Judging a TV series by its finale is like judging a meal by the dessert course. The right finish can send you out into the night with a song in your heart or leave you with a sour taste in your mouth, but still: It’s the meal that matters.
I don’t know if you could call “Justified’s” “The Promise” one of the show’s best episodes, but as a series finale, it was just about perfect. Showrunner Graham Yost and co. gave us satisfying but not pat ends to the major characters’ stories while avoiding widespread expectations of a bloodbath — expectations that, Yost admitted afterwards, he purposefully did nothing to discourage. Full of simple but resonant moments and plentiful callbacks to the show’s rich history, it gave us a sense of finality without slamming the lid shut too tight. Even feeling that “Justfied” was ending at just the right moment, that the precipitous downward slide of its fifth season was checked only by the turn towards an eventual endgame, that glimpse of Raylan Givens in the Florida Marshal’s office made me wish for just a little bit more of his lawman adventures.
“The Promise” swept away the season’s big bad, Sam Elliot’s Avery Markham, without much in the way of ceremony: One human shield and a few well-aimed shots from Boyd Crowder’s gun was all it took to put a hole in his skull. Markham’s henchman Boon stuck around a while longer, but only to provide one last showdown for Raylan, a proxy for the gunfight with Boyd that was not to be. We wanted an iconic guns-at-noon showdown — as did Walton Goggins, who pitched Yost an ending with Boyd going out in a blaze of glory. But what we got was better: A final quiet encounter between Raylan and Boyd through the scarred glass of a prison visiting room, and an acknowledgement of the common bond that bound them more tightly than the rift between lawman and outlaw could undo: “We dug coal together.”
The staging of that final scene evokes not just glass but a mirror, the sense that Raylan and Boyd were warped versions of each other, operating by their own sacred but flexible codes. Raylan always stayed on the right side of the law, but sometimes only by dint of a technicality; Boyd never killed anyone who didn’t have it coming, unless he really wanted to. Like the characters themselves, Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins were at their best when playing off each other; their final talk was bittersweet not just because of what it meant for them, but what it meant for us. I for one would pay good money to hear Rylan and Boyd call ballgames or gab about the weather; anything to hear those two square off one more time.
“The Promise” had its flaws: Time jumps are always awkward, and as good as it always is to see Natalie Zea, the scenes with her and Raylan’s daughter — as well as a quick cameo by Jason Gedrick, who seemed oddly determined not to let the camera get a good look at him — felt a trifle slick and shallow. But since Zea departed the show, Raylan’s most complicated relationships have always been with Boyd and Ava, and Raylan’s farewells to both were nearly perfect.
“The Promise” was a fitting farewell for “Justified” both for what it did and what it didn’t — namely, try too hard. Its last shot wasn’t a landscape suffused with the promise of the American West, but a simple close-up of Raylan Givens’ face, a silent pause and then a cut to black. As Boyd suggested to Raylan, it wasn’t what was said but how they said it: “I know you have never believed a word that has ever come out of my mouth, but I have harbored a secret hope that you never less enjoyed hearing them.” We did. And we dug coal together.
Reviews of “Justified’s” “The Promise”
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
That finale should be considered a high point of the series (along with the masterful second season), because all endings on television are difficult and more so when you’ve got a protagonist/antagonist situation where both characters are, in some way, equally beloved by the audience. Add in Ava, plus the various characters orbiting their lives, and sticking the landing was no easy feat. With “The Promise,” Yost and company managed to give a satisfying end to viewers without pandering (or, if you want to be more critical, without pandering more than usual). In either case, it’s important to remember that series finales are so fraught with peril that judging them is always a difficult task — but this one was a resounding success.
Alasdair Wilkins, A.V. Club
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.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
This is a show that has had plenty of room for tragedy, particularly in the Mags season, but at its core, it was fun. It popped and snapped and crackled like my favorite breakfast cereal, and it so often put a smile on my face as I got to watch a parade of great actors deliver the wonderful dialogue Yost and company had given them. So an ending where things are not so terrible — where Raylan’s out of Kentucky and in his daughter’s life (even if Winona has, wisely, moved on), where Ava is free to raise her son (even if she’s a fugitive), and where Boyd can preach and hustle and joke around with his old pal Raylan Givens, even though he’ll likely never breathe free air again — felt awfully satisfying, and awfully true to the origins of both the show and its main character. And the state in which things were left allowed us for one final piece of banter between our hero and his archenemy, in the same light but sharp fashion that typified so many of their best encounters, and that wouldn’t have been possible under more fatal circumstances. With Ava in the wind and Boyd locked up forever, Raylan can feel free to enjoy this particular game one more time.
James Poniewozik, Time
History, in “Justified’s” Harlan, is a living thing — and it’s an ornery, spiteful bastard, lurking below your feet in a mine you thought was long closed, waiting to pull you back down. At best, it can be a source of pride. (Loretta, maybe my favorite character, makes the pot business into a kind of higher calling by promising to protect Harlan’s patrimony from Markham.) At worst, it goads you to keep soaking the ground with blood to feed it. “Justified’s” strength has been to show without condescension how Harlan’s people — beat-up, exploited, looked down on — have been both victims and enablers of this kind of historical cycle.
James Qually, Los Angeles Times
The quintessential question of “Justified,” the same one posed by various country crooners over the finales of each of the series’ six seasons, was simple: Can you ever leave Harlan alive? “The Promise” does its best to answer that question for Raylan, Boyd and Ava. But this is Harlan, where the questions might be simple but the answers never are. Yes, you can leave it alive. As long as you leave something behind.
Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post
Leonard’s universes are always full of wry amusement and his characters are put through any number of inconveniences and indignities, but he was an ultimately compassionate writer, and that spirit of generosity clearly influenced the ending of “Justified.” Everything turned out more or less all right in the end. Boyd, Ava and Raylan lived, which ties into another one of “Justified’s” themes: It might seem cool to go out in a blaze of glory, but the pursuit of that kind of reflexively angry life is ultimately limiting and self-defeating.
Jeff Jensen, Entertainment Weekly
The last lines suggested that Raylan had come to a new, gracious understanding about himself and Boyd and their history. Boyd pressed Raylan, in a way that was endearlingly sad and needy: Had he only come to tell him about Ava? That’s it? Nothing more? Nothing more from him? I got the sense that Boyd wanted to coax Raylan into confessing something that I’m thinking he had long wanted to hear, and something he needed to hear more than ever, now that the dream of Ava was dead and gone and he was all alone in the world: An admission of kinship, that they meant something to each other, that maybe, even now, they needed each other. Raylan couldn’t let Boyd have his son. But he could give him a brother.
Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture
What are we left with? Moments. Images. Raylan donning a former adversary’s hat in the elevator as he takes one last look at his workplace; Ava’s hesitant singsong delivery as she tells Raylan about all the good things she’s done since leaving Harlan; Boyd’s sadly tilted head as he peers at Raylan through the jailhouse glass, hard light glinting on his Boo Radley forehead as he smiles, crosses his fingers, and says, “Scout’s honor.”
The end might be the best cut to black since the end of “The Sopranos,” though of course the artistic intent could not be more different. We saw what happened, we know what it meant, now it’s all over.
Mike Hale, New York Times
“Justified” wasn’t groundbreaking, but it was deeply satisfying in ways that were probably traceable to the influence of Mr. Leonard, who was an executive producer of the show before his death in 2013. The finale included a subtle but deeply touching tribute to him. Leaving the Lexington field office for the last time, Raylan reached into his desk and pulled out a battered paperback copy of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” by George Higgins — not a Leonard book, but a book Mr. Leonard called the best crime novel ever. Raylan gave it a long look, then tossed it to Tim (Jacob Pitts), the marshal who always had his back. According to the code of “Justified,” it was better than actually saying goodbye.