“You're not going to get all sentimental on me, are you?” Art asks his soon-to-be-ex-employee Raylan, in the surprising and delightful finale to Justified.
The answer is yes; in fact, the whole episode felt a bit sentimental, as finales often do, but not in a bad way — not at all. Titled “The Promise,” this final chapter was written by Graham Yost, Fred Golan, Dave Andron, and Benjamin Cavell (whew!), and directed by regular helmer Adam Arkin. It was a fitting tribute to Elmore Leonard, who created this world in his novella, Fire in the Hole, nurtured it as an executive producer, and whose own career took him from Westerns to crime thrillers, the twin generic strands of this show’s DNA. Leonard was known for situating eccentric, vibrant characters in a world imagined with such laid-back detail that the bigger emotions just sort of crept up on you, in much the same way that frenemies Boyd Crowder and Raylan Givens kept getting the drop on one another before a wiseass remark.
And so the curtain is down at last. Where are we, exactly? Well, after that uncharacteristic-for-Justified postscript, which jumped four years ahead on the show’s otherwise-very-linear timeline, it’s hard to say. In Leonardian fashion, much was left unspoken and unexplored. We know weed dealer Avery Markham and his henchman Boon are dead, and the show’s main cast has scattered; that Boyd is in prison and his former lover Ava has secretly relocated with a huge chunk of Markham’s money; that she was secretly pregnant with Boyd’s child and now has an adorable son; and that Raylan finally made good on his promise (one of many alluded to in the title) of leaving Harlan and becoming the good father he figured his family’s legacy of shitty parenting would make impossible. (The scenes with the hero doting on his daughter were disarmingly natural, but not surprising; Raylan was always more at ease around little kids and troubled adolescents than tough-talking grown-ups with neurotic or criminal agendas.)
Beyond all that, you had to imagine whether Loretta became Harlan County’s de facto power broker, and whether she was able to turn the place around in some fashion, or at least make its seemingly inevitable decline a bit more bearable for her friends and neighbors. These are what you might call the known unknowns.
But what we did see was spare, concrete, and direct — basically an extended climax, a muffled detonation of a fuse that had been burning all season long. The chapter took most of its cues from outdoor Westerns like Anthony Mann’s superheated Bend of the River and The Naked Spur, and Howard Hawks’s more smilingly sedate Rio Bravo, as well classic gangster pictures like High Sierra (which hounded its criminal hero to the top of the titular peak, à la Boyd with his makeshift dynamite grenades). It presented showdown after showdown, both verbal and physical, all brief and tough and often funny.
And it was a hour of indelible moments and quotable (though often not in proper company) lines: Art nabbing Raylan from the custody of a corrupt state trooper with, “You'll either change your attitude right quick or I'll tear you a new asshole that you can carry a watermelon in”; Raylan making himself at home in an only-cops-and-pretty-ladies bar by commanding, “Art, show him your tits”; Boyd having to bury another goddamn body (Ava’s uncle Zachariah’s this time) and discovering yet another one at the bottom of the hole, then sitting in existential terror graveside while the cabin’s phone rang over and over, à la Once Upon a Time in America, literally and figuratively announcing that a voice from the past (Ava’s) was on the other end of the line. (Great phone conversation, by the way — Ava pretending Boyd was Zachariah, the murderously vengeful Boyd not really playing along.)
Not all of the storytelling was smooth. Boon, a memorably nasty and petty replacement for Markham thug Ty Walker, who always seemed a tad shoehorned in, went out in a drawdown with Raylan on the highway where he was escorting Ava, in what amounted to a glorified addendum to the Boyd-Raylan-Ava stuff. But what a spectacular afterthought it was, with the two enjoying the face-off that Boyd had denied Raylan earlier. The resolution had a Howard Hawks–ian snap, with the scene framing Raylan’s perforated hat to make you think he died of a headshot, only to reveal he’d gotten winged, then doffing the terminally wounded Boon’s hat from his head with a subtle gust of wind when he looked up to see Loretta standing over him. (It was as if God made him take his hat off for a lady.) Interesting how in this hour, finally, we got a sense of some kind of higher power, or larger moral authority, operating in Harlan, making value judgments and intervening in human affairs where He’d otherwise stayed neutral. Raylan and Boon might as well have squared off along the road to Damascus.
There was no redemption for Boyd here, only regret and sadness. He would’ve killed Ava in that shed, but he was out of bullets. “Does it please you when someone shows up to do your dirty work for you?” he asks the marshal. “I don't care how it gets done, as long as it gets done,” Raylan says. “You go ahead and do whatever it is you're meant to do,” Boyd then says, an intriguing mangling of the old what-a-man’s-gotta-do credo that’s animated so much of Justified’s violent action.
And yet, rather than accept Raylan’s offer to draw with a fresh and loaded gun, he pushes Raylan to execute him; Raylan refuses — a sign of growth that sets up his great line, “Beats angry,” in the postscript — and then there’s a sharp, funny cut to a shot of Boyd as seen from the back, his handcuffed wrists leading us outdoors. (Throughout, the staging and cutting was very Elmore Leonard, leaving out the parts that people tend to skip.)
“You know I'll never make it inside,” Ava tells Raylan after he tracks her down from a random newspaper photo. At that point you realize, if you hadn’t already, that none of the characters, Raylan or Boyd included, have demonstrated much in the way of foresight as they head towards this final chapter. Everybody in this season ran around like headless chickens in a locked shed. The sense of collective dread built and built, helped mightily here by a song — heard before on this show — promising that “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” But then, a good number of characters did leave Harlan alive, including Wynn Duffy, who helped Ava get out, and whom few of the show’s fans would mind seeing in a spinoff, with or without cameos from the now-incarcerated Boyd as a wisdom-dispensing, born-again Hannibal Lecter. When Boon’s truck runs Raylan’s car off the road, the synthesized score rings like tolling bells, and as they square off, they’re lit by orange-brown light, like you’d see in an elegiac Western. (Boon's back is to the sun.)
“It took you a little longer than I anticipated, but you got him, and you got him right,” Art tells Raylan right before the start of the long postscript. And it’s true. Raylan’s evolved for the better. He’s still sarcastic and probably not a man to be messed with, but there’s a genial, patient quality to him in those final scenes, a sense that he’s put aside childish things.
"You mind if we walk?” his former lover Ava asks when he tracks her down. “As long as you leave behind what I assume is a rifle in your hand,” he replies, an indulgence that foretells his decision not to turn her in, and to give Boyd a false story that she’d died, the better to protect her, and protect Boyd and Ava’s child from the disappointment of finding out the truth about her dad.
“There I was, in the middle of a Mexican desert, driving a truck filled with the bodies of murdered men followed by a car with a trunk load of heroin,” Boyd says in prison, as the camera pulls back from a close-up of his face to reveal him preaching from a jailhouse pulpit backed by an electric cross. “Any man can walk towards temptation. It takes a real man to walk away from it.” The statement could apply to Raylan as well.
The final scene is a classic. Just Boyd and Raylan, talking to each other through bulletproof glass in the prison. Boyd tells Raylan he's "just spreading the word of my calamitous fall and precipitous rebirth in the light of the Lord," and Raylan grins. He tells Boyd that Ava is dead, and shows him documents that "prove" it. The tough guy's eyes fill with tears. Tears are shed for Ava, but we know there is an extra-dramatic aspect to it, as is so often the case during series finales. Boyd’s sadness, and Raylan’s, are the sadness of the writers, actors, and crew. They're grieving for the loss of a shared land of make-believe. This is Timothy Olyphant's and Walton Goggins's last scene together in character. The characters are bonded by their shared past. The artists are bonded by their shared experience as storytellers.
What are we left with? Moments. Images. Raylan donning a former adversary's hat in the elevator as he takes one last look at his workplace; Ava's hesitant singsong delivery as she tells Raylan about all the good things she's done since leaving Harlan; Boyd's sadly tilted head as he peers at Raylan through the jailhouse glass, hard light glinting on his Boo Radley forehead as he smiles, crosses his fingers, and says, "Scout's honor."
The end might be the best cut to black since the end of The Sopranos, though of course the artistic intent could not be more different. We saw what happened, we know what it meant, now it's all over.
"We dug coal together," Boyd says. "That's right," Raylan says. The end.