.
In the season finale, “Restitution,” Justified continued to correct course, as the plot strands finally came together. Once Raylan’s superior, the “about to retire” Chief Deputy Art Mullen got shot, the many, many characters that made up this season started talking to each other. The marshals dealt with the main suspect, (innocent) Kendall Crowe, which led to a great interrogation scene between Raylan and Kendall, where man and boy alike wrestle with their demons. From that confrontation, Raylan went on a mad-dog hunt for the actual guilty party, Michael Rapaport’s Darryl, which meant that Raylan and Boyd had to team up (and Boyd turned snitch) to find the solution to their very different problems (justice on one side, the Mexican cartel on the other). Justice was served in a variety of ways, quips were quipped, and everyone emerged older and wiser.
But as the strands of the familiar season-closer cover of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” played, the chess pieces settled into place: Justified‘s sixth and final season is going to be a grand showdown between Boyd and Raylan, as God (and Elmore Leonard) intended, it seems. It’s hard not to regret how Season 5 feels a bit like a missed opportunity — after all, why couldn’t Raylan and Boyd have teamed up to fight evil? Why couldn’t they have been stuck together in some way? But it feels, strongly, like Justified has righted the ship, and the groundwork is there for a wonderful finale season. In a year.