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'Justified' Season Finale Review: A Great Show Gets Even Better

by Maureen Ryan, posted May 5th 2011 2:15PM
The magnificent season finale of 'Justified' had one flaw. Well, okay, it wasn't a flaw -- the season finale was actually perfect. I still reserve the right to be disappointed that the season had to end at all.

If you got hooked on the second season of 'Justified,' which is the leading contender for best drama of 2011 in my humble opinion, you probably would have happily spent another dozen hours with Raylan Givens, Mags Bennett and the story of vengeance that connected not only them but the many wily characters in their world.

Sadly, we had to say goodbye to the second season of FX drama on Wednesday night. But what a tremendous way to go out.

'Justified' does so many things very well that I verge on becoming a broken record on various topics. The acting, the writing, the dialogue and the production values are top-notch every step of the way, and the season finale was no exception in any regard. I must single out the sequences that showed the various raids on Boyd's followers; twist followed on twist and Michael Dinner's direction and the terrific editing made those scenes wonderfully exciting. The confrontation between Mags and Boyd was also, in a word, delicious.

There are other things I could go on about -- the show's much-appreciated veneration of language and dialogue, the way it knows when to slow down (as when Winona revealed her pregnancy) and the laconic humor that is believably woven into even the most tense scenes. But I have bigger fish to fry, if you'll indulge me.

What I find especially impressive is the way that 'Justified' deftly unites big ideas with those atmospheric settings, well-drawn characters and taut storytelling. As was the case with another FX show, 'The Shield,' the plotting on 'Justified' is extremely satisfactory; neither show ever forgets that we simply want to be told a good story, one that we can't necessarily guess the ending of.

Yet both shows are also powered by complicated ideas about vengeance and justice. I found it especially interesting that the 'Justified' finale aired the same week that the nation did a collective fist pump over the death of Osama Bin Laden. I don't mean to turn this into a political commentary (and we're not going to go there in comments either), but I simply want to point out how that event proved that the desire for payback is ingrained and irresistible for most of us. Whether we're in Harlan or Manhattan, the notion of vengeance is a compelling, alluring idea. Even if we know, on an intellectual level, that vengeance doesn't bring dead people back, we've all felt the desire for revenge at one time or another, either as individuals or as part of a group.

Yet what do we do with those desires in our day-to-day lives? The characters on 'Justified,' coming as they do from the clan culture of eastern Kentucky, had to wrestle with it far more than many of us do on a daily basis. Without making a huge deal of it as a Big Theme, the season delved deeply into the notion of revenge, the difficulty of achieving justice and the possibility of change.

When are the cultural imperatives of Harlan County culture justified, if you will, and when does all the shooting become a form of selfish score-settling that will never end? That question lay at the heart of Harlan and in the center of Raylan's dilemmas as well. You can take the man out of Harlan, maybe, but can you take the Harlan out of the man?

But it's interesting to note that Raylan, who found himself holed up and under fire in last season's finale, wasn't even in Harlan as the latest Bennett war broke out. And when he got to his hometown, I don't believe he fired his weapon once. He was the one trying to talk Loretta out of making the mistakes he'd made, but she found his words hard to hear. Everyone around her had settled their personal scores, why shouldn't she?

What Mags and Raylan know, and what Loretta couldn't know yet, is that sins like that have a way of weighing on the soul. Mags, for all her faults, was fully aware of where she went wrong. And in her case, suicide was a form of justice. She could finally end the clan war, her hand holding Raylan's she drank her "apple pie." It was another astonishing scene for Margo Martindale, and as much as I'll miss Mags' towering presence on the show, Mags' death seemed fitting. Both she and Raylan wanted to change, but for change to come to her clan, she had to exit this world and go on to the next one. She had to be the one to administer ultimate justice.

But my goodness, what suspense pervaded that scene, and so many others! We saw her pull out a glass and her "apple pie" early on in the episode, and no doubt many of us wondered, is she going to take out Raylan? Was she even going to try to get Loretta to take a sip? But learning that Doyle was dead was probably the last straw for her. That, and telling the truth to Loretta, the one person whose approval Mags cared about. Doyle's family might make it out of Harlan, but knowing that two sons were dead and her adopted daughter hated her was too much for the Bennett matriarch.

Loretta was the key to the season (and once again, what wonderful work from Kaitlyn Dever; I hope we see both her and Jeremy Davies on the show again). If Raylan could get her out of Harlan and, when she returned, get her to put down that gun in Mags' living room, it showed that there was some hope for the future.

A lot of the great cable dramas have shown us how our darker impulses are impossible, or almost impossible, to fight. These shows are amazing accomplishments, but it's hard to come away with an optimistic view of humanity after watching 'The Wire' or 'The Sopranos,' and 'Breaking Bad' can be similarly dark. 'Mad Men' doesn't necessarily posit that change is impossible, but it does show its characters deeply wounding themselves in various ways again and again.

Thank God for 'Justified,' which is, despite the faults of its hero, is a damned optimistic show (in that regard, it reminds me of another Timothy Olyphant show, the great, poignant, knotty 'Deadwood,' which I regard as the most hopeful of the Three Davids holy trinity of all-time great HBO dramas).

Everybody on 'Justified' makes mistakes -- Winona and Raylan can't seem to stop making the same mistakes with each other, and Boyd keeps falling into the same traps -- but, well, so what? Mistakes are inevitable, and positive change isn't, but 'Justified' has an abiding faith in the possibility of the latter.

'Justified' is a wonderfully immersive slice of life that makes you feel that it's entirely possible that if you have good intentions, even if you mess up, even if you care more than you logically should, the cavalry might ride to your rescue. You might be able to put the saving of a 14 year old girl in the "win" column. You might be pulled back into a painful orbit that you tried to escape years ago, but you don't have to stay the same person.

You might take a life, but it might be -- yes -- justified. And it may well be your own.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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I absolutely have been mesmerized by "Justified". IMHO, it is the best show on TV. Unfortunately, unless shows air on the main networks, they are rarely recognized come Emmy time. Timothy Olyphant definitely deserves an Emmy for his swaggering, modern, sometimes fast on the trigger U.S. Marshall Rayland Givens in Eastern Kentucky.
If you haven't yet been entertained by this great work of TV, tune in next year for Season 3. In the mean time, buy Season 1 and the soon to be released Season 2 so you can see it from the onset. You won't be one bit disappointed. I also agree regarding "Deadwood" which also starred Timothy.

May 28 2011 at 4:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great review. Great show. Hope that the Globes and the Emmy's take note of the fabulous cast and writers.

May 14 2011 at 10:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Just a correction to the fan who said that Raylan had his butt saved 3 times in the finale. "two, Art saved him from being shot by Doyle".
Since I am, contrary to the popular trend, a Winona fan, I have to point out that SHE saved him from Doyle. Art refused to even go after him at first. I'm think W played the "pregnancy" card and got the marshals out there for the 'deus ex machina' of the Year Award.

May 13 2011 at 4:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Bookie's comment

Yep. Without Winona, Art wouldn't have known to go to Harlan. She quite literally saved Raylan's life.

May 14 2011 at 10:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My favorite show and Maureen, you gave it a great writeup. I love everything but Winona, like another poster said. She's a whiny drama queen. When Raylan decided to go help Loretta, she threatened she didn't know if she'd be there when he got back and I hope she makes good on the threat. I liked Eva better for Raylan....tough woman who is a better match for him. Can't WAIT for Season 3. Whooo-hoooo!!

May 12 2011 at 4:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Michael John Grist

I felt let down by the ending- like there was still more to come. Raylen didn't get to kick hardly any ass at all. Instead he just put himself into three separate situations, where he got RESCUED three separate times, each time increasingly lucky.

Not satisfying, really. Deus ex Machina, perhaps.

One, Boyd saved him from Dickey.
Two, Art saved him from being shot by Doyle.
Three, Mags' inner defeat saved him from getting poisoned like a dummy.

All he did was show up, and that's just not heroic enough to feel likea climax. It was still very good- but just not enough.

May 12 2011 at 4:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This has got to be one of the top dramas on tv. I would love to see part of season 3 devoted to the back story of Boyd and Raylan and their time in the mines as younger men. There's got to be some great stories that can be "mined" from those events underground. Can't wait for season three!

May 07 2011 at 3:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mosavee's comment

I would also LOVE to see them as young teens working together in the mines. It would definitely help us to understand their unusual relationship although they ended up on opposite sides of the law..

May 28 2011 at 4:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Doug Mozart

Walter Goggins plays Boyd Crowder with such a slow burn and seething intensity, he should win Best Actor for the series, with Margo Martindale coming in for Best Actress. "Justified" threatened to be in the first season one of those Marshal Shoots the Thug of the Week shows, but it really found its footing this season, and I can't wait for next season.

May 06 2011 at 11:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If Justified doesn't get nominated for Best Drama, Timothy Olyphant for Best Actor and Walton Goggins, Margo Martindale, & Jeremy Davies for supporting actor/actress in this year’s Emmys it will be a damn shame.

May 06 2011 at 11:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great article Maureen. Keep up the good work. This site could use more like you. :)

May 06 2011 at 9:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I love this review of Justified, Mo! This was really an impressive second season. I hope-hope season three can deliver this same level of Quality!

May 06 2011 at 2:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to changeweb2point0's comment

Eeek! Mo = Maureen**

May 06 2011 at 2:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to changeweb2point0's comment
Mo Ryan

Most people call me Mo. No worries. Thank you!

May 06 2011 at 12:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

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