Last night, Justified closed out a satisfying, if perhaps a little overcrowded, season with several bangs and one sad whimper. As is usually the case with a Justified finale, most of the season's plot threads were tied up, with a main villain vanquished, but one major note of uncertainty hung in the air. I'm never quite sure if this show is a comic drama or a dramatic comedy, but I suppose that semantic distinction doesn't really matter much.
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This season mainly had Raylan trying to track down a long-disappeared drug runner and murder witness named Drew Thompson, a manhunt that brought the attention of Raylan's main frenemy Boyd Crowder, as well as lieutenants of a Detroit mob family, looking to off the guy because of that years-old murder. Thompson was found a couple episodes ago, so last night's episode mainly dealt with the fallout. The main mob guy, Nicky Augustine (a terrifically slimy Mike O'Malley, of all people), wanted Raylan to take his guys to Thompson so they could take care of him, and was willing to threaten Raylan's estranged wife (ex-wife I guess?) and unborn daughter to ensure Raylan's cooperation. That was one of last night's tensest scenes, though as ever it was sprinkled with bits of cool Elmore Leonardian humor, with Raylan discussing movies with the guys before putting them all down. Timothy Olyphant sells these moments so well that I only rarely roll my eyes at how teflon Raylan seems to be. Guy always gets out of a jam with a quick joke and a quicker draw. It's a little silly, this seeming invincibility, but again Olyphant is charming and clever enough to make it work. This is Elmore Leonard land, after all, where the cool guys almost always make it out alive in the end.
Raylan then had to decide to do about this sinister capo, though was sternly warned by his superior (Nick Searcy, whom I love despite his adamant Hermann Cain fandom) that he needed to back off lest he lose his job for good. So, Raylan being Raylan, he deftly orchestrated a plan in which he'd give Nicky the chance to turn himself in, but if he didn't? Well, his enemies from Detroit, specifically the wimpy boss's son whom Nicky planned to kill upon his return home, were waiting nearby to take him out. That way Raylan didn't have to use any extra-judicial force of any kind; he simply turned and walked the other way as Nicky's car was shot to pieces. It was a clever way to resolve the matter, a passive maneuver that kept Raylan just barely in the clear. The writers are always so good at pulling things together like this, tying tidy little bows that feel as if they've been expertly planned from the beginning, even though the realities of series television writing probably mean that's not exactly the case.
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Elsewhere in Harlan, Ava Crowder had to move a body. She decided not to kill potential squealer Ellen May last week, so was left with only the body removal option. Only the police got there first, so there had to be a harebrained body switcheroo scheme that ultimately blew up in her face. The episode ended with Ava being carted off to jail for murder, while a howling Boyd vowed to get her out as soon as he could. Is this it for the wonderful Joelle Carter? I highly doubt it, Ava is too good a character. But if it is? What a terrific run she's had. What initially seemed like a second-fiddle, soon-to-be-disposed-of part — Natalie Zea was the front-and-center woman in the beginning — has blossomed into a truly knotty, morally complex dream role. I suspect the writers decided to keep her around partly because Carter does such a fine job. I doubt they'd let her go for next season, but if they do, she should be proud of the work she's done. And of course she and Walton Goggins do particularly excellent stuff together; Ava and Boyd are a match made in holler hell. I love that this show can sneak up on you with some serious, genuine emotion like a did last night, taking a break from all the arch, twangy banter to show you the real human core of these people. Maybe it really is a drama with some comedy in it.
Whatever it is, Justified remains one of the most finely written shows on television — sharp, surprising, and incredibly thorough in its world-making. The cast of characters has become sprawling in its four seasons, but rarely are any of them forgotten. People come in and out when needed in a way that feels entirely organic, just like it is in real life. They've assembled a strong team of actors to fill those roles, from Jere Burns as oily Wynn Duffy to Mykelti Williamson as backwoods boss Ellstin Limehouse. Those guys and others popped up a bit this season, and the show was richer for it. While last night's finale didn't have exactly the crackle of, say, the excellent season two finale, it delivered on many levels. As a thriller, as a drama, as a show about a specific place. Though, as is the mark of a truly good show, nothing was as exciting last night as the prospect of another season.