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The final season of Justified starts tonight. Here's how (and why) to get caught up.

Timothy Olyphant plays Raylan Givens on Justified. Don't try and pull off the cowboy hat just because he can. You know it will never work for you.
Timothy Olyphant plays Raylan Givens on Justified. Don't try and pull off the cowboy hat just because he can. You know it will never work for you.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

You need to watch: Justified

When is it on: The show's sixth and final season debuts tonight on FX at 10 pm Eastern. But if you haven't watched it already, you can catch up on previous seasons via digital purchase or DVD. The first five seasons are also streaming on Amazon Prime.

What is it: Based on a character created by acclaimed crime novelist Elmore Leonard, Justified is a gleefully humorous blast of rural noir. Set in Kentucky, the series concerns Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), a US Marshal who is reassigned to a backwater region of the state where he grew up. While there, he has to confront his criminal father, old friends turned bad, the woman he once loved, and his own past. True to Leonard's voice, the show features its fair share of snarky quips and dark humor, but it's also about the weight of family legacies and the struggle to be a good person in a world that often suggests being the exact opposite. The second season is an all-time classic.

Why you should watch: When it debuted in 2010, Justified was notable for cutting against much of the conventional wisdom about what "good TV" was supposed to look like. It was set in a rural area, instead of New York or Los Angeles. It followed a man who was trying to do the right thing, instead of a man giving in to his own worst impulses. It embraced the dark comedy of the author who inspired it, rather than reveling in grimness for grimness's sake. And it also told its fair share of standalone stories, mixed in with the more serialized tales.

Certainly Justified has had its struggles along the way. It's sort of the television equivalent of the Star Trek movies. Its odd-numbered seasons are sometimes quite good but always a little shaky. Its even-numbered seasons are terrific. (Well, I have only seen three episodes of season six, but they're all very good.) But even in the worst hours of the show — like the dregs of season five — there will be a great joke or plot twist that keeps you watching.

And the show is also beautifully textured when it comes to its setting. The show's version of Harlan County, Kentucky, is a place where the specters of the past are constantly present, a place built atop the blood and sweat of generations past. The show gradually expands its Harlan throughout the entire series, digging into the complicated webs of power, money, and race that run throughout the community. Even when it seems like it's forgotten about a character or family, they might return at the least opportune moment.

That long memory has led to some of the show's weaker moments — much of the fifth season was driven by digging into the history of a family viewers probably didn't need to know quite so much about — but it's also led to some of the most powerful television of the last five years. For better or worse, Harlan feels like a real place, bound up in recriminations and regrets, and when the characters make choices, they feel weighted not just by the truths of those characters but also the truths of the world they live in. Very few TV shows feel like they have pasts. Justified has enough to go around.

The show has also been an impressive balancing act. From roughly its first episode, it's been clear that the series would conclude with a showdown between Raylan and his occasional ally Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), a criminal who never met a scheme he couldn't improve tenfold with his raw cunning and intelligence. Yet the show built to a point where Raylan and Boyd would naturally come to blows somewhere near the end of season two, then had to put that storyline off for three straight seasons.

That it was able to mostly accomplish this — and turn out a terrific fourth season right in the middle of it — is impressive. Could Justified have been a tighter show if it had run only three seasons? Undoubtedly. But if ever there were a show on television that cried out to be a long, shaggy exploration of its universe, it was Justified. What we lost from a tight story we gained in rich themes and characters.

And now we have season six, where Raylan and Boyd are finally on their collision course. Stories the writers have obviously been wanting to tell for years are ramping up, and the actors are in peak form. Even if you tuned out of this show somewhere in the intervening years, it's worth coming back to see how it all ends.

You'll know if you're in or out by ... the pilot episode. Because you're going to like the pilot episode. It's one of the best ever made. From there, things get a little shakier, but stick with it. The show gets back to that level of quality soon enough.

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