Justified: “The Promise”

(Episode 6.13)

TV Reviews
Justified: “The Promise”

This is a review. Thus, it is likely to contain spoilers. If you haven’t, as yet, found yourself at liberty to view this episode then consider yourself apprised of the potential jeopardy and proceed at your peril.

“I don’t care how it gets done as long as it gets done.”—Raylan Givens

A few weeks ago, I warned my editor (the inimitable Shannon Houston) that my final Justified review was liable to be a whopper. I’ve toed up to the 2500 word line before and I feared that my tendency toward wordiness was going to reach new limits when the final review came around (to her credit, she gave me carte blanche).

Now that the time has come, I find myself feeling like there’s little left to say.

Honestly, how do you sum up the quality of an entire series in a few scattered paragraphs? And let’s be honest, that is what we’re talking about here. Neither this nor any of the other web recaps and reviews will be solely concerned with what happened in “The Promise.” We’re here to pass judgment on the series entire and in my opinion, if they stuck the landing, then there just isn’t much else to say.

For me, they put a perfect cap on the series.

And I’m going to talk about it a little anyway.

It is going to be difficult for a while to figure out exactly where Justified belongs in the television history hall of fame, though I can’t imagine many people arguing over its inclusion. It will be hard to canonize for many of the same reasons that relatively few awards came the show’s way: there isn’t anything else like it. I pity the poor people who are embroiled in the current debate over whether Orange Is The New Black is a comedy or a drama. Imagine trying to put this show into a category. As soon as the Emmys add a “quirky western deconstruction drama with comedic elements” category, Justified is going to clean up.

Where the show will get its due is when people start realizing how complete it is. I don’t mean complete in that it ended, or that it ticked off all the boxes on the network’s checklist of “Qualities that a great show should have.” I mean that the whole run of the show had a purpose. In the end, there truly was a narrative thread that tied the entire series together. I think if you go back and look at the series finales that are acclaimed and those that are considered flops, the most glaring delineation will be whether the ending makes sense not only as an end to the final season, but also as an end to every episode that came before it, going all the way back to the pilot. More succinctly, does the ending justify the beginning?

In this case, it very, very much does.

Over the next few days, fans of the show will spend a lot of time debating the virtues of who lived and who died, summing up the value of the finale by tallying body counts. For me, survival is less important than character. The individual plot points are less important than my believing in each character’s reaction to those plot points. In other words, did the writer’s sacrifice the characters they built in order to shoehorn in a preset ending? Not even a little.

Looking back, it seems strange to think that it could have ended any other way.

We started with our big three and we ended with our big three, so one last time, let’s take them one at time. Since they aren’t around to do rock, paper, scissors, we’ll just go alphabetically and start with Ava.

Poor Ava. There is so much tragedy to go around, but she bore the brunt of it. It is a terrible thing to be so doomed that the only choice you have left is what form that doom takes and each form is more terrible than the last. I particularly liked that Markham referred back to his first meeting with Ava and recalled his warning to her about the types of women that can survive in the criminal world. Even as he complimented her violent accomplishments, there was an undeniable tone of condescension. But, while attempting to be one of those powerful men who would use a woman as a pawn, Markham made his final deadly mistake by underestimating Ava. She may not be the kind of person that, fueled by deep personal pain and driven by ambition, can make the terrible choices that are required to stay ahead in the violent world of heroes and outlaws. But, she is the kind of woman who can inspire violent men to come and help her. It is a lesson that was Markham’s last.

As a quick aside, Sam Elliott was consistently phenomenal as Avery Markham and never more so than during his final, unhinged hours. His agitation manifested itself as it grew, and his shaggy hair and wide eyes only added to the sense of menace. I can’t say that he surpassed Mags Bennett as my favorite Justified villain, but he is easily the most frightening. Give me a choice of all the show’s baddies and ask me to choose which I would least like to be locked in a room with, and there’s really no question. I would even take Mr. “I like to keep someone tied to a bed for me to beat when I’m stressed” Quarles over Markham. Maybe it’s the smell of brimstone that puts me off.

It is fitting that Boyd and Raylan’s final story arcs paralleled each other so closely. By the time both of them arrived at the Bennett’s old drying shed, they were both certain that they had come there to kill someone. They both turned out to be wrong. In easily the most subversive moment on a show historically known to subvert audience expectations, the final Boyd versus Raylan gun duel never happened. Why? Because Boyd finally saw himself through someone else’s eyes. Moments earlier we got one last look at Boyd Crowder, the outlaw in all of his power and fury but the hardest hit came moments later when Ava admitted that the only reason she shot Boyd was because she did what she imagined he would have done in her situation (more on her “situation” in a minute). Couple that with the realization that if Boyd hadn’t decided to put one through Markham’s eye, the chamber wouldn’t have been empty when he tried to shoot Ava. Both metaphorically and emotionally, he would have been killing himself. Raylan couldn’t have a duel with Boyd the outlaw, because Boyd the outlaw simply didn’t exist anymore.

An equally substantial transformation was beginning to take place across the room. It was the final step in a journey that began in the first scene of the first episode when Raylan sat down across from Tommy Bucks and forced a gunfight. That moment opened a crack somewhere deep in Raylan’s psyche and violence has been pouring through the rift ever since.

But he isn’t a murderer.

I almost chuckled a little at the petulant absurdity of Raylan’s demand that Boyd raise his gun. I think killing Boyd had been a foregone conclusion in Raylan’s mind for so long that it took until the very last moment for him to see how unnecessary it had become.

I imagine all of that was on Raylan’s mind minutes later when Boon appeared in the rear view mirror. It was a scene of splendid efficiency; both men pleased to finally have a worthy opponent who will just shut up and draw down. Credit to director Adam Arkin, for it cannot have been easy to decide how to shoot this crucial scene, and they absolutely nailed it. No drawn out quick cuts between close-ups. No edits at all for the most part. Just one perfectly executed two-shot in profile. I don’t know how many takes it took to sell the speed of the men and the exact timing, but it was worth it. And the small burst of blood that came off of Raylan turned my stomach as I, for a few moments, thought the creative team might have actually decided to choose the unpopular path and let Raylan die.

Instead, in pure Justified fashion, they figured out a way to have it both ways.

Raylan the cowboy died right there on the pavement with a horrified Loretta looking on (kudos to Kaitlyn Dever; despite having no lines in the scene, her dual expressions when stopping Boon’s gunhand and then running to Raylan spoke volumes). It’s no accident that the bullet destroyed his hat. It certainly wasn’t an accident that “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” usually reserved for playing over the closing scenes of each season, was instead played leading up to this scene. It wasn’t the end of the show, but it was the end for the Raylan we’ve known since the pilot. The man that stood up was a new man with a new future. A man that could relax in Miami with his daughter on a sunny day. A man who can accept that he and Winona aren’t meant for each other, and who can be happy when she finds love with someone else (unless the someone else calls his daughter a ‘punk’). A man who can forget all the terrible pains of his upbringing, while remembering the kind of friendship that can only be forged by young men working side by side in the darkness of a coal mine.

So if you ask me, all the prognosticators were correct. Every single one of the big three died in the finale. And then all of them were reborn; each with a new lease on life in their own way.

The urge to try and somehow capture in words the grand scale of what Graham Yost and his amazing team of writers, directors, cast, and crew have done here is intensely strong, but it would take more words than even I can summon. The legacy of the show will be the unusually tight tapestry that they were able to knot perfectly with this final season. I will give a single example.

Once the audience has the knowledge that Ava was pregnant, it completely alters our perception of everything that has happened since Ava and Boyd’s trip to Bulletville. It explains why Ava suddenly stopped (for the most part) drowning her sorrows in alcohol. It explains her sudden impulse to run at any cost. Basically, it changes everything. That idea—that if you tie as many elements of your story together as possible so that everything builds reciprocally inward—is the true nature of the show.

With its deep interest in families, Justified is a generational show for the generations. When viewers rewatch episodes years from now, I suspect that they will be shocked and delighted when they discover the myriad ways that the show built upon, doubled back on, reinvented, reflected, and re-imagined itself, all while staying true to a common tone and through-line. To their credit, they also never attempted to brush things under the bed. If a particular episode or storyline didn’t quite work the way they hoped? No matter. It was still a brick that you could pile another better brick on later. And they did it right down to the final moments. Consider the closing scenes. Raylan’s arrival at Ava’s door is pretty obvious, right down to the sly dialogue. But, lest we forget, Raylan’s initial meeting with Boyd in the pilot also involved Boyd as a religious leader.

While the show has never been interested in making overt comment on social issues, there’s no question that there undertones about regionalism, poverty, and issues of race. In the end, its boldest statement is also its last: regardless of intelligence, appearance, and ambition, can you ever truly escape the confines of the place that you were born?

I said earlier that the mark of a truly great series finale is for the audience to look back and wonder how they ever thought that it could end differently. Was there ever really any other acceptable ending than one last Raylan/Boyd conversation? Except that it isn’t “one last” I don’t think. I suspect Boyd will have many more unannounced visitations over the course of his long incarceration, but it won’t be his nemesis coming to visit, it will be an old friend. Raylan, of course, won’t be visiting some criminal he put in jail once upon a time. He’ll be visiting a man he once dug coal with; a peaceful, pleasant man who bears a striking resemblance to a once notorious criminal. Eventually, it will just seem like a story they heard when they were younger.

There are echoes of echoes ringing through the hollers of Harlan County.

Stray Observations:

No Wynn Duffy except in a quick flashback? Ah well, at least I can hold out hope for Wynn, Lose or Draw to be announced on FX’s new slate of shows next season (so long as he gets to keep the dog grooming van and slogan).

Multiple, I repeat, MULTIPLE jokes at Nelson Dunlop’s expense in the finale. I’m just saying.

Nice touch having Raylan sit back and shut up in the police car when he sees a little of himself in the young officer who is taking him in.

I love that they got one more reference to The Friends of Eddie Coyle in. For the uninitiated, it’s a book-turned-film about a low level criminal’s unsuccessful attempt to quit the life and go straight. I swear, it says so right on the cover.

So good to finally see Art push past his exasperation, and just give Raylan the choice to either be the man that Raylan imagines himself to be, or to be the man that Art and the other Marshals know that he is.

I wondered how long it would take Graham Yost to bring over great Boomtown alum, Jason Gedrick. Great to see him in a quick cameo.

It works symbolically, but I have to say that I don’t think Boon’s hat works any better on Raylan than it did on Boon.

I don’t know which bromance moment made the room get dustier, Tim and Raylan’s farewell or Raylan and Boyd’s reunion.

So….the only thing I got right in ANY of my predictions was that someone had a child and they named it after a dead relative. Fantastic.

The week’s best dialogue:

“There, you dumb Sonofabitch!”

“The doctor said you might be sensitive to light and sound.”

“For a bona fide stoner, you awful quick.”

“Goddamn, Raylan. Your timing sucks!”
“So I’ve been told.”

“There I was, in the middle of the Mexican desert…”

“We dug coal together.”
“That’s right.”

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.

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