Season 4 of JUSTIFIED may or may not have been its best so far–Margo Martindale’s Mags Bennett still towers over Season 2–but it was unquestionably the most thrillingly novelistic, true to the show’s original source in the writing of Elmore Leonard. The series, created and run by Graham Yost (who’s also been supervising The Americans this season), is only loosely based on characters from a short story of Leonard’s, and the author has since done some writing for and around the show, but this season felt like an original Leonard novel of its own, and that’s high praise.
There are series, these days, that go deeper and have more ambitions than Justified, but none that are more skillfully constructed. Tonight’s season finale, written by Executive Producer Fred Golan and Producer Benjamin Cavell, and directed by Bill Johnson, provided a hugely satisfying example. Take the set-up: Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) goes to the house where Winona (Natalie Zea), the expectant mother of his unborn daughter, lives, and finds that she’s been taken hostage at gunpoint by three minions of Detroit gangster Nicky Augustine (Mike O’Malley, brilliant in a role that couldn’t be more different from his heartfelt dad on Glee). If Raylan wants mother and baby to live, he has to lead the gunman to Drew Thompson, the long-hidden drug dealer and killer taken into custody last week. For any other crime show on the air, that would have been the entire episode–Raylan accompanying the bad guys to the safe house, trying to figure out an angle to stop them, with repeated cutting to Winona as she worried and watched the clock, all of it leading to a climactic confrontation. On Justified, it was all over before the opening credits were done, Raylan and Winona both blowing the villains away. (But not until there’d been a perfect little reference to the classic crime movie The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a seminal influence on TV shows like The Wire and movies like The Town.) There was just too much else to do. The storyline of Justified is constantly in motion, and all of the action is superbly rooted in character. Another example: a brief, wordless appearance by the dead preacher’s sister Carrie St Cyr (Lindsay Pulsipher) late in the finale that perfectly brought together threads of story and character quietly, carefully constructed all season long.
Building slowly from a premise that initially seemed too colorful for this show–a dead drug smuggler dropped from an airplane decades ago turns out to have switched his identity, passports hidden behind a house’s walls–the season accumulated detail and emotional weight, taking on such heavy subjects as the death of Raylan’s reprobate father Arlo (Raymond J. Barry, who will be missed) and the consequences of killings committed years earlier. This season, perhaps partly because Natalie Zea was only occasionally available due to her regular role on The Following, Justified belonged just as much to Raylan’s counterpart Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) as to Raylan himself. Boyd yearns for criminal power but also for respectability, and his love for common-law wife Ava (Joelle Carter) is pure like nothing else in his life–making the finale’s conclusion all the more devastating, as Raylan saved Winona’s life (but she won’t live with him), while Boyd lost Ava to prison and a murder charge that had been hanging over the action since last season. All of this was fleshed out in a beautifully written scene between Raylan and Boyd, as each wondered how the other could lay his head on his respective pillow at night and consider himself a good guy.
Even with all the explosive action that erupts throughout a season of Justified, the show is most memorable for its characters and their set-piece dialogues, which may be comparable only to Quentin Tarantino’s in contemporary pop culture (Tarantino, of course, is another Elmore Leonard devotee) except Justified‘s scenes are more concise. This episode alone, aside from the Raylan/Boyd sequence, had marvelous scenes for Nicky Augustine with one of his henchmen, and then another between him and Raylan, moments that illuminated the characters, raised the stakes, all without slowing the show’s hurtling pace. Earlier in the season, there were meaty arcs for, among many others, Boyd’s uncontrollable henchman Colt (Ron Eldard), the woebegone former hooker and unlikely survivor Ellen May (Abby Miller), and of course Sheriff Shelby Parlow (Jim Beaver), who turned out to be at the heart of the season’s mystery. The show’s casting and performances are also superb across the board, with pride of place naturally going to Olyphant and Goggins, two actors who put every big-screen action star of this era to shame.
Justified doesn’t always get it quite right–this season, it’s fair to say that Constable Bob (Patton Oswalt), although he had a redeeming final episode, was a bit too cartoonish before that; a story arc early on about Raylan’s bartender girlfriend really being a grifter didn’t seem worth the time that was spent on it; and the writers always seem to strain to find things for Raylan’s cohorts at the Marshal’s office to do–but it’s mostly a model of precision and high style. The series, which has ratings that are solid enough if not at breakout hit status, has already been renewed for a fifth season, and it remains a pure pleasure to watch.