How to describe Justified, the Elmore Leonard-inspired drama that starts its sixth and final season tonight? Taking a character from Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole,” it’s as satisfactory as a good steak, the sort of beautifully basic show that’s never quite gotten the buzz it deserved in the era of the “antihero,” and yet it probably would’ve won a million Emmys by now if it aired in 1996, when our definition of greatness was a David E. Kelly series.
Sometimes I’ve called it “Old Man Character Actor (who has often been on Deadwood): the show,” since one thing it does wonderfully, season after season, is provide intriguing, layered roles for eye-squintingly familiar faces to embody — whether it’s Margo Martindale as a redneck Scarface to Jim Beaver as a sheriff-cum-D.B. Cooper — only to have the characters blow up or fade away as the show’s defacto theme song, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” plays over the soundtrack.
The pleasures of Justified are legion: the heart-stoppingly attractive Timothy Olyphant is sly and smart as Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshall who shoots first and asks questions later, a wit in a cowboy hat who’s back in Kentucky and reckoning with his complicated past in Harlan County.
The yin to his yang, the ostensible bad guy to his good guy, is Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). The two once worked the mines together, but their paths veered as Raylan moved onto law enforcement and Boyd moved onto the criminal life. Ever since Goggins stole the pilot and turned a guest role into a series role, he’s been integral to the heart of the show, which is a twisted love story between two men on different sides of the law.
In the sixth season, Harlan’s dead. Boyd says this to the Bonnie to his Clyde, his fiancee, his brother’s widow (this show takes place in Kentucky hill country, after all), his eternal inamorata, Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter), as they have a tense reunion at Ava’s house. He’s proposing one last score, the type of score that leaves you flush with cash and ready to go anyplace else in the world, to build a life in a place where you don’t have a past. Ava — to her credit — is totally unsure.
As we learn, part of Ava’s insecurity comes from the fact that she’s in a pickle, required to act as a criminal informant to U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, giving him information on Boyd so that she won’t have to return to prison. This job requires worming herself back into her previous life as Boyd’s fiancee, rebuilding her life’s central relationship on a foundation of mutual distrust. If she fails Raylan, she’s back in prison. If she fails Boyd, she’s dead. She’s walking a thin line.
Meanwhile, at the Marshall’s office, Raylan is doing recon in Harlan, trying to build a case against Boyd, and for once, Raylan’s peers, the generally underused Rachel and Tim (Erica Tazel and Jacob Pitts, respectively), get the chance to have lines and to figure into plots, since Rachel’s running the department in the wake of Art’s (Nick Searcy) injury last season. Familiar faces pop up like career criminal Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) and forever-wry Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns), and the characters are as funny and smartly written as you’d remember.
Justified lost some momentum last season on what was a subpar villain and set up (Michael Rappaport — a man who exudes NYCness in his pores — playing a scary southerner was about as good as you’d imagine), and, based on the first three episodes, this season has more focus on the original characters, particularly the trifecta of Raylan, Boyd, and Ava. Olyphant does yeoman’s work in a role that’s often more complicated and subtle than it appears at first glance, and Goggins delivers every line like he’s very, very tired of being the smartest man in the room. There is a new threat in town, embodied by Garrett Dillahunt (late of Raising Hope and yes, Deadwood) looking too hot for Kentucky in a backwoods beard (or Brooklyn, depending on what you’re drinking), unhinged and questionable as a veteran trying to pull some land deals in Harlan.
Ultimately Justified is a procedural, and a very good one at that, but it’s the little things that make it special: its attention to people’s financial status (Boyd didn’t get an iPhone until he was a successful criminal); character actor moments, the way that criminals are dumb, and often hilariously so (which is very Leonard); and the pas de deux between Raylan and Boyd is one for the ages. Two men that want to be each other, in some ways, obsessing over each other, they are forever intertwined, and it’s likely to end with one of them in the grave. One way or another, Raylan and Boyd will never leave Harlan alive, but based on the first fourth of the season, it’s going to be a lively ride and true to the spirit of the late Leonard’s work. Having mainlined Justified on sick days and through cold winter nights, I’ll miss Boyd and Raylan when they’re gone.