The fifth season of Justified is the first one that I’d rather hadn’t happened. So many missed opportunities, so many dead ends, so many false starts; and now, an unsatisfying ending. Or I should say, an ending that feels as though it should’ve been a beginning. Season six, unsurprisingly and inevitably, will come down to Raylan Givens versus Boyd Crowder. I like the final scene of Raylan on the bridge with the newly sprung Ava — who might’ve ended up dying in prison one way or another had Raylan not intervened; it had a fine, ominous feel. But did we really need 13 episodes to bring us to that point?
All right, first the summary: Daryl Crowe’s dead, at long last. He was killed by his sister Wendy, who been pressured into wearing a wire by Raylan. The purpose was to clear the name of her son Kendal, Daryl’s patsy in the shooting of Raylan’s boss Art, but their conversation spiraled into a tearful referendum on Daryl and Wendy’s relationship, particularly the way Daryl had become a self-serving and inept leader of the clan after their father’s death.
The detail of Wendy initially pointing her pistol at Daryl’s crotch tied into the show’s fascination with damaged and poisoned masculinity. Right to the bitter end, Daryl was messing with her mind, insisting that she was an unfit mother. Virtually every major, horrible development this season was Daryl’s fault, yet he was always justified on the grounds that he was only protecting the family. This is part for the course with self-serving fathers, especially when they are thrust into the king’s seat, à la Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, and Daryl is a pipsqueak version here. The late prison matron Judith had told Ava that everybody behind bars in women’s prison was there because of some man. Wendy probably would’ve ended up there too eventually, had she not decided to turn states witness. But now there will be no trial, as the once terrified lawyer/helpmate eliminated the need for one. When Wendy pulls the trigger on Daryl, it feels like she’s making an editorial statement on behalf of every woman who’s ever appeared on the show. Patriarchy takes one in the nuts and another in the throat.
As if that detail weren’t fodder enough for graduate thesis papers, this episode alone featured multiple monologues about bad daddies. Raylan, trying to get close to Kendal at the U.S. marshal’s office and get him to admit he didn’t shoot Art, tells him about the time his father Arlo made him kill for the first time. The victim was a feral pig; I doubt it’s a coincidence that “feral” rhymes with Daryl, the wild pig who at that moment was running wild through Harlan County. Key detail: when, in the anecdote, young Raylan refuses to kill the pig, Arlo calls him a pussy, the same thing that Darryl called Kendal repeatedly whenever the boy objected to some macho BS on grounds of morality or common sense.
Raylan offered this story after learning that Kendal also had killed an animal once before: a gator. That his instructor was not his biological father but a surrogate father (Daryl) is a distinction without a difference. Alberto, leader of the trio of Mexican drug gangsters killed by the marshals this week, initially tries to terrify a captive Boyd by telling him the proper way to skin an animal. Who taught him this? His father, of course. Raylan is himself a bad father, a deadbeat dad whose wife and infant daughter are down in Florida fending for themselves.
I’m not saying that any of these stories or elements are bad in and of themselves. But taken together, they’re too much. If a Mad Men episode featured this much wall-to-wall curse-of-the-patriarchy stuff, it’d rightly be criticized as overdetermined. I’m normally all for subtext, even when it’s foregrounded and made self-conscious, because without subtext, stories are just collections of stuff that happened. But in the case of Justified’s fifth season, this perfect storm of bad daddyhood felt like an attempt to lend coherence and momentum to a season that otherwise lacked both. Justified has always been about blood, legacy, and the tragic weight of one’s family. That all would’ve come through anyway, no matter what story the writers chose to tell this year, because of where they’ve set the story and the sorts of characters they’ve chosen to focus on. The stuff with Boyd, the Crowe family, the Mexican drug cartel, the Detroit gang, the Canadians, blah blah blah, was just standard crime thriller/drug stuff. The patriarchal obsession didn’t really enrich it, it just exposed its hollowness.
I won’t summarize everything I didn’t like in season five, as I’ve dwelled on it at length in these recaps: suffice to say that Daryl never really worked as a big bad because neither the character nor the actor who played him were magnetic enough, the Crowe family in general was just too small time and dumb to really anchor a show this rich in incident and character, and there was too much plot for plot’s sake, and too many gambits that for whatever reason didn’t pan out.
The impending Boyd-Raylan face-off does promise a return to action that is truly based in character, rather than only seeming to be, and that’s promising. So far Justified has been 4-1 in terms of good-to-bad seasons. I feel confident that they can get their act together in time for the last go-round, which has cleverly been positioned as a “final mission” for Raylan, his last big case before walking off in the sunset for a new life as a family man. This brings the show back in line with the genre it always exemplified, the Western. To all of which, I say: bravo, and what took you so long?