Back in late February, on a Tuesday morning in Santa Clarita, California, Timothy Olyphant and Mike O’Malley faced off while shooting the Justified season finale that will be airing tonight on FX. This was the key moment, the big showdown between Raylan and brash mobster Nicky Augustine, whose mission to kill Drew Thompson had been foiled by the marshal. The season would all come down to this conversation in the back of Nicky’s limo. And twelve hours prior, all that existed in the script about this moment was, Raylan and Nicky go on to have the most badass scene we’ve ever done.
“We’ve gone back and forth for weeks in the writers room on how this showdown was going to end,” said co-producer Benjamin Cavell, who co-wrote the season finale with executive producer Fred Golan. Making Justified is an exercise in fine-tuning. Material is constantly being revised, and revised again. Dialogue can arrive at the eleventh hour, scenes can be thrown out or reconceived during filming, a little improvisation is allowed. The cast and crew have learned to roll with it. In an interview earlier this year, showrunner and executive producer Graham Yost said to Vulture, “I tell people that if the WGA found out how this show is actually done, they’d pull my card. This is not my show, this is our show. More than anything, we’re all just pulling in the same direction.” It’s why no one — except maybe recurring guest star O’Malley — is thrown when a pivotal scene gets delivered at midnight before a 7 a.m. call time. This climactic scene was only finally written after Cavell had a Monday night conversation with Olyphant, who is also a producer on the show.
In the fake-limo set, Olyphant fixed a steely if slightly world-weary gaze on O’Malley. As teased in the preview, the finale will find Raylan and Nicky locked in a standstill, and the scene involves a lot of verbal jousting. The actors were engaged in big talk for well over an hour; Olyphant kept tripping over the word obstruction, and O’Malley, who had more swaggering dialogue to get through, occasionally asked to be fed lines. But in general, they nailed the tense exchange, despite having little time to prepare. For Raylan, the situation with Nicky builds to a callback to the question Raylan asked of himself in the series’ pilot three seasons ago: Had Miami gangster Tommy Bucks not pulled his gun first, would Raylan have killed him anyway? “The idea was that we’d answer that question given a new provocation, which is actually much worse than what happened with Tommy,” says Cavell. Olyphant says he’s not the same Raylan who first arrived in Harlan. This season of Justified has seen him dogged not by a colorful adversary but by age, the death of his father, and his own impending fatherhood. His hair’s grown out. His patience is wearing thin. “He’s a little untethered,” Olyphant says. “I’m not sure he is as dialed-in as he usually is.”
In the limo, Olyphant decides to try out a line he semi-cribbed from Raylan: A Novel, by Elmore Leonard, who created the character in his series of books and is an executive producer on the show. “Well,” goes the line Olyphant tells O’Malley at the end of the scene, “now we know each other.” While watching Olyphant improvise on the monitors, Golan affectionately called the actor their “Elmore cop.” Olyphant makes sure the production stays true to the author’s lean dialogue and gritty, spare style; Golan recalled how the writers had to rework a tender moment from earlier in tonight’s episode in which Raylan and his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) talk about their impending baby; it made both actors wince. “They thought it was … too much,” said Golan. Moments later, Olyphant eagerly conferred with the director Bill Johnson, Golan, and Cavell about his ad lib. “It’s a great misdirect,” he enthused. Cavell said later that he wasn’t sure whether or not the line will stick in final cut, but said “it’s a good thought.”
Jere Burns, who plays mobile-home mobster Wynn Duffy, came on set to shoot a confrontation with Walton Goggins’s Boyd Crowder later in the day. He recounted his own experience seeing how drastically things can change at the last minute: His character (“a psychopath with a dash of whimsy”) was actually killed off in the writers’ room twice — once in the first season and then again in the second — but each time got a reprieve on his final filming day. He still sincerely mourns what would have been his season-two death. “It was this fantastic standoff in an office between me and Tim … Just three pages of ‘No, you won’t,’ ‘Yes, I will,’ ‘Fuck you,’ ‘Fuck you,’ ‘No, fuck you.’ ‘Oh really? Fuck me? I’ll tell you exactly how I’m going to fuck you … ’ Just back and forth and then bang! bang! bang!” Burns said. “The scene that we did instead was not as good, but I was alive at the end … I think it was probably Tim’s idea not to kill me. He has a lot of say. A lot of times his ideas are really good. Sometimes they’re not, and he’s still so cute and charming that it’s hard to walk away because he gets so enthusiastic. Four years in! It’s endearing.”
Olyphant owes his desire to contribute to the creative process. “The conversation is always the same: Who wants what? What makes it difficult? We’re looking for the unexpected and yet the inevitable. I don’t care if we figure it out two months before we start shooting or two hours before. I just love trying to figure it out.” The month prior, they went through a similar process hashing out the death of Arlo and its effects on Raylan. When he finally finished the limo scene, Olyphant had to go prep another scene that had suddenly moved up in the day’s schedule, and on the way he stopped O’Malley to thank him and say good-bye. “That was fun! That was really fun,” he said. Later, O’Malley laughed in his trailer. “He was unbelievable … but I would not have described what was going on as ‘fun.’” O’Malley also writes for Showtime’s Shameless and says the process there is a lot less fluid. “We don’t really make stuff up on the set ever. Ever. We work so hard on trying to get the scene right that there’s so little time to play,” he says. “But that’s how it works here. Extremely collaborative. I’ve never seen writers work so hard.” O’Malley recounted that on his first day filming he arrived ready to film a scene in which he meets and kills Stephen Tobolowsky’s crooked FBI agent Jerry Barkley in Wynn Duffy’s Winnebago, only to have the writers throw out everything he’d been prepping and ask him to try something else on the fly in which his character now turned out to know Barkley from childhood. “I was like, Oh my God … ”
Yost says they’ll always be hustling and, sometimes, scrambling. It seems to work for them. “I have no arrogance about it — I still don’t think we’ve found the show,” he says. “I don’t think we will ever entirely know what this show is. I hope that we’re always finding it. I do think there is a certain serendipity to it. You almost can’t plan it.”
As for whether or not they achieved “the most badass scene” Justified has ever done, Olyphant wasn’t sweating it. “We aim for that every week,” he told me later over the phone, a couple of weeks after filming had wrapped for the season. “At the end of the day, what we wrote was an interesting dilemma, and we found a fun, unexpected way to deal with it. That might be better.” And his line “Now we know each other” made the final cut.