2015 has seen many beloved long-running shows coming to an end. We bade farewell to “Parks & Recreation” in February, and in a few weeks “Mad Men,” one of the seminal shows of the so-called golden age of TV drama, will be wrapping up as well. But tonight sees the series finale of a show that, while not necessarily matching the column inches of some of its contemporaries, has over the past five years proven to be just as compelling, thrilling and surprising as anything else out there: FX’s “Justified.”
Created by “Speed” writer Graham Yost and based on a character created by Elmore Leonard in his novels “Pronto,” “Riding The Rap” and specifically on the novella “Fire In The Hole,” the show revolves around Raylan Givens, an old-school, gun-slinging Deputy U.S. Marshal whose uncompromising methods see him reassigned from Miami to his home of Harlan County, Kentucky, where he’s forced to cross paths with his career criminal father (Raymond Barry), his old mining buddy Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), and countless other colorful criminal types.
The show has always been well-reviewed and well-rated but never quite built up the huge following that, say, “Breaking Bad” did among the cognoscenti. Was it the relatively light way with which it approached the twisty crime shenanigans that held it back? The backwoods Kentucky setting? The terrible theme tune?
Even while acknowledging that I’m a colossal Elmore Leonard fan, and that Yost and company captured the writer’s voice as well as any adaptation ever has (besides perhaps “Out Of Sight” and “Jackie Brown”), it seems baffling that the show isn’t widely considered to be among the greatest efforts of this cable-drama golden age. Aside from one “Friday Nights Lights”-style off-season, it’s been remarkably consistent from first to last, with a through-line of tone and character that few can match.
It’s provided a showcase for its regular cast (with Goggins the particular and obvious standout), but has also become a home for America’s finest character actors, whether for a single episode or a recurring role and has created a world in Harlan County as dense, detailed and packed with colorful characters as Game of Thrones‘ Westeros. It’s one of the most quotable and subtly funniest shows on television, intricately plotted without ever becoming overly convoluted and mixing thrilling action with rich character work, and has always been beautifully made.
Though the lightness of touch with which it approaches its stories might suggest otherwise (I’d call it a strength), it’s not just simple entertainment, though it is relentlessly entertaining. Like the best crime and Western narratives (“Justified” is both), it uses genre to talk about larger subject matter, be it family, justice, or the increasingly troubled American heartland.
After a final season that could eventually become to be seen as the show’s finest, “Justified” wraps up its run tonight, and to mark the occasion, we’ve picked out ten of the best hours of television it’s produced since debuting in 2010. If you’re a fan, you’ll undoubtedly have your own favorites, but if you’re a newcomer to the show, this should provide the perfect starting point when you catch up. Take a look below, but be warned: **spoilers ahead**
Season 1, Episode 1 – “Fire In The Hole”
Most shows develop slowly into their full potential, with a pilot or a first season that’s much less strong than what would come later, and it’s a relative rarity to see one that comes tearing out of the gate fully-formed. “Justified”’s first season isn’t its strongest, with a slightly uneven first few episodes that are more procedural and case-of-the-week than the series would become. But few would deny that its pilot episode wasn’t something truly superior, one of the best first outings in the present age of TV drama, and one setting the tone for so much of what would to follow (expect it to be a key touchstone for tonight’s finale). As the title suggests, it’s a reasonably close adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novella on which it’s based, seeing Raylan, after killing a mob enforcer (’90s movie villain stalwart Peter Greene, of “Pulp Fiction” and “The Mask”) in Miami, returning to his home of Harlan where he comes face-to-face with his old pal Boyd Crowder, now a drug-dealing white supremacist leader out for revenge on Ava (Joelle Carter), who’s just killed her abusive husband, Boyd’s brother. The show captures Leonard’s voice from the start, beautifully setting up Raylan and the world of the series, but it’s an episode perhaps most notable for its antagonist. Famously, Walton Goggins’ Boyd was meant to be only a guest star: he’s killed by Raylan at the end of the novella and was initially set to share the same fate in the pilot. But the show’s creators soon realized what they had in the firecracker charisma of “The Shield” veteran Goggins, and gave him a reprieve: he’s become the co-protagonist and heart of the series, redeeeming and then un-redeeming his wily creation, and it’s unthinkable to imagine the show without him.
Season 1, Episode 10 – “The Hammer”
For hardcore Leonard fans like myself, one of the great pleasures of “Justified” isn’t just seeing writers capture his voice so perfectly and come up with so many new characters that could have come from him. It’s also the occasional cameos from characters who may have had their names have been changed but are clearly based on seminal figures from other Leonard texts. One Season 3 episode sees Carla Gugino crop up as a Miami marshall who is in all but name “Out Of Sight”’s Karen Sisco (a character Gugino played in a short-lived ABC show a decade earlier), and late Season 1 highlight “The Hammer” introduces character actor great Stephen Root as the title character, a tough, eccentric and womanizing judge with more than a few parallels to the central figure in Leonard’s “Maximum Bob.” Facing a threat to his life, the Hammer enlists Raylan as security deal as he feels a kinship with him as a pair of gunslingers, and it’s a nice way to explore the show’s hero, as he’s faced with an uncomfortable comparison with the loathsome justice, which causes him to question his own values. Root’s decadent performance is one of the highlights of a first season that relied more on case-of-the-week elements, but the quality of this episode in particular is heightened by the way that the writers thread in more effectively than before the more serialized elements, bringing Boyd, now converted to Christianity but hardly redeemed, back into the foreground and starting to amp up the season’s overarching story of the fathers of the two principal character. With sharp, legitimately funny dialogue that could have been lifted from Leonard’s work directly (the opening scene is one of the series’ best lead-ins) and impeccable direction from “The Last Seduction”’s John Dahl, who was behind many of the top-flight episodes, the show really finds its groove here.
Season 2, Episode 9 – “Brother’s Keeper
If there were any suspicions that “Justified” had peaked with its first season, they were dispelled almost immediately with the debut of the second, with the introduction of new antagonists the Bennett clan, a ruthless clan of weed-slingers led by the quietly fearsome Mags (a rightly Emmy-winning Margo Martindale), along with her three less competent sons (Jeremy Davies, who also bagged an Emmy, Brad William Henke and Joseph Lyle Taylor). Seemingly inspired equally by recent crime flicks “Winter’s Bone” and “Animal Kingdom” (there’s a direct line from Jacki Weaver’s character in the latter and Martindale here), Mags is introduced showing a harshness beneath her cuddly exterior as she poisons a local man with her home-made moonshine, but her grand scheme is finally unveiled, and the season really moves into high-gear with the ninth episode, “Brother’s Keeper.” Revolving around a huge party thrown by the Bennett clan, we soon discover that Mags’ opposition to a property grab from a coal-mining company isn’t down to her love for the area, but as a way of driving up the price of the land she owns herself and needs to build into an access road. The moment of revelation of the depth of her plotting is staggering, but Mags is also an unusually sympathetic or at least entirely complex villain, and the episode’s emotional punch comes at the end, as her not-so-gentle-giant kin Coover (Henke) is gunned down by Raylan in an attempt to protect the young Loretta (the great Kaitlyn Dever), the daughter of the man Mags killed in her introduction. It’s a move that reignites the Bennett-Givens feud, less because of Coover’s death, and more because Raylan’s now separating Mags from the surrogate daughter she hoped would provide a fresh start. Martindale is astonishing in the closing moments, a peak for the show’s entire run.
Season 2, Episode 13 – “Bloody Harlan”
It’s not surprising the current and final season of “Justified” has been such a triumph: the show has always been good at finales, slowly entangling plotlines and building tension before a rush of momentum and steady stream of blood and bodies in the closing stages. I didn’t want to pick more than one finale in this list, and the obvious pick was the Season 2 climax, a bloody, desperately tense wrap-up of the show’s greatest run. After the explosive conclusion of Season 1, it was expected that the showrunners would go big again, but this is subtler stuff, beginning with a “Godfather”-aping opening as Boyd and Mags meet for a subtext-laden sitdown in a church just as their cohorts make a move on each other. There’s plenty of violence here: Johnny Crowder blows his house up, Ava takes a bullet in the chest, and Raylan is strung up like a pinata by the vengeful Dickie Bennett, only for Boyd to come to his rescue. But it’s ultimately an hour of quiet recrimination, driven by Loretta, the prodigious future criminal who’s become one of the show’s most distinctive creations and who comes to Mags seeking vengeance for the death of her father. Raylan stops her from taking blood herself, but Mags, her plans in ruins and two of her three sons dead (and the third heading to prison), takes her own life in the only way she could, with a slug of her toxic ‘Apple Pie’ moonshine. It’s an appropriately poignant and dignified exit for the show’s best villain, and all the more effective for coming slowly and meticulously at the end of an otherwise breathlessly paced episode, and one that indicates that whatever he might plan, Raylan will have a hell of a job getting out of Harlan.
Season 3, Episode 5 – “Thick As Mud”
With the Bennetts gone (though Jeremy Davies’ Dickie continues to make winning occasional cameos, mostly from a prison cell), fans went into Season 3 expecting something of a step-down: could Raylan possibly find an adversary as memorable as Mags? Cue a huge sigh of relief once Season 3 arrived. It wasn’t as perfectly plotted as its predecessor, but it came damn close, and in Neal McDonough’s seemingly slick, secretly unstable carpetbagger Robert Quarles (along with the welcome, uneasy presence of Mykelti Williamson’s Limehouse) found another terrific bad guy to anchor the show. It was another great run of episodes, but the season’s highlight is probably its most atypical: “Thick As Mud,” which focused on one of the show’s breakout comic characters Dewey Crowe (played by Australian actor Damon Herriman). Initially one of Boyd’s neo-Nazi followers, Dewey was undoubtedly the dumbest criminal in a show that uses that archetype regularly, but proved strangely lovable for it, and received his greatest showcase here in an episode where he’s busted out of jail by a sinister prison nurse who tells him that he’s taken his kidneys and he’s got to rustle up $20,000 to return them. That his kidneys are still in place hasn’t even occurred to our idiot anti-hero (“you mean I had four kidneys!?” he hilariously exclaims when he realizes that he’s still able to pee), and he goes on a crime spree that’s increasingly frustrated by an inability to find cash in a word where everyone pays on plastic. A gloriously funny caper that still manages to move the overarching plot forward (Quarles and Boyd have their first chilly meeting), it might not be the show’s most powerful hour, but was definitely one of the most entertaining.
Season 4, Episode 2 – “Where’s Waldo?”
As good as Season 3 was, the replacement of Mags with Quarles threatened to see the show slipping into formula, with a new Big Bad every season. But just as it started to seem predictable, Season 4 mixed everything up, building its most densely serialized run up to that point around not a key villain (though Mike O’Malley’s Nicky Augustine, a representative of the Detroit mob, turned up late in the game and filled that gap nicely), but around a mystery. That mystery was the identity of ‘Drew Thompson,’ a man who plummeted from the sky surrounded by bags of cocaine in 1983. It’s a secret that in the season opener causes Raylan’s father Arlo (Raymond Barry) to kill a man, but the mystery really gains speed in the top-flight episode that follows, “Where’s Waldo,” which doesn’t have the bells and whistles of some of the other eps on this list but is a near-flawless example of the show at its peak. It sees Raylan looking into a man named Waldo Truth, whose ID he found stashed in the wall at his father’s house, and his visit, along with boss Art (Nick Searcy), to the libertarians-on-benefits Truth family is one of the comic highlights of the show —at least until Art realizes that Waldo must have been the dead parachutist and that Drew Thompson is still alive. Even better is Boyd’s confrontation with a firmly original new threat, a snake-handling preacher (“Jurassic Park” child-actor Joseph Mazzello) who might be the real deal or might be a grifter. All of that, plus a prime display from one of the show’s most beloved and enduring characters, perma-tanned cockroach consigliere-for-hire Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) adds up to one of the show’s most unexpectedly satisfying hours.
Season 4, Episode 8 – “Outlaw”
If there’s a flaw to season 4, it’s that it drags its heels a bit in the early going, even by the gradually-tension-building standards of the show. But at the mid-point, it really swings into action, and “Outlaw” works up to a frenzy with a number of characters heading to the cemetery, including one that might have a greater emotional impact than any other death on the series (at least until tonight). At this point, the net is tightening on Drew Thompson, though he remained undiscovered even if there’s a scene that comes very close to giving the game away. Boyd’s agreed to find the missing man for the Detroit mob (who are pissed that Thompson shot their leader in the eye several decades back) in exchange for a Dairy Queen franchise, but in a classic Boyd move uses their hitman, who’s disguised as a deputy and has “killed more people than malaria” to settle some of his own scores. Meanwhile, Raylan makes offers to both his old pops and former Sheriff Hunter Mosley (Brent Sexton) to give up Thompson, which leads only to a jail-yard fight that leaves Papa Givens dying. His last words to his son? “Kiss my ass.” The show had evolved early beyond a star vehicle for Timothy Olyphant, in part thanks to his generosity as an executive producer, and Raylan could sometimes slip into the background, making it easy to underestimate his performances. But given that he starred in “Deadwood,” Olyphant found his trademark role on “Justified,” his mix of laconic, sly humor and asshole-ish qualities making him never less than a total pleasure to watch. Here, though, he gets his best material, both on form in a confrontation with Boyd and the Detroit mob killer, and off form with his facade slipping as he weeps after his father’s declared dead.
Season 4 , Episode 11 – “Decoy”
I wouldn’t necessarily call the fourth season of “Justified” its strongest, but it provided a number of classic episodes displaying the variety it was capable of as a series. Its inarguable highlight was “Decoy,” during which the fuse burnt all the way down and the powder keg assembled across the ten episodes finally blew into an hour that rivalled any blockbuster that year for thrills. By this point, Drew Thompson had been exposed and the fundamentally decent ex-cop Shelby Parlow (the always-welcome Jim Beaver) had become sheriff of Harlan thanks to the machinations of Boyd. He’s in the custody of Raylan and company, who are attempting to get him to Lexington so he can testify, but Boyd, Nicky Augustine and their men are determined to stop him from getting out of town. With a hat-wearing gunslinging hero fond of quick-draw confrontations, “Justified” was always playing in the Western sandbox to some degree even if it wasn’t the most traditional setting for the genre, but never more so than with this episode, which feels like something of a homage to Leonard’s “3:10 To Yuma,” and it’s exactly as gripping as you’d expect, a full on siege picture with a fascinating array of moving pieces (including the excellent Ron Eldard as one of the season’s best additions, and Boyd’s heroin-addicted ex-military-policeman pal Colt, a deeply sad and beautifully played character. Desperate, bullet-soaked and entirely clever, it also provides a terrific showcase for Patton Oswalt and his recurring character Constable Bob, a mostly incompetent but deeply honorable figure who hero-worships Raylan. A fat-free thriller that we could have watched for hours, and one of the show’s very best.
Season 6, Episode 7 – “The Hunt”
Almost everyone agrees that the fifth season of “Justified” is a letdown. It is watchable enough (the basic DNA of the series hadn’t gone anywhere), but by focusing on the rest of the Crowes, a family of Florida-dwelling rednecks led by a miscast Michael Rappaport, it felt like stepping back and going over old ground, a sub-par, slackly plotted retread of the Bennett clan that suggested that the show might have become creatively exhausted. So it’s been an enormous pleasure to see that the sixth and final season has been so extraordinary, weaving in old strands while introducing a host of new characters as memorable as the show’s ever come up with, played by great character actors that “Justified” couldn’t possibly wrap up without having featured, like Mary Steenburgen, Jeff Fahey, Garrett Dillahunt, Shea Whigham and a horrifyingly-mustache-less Sam Elliott. The last half of the season has been essentially flawless, and that likely began with “The Hunt,” a slow-burning instant classic that confirmed the series’ return to form. Directed once again by John Dahl, it focuses on the central relationships of the show, with Boyd and Ava’s increasingly rocky and mistrustful union (she’s informing on him to Raylan in an attempt to stay out of prison) boiling over, with Boyd now increasingly sure of her betrayal, contrasted with a reunion between Raylan and ex-wife/mother of his child Winona (Natalie Zea) that’s rather sweet, but shows the challenges that our hero might have ahead as a father. For a series that can be dizzying in its scope, this episode feels almost like a piece of theater, made up of two-handed conversations with only Walker (the excellent Dillahunt)’s flight through the wilderness like a wounded animal opening it up. And yet it’s as gripping than one of the more action-packed installments of the show, leading to one of the most stomach-lurching cliffhangers in the series’ history.
Season 6, Episode 9 – “Burned”
Of course, the quiet, self-contained nature of “The Hunt” couldn’t continue forever, and just two episodes later, “Burned” stepped up the endgame for the season and series by shuffling the deck, throwing out a few cards and introducing a welcome note of hope for Harlan, even as things started to look bleak for some of the show’s characters. Just when a sort of status quo appears to have been set, “Burned” shakes it up again, giving Avery Markham (Elliott, as perfect a fit as you might imagine for a show as a long-absent, totally ruthless weed kingpin) seeingly a moment of triumph at a party, and dispatching (through Mary Steenburgen’s femme fatale widow) the last of his henchman, even as Boyd finally attempts to rob him, a mine-shaft heist that’s disrupted by an attempt by Ava’s uncle Zachariah (Jeff Fahey, also superb) to kill him and free his kin of his influence. The latter is an almost impossibly tense sequence, one of the best set pieces the show has done, and though Boyd makes it out alive, it’s becoming increasingly clear that his time in Harlan and on Earth isn’t going to be much longer. But as ever, the show crams in so much more, with the revelation that Wynn Duffy, as ever prepared to do whatever he can to survive, has turned snitch, a move that’s both completely unexpected and entirely predictable. And yet the episode’s most satisfying element comes thanks to Kaitlyn Dever’s Loretta. Virtually unknown when she joined the show, Dever’s become a hot property in the intervening years, thanks to excellent performances in things like “Short Term 12.” She returned in a big way for the last season, one of the most welcome moves the showrunners could have made, and she’s anointed as the heir apparent to Harlan here, a smarter, wiser, less ego-driven and, well, less psychotic contender who seems to be outplaying both Boyd and Avery in the grab for the legal weed business. Assuming she ends tonight’s hour on top, there’s actually some hope for Harlan County.
Honorable Mentions: Season 5 aside, there’s almost no such thing as a bad “Justified” episode, and the show has enough very-good-to-great ones that we could have made this piece much longer than it already is. But to briefly mention a few other great ones, there’s Season 1’s “Long In The Tooth,” starring Alan Ruck as a mob accountant hiding out as a dentist, and the explosive, corpse-strewn finale “Bulletville,” a deeply satisfying wrap-up.
Season 2 got off to a terrific start with “The Moonshine War,” which introduced the Bennetts, while the fifth episode, “Cottonmouth,” involving another Boyd mine heist and Raylan’s discovery of the death of Loretta’s father, was also excellent. Though the mid-season arc involving Winona’s theft of evidence money was a bit of a wrong-turn, “Save My Love” was an incredibly tense hour, not least because of the return of Stephen Root’s judge. The penultimate episode “Reckoning,” featuring the death of Raylan’s stepmother, was also powerfully emotional.
Season 3’s “Harlan Roulette,” with an excellent one-off performance from Pruitt Taylor Vince, is a very strong stand-alone story that also moved the macro-arc forward nicely, as was Season 8’s “Watching The Detective,” with a nice return for a slimy FBI agent played by Stephen Tobolowsky. The season really picked up steam in its closing stages, and the political machinations of “Loose Ends,” the desperation of Neal McDonough’s Quarles in “Guy Walks Into A Bar,” and the excellent finale “Slaughterhouse” all deserve consideration.
Season 4’s opener “Hole In The Wall,” the very clever and gripping “Kin,” and finale “Ghosts” are all worthy of praise, while Season 5’s “Shot All To Hell,” focused in part on the Detroit mafia and an enforcer played against type by Alan Tudyk, was one of the few shining lights of that run. Virtually every episode of Season 6 has been stellar, especially in the second half, but special mention must go to “The Trash And The Snake,” “Dark As A Dungeon, “”Trust,” and last week’s “Collateral,” Let’s hope that tonight’s finale proves worthy of inclusion here as well. Did we miss your favorite? Let us know in the comments.