By Josh Logue
It’s good to be back.
And not just because it’s cold and snowy outside and the first episode of “Justified’s” final season opens with a brief scene of Winona and baby Willa in Florida before jumping quickly over to Raylan and a muggy-looking Mexican bar. I won’t lie though, that may have put me in a pretty agreeable mood.
Mostly it’s good because I missed this show, and I’ll miss it even more after it wraps up for good. In addition to (and because of, obviously) its above-average writing and idiosyncratic characters, setting and stories, “Justified” consistently delivered a world I was (and am) excited to spend an hour inside every week. And no, I haven’t forgotten its low points, and last season’s in particular, but let’s not dwell on that. We don’t have to, either, because this season started strong, and there’s no reason not to have high hopes moving forward.
We start, though, almost exactly where we left off last year. Winona is still waiting for Raylan to finish up in Harlan County before finally moving down with her and the baby in Florida. Although I do not think she knows that for Raylan, that means putting Boyd behind bars once and for all. That’s why he was in Mexico, chasing a witness, who turns out to be Dewey Crow. And, like Raylan is still after Boyd and Winona is still waiting for Raylan, Dewey is still Dewey.
“Then, now. It’s the same,” Raylan says near the end of the episode before launching into a brief summary of the events of the show’s very first episode. And, clearly, he’s partially on point. But he’s talking to Ava, who is obviously more than a little different. She outgrew the confident but aimless girlfriend role a long time ago, and since then she’s also shed the harsh crime-lord sidekick persona and her prison-prompted desperation. She’s back too, but in a much darker place. Secretly drinking in the morning. Caught between an earnest-seeming, sort-of-reformed-but-not-really Boyd who wants to finally take her away from all of this (no, for real this time!). And, on the other hand, there’s ever-persistent Raylan to whom she is supposed to rat Boyd out to as a condition for her release (I’ll get him, for real this time!).
Ava hasn’t always been one of the most interesting characters in this show, but she has evolved more than most. Even more than, say, Boyd, who lost, gained and lost his faith (for example), but never lost his dogged ambition and determination. And I can’t speak for everybody, but I’m hooked, at least for now. I want to know what happens to her, and I’m rooting hard for her to pull out of this desultory, alcoholic tailspin.
And Boyd, by the way, is up to his old tricks again. And by old, I mean five seasons ago, and by tricks I mean robbing more banks. There’s a slow reveal though. An early scene sets up a later robbery that reveals Boyd only seemed to have lost a step after last season’s messes. Whether he’s serious about getting out for good is still uncertain (I wouldn’t put any money down), and it’ll likely hinge on the mysterious ledger he found in the bank haul in lieu of money.
With the exception of that mysterious ledger and an anonymous new character who appears only briefly to offer cash on the spot for Raylan’s dad’s old house (refused), this episode offers very little in the way of signals about a broad, season-long arch for the rest of the season. Instead, it wades slowly back into the story, updating us on where everyone is and where they might be headed. Which is fine. A lot happened this week, so there’s plenty to digest.
And, through all of it–Raylan chasing Boyd, Boyd outrunning him, and Ava floundering–the episode also plays as a wonderful and sad little elegy to Dewey Crow, who doesn’t make it all the way to the end. In a tweet, Time’s TV critic James Poniewozik wrote this: “One tough thing JUSTIFIED has always done well is to make its idiots as interesting as its smart characters.” And he is dead on right about that. “Justified” is one of the few shows that doesn’t write off small characters as unworthy of detail and attention. And it’s a show that blends genuine affection with the violence and grit we’re all more than used to seeing on TV, which sets it way far apart, and above, a lot of what’s out there. At least in my mind. I hope someone picks up that mantle after “Justified” sets it down.