Well, I don’t know if anyone saw quite that ending coming. At first glance, “The Promise” is one hell of an anticlimax, an episode in which the most exciting stuff happens 20 minutes in and then the rest of the episode slowly unwinds as it moves toward the end credits. After six seasons, not a single main character dies, and you could even make a plausible case that everyone gets a happy ending. I first knew something was up when “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” plays at the halfway point, as the show’s reprise of that song has traditionally marked the end of seasons, generally coming right at the very end of the story, from Raylan proving his friendship to Boyd at the end of the first season’s “Bulletville” to Raylan leaving an anxious Ava at the bridge at the close of last year’s “Restitution.” The use of the song immediately before the confrontation with Boon indicates that we have just about reached the end of Justified as we know it. All that follows, particularly all that comes after the time jump, represents 20 minutes of something else, something that sits outside the storytelling rules the show has spent the last six seasons establishing.
That proves necessary because the first half of “The Promise” takes Raylan Givens’ story to its natural conclusion, and what we get reveals the sometimes vast gap between what’s most satisfying from a character perspective and what’s the most rousing, action-packed ending. The best series finales have an inevitability to them, surprising us with their twists and turns—which, since it’s the last time for everything, can be even crazier than the show’s standard fare—while still making us feel each new development is the only thing that could ever happened, for it all feels right. With Raylan, the character has kept the audience at such a distance for so long that one could plausibly see a bunch of different possible destinations for him, most of which prominently involved him shooting Boyd. That’s what the series premiere appeared to set up all those years ago, with Boyd’s unexpected—and unplanned, a glorious byproduct of Walton Goggins’ magnetic performance—survival suggesting that Raylan had left the job undone, that the show would need to end with him finishing it once and for all.
That’s certainly the point that last week’s “Collateral” brought us to. There was some disagreement in the comments about just how one might characterize Raylan as he appeared set on killing Boyd in cold blood, whether it would still be right to call him a lawman if he took that action. Now, this isn’t about applying reductive labels like “hero,” “villain,” or “antihero.” So let me offer a wholly different reductive way of looking at Raylan. He often does the wrong thing for the right reasons—his rough and reckless treatment of suspects is very much this, and his hand in Nicky Augustine’s death represents this pushed to its absolute breaking point—and the show has suggested that Raylan’s entire marshal career is his doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, starting with his burning desire to piss off his old man. Raylan can on occasion do the right thing for the right reasons, most typically when he’s trying to do right by Art, his other, actually worthwhile father figure.
What sets Raylan apart from the likes of Boyd and Ava—not to mention all the antihero protagonists that populate the rest of this era of prestige television—is that he has never really done the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, but damn did he come close last week, and he comes close again tonight when he kicks that gun over to Boyd. For Raylan, the very concept of a justified killing means that he has no choice; the suspect pulled and he reacted before there was time to think, which also means there’s no point in thinking about it later. The shooting of Tommy Bucks in the opening minutes of the series premiere immediately established the trouble with this setup, because it only works if Raylan’s role is purely reactive, if he does nothing to bring about the kill-or-be-killed scenario in the first place; as Alison observed last season, Raylan might be the first to rush into a burning building, but he’s only there because he set the damn fire in the first place.
That reactiveness that is so essential to the justified shooting has long since seeped into other aspects of Raylan’s character, not to mention the audience’s expectations of him. It has always been the villains who have been the more active movers and shakers of Justified’s plots, and the fact that these are criminals in an Elmore Leonard story—which is to say, as I often have, that they’re all a bunch of greedy idiots, even if some like Avery Markham were mighty smart about being greedy idiots—always meant that, sooner or later, they would maneuver themselves, or perhaps allow themselves to be maneuvered, into a situation where their death would be justified. And, because these villains invariably deserved such fates, it was easy enough for the audience to align in-universe legalities with larger questions surrounding the morality, the rightness of Raylan’s decisions.
Perhaps that’s why we always assumed Raylan and Boyd were headed for one final, deadly showdown: Sooner or later, Boyd would prove that he wasn’t an outlaw, that he was just another Elmore Leonard criminal dumb enough to give Raylan Givens cause to pull on him. But, as “The Promise” reveals, Boyd’s actions were always beside the point. Boyd providing Raylan with justification to shoot wouldn’t tell us anything about Boyd that we don’t already know, and such an action would forever obscure the one thing we really need to know about Raylan. As soon as Boyd makes it clear that he won’t pull first, that he absolutely still poses a threat to Ava but not an immediate one, Raylan must make his choice. Raylan shooting people is so crucial to the appeal—hell, to the joy—of Justified that I wasn’t entirely prepared to be so entirely invested in Raylan deciding to leave his gun in the holster.
And that’s the kind of storytelling decision a series finale should have, one that is simultaneously unexpected and inevitable. After six seasons, Raylan at last transcends the legacies of Harlan County and Arlo Givens. He proves himself to be more than just the sum of his past, and it’s at that moment that Justified ends and something new begins. Or at least it would, if there weren’t always a loose end, one last shard of past waiting to slash the unwary. In this case, that’s Boon, who never feels more like an outsize caricature of every colorful, baroque Justified villain than he does here. It’s no coincidence that this is Raylan’s first shootout that the show does not even attempt to make look cool, instead depicting it in an almost comic long shot, with the bullets whizzing so fast and the two men falling so suddenly that it’s hard to even tell what happened.
Credit to Jonathan Tucker: Boon has been a hugely entertaining character, even if his entire existence is basically one long narrative tangent. But then, that’s rather the point, as his death is a pointless, ignominious affair, much as his boss Markham’s was, and both deaths underline how “The Promise” represents Justified leaving its old self behind. For Raylan to die at this psychopath’s hands would be so horrifically meaningless, and doubly so because the marshal just did the right thing with Boyd. A different show might well have had Raylan meet his fate on that quiet stretch of road, but like I said a few weeks back, Justified has never been shy about playing favorites with its main characters. Frankly, I’m shocked the show had the gumption to kill off Raylan’s hat, even if it did give its life to save its owner’s.
Raylan letting Boyd live is absolutely the right endpoint for the character, but it doesn’t change the fact that Raylan not shooting someone isn’t exactly the most action-packed end for the series. Thus the show pivots in its final 20 minutes, taking the time to give the supporting characters proper sendoffs, with Art, Rachel, and Tim all giving Raylan the goodbyes appropriate to the relationships they have forged with him; in the latter two cases, what goes unsaid matters far more than the words exchanged, while Art at long last can give Raylan the fatherly approval he has earned and pissed away a dozen times over. Crucially, we can hear the continued chatter in the marshals’ office as Raylan steps into the elevator, reminding us that life is already moving on even as our star departs. Justified never had time to give Jacob Pitts and Erica Tazel the screen time that their performances deserved—the show came much closer with Nick Searcy, but he too consistently outshone the often excellent material Art was given—but this last season has been particularly good about reminding us that these characters are all people with existences that extend beyond Raylan’s immediate line of sight, even if we rarely see it.
The time jump reveals a Raylan who has finally made good on his vows to leave the past behind him. He’s not perfect: Whatever last attempt Raylan and Winona made at reconciling didn’t quite work out, and he remains a stubborn, ornery sort. But the anger is gone, as Raylan himself points out, and the simple fact that Winona apparently believes Raylan will indeed pick their daughter up at the appointed time and place speaks volumes about how much he has changed. He’s still recognizably Raylan, but this is no longer a Raylan whose journey demands to be witnessed. We can feel confident saying his adventures are over—at least, the adventures that speak directly to the core of who he is—albeit with one last loose end to tie up.
The reveal of Ava’s escape to California and of her and Boyd’s son could be a little hokey; I mean, little Zachariah is basically wearing the Boyd Crowder boy’s collection, and the kid’s existence is an awfully pat way to justify Raylan bending the rules one last time and letting Ava be. But I’d say it works, in part because this is precisely the moment in the story where the show shouldn’t stretch to surprise us. This is the time to underline the core themes of this season—most crucially that drive to leave the past behind, even in the face of a daily, pint-sized reminder that that’s never really possible. We always carry the past with us. Sometimes that isn’t even a bad thing, for all the anguish and regret.
After all, Raylan does feel compelled to visit Boyd in prison, to tell him personally that Ava has died. Yes, it’s a lie, and the overriding reason Raylan is there in person is so that he can feel some confidence that Boyd hasn’t somehow sniffed out the truth about Ava. And yes, Boyd has gone back to his preaching, a move that even Raylan feels compelled to point out is awfully repetitive. And yes, Boyd’s pronouncement that it just isn’t possible to escape Harlan—a line Walton Goggins delivers with the perfectly ambiguous balance between solemn and smug—is directly contradicted by what both Ava and Raylan have accomplished in the intervening years; it’s one last bit of self-delusion dressed up as a sage assessment of the universe. Boyd and Raylan definitely aren’t friends, and it would be a mistake to think they somehow are underneath all the sniping and subterfuge. Yet, in that final scene and perhaps all along, they are far more friends than they ever were enemies. In the end, neither is really a good description of what they are to each other.
They dug coal together. That’s right.
- “The Promise” leaves its fair share of loose ends: We get no final scene with Vasquez after all his huffing and puffing, Loretta just disappears from the story after checking that Raylan is okay, and Wynn Duffy’s fate is left ambiguous, save for the rumor that he’s off surfing somewhere in Fiji. This all feels intentional, particularly in how the show deals with Loretta: Her story remains intertwined with Harlan, and Harlan’s story is no longer Raylan’s. Also, I can’t really imagine a more perfect sendoff for Wynn Duffy, even if it’s a bit of a shame that his last appearance is a wordless cameo.
- Let’s all agree on this right now: If Winona’s new beau had been played by Ian McShane, that would have been the greatest, funniest thing ever. Ah well. Maybe in the next life.
- That just about does it for me. If you haven’t had a chance, do check out Noel Murray’s fantastic For Our Consideration on what Justified has meant, and I’d recommend taking a look at some of the other appreciations that have popped up over the internet; I particularly enjoyed Adam Epstein’s piece at The Atlantic. Both of those pieces point out that Justified never quite got its rightful due alongside the heavyweights of modern prestige television, and I think Noel is absolutely right when he suggests that to some extent was a byproduct of Elmore Leonard’s no-nonsense, straightforward approach to storytelling. But no matter: That just means more Wynn Duffy and Dewey Crowe for those of us in the know. So then, I’ll sign off by saying thanks to you all for sharing the journey with me for the past two years, and thanks to Noel and Scott Tobias for their terrific reviews of the preceding seasons, all of which set one hell of a high standard to live up to. It feels almost too appropriate to say it’s been a blast.