Justified: Live and let die in Harlan

Timothy Olyphant as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. (c) Photos by  James Minchin/FX.

Timothy Olyphant as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. (c) Photos by James Minchin/FX.

There’s a promo clip for Justified in which someone, with gun drawn, is approaching a man sitting at a bar, who’s wearing a familiar tan hat. When the wearer turns to face the barrel, we see it is not lawman Raylan Givens, but outlaw Boyd Crowder. And the gunman is Raylan.

After an exchange of headwear, the two face each other in a standoff that gives us some confidence the producers of Justified will get this sixth and final season, which debuts Tuesday on FX, right.

The Kentucky-set series has always been about two men who grew up in similar circumstances and turned out remarkably different. Or did they?

Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder.

Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder.

From the very first scene of the series’ first episode, where Raylan comes to enforce a get-out-of-town order against a thug and kills him in a highly questionable shooting, we have understood Raylan to be an exceedingly confident Sinatra of law enforcement. He feels he’s justified doing it his way, which is pretty much how Boyd has gone about building his criminal enterprise.

And that’s what we need from this final season of Justified: an exploration of who these two men really are.

That’s what the show has always been about, even through seasons where other villains took center stage like Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough) in Season 3 or Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale, in the series’ only Emmy-winning performance, to date) in Season 2.

But in recent seasons, the series has been, as I saw one critic put it, “treading water.”

Last season’s bad guy, Darryl Crowe, Jr. (Michael Rapaport), was a pretty sorry excuse for a villain — the writers, not Rapaport’s fault — and then the show’s creators had to scramble to re-create the storyline after an actor — Edi Gathegi, who played Jean Baptiste — decided to bail.

But there was a subtext running through Season 5: Boyd solidifying his position as the criminal kingpin of Harlan, finishing off interlopers from the North and South and local pretenders, to set up a Season 6 showdown. In the season finale, Rachel (Erica Tazel), standing in for an ailing Art (Nick Searcy), zeroed in on the persistent thorn in their side: Boyd Crowder, usually just enough out of sight to avoid prosecution, but pulling the strings.

And who’s in the middle of them: obviously Ava (Joelle Carter). You have to go way back in the series to remember this, but at one time, she was in Raylan’s bed before she and Boyd committed to each other. But as last season closed, she was being forced to help bring Boyd down to keep herself out of prison.

Joelle Carter as Ava Crowder.

Joelle Carter as Ava Crowder.

And in those scenes, we did see Raylan’s unflinching commitment to the law. But the question about him has never been whether or not he’s a lawman. It’s been about how he goes about enforcing the law. And it’s a safe bet that in this final season he will probably cut a few corners.

Boyd, meanwhile, has only been winding up the tension, as have Justified’s creators.

As they enter their final showdown, how much will they prove to be alike?

There are other things we will want to see: some resolution between Raylan and Art; where Raylan, Winona (Natalie Zea) and their daughter will end up. Rachel and Tim (Jacob Pitts) have their fans who want to see a role and resolution for them.

Every season, Justified ends with the Darrell Scott classic, You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.

And the question hanging over this final season is, will Raylan or Boyd defy that promise?

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