There’s something to be said – in fiction and in real life – about the people just trying to get by. Many fictional characters, and many of us as well, may have once had grand plans, but then the obstacles of life get in the way, and they’re left treading water. There’s nothing wrong with treading water in itself; sometimes it can be very noble. But when it comes to television, it’s not necessarily an easy thing to portray in an interesting way. It can make a character or a show seem directionless and repetitive, even if it’s that way by design (a problem that Mad Men had to navigate around last season) or, even worse, it can make everything feel like filler.
The fifth (and penultimate!) season of Justified suffered from all of the above, but it wasn’t without its high points. There were times – such as when Art confronted Raylan midseason – when it seemed as if everything was going to fall into place this season. It just wasn’t to be. Not quite. The fifth season was always meant to bridge the gap between the epic pursuit of Drew Thompson and Raylan’s and Boyd’s inevitable final showdown. However, season five lacked the depth that the show has had in the past. It at once had too much going on and not enough things going on that mattered. Although season four was very busy, it was also highly entertaining, thematically rich and purposeful. Raylan’s orchestrating of the execution of an enemy and neatly cutting off the threat to his family, coupled with Boyd’s and Ava’s machinations catching up with them, put all of our primary characters in new places with ostensibly new things to do but, unfortunately, nowhere to really go.
In the first half of the season, Raylan began to feel the weight of his betrayal. His escalating clash with Art was the most compelling subplot of the season. It also made for some of Timothy Olyphant’s best and most subtle acting; however, after that, Raylan didn’t have a whole lot to do. There were actually times when he, rather than Boyd, felt like the secondary lead of the show. He had an ill-fated relationship with a social worker played by Amy Smart, he caught a few bad guys – including, hilariously, one with only one leg – in a couple of stand alone adventures, and he dealt with yet another dysfunctional family of crime. But a lot of the time he was just in the background, being vaguely uncertain about the direction of his life.
At the end of season four, the fiery Ava Crowder went to prison, where she remained for the duration of season five. It was interesting to see Ava deal with adapting to a strange and harsh environment – at first. After a while though, it became a drain on the show. We have been watching Ava Crowder for five seasons, and we are well aware who she is by now; her subplot of trying to run the prison drug trade, all the while dodging dangerous neo-Nazis, didn’t teach us anything all that enlightening, and was only intermittently interesting. In the finale, when Raylan pulled strings to get her released so he could exploit her connection with Boyd to get to him, it confirmed that Ava’s adventures in prison were literally filler.
When Ava originally went to prison, it put Boyd in a scary and enticing state. A man as ruthless and cunning as Boyd Crowder has always been dangerous – something that the marshals finally realized at the end of the season – but a man like that with revenge on his mind is a whole different story – or so we thought, at least. In the early going, Boyd seemed to be systematically wiping out everyone that had anything to do with a) Ava’s precarious position or b) his plans of becoming a top player in the heroin trade. And it was as thrilling as it sounds, but over time, he became bogged down in plot complications. There was the ever-lingering business with Lee Paxton, his gold-digging wife and Deputy Sherriff Mooney. There was trying to get Ava out of prison. There was dealing with those irksome and meddling Crowes. And there was all of the convoluted maneuverings and consequences of the heroin trade with Mr. Yoon and the cartel. It was a lot to jam into one season, and as it turned out, too much to twist into a compelling and coherent shape. Boyd ended up spending the majority of the back end of the season surviving by the skin of his teeth.
And then there were the Crowes. The Crowes were brought in to be the main antagonists of the season just as the Bennetts were in season two, and as Robert Quarles and Limehouse were in season three. (Season four was more about an overarching mystery than it was an imminent faceoff with a “big bad”.) However, they just weren’t as strong of characters as their predecessors were, and it was fairly evident early on. The unavoidable pitfall of a show that uses this structure, like Justified or (I think) Dexter, is that if the featured bad guy doesn’t live up to expectations then it takes the season down a notch, even if everything else works well. Personally, I didn’t hate Daryl Crowe Jr. (or Michael Rappaport’s portrayal of him) and the gang as much as some people. The less said about Danny is probably for the better, but his schtick did have a tremendous payoff when he finally met his demise. But they weren’t the most original characters to enter the world of Justified. After seeing Raylan tangle with both the Crowders and the Bennetts, the Crowes’ twisted family drama was just a little too familiar.
They had each had their own merits, though. Boyd’s and Raylan’s interactions with Daryl Crowe Jr. were always tense or humorous when they needed to be. Kendal’s slowly developing connection with Raylan ended up having its own payoff in the end. Wendy’s competing desires for independence and her devotion to family had its moments, too. The main problem was they just weren’t interesting enough to demand as much screen time as they received. The same goes for their hapless cousin, Dewey Crowe. After sitting out the entirety of season four, Dewey returned and became kind of, sort of, a central character this season. Poor Dewey wanted to be a man, to a show his overbearing family that he was capable of accomplishing something on his own. But he was undone by exactly what you would expect to do him in: his stupidity. From time to time, his bumbling misadventures and tendency to get verbally dominated and outsmarted by both Boyd and Raylan – “Third person? What, this guy?” – made for some hilarious television, but like the rest of the Crowes, it didn’t justify his inclusion to the story to the extent that it did.
Season five was, among other things, the most violent season of Justified. In the early going of the show, Justified was a show known for its dazzling gunplay and its witty one-liners. After a couple seasons, though, it evolved into something more serious, captivating and thought provoking. It dealt with complex themes and its primary antagonist proved himself to be just as fascinating as its protagonist. It dealt with consequences of bloodlines, duty and morality. There were plenty of run-of-the-mill, villain-of-week bad guys, but when characters of relevance met violent ends, it meant something. This season, the death toll skyrocketed and the level of violence ratcheted up significantly, but it was rarely impactful or felt as earned as it had in the past. By season’s end, so many characters had been wiped out that it was hard to keep track. Although it felt as if they were meant to shock, in reality, it had the opposite effect. It says a lot when the most emotional death of the season was a henchman who only had a few lines per episode. Same goes for the most outwardly significant – the result of a dud of a final confrontation between Boyd and his cousin Johnny that had been built up for three seasons. The most memorable death was explosive, but only in a literal sense.
The final season will hopefully eschew “shocking violence” in favor of reckoning or redemption, or — of course — moral ambiguity.
All of the lauded television series of the Golden Age have been about morality, and have in some way involved the consequences of immoral or, at best, morally questionable decisions. The degree and scope of the impact of these transgressions vary based on the series, but a consistent theme throughout has been the human cost. It’s not an accident that these shows have both decided to utilize this idea so prominently and – in many cases – have done it so effectively. A natural advantage that long form television has over other mediums of storytelling is the ability to effectively portray the decay of relationships over time. On a broader note, you could say that it has the enhanced ability to show general change over time but, due to the darkly serious tone of this particular era of television, change is seldom for the better. Experienced television watchers have become accustomed to seeing families fall apart, friends become foes, and partners turn on each other. It’s often been riveting and enlightening, but not too sunny.
However, with that being said, it’s not always that cut and dried. Because of the omnipresent way in which we look over a television series, we sometimes overlook or misconstrue the relationships characters have with each other. We evaluate and appreciate each character based on their individual charms and character traits. In the process, we can forget their strained histories and their actual allegiances. When we’re away from the shows, we might think of Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder, or Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, or Don Draper and Roger Sterling as simply different colors in the same harmonious crayon box. But when you actually watch, they’re not as cozy as you’d like to think. Just because Don and Roger are drinking buddies in season one of Mad Men doesn’t mean they’ll be able to stand the sight of each other in season seven. Just because Walter is something of a cross between a teacher and a surrogate dad (albeit a pretty awful one) to Jesse in the early seasons of Breaking Bad doesn’t mean they’re going to be particularly close in the last season. And just because Raylan and Boyd light up the room every time they share the same screen doesn’t mean they like one another. The two best scenes of this messy and overly complicated season of Justified zeroed in on this idea in a painfully effective way.
As previously mentioned, Raylan and Art didn’t exactly see eye to eye this season. On one hand, Raylan felt unbelievably guilty for letting Art down, but on another, he couldn’t stand the man for treating him differently than the rest of the marshals. Art, though, felt nothing but resentment for Raylan (almost) all season long. He was fed up with everything Raylan had put him through over the years before he even knew what really went down with Nicky Augustine. Once he zeroes in on that truth, Raylan finally admits it. The viewers don’t get to see the whole conversation because it’s not necessary to understand the situation. Instead, we get to see Raylan meet Art alone in a bar. We see the anger and frustration and betrayal on Art’s face when he walks in, and know it’s not going to be a pleasant scene. “Art,” Raylan says as if there’s something he could do to explain. And then he gets clocked in the face. Art’s face twists into a scowl of pain as he shakes off his hand, and he walks away. Art has Raylan’s best interest in mind throughout their series, but they are not friends. It’s a moment that stings, but it’s one the show earns.
Near the end of the twelfth (penultimate!) episode, Boyd and Raylan have a similarly intense moment. As Raylan threatens Boyd with a file compiled of all of Boyd’s accumulated transgressions, Boyd fires back by spouting his knowledge of Raylan’s involvement in the Nicky Augustine execution – in front of Raylan’s fellow marshals, no less. Both men’s faces are burning with hatred, and we’re reminded of two things. We are reminded that, even though Raylan has teamed up with Boyd time and again to take down greater evils, too much has gone down between the two for them to still be good ole coal diggin’ buddies. While they’ve never exactly been friends and occasionally been enemies, more times than not, they’ve been somewhere in between. Not anymore.
Secondly, we are reminded of just how fantastic it is when Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins interact. This season offered very few of those occasions, and intentionally so, it seems. Graham Yost and Co. were saving that card and stacking the deck for the final season. The season finale reshuffled enough things to set up some interesting premises – Raylan sticking around in Kentucky to catch Boyd before he rides off to the Floridian sunset to be with his family, Ava’s newfound relevance to the plot as Raylan’s key to Boyd, and Boyd robbing banks for Wynn Duffy and Katherine Hale (played with a gentle menace by the delightful Mary Steenburgen), chief among them. But it’s that one venomous exchange between Raylan and Boyd that above all else suggests that Justified will be back at the top of its game for its final season. Raylan and Boyd finally have a place to go: at each other.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.