Two men sit across from each other, glass separating them, talking on telephones – one a lawman and one a long sought-after criminal. The lawman, Raylan, has just informed the criminal, Boyd, that a woman that they once both loved died in a car accident. This is a lie and Raylan tells it to protect this woman, Ava, knowing that if Boyd ever gets out of prison, he’ll go after her because she double-crossed him – to murder her, or to reunite with her, we don’t know for sure. Likely the former but probably the latter. And then we get the words that end Justified, a very good if inconsistent show about, among other things, two men pitted against each other since, seemingly, time began or at least before they were born. We get some fine words for us to ponder as the show goes off into the sunset. Not the shoot-out between Raylan and Boyd that so many wanted and that the show had been teasing. No, instead, we get these words. Two men talking.
Boyd: Can I ask you one question, before you go?
Raylan: As long as you understand if it annoys me I’m just gonna hang up.
Boyd: Scouts honor. [This] penitentiary is a long way from Miami, Raylan. You coulda called the warden, you coulda sent word through my lawyer.
Raylan: You asking why I came? I thought it was news that should be delivered in person.
Boyd: That the only reason? After all these long years, Raylan Givens, that’s the only reason.
Raylan: Well, I suppose if I allow myself to be sentimental, despite all that has occurred, there is one thing that I wander back to.
Boyd: We dug coal together.
Raylan: That’s right.
Before we move on to talk about the finale and the series as a whole, let’s sit here for a minute with these words, because they deserve to be sat upon. Boyd has been in prison for a while before these words get said. He was given the chance to have shoot-out with Raylan (Raylan gives him the gun and practically begs Boyd – stoically, without many words, of course – to pick it up and pull the trigger) but Boyd declines. So, instead of Raylan shooting Boyd unarmed, he sends him off to prison. These words, the ones above, aren’t really about why Raylan came to see Boyd in prison to tell him about Ava, because we know that is a lie. The words above are about what these two men have been doing for so long, this life-long game of cat-and-mouse, that they have been playing with each other. Because if there weren’t men like Boyd in the world there wouldn’t need to be men like Raylan. Or, more precisely, Raylan and Boyd need each other to exist in this universe, there couldn’t be one without the other. It’s only fitting then that Boyd – always the more verbose of the two – gets to be the one to solve the mystery of why Raylan is who he is. Boyd gets to say it out loud. They did a job together. That’s enough.
In the end Raylan gets his man, in a way that moves him forward – we learn more about Raylan in this exchange with Boyd than we have in many years watching the show. Raylan was never going to shoot Boyd, in cold blood or otherwise – this, now, seems fated so. Because Raylan and Boyd were always two sides of the same coin – angry men, with similar pasts who went in different directions. But they were connected. By a job, the one that Raylan cites, by their criminal fathers who also worked together, but also by a place, Harlan County, where they grew up together and then diverged.
The final episode, “The Promise”, goes out of its way to be circular, not only in the way it frames Raylan and Boyd. There are many lines and plot points in this episode that harken back to the first episode and various others along the way. Raylan is back in Miami, working on the force there and Winona (his ex-wife and the mother of his daughter) is with another man. Winona calls Raylan the most stubborn man she’s ever known and Raylan says, “at least I’m not angry”. This recalls a line from the first episode where Winona says that Raylan is the angriest man she’s ever known. Boyd is in jail but he’s gone back to preaching and Raylan notes, “you’re repeating yourself”. Ava is living in California and now has a son. On the surface that doesn’t seem all that circular but when we finally see the kid he’s dressed just like a pint-sized Boyd, with his little grey shirt buttoned all the way to the top like his dad would do (which, my god Ava, that poor child. For a woman trying to hide her connection to her convict former lover you think she’d go out of her way to avoid his peculiar fashion trends). I was surprised the show didn’t give him the receding hairline and electroshock hair that his dad had too. We get it, he’s Boyd’s kid but, hey, if you are going to go, go all the way Justified.
But not all is circular – Raylan and Ava have left Harlan County – Ava, it seems could not go back even if she wanted to, as she’s on the run from the law and presumably (at least before Raylan’s lie) Boyd’s men. Boyd professes after he hears the news about Ava’s death that he always thought there would be no getting out of Harlan County alive for any of them, but then corrects himself by noting that, of course, Raylan did.
Justified never again reached the lofty heights that it did in its incredible second season but the final one came close. Season 2 had the amazing story of Mags Bennett and her sons at its core and I would contend that whenever the main opposing force of the season was a Harlan County native the show was at its most entertaining. The inner workings and politics of Harlan were always more fascinating than when an outsider would come to town to muck stuff up. The final season gave us Avery Markham (Sam Elliot) and Katherine Hale (Mary Steenburgen) and Ty Walker (Garret Dillahunt) and Choo-Choo (Duke Davis Roberts), all fine adversaries for Raylan but none that were his match. We get the continuing story of Wynn Duffy, too, but he seems like an afterthought at this point. And then, late in the season, we get Boon (played with genuine glee and sinister eye-twinkles by Jonathan Tucker) and things, for a moment, gain momentum. It’s not so much because of who Boon is, a henchman for Markham hired because he’ll do whatever Markham asks, but because of what Boon represents: a cowboy/outlaw poseur from Colorado, desperate to play cops and robbers. Boon is very good at his role and the energy he brings is fun especially because all of the other baddies are so settled in to what they must do that it sometimes borders on ponderous. Boon is, at the end of the day, a kid putting on an act and a hat, a psychotic, egomaniacal, murdering kid, but a kid nonetheless.
And so we do get our shoot-out, not between the two men we thought we’d see standing across from each other with guns in their hands, but between Raylan and Boon. Boon gets his wish to play cowboy and Raylan loses his beloved Stetson. And that’s it. Boon’s dead and Raylan walks on. And wanders back to Boyd.
Justified has always been a show about going back home, to a place where you find a certain amount of comfort but also an uneasiness about the past. A place where you might right wrongs, fix things and leave once and for all. What we know of Harlan County is this: there have always been bad guys out there, doing bad things. It’s in Harlan’s soil, it’s in Harlan’s mines, it’s hidden in shacks on mountains. And there have been always been good guys out there, too. They look and sound and do things a lot like the bad ones. That’s the Ballad of Raylan and Boyd. That the show ended in words, these specific words, and not gunfire, with one or both of its central figures dead, was exhilarating, it was electric. As electric as it always was whenever we were lucky enough to watch a scene between these two men. Justified didn’t exactly end as it began but it was sure-footed enough to end where it was always the most alive. Two men talking.