For a show that is certainly situated right in the heart of the Macho Violent Cable Drama Zeitgeist — and for good reason; its most notable episode wasn't called "Bloody Harlan" for nothing — Justified marched quite confidently through this finale without any major-character fatalities (and really just one minor-character fatality). I know everybody was nervous that Boyd would bite it, or maybe Ava, or possibly Winona. What we got instead, apart from the bad death of Nicky Augustine, were bloodless shifts that were no less violent. Raylan makes an active decision to passively murder the man who is threatening his family. Ava Crowder is headed to prison. Boyd makes several deals with several devils and is likely poised to burn the whole state of Kentucky down next season. This is currently a show that is solidly (and justifiably) confident in its characters, to the point where life-or-death suspense doesn't even have to be at the end of a gun barrel.
So, how'd we get there? Last week's cliffhanger, Picker's delivery of a rocking chair to Winona, foretold many scary, dangerous things about what the Detroit mob was willing to do to get to Raylan. The resolution to this crisis is wrapped up far earlier in the episode than you might have expected, but no less spectacularly. For a show that excels with standoffs, this was a particularly great one, from the revelation that Winona was making threats on Raylan's behalf ("Leave now and you might live through the day"), to Raylan's keen observational skills, to baiting the one thug to punch him so that he could get his hands on his gun. The idea is to get Raylan to lead them to Shelby's protective custody so they can kill him, but boy was going after Winona a poorly researched tactic. The lead thug holding a gun on Winona is pretty charismatic in his own right, reminding Raylan that "this beard don't make me Santa; I'm an elf," and that Nicky Augustine is going to come after him no matter what. But at this point, Raylan is just going to kill anybody in the room until Winona is safe, though it's actually Winona's quick reflexes and quicker trigger finger that prove to be the lead kidnapper's undoing.
With the immediate threat to Winona neutralized, he nevertheless has to now contend with the greater threat that Nicky Augustine poses to him and his family. And despite Art's assurances that the power struggle in Detroit between Augustine and Sammy Tonin (both men angling to take over now that Theo has skipped the country in anticipation of Shelby's testimony) would likely sort things out for Raylan, you can understand why Raylan wouldn't want to take any chances. Still, Art's the boss and has to say bosslike things, such as "If you go after Nicky, don't bother coming back." I'm not sure any of us expected Mike O'Malley to be the Big Bad of season four, but here we are, with Raylan risking life and livelihood in order to take Nicky out.
The mechanisms of how Raylan takes Nicky out are neither all that impressive or all that important. What's important is the number of moral lines he's prepared to cross in order to do it. Threatening Boyd Crowder with jail time in order to secure his cooperation is neither egregious or novel by this point, but there's something about Raylan threatening to put Ava in jail that feels out of bounds, if not by legal standards than at least by narrative standards. Ava may be a criminal, but she's our criminal, and her past relationship with Raylan only makes the threat feel grimier. This leads to one of those heart-to-hearts between Raylan and Boyd, wherein the latter questions the former about which side of the law he most comfortably rests on. One of the best things about Justified is that the title isn't just a badass turn of phrase from the pilot. Graham Yost and company are constantly revisiting what it means to Raylan (and others) to be justified in taking their own measures to secure justice.
Raylan wrestles with this on a technical level when he gets face-to-face with Nicky. He tells Boyd that he can always bait Nicky into drawing on him, re-creating the Miami scenario from the series premiere and taking care of things that way. But Nicky's too smart for that, and I guess Raylan knew it because he came up with a backup plan. Without being able to kill Nicky directly, he instead calls in Sammy Tonin, that "pasty little pussy" of the Tonin clan, and informs him of Nicky's intention to murder him. Whether he's pulling the trigger or not (and whether "I'm on suspension" holds up as justification for not stopping it), Raylan is surely responsible for Nicky's murder. I'm not sure he believes he successfully circumvented moral culpability either. But the deed gets done, and his family is safe. Until the next time.
Now, on to Boyd. The plan is to retrieve Delroy's body from the mine shaft and move it before the cops can find it and finger Ava for the crime. Only the local sheriffs (tipped off by Cassie) end up finding it first, which gives Team Crowder a whole new set of very limited options. Boyd's rather clever idea is to leverage the advantage he has over Paxton and the Clover Hill swells to get them to swap out Delroy's body (from Paxton's funeral home, conveniently enough) for someone else before the state medical examiner shows up the next day. This is all done under the watchful, corrupt eye of Deputy Moody, which is the name of that handsome local cop who's been around all season and whose name I have never bothered to figure out before this week. With Shelby out of the picture, local law enforcement in Harlan is once again in the back pocket of the criminal element, which at this point is Boyd. It's Boyd's downfall that he doesn't stop to think that there might be other back pockets for Mooney to jump into.
After a short caper adventure wherein Ava and Jimmy do the work of swapping the bodies — a caper that deceptively makes it seem like the matter is lighthearted enough for us not to worry — Ava insists on dumping Delroy's body in the slurry pond herself. (BTW: the slurry pond. THE SLURRY POND. Is there a more Harlan-sounding phrase in the history of humankind?) It's here that the tables are turned, in the predawn moments when Deputy Mooney rolls up and busts Ava with the body of the man she killed. No longer in the Crowders' pocket, Mooney is backed by Paxton, who takes advantage of Boyd and Ava's vulnerability to get out from under Boyd's thumb. He intended to catch Boyd with the body. But Ava will do. Not only does this leave my beloved Ava in the hands of a pitiless justice system, but it also seems particularly unfair when contrasted with Raylan's story line. Ava's killing of Delroy last season was every bit a "justified" murder as anything Raylan's ever done. But Ava doesn't have a badge. And now she's headed into season five in shackles.
And where does this leave Boyd going into next? Crusading for his lady's release, sure. Going darker than he's been for a while, it looks like. When Wynn Duffy shows up at Johnny's bar to offer Boyd the run of Detroit's heroin trade in Kentucky, we see the start of a partnership that will surely lead to Boyd, more ruthless than ever, gaining enough power to rain down vengeance on Clover Hill. Or maybe he surprises us all and plays it smart and finds a way to buy Ava's freedom somehow. Whole world of possibilities out there.
Film Society of Greater Harlan County Update
To the surprise of few, Raylan's standoff with the kidnappers at Winona's house included an allusion to a film, in this case Robert Mitchum's The Friends of Eddie Coyle, co-starring "Moe Greene and some guy from The Rockford Files."
Side Character of the Week
Who could have expected I'd emerge from the season finale wanting more of Picker? Yet here we are. He and Raylan have a really crackling little exchange at the airfield, where Picker comes across as a pragmatic survivor. "Doesn't pay to be the lead dog." Damn right.
Further Lyrics for the Love Song of Raylan and Boyd
Speaking of crackling conversations, Raylan and Boyd had a doozy to close the season. Raylan questions Boyd's love for Ava, a sensitive subject that Raylan has actually avoided for the past couple seasons. Raylan's relationship with Ava hasn't exactly been whitewashed, but the characters all seem to acknowledge that things have changed to the point where it's barely worth mentioning. It's a different Raylan and certainly a different Ava who we're dealing with now. Buy anyway, Raylan's accusation stings: "I think you love anything lets you put your head on the pillow at night, leaving you ain't the bad guy." Boyd counters that Raylan doesn't have as much evidence that he's not the bad guy as he thinks he does. Burn, I guess, but much as I believe in Boyd and Ava and root for their success, Raylan appears to have the better point.
Lexington Performance-Review Report
A good season for Tim and Rachel, I would say. I know some will still grumble that they're not utilized enough, but I was quite pleased with the degree to which Tim's connection with Colton and Rachel's flirtation with Raylan-esque recklessness weaved into the season naturally. They got a quick but enjoyable sendoff this week, razzing Raylan about using the color pink in the baby's nursery.
Requiem for a Franchise
And now it comes time to face facts. I said at the beginning that there were no major deaths, but I was only lying to myself. This episode saw the end of perhaps my most beloved recurring presence. Rest in peace, Boyd's dream of a Dairy Queen franchise in Harlan. Fare thee well, potential story lines involving bloody conflicts over choosing the Blizzard of the Month flavors. Vaya con Dios, fleeting hopes of Wynn Duffy trying to look dignified while tearing into a Buster Bar. We dared to dream big, Harlan DQ. Let's not ever apologize for that.