A smart show knows when to quit, and sometimes after making the decision to quit, it finds itself again.
Yessir, we're talking about Justified, which kicks off its sixth and final season tonight. Even during its needlessly convoluted and pointless fifth season — the only one that felt as if it were on TV just to be on TV — FX's Western-flavored crime thriller was sardonically funny, brutal, and crisp, in that Elmore Leonard way. The final episode confirmed that season six would set the stage for a long-deferred face-off between U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and his frenemy, local crime boss Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), and that is where we seem to be headed. Although the first three episodes, all of which are terrific, have that Justified vibe — with crooks and cops scheming and preening in pursuit of arrests or money, cracking jokes and skulls along the way — there's a mournful undertone. Raylan, Boyd, and other characters keep intimating that both Harlan County's history and their own lives have been studies in disappointment, and that their present courses of action are part of some as-yet-undefined final act that will likely have a bloody end.
Tonight's premiere, which was written by Michael Dinner, Fred Golan, and Chris Provenzano and directed by Dinner, begins by highlighting that old Western-style tug-of-war between family life and Doing What a Man's Gotta Do. The first scene shows Winona Hawkins (Natalie Zea), still in Florida, contemplating her baby by Raylan. "Oh, Raylan, what in the world is worth missing this for?" she says, at which point the episode cuts to a shot of a sexy young woman lighting a cigarette in a bar somewhere in Ole Mexico. I'm not sure anyone would describe the action that follows — Raylan hassling a Federale for information on a desert massacre from season five — as "worth" missing family life for; here, as elsewhere, Raylan seems to be in the grip of a compulsion, one that'd be scarier if he weren't so cool and charming. He doesn't have to be the white-hatted avenger, but when he's not playing that role, his life doesn't make sense, and soon becomes pathetic. Boyd's that way, too. There's no cosmic law that says he couldn't just walk away from his life of crime — or stay in it at a lower level, without constantly having to prove himself the top dog — but you wouldn't know it from the way he assembles a new team and starts hatching plans as spectacular as the ones that introduced him way back in season one.
I won't go into too much detail beyond that, because the plot doesn't move in the direction you expect, and the surprises are a big part of the fun; Justified, more so than most great series, has a knack for giving you something slightly different from, but as good as, whatever you thought would happen. (My favorite example is the death of Robert Quarles at the end of season three: not quite the quick-draw showdown you expected, eh?) Suffice to say that this episode and the next two are packed with callbacks to earlier plotlines and local legends recounted via anecdote, and that the writers seem determined to check in with every significant character who's still alive while introducing and developing new ones.
The tensest, most affecting subplot belongs to Boyd's girlfriend and partner-in-crime, Ava (Joelle Carter), who was released from prison on the condition that she become a criminal informant and and report on Boyd for the U.S. Marshals. She's torn, of course, because even though Boyd's used and neglected her, he's also her soul mate. The electricity between Goggins and Carter confirms that there's still a spark there; the actors have a scene together in the third episode that's one for the highlights reel. Mary Steenburgen returns as Katherine Hale, who's gotten tight with Dixie Mafia fixer Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns). New cast member Duke Davis Roberts is brilliant as a dimwitted, mouth-breathing goon who calls himself Choo-Choo because when he hits you, you feel like you got run over by a train. ("Do you want to ride the Choo-Choo?" he asks intended victims, in a voice so flat you'd think he was offering them a stick of gum.) How dumb is he? So dumb that every conversation with him becomes a "Who's on first?" routine. So dumb that he makes Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman), a nitwit who pronounces "malfeasance" as "mal-fee-essence," seem as self-aware as Hamlet.
The big bad guy this season is Sam Elliott's real estate mogul and not-so-secret gangster Avery Markham. If you thought Elliott was put on the earth to appear on this series, you'll be relieved to learn that you weren't remotely wrong. The honey barbecued voice, the reassuring smile, the sparkly eyes combine to make Avery's ruthlessness delightfully unsettling. Avery might be the first Justified villain who carries himself like a classic Western hero: a dispenser of wisdom as well as violence, serenely secure in every decision; Raylan's bad-daddy shadow.
Avery's chief enforcer, Ty Walker, is a handsome, courtly, big-bearded man who wears immaculate suits when he goes out on rounds and pressures local landowners to sell to his boss. Ty talks even more like a Deadwood character than most of the folks on Justified. "I come with no more lofty aim than to apprise you of the situation in which you find yourself" is his way of saying, "I stopped by tell you what you're in for." If you're going to write a role this eccentric, you might as well fill it with Garret Dillahunt, who played two roles on Deadwood. He's magnificent here, and the screenwriters set him up as a dopplegänger for Boyd, an equally loquacious schemer who, like Ty, often lets his passions and insecurities contaminate his strategies. If you didn't pick up on this already, the script makes it official by having Ty unknowingly paraphrase one of Boyd's most-quoted lines: "I'm just a weathervane, Mr. Crowder; I don't make the wind blow."
Maybe more than in previous seasons, this final leg of Justified foregrounds the characters as characters, the story as a story, and Harlan as a playful fictional space — a Kentucky county that's seemingly as violent as a war zone, yet as claustrophobically intimate as Stephen King's Maine, Richard Russo's upstate New York, or Damon Runyon's Brooklyn and midtown. Everybody on Justified is connected by work, sex, marriage, genetics or the historical aftershocks of ruinous family feuds. Every conflict or showdown is emotionally or physically concrete yet at the same time metaphorical, the stuff of future legends. And the My Dinner With Andre and His Guns dialogue is so off-the-charts lyrical that you can hear the writers chuckling. That opening scene with Raylan in the Mexican cantina is anchored to a discussion of tequila versus bourbon, with a lovely aside about how Raylan "never understood the fascination with the artichoke." Raylan's former colleague and now-supervisor Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel) tells the hero, "It's a bitch running that office without you running around here all untethered." While tailing Dewey Crowe, who's acting the fool as usual, Raylan and his fellow marshal Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts) have a deadpan-off. Tim wins. "You know he once told me he worked at Disney World dressed as Goofy in a water-skiing show," Raylan says. Tim replies: "Well, some guys just peak too early."