Something like a consensus seems to have developed among fans of the excellent “Justified” (FX) that the show’s 5th season, which ended on Tuesday, has been the show’s best since the sainted second. That was the one for which Margo Martindale won her Emmy as hillbilly Queenpin Mags Bennett. We agree, and would add that the blueprint for the 6th and final season offered in the episode’s final minutes was thrilling, promising both the fulfillment of burgeoning fatherly impulses in Raylan, hinted throughout the season, and a cathartic resolution of his contentious lifelong relationship with eloquent sociopath Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins).
(FX is already developing a series that could be a natural successor to “Justified,” an adaptation of Charles Willeford’s Hoke Moseley novels from Scott Frank and Curtis Hanson, to star Paul Giamatti.)
As his hugely entertaining scenes sparring with Goggins have demonstrated from the beginning, Olyphant is at his best when reacting to and deftly out-maneuvering charismatic, brainy adversaries. (His sangfroid reminds us of a great line of director Walter Hill: “In my movies, when somebody pulls a gun, character is how many times you blink.”) Martindale’s virtuoso layered performance as Mags, with its interplay of smother-motherhood and vicious calculation, set the bar impossibly high. Neither knife-sharpening BBQ master Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) nor sharp-dressed Detroit carpetbagger Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough) were as deliciously intimidating.
Season 5 was able to overcome the Not-as-Good-as-Mags-Bennett curse by not placing the entire adversarial burden on a single pair of shoulders, but by parceling out among several excellent actors another close-knit backwoods criminal clan: The Florida-based Crowe clan of white trash meth gangsters, introduced in Season 1 when weasely kid brother Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) had a close encounter with a steering column.
The repellent qualities of Michael Rapaport’s sullen, bullying older brother Daryl Crowe Jr., all blunt force without a trace of finesse or empathy, even for his own kin, were counteracted to some extent by the raw-nerve conflicted emotionalism of Alicia Witt’s soulful Wendy, the Crowe family’s in-house attorney, navigating a different version of the mother/crook contradiction.
Parental and family issues were everywhere this season, as they were built into the premise of the series. Raylan fled from his hometown of Harlan and ensnaring relationships with his evil father and reprobate old friends, including Boyd, in the earlier stories Elmore Leonard wrote about him. He was forced to return to Kentucky in “Fire in the Hole,” the short story that became the basis of the series. So there would be a nice symmetry if this classic Golden Age entertainment were to end, next year, with Raylan’s return home — if not to the old homestead, then to the new home that now seems to be his for the asking.