“You’re a card in fate’s right hand. Don’t you see how it’s going to play out?”
There is a well-known adage in the television industry that says that the best way to ruin a great show is to end it.
Actually, I just made that up. But it doesn’t make the sentiment any less true. Depending on whom you ask, we’re roughly 15 years into the New Golden Age of television. There are two takeaways that are readily apparent from this run of amazing storytelling. One, the final episode (and, some extent, the final season) of your show will be almost solely responsible for the future legacy of your show, regardless of the show’s overall length or quality. Two, there are zero dependable indicators of the likelihood that a show will go out on a high note.
In other words, if your show lasts 200 episodes, the 200th episode matters more than the 199 that came before it. It certainly isn’t fair, but that’s the landscape. If you don’t believe me, go back and read people’s assessments of shows like Seinfeld, The Sopranos, and Lost before and after their respective finales. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that those shows aren’t still held in high esteem, simply that if they have indeed been voted into the hall of fame of our collective mainstream mindset, then they went in with an asterisk next to their names.
As both a viewer and a reviewer, my fascination lies in how and why a finale goes wrong. On paper, a final season seems like the easiest thing in the world. In many ways, it should ostensibly be a victory lap, a well-earned opportunity to trot out your greatest hits and let the warm nostalgia of familiarity carry you across the finish line. Where shows often get into trouble is when they want to change up the formula or, even more dangerously, they want to continue to grow and deepen the narrative right up to the last second. Done well, you get the last episode of M.A.S.H.. Done poorly, you get the last episode of Lost.
Obviously, for a number of reasons, Justified makes me very, very nervous.
I say that to be funny, but there is some truth there. First off, you can’t say that there was a plan right from the beginning as to where this was all going to end up. After all, Boyd was supposed to die in the pilot, and I guarantee you that nobody foresaw Dewey Crowe still being a key player at the beginning of the sixth season. Second, this has never been a show that just churned out filler episodes. In many ways, it has always been a show that was difficult to explain to non-viewers, because any synopsis fell painfully short of describing the true content. It has never been about what it was really about. Sure, on some level it absolutely is about a U.S. Marshal returning to his Kentucky home, and the drama that comes from having to renew old relationships with family, and old rivalries with local criminals—particularly when some people fall into both of those categories. What is difficult to get across, however, is that the characters take precedence over the plot. It doesn’t matter who the bad guy of the week is, or who gets arrested where, and for what. What matters is how those events affect our characters and who, as a result, they become. Beyond that, what matters is how the creative team uses those characters and their emotional lives to comment on everything from family dynamics to the effects of poverty on life choices to the epidemic of drug addiction across the South.
So, the question is, can the creative team manage to serve both masters over the 13 hours they have left to tell their story? Can they find a satisfactory ending to both the emotional arcs of their characters as well as their narrative story? Thankfully, the season premiere is a sure-footed step in the right direction.
I’ve talked at length in past reviews about the mirror motif that is widely used on the show. It all starts, of course, with Raylan and Boyd being mirrors of each other, but the creative team finds all sorts of fascinating ways to reinforce that symbolism. One of my favorites is the way that later seasons parallel earlier seasons. For instance, last season’s Crowe family was an analog for the Bennett family from Season Two. So it follows that this season should reflect back to Season One. If you don’t see it, consider a couple of things. The first one is easy. For the first time since Season One, the primary big bad for the season is the criminal organization fronted by Boyd Crowder. My second example is more specific. The first episode of Season One opened in a Miami restaurant where Raylan confronted a criminal, gave said criminal the opportunity to avoid a violent altercation, and then when the criminal declined Raylan’s offer, Raylan defeated the criminal through violence. I don’t really want to have to type all that again, but suffice it to say that tonight we opened with an almost identical progression of events—save that it took place in a Mexican bar instead of a Miami restaurant. I find it extremely difficult to believe that this was an accidental coincidence, but it is the differences that I find more interesting than the similarities.
In the series premiere the Raylan that we meet is riding high. He’s found success in Miami and obviously likes being a cowboy in the Caribbean. With his spotless suit and healthy tan he is cocky, assured and obviously relishes being the sheriff in town. His perspective on good guys and bad guys is distinctly monochromatic, and the only stakes that matter to him are the ones in the moment. Flash-forward to today and it is a very different story. The stakes are a family that deeply misses him, and the very real possibility that his return to them could be permanently delayed. He ambles through dirty, neon-lit nighttime streets that are a lifetime away from the gorgeous blue skies of Miami. His starched suit has been traded for a rumpled, worn denim jacket and, perhaps most revealing, the man Raylan has come to confront is not a career criminal; he is a corrupt cop.
More similarities pile up as we move through the episode. Both episodes involve Boyd committing a bank robbery, though it must be said that his tactics have advanced considerably. Violence still plays its part, but it was fun to see the more subtle and clever means that lay the groundwork before the inevitable assault. We’ve heard enough people talk about what a legendary bank robber Boyd is, so I’m glad to actually get a real demonstration of his skills beyond just setting off explosives.
Both episodes feature a man from Ava’s past coming unexpectedly to her door. The first time was Raylan and now, of course, it is Boyd. Raylan came to try and enlist Ava’s help in catching Boyd robbing a bank. Five seasons later, that’s exactly what she’s doing. When Raylan came knocking, Ava offered a drink as a flirtation. Here it is Boyd that makes the same attempt, only to be shot down. Ava even goes so far as to chide Boyd for drinking so early in day, only to gulp down Vodka in secret. Of all the characters on the show, Ava has undergone the saddest transformation. When she explains to Raylan why she killed Boyd’s brother, Bowman, she says that it was the realization that he was stuck in Raylan that caused Bowman’s transformation from a high school sports star into an abusive husband. I wonder if it has occurred to her that it was a similar realization (and desire to escape) that sparked her transition from hairstylist, to brothel Madame, to murderer, to undercover informant. Yet despite what she has done, Ava always inspires sympathy. Unlike Boyd, who continually makes poor choices even when presented with a multitude of better options, from the moment we met Ava, she has always acted out of a desperation that was born of limited choices.
In the episodes most meta moment, Raylan and Ava meet on the bridge and actually discuss their first meeting from the pilot. In a strong episode, this is still the best scene of the night. The writing is extremely strong, and both Timothy Olyphant and Joelle Carter bring their A-game to the moment. They have the easy rapport that can only come from years of familiarity. While the scene they are discussing was filled with sparks and the rush of delayed gratification fulfilled,but here they share a serene weariness, and the looks they exchange are the wisdom of time—not the recklessness of youth.
Age and time loom large over the episode and, I suspect, will loom over the season as it wears on. I don’t think we will see very much of Art this season, but Nick Searcy makes his small appearance count. Raylan and Art’s reunion in the pilot was nothing if not friendly, but on a revisit there is actually quite a lot of talk from Art that shows his concern about having Raylan as a Marshal in his office. You could already see the beginnings of the ways that their relationship could deteriorate. That said, their bond bent but never broke, and it is typical to see Art trying one more time to pass on fatherly advice to Raylan. My only fear is that his speech here regarding inevitable showdowns will turn out to be as prophetic as his concerns from the pilot episode. As Art says, sometimes things just don’t go your way.
Which brings us to Dewey Crowe. Dewey just chooses the dumbest possible option, regardless of how many choices he has. Only Dewey could combine a ceramic turtle-dog with a former prostitute and somehow see the hand of fate at work.
Once again, we have flashbacks to the pilot. This time it’s almost a shot-for-shot re-enactment of the first time Raylan and Dewey met. Raylan gives Dewey an order, Dewey mouths off, and Raylan grabs the back of Dewey’s head and rams it into a steering wheel. It’s as entertaining this last time as it was the first. But, it is another echo of the pilot that is more important to Dewey’s storyline and eventual fate. In the pilot, after the bank robbery, Boyd executes a transplant from Oklahoma, who is a recent addition to his band of white supremacists. It’s partly because Boyd doesn’t like him, but mostly it’s because Boyd wonders if Jared might be undercover law enforcement. Boyd uses casual conversation to maneuver himself behind Jared (into the backseat of a truck in that case) before putting a bullet into the back of Jared’s head. Events in last night’s episode are painfully similar. As usual, Boyd’s words and casual demeanor are his most dangerous weapon, and he expertly positions poor Dewey into a vulnerable spot, until once again a bullet to the back of the head ends the conversation.
After Dewey’s umpteenth incarceration at the end of last season, I feared that Damon Herriman’s run on the show had come to an end. His portrayal of Dewey has long been one of the show’s primary, if unexpected, pleasures. Much like Walton Goggins, I doubt that there were plans for the Australian actor to continue beyond the pilot initially, but when you find a match of actor and role that is that compelling, you have to find ways to keep going. Damon Herriman never disappointed and made the most of every line of dialogue he was given and I’m glad the writers gave him one last showcase. Dewey and Boyd’s final conversation comes right on the heels of the Raylan/Ava bridge scene and both show just how good this cast can be. Dewey played an important symbolic part on the show. Inherently neither good nor evil, he simply wanted to matter in the world he was born into. It is bittersweet to see Dewey Crowe exit the Elmoreverse but I fear that he won’t be the last major character that we say goodbye to this season.
There is no question in my mind that the creative team made a number of very intentional callbacks to the pilot episode when they constructed this episode, but that isn’t a trend that I expect to continue. It worked surprisingly well this time, but moving forward I suspect it would be too limiting from a narrative perspective. I think the overall goal was simply to start the process of tying the entire series together, and bringing things full circle. I started out by discussing the ways that a finale can undermine the legacy of a great show, but in this case I think that the better question concerns whether or not a show coming off an uneven season can use a final season to right itself.
We will know for sure in 12 weeks, but we sure are off to a good start.
Some closing thoughts:
-I’ve made mention of the many, many Deadwood reunions that have happened on the show, but the one that I have long desired finally came to fruition last night, and I am absolutely elated about it. Garret Dillahunt has been one of television’s secret weapons for the last decade. He is very much a “that guy” character actor, and has had memorable guest roles in everything from Deadwood (twice!) to Life to Burn Notice (not to mention starring roles in several shows and a long list of film appearances). His first scene with Raylan does not disappoint. I do not think that it is an accident that he seems very much like a hybrid of both Boyd and Raylan. He has the narrow stare, laconic coolness of Raylan, but the effortless diatribes flowing from his mouth are pure Boyd, as is the coiled menace behind the words. It’s a very good sign that in three minutes of screen time we already have a more compelling villain than last year’s entire Crowe clan combined.
And here are some of my favorite lines of the night:
-“Halt, U.S. Marshals.”
-“What does that mean, he was abducted by aliens?”
-“Good things happen to those who wait for stupid.”
Jack McKinney is a professional camera salesman by day and a freelance filmmaker Paste contributor, and amateur prestidigitator by night (and occasionally weekends). You can cyber-stalk him on Twitter.