When it comes to the finales of long-running series, my sense is that avoiding watercooler status tends to work out in a show’s favor. This is something I’ve been thinking about in the lead-up to a Mad Men finale that is practically guaranteed to leave a decent chunk of that show’s audience some degree of unsatisfied. That’s just the way it goes these days: expectations are high and the chatter is loud. But for a show like Justified—which has been an acclaimed show and a popular show, just never a particularly buzzy show, at least not compared to its contemporaries—there’s much more hope that a finale will be able to stick the landing, simply because it has fewer masters. There were no unanswered questions that had to be dealt with in last night’s “The Promise,” no mystery boxes to be opened.
I don’t even think there was that much pressure for Justified to stage a bloody climax, since the lead-up to the finale had done such an efficient job disposing of characters who’d served their purpose. By the time Avery Markham met his end at the hands of Boyd Crowder and Boon was bested by Raylan in a pair of showdowns that were just this side of too-symmetrical, the decks had been cleared. The whole season had been building to a three-way dance among Raylan, Boyd, and Ava, and the finale made sure we didn’t waste a lot of time getting to that.
Raylan and Boyd face off twice in the episode; once at the mid-point, as Boyd essentially dares Raylan to shoot him dead (which Raylan does not, in fact, do). The decision to shoot a man was what landed Raylan in Lexington at the beginning of the series, so of course it made sense that Raylan would be faced with that decision again.* There were never any question marks as to why Raylan would spend six seasons in such dogged pursuit of Boyd. To Raylan, Boyd has always been the ghost of the road not taken, the Harlan he escaped, the him who ended up like his daddy.
“The Promise” didn’t need to reveal anything in that regard, it just underlined it, both in the showdown in the barn—and in the closing minutes, when an incarcerated Boyd reiterates the refrain “we dug coal together.” That was always the reason Raylan gave for why he was best equipped to hunt Boyd down. He knew Boyd’s mind and motives and tendencies better than his Lexington colleagues because he and Boyd dug coal together. It’s what bonded them and set them at odds. It’s why we got six seasons of this story of brothers from the holler. Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins do some fantastic work in that last scene, with their faces communicating all sorts of complexities. Raylan’s guilt and pride and relief at getting out of Harlan; Boyd’s guilt and pride and nostalgia about what he did when he stayed. Justice in this case is imperfect but symmetrical. Raylan wins; Boyd loses; Ava goes free.
Oh, right: Ava. For as much as the love-story/hate-story between Raylan and Boyd was the driving force for the majority of the Justified audience, I’ve been in this for Ava Crowder since about the second season. Something about Ava having to find a way to avoid becoming the collateral damage, the way everyone else around Boyd and Raylan did, always made her tasks seem trickier, and more impressive when she succeeded.
Sure, it hasn’t always been easy for me and Ava. Season 5 all but drove me away from the series after leaving Ava’s wheels spinning in a repetitive prison plot. But around this final season’s mid-point, the bigger picture became clear, and my faith was renewed that the people behind the scenes were as invested in seeing Ava’s story told to completion as I was. She ended things okay. Ava’s character development must have been a tough act to balance from a writing perspective. She had to be tough enough to believably survive the Boyd/Raylan crossfire for all these years, but also ill-suited enough to a life of crime that she would not want to follow Boyd down the rabbit hole of his life. It was hard to get Ava to a place in the finale where she’s free—in part because she was a Boyd-style opportunist and stole Raylan’s car while he was nearly dead on the road. Or as free as she could be while hoping like hell Boyd never finds out she’s alive with his son. Nothing too clean.
In not having to serve the watercooler’s expectations, Justified was playing simply to its fans. Loretta got a nice capper of a moment when she stepped on Boon’s hand to keep him from finishing Raylan off. Our last glimpse of Art sees him behind his old desk. Wynn Duffy got one last scheme in, even if it was only Raylan imagining how he might have helped Ava cross state lines. Four years into the future, Winona and Raylan are friendly … but not together. Their daughter really likes ice cream. And Raylan’s hat gave its life in service of a greater good.
Correction, April 15, 2015: This article originally stated that Raylan's decision to shoot a man who had not drawn on him was what landed him in Lexington at the beginning of the series. The man he shot pulled a gun on him first.