SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of tonight’s Justified series finale.
After the six-season cat-and-mouse chase between Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and his longtime black hat nemesis Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), FX’s Justified ended not so much with a bang but a nice bow.
The final 17 minutes of the show jumped ahead four years, showing us where the series’ three prime characters reside. Boyd once again is behind bars for a host of crimes including gunning down nefarious real estate businessman Avery Markham (Sam Elliott) in an attempt to save his fiancée Ava (Joelle Carter). Ava fled Harlan County, KY — with or without with Avery’s millions — to Lebec, CA. where she now lives a quiet, crime-free life with her new baby, Boyd’s son.
Meanwhile, Raylan returned to the U.S. Marshal’s Miami office to be with his toddler daughter Willa. On the downside, he didn’t wind up marrying his ex-wife Winona. After Raylan finds Ava in Lebec, she begs him not to tell Boyd about his son. The last thing she needs is the son following in daddy’s footsteps. In the final minutes, Raylan visits Boyd in jail with some bad news: Ava died in a car crash three years earlier.
And then Justified, which has been awash with episodic shootouts, double-crossing characters and bullets through characters’ chests, ended on a poignant note as two fierce enemies — former teenage coal-mining friends — looked each other in the eye and essentially made peace.
If any Justified fan was looking for a shocker, well, they already received it in the March 24 episode “Trust,” when Ava shot Boyd and went on the lam with Avery’s cash. Speaking to Deadline, Justified executive producer Graham Yost explained that ending with a tender moment versus an explosive one stemmed from the writing staff’s homage to crime author Elmore Leonard, whose novella Fire In The Hole served as Justified’s source material. “That’s fine for other TV shows (to end with a big finale), but we’re an Elmore Leonard TV show,” says Yost, indicating that jaw-dropping cliffhangers weren’t Leonard’s style when tying up loose ends.
Yost explains that arriving at the series’ resolution wasn’t unlike the writing staff’s process when approaching any other episode: Several options always were weighed and debated. Before they conceived the four-year jump, it was already settled that Boyd would be hauled off to jail and Raylan would relocate to Miami. “We did discuss whether Raylan would kill Boyd, but then we realized that there wouldn’t be any growth for Raylan. We looked at each other and said, ‘They’re gonna live — will that work work for us?’ That’s probably what Elmore would do,’ ” says Yost, referring to the staff’s mantra. Following the author’s death in 2013, Yost in honor of Leonard made wristbands for the whole crew that read WWED (“What Would Elmore Do?”).
One ending Yost pondered was inspired by Leonard’s unpublished final novel Blue Dreams, which takes place in California and revolves around “rodeo riding and marijuana,” says Yost. In the book, Raylan makes an appearance when he is sent out to Imperial County on assignment. “We kicked around ending with Raylan facing down the bad guys with a shootout in the California desert.”
Some finale suggestions came from outside the writers room. Per Yost, Goggins thought it was a great idea for us to see Boyd preaching again in prison. When Raylan meets up with Ava in California, originally he was to arrive and immediately see her son. Olyphant suggested the idea that the son is revealed toward the end of the scene.
While Boyd is the one to finally off this season’s baddie Avery Markham – a gangster who strong-arms Harlan County’s citizens for their land so that he can grow a legal pot empire — Raylan’s ultimate showdown is with Markham’s motor-mouthed lackey, Boon. The wiseguy is hardly a match for Raylan, begging the question why Raylan didn’t ultimately face off with Markham? Yost explains: “One of the Western tropes is that the middle-age gunfighter comes against his younger self. Boon is a quick draw, and on the satisfaction index it wouldn’t be as cool if Raylan went up against Markham.” Not to mention, the older gunslinger typically wins in such a standoff.
Interestingly enough, Leonard pushed against Justified being classified as a Western. “He never saw it as that rather crime fiction,” says Yost. However the EP says the writers room “wasn’t trying to avoid the genre,especially with Justified’s signature shootouts. Having recently caught the Oscar-winning 1992 film Unforgiven on TV, the EP says, “Just like (screenwriter) David Peoples and (director) Clint Eastwood used the mythology and clichés in that Western, we tried to do a similar thing on our show.”
While feature filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh and Barry Sonnenfeld have reaped critical praise in adapting Leonard’s absurdist crime novels to the big screen, TV hasn’t always been a friendly medium for the author. One of the more notable Leonard TV adaptations that didn’t click was ABC’s 10-episode 2003 series Karen Sisco, based on the character played by Jennifer Lopez in Soderbergh’s 1998 film Out Of Sight. On the positive side, per Yost, many of the people who made Justified a success also were behind that series given their adoration for Leonard: FX Network President John Landgraf was a producer and a writer on Karen Sisco, Michael Dinner directed on both shows, and Justified EP Sarah Timberman developed it during her tenure as Universal TV’s programming president.
“The problem with Karen Sisco was that it was trying to be an Elmore Leonard TV network show with a push for it be more procedural,” says Yost.
In regards to doing Leonard on a weekly basis, FX was the prime place. Says Yost, “FX allowed us to spend a lot of time with the bad guys; three- to four-minute dialogues, which is Elmore’s style.”
Season 1 of Justified was based largely from Fire In The Hole. As an EP on the show, Leonard felt compelled to write another Raylan Givens book, so he wrote Raylan about the marshal going up against the dope-dealing Crowe brothers, Dickie and Coover. As was Leonard’s way, he instructed the writers room to “hang it up and strip it for parts,” says Yost. Leonard understood the creative process thoroughly, particularly in Hollywood. Hence, he was never one to lord over the writing. “He didn’t give us notes because he didn’t like getting notes as a writer,” says Yost.
When it came to going to the Leonard literary well this season, Yost says the writers specifically drew inspiration for one scene from one of the author’s non-Raylan Givens novels, The Moonshine War, which takes place during Prohibition in coal-country Kentucky. There’s an exchange in Episode 10 between Raylan and Boon where the latter pokes fun at a hipster waiter, assessing his character simply based on his hat. It’s signature Leonard, exemplifying the author’s penchant for absurdist philosophical banter between tough guys.
“This fella who wears this lid on his head. I betcha he can’t tell a mare from a stallion,” says Boon.
“Anybody ever tell you that you should talk less?” snaps Raylan.
In regards to life beyond Justified, Yost remains mum about his plans. He’s the EP on The Americans, a show which he says “seems to be doing fine without me, however, I would love to hang with them in the writers room and get a free trip to New York.”
Last year, it was announced Yost would executive produce an adaptation of Alex Kershaw’s nonfiction tome Avenue Of Spies for WGN, about Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II. Andrea Berloff is writing the script. The project remains at WGN without any production start date or cast attachments.
With most of the Justified dramatis personae still alive, the elephant in the room becomes at what point they’ll be a miniseries a la last year’s 24: Live Another Day. Yost says he wasn’t pressured by FX to keep ‘em alive for a future miniseries. “That’s not what drove keeping (Raylan, Boyd and Ava) alive. A miniseries is a happy possibility that will depend on the story, the availability of the cast, and the big demand for these characters. You need all these things in alignment.”