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The greatness of FX's crime drama Justified, explained in 5 episodes and 1 series finale

Timothy Olyphant starred as Raylan Givens in Justified. His hat was truly magnificent.
Timothy Olyphant starred as Raylan Givens in Justified. His hat was truly magnificent.
FX

The most remarkable thing about the series finale of FX's Justified, which first aired Tuesday, April 14, is how it functions as both a capper for a six-season story and an almost perfect mirror of the show's very first episode.

Without spoiling, there's a pleasing circularity to the way the series doubles back on itself and to the way that it resolves the story of its two main characters, Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and the Kentucky criminal he was brought to the state to apprehend, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins).

The finale is more emotional and resonant than viewers might have expected from a show that racked up a large body count over its run, but that shouldn't be a surprise. This has always been a series about the ways the past chokes the life out of the present and about the ways we can never quite outrun our ghosts. And as such, it's always been rich with feeling and regret.

Indeed, the final season was full of moments where the ground literally disappeared beneath the characters' feet. In "Collateral," the next-to-last episode, one minor character phrases this in terms of the coal-mining operation that dominates the series' rural Kentucky world — the mining operations are now literally disassembling the mountains the characters live on in order to get at what's inside.

The only thing left to stand on, then, is legacy and memory. And yet legacy is poison, too, always threatening to strangle those who are trapped by it, until what they're fighting for is no longer worth it in the slightest.

Now that the six-season, 78-episode series is over, you can watch the whole thing on Amazon Prime. (The first five seasons are free to subscribers, but for now you will have to purchase season six.) You should. This is the kind of series that improves on a binge, when its many resonances and symbols shine even more brightly.

If you're undecided, try these five episodes as a taste of the show's many pleasures.

1) "Fire in the Hole" (season 1, episode 1)

In its first episode, Justified brilliantly lays out the stakes of its story and the rough edges of its Harlan County, Kentucky, setting. It's at once a world of grays — in that every character has a good and bad side — and of moral reckoning, in that every character, nevertheless, falls on one side of the law or the other.

That's very much in keeping with Elmore Leonard, the great American writer whose short story of the same name inspired this episode. Leonard is fond of stories in which the characters start at point A, then blitz over to point K, before moseying on back to point B. It's a style that takes some getting used to, but it's also one that Justified showrunner Graham Yost and star Olyphant understood intuitively from the word go.

"Fire in the Hole" is so good it casts a bit of a pall over the first half of season one. It's also an effective short feature film in and of itself — even as it works beautifully as an episode of TV, effectively laying out the series' premise of a man who thought he'd left his childhood home but is forced to return to it to clean up crime.

2) "The Spoil" (season 2, episode 8)

Season two is the best season of Justified, perfectly blending together the action, drama, and comedy that made this show work so well at its best.

As Noel Murray brilliantly lays out at The A.V. Club, this is a show that revels in weird narrative sidebars, rather than the straightforward progression of many other shows. Writes Murray:

Each Justified season follows one long plot that pits good guys against bad guys (or, more often, bad guys against bad guys), but each individual episode is made up of what could be called anecdotes, or incidents — or even shaggy-dog jokes ...

From episode to episode, Raylan is focused on finding and apprehending some particular crook — to the extent that he often ignores other crimes, because they’re not part of his mission — and a lot of the dramatic tension in Justified comes not from the gunfights, but from the Marshals being exasperated as they work their way past one colorful nitwit after another.

Season two is the show at its best, then, because it most thoroughly embraces this aspect of Justified, centering as it does on the Bennett family, ruled by matriarch Mags (Margo Martindale, in an Emmy-winning performance). The Bennetts are unruly and treacherous, but they also have a wounded pride and fierce loyalty to one another.

That all bubbles over in this episode, when Mags tries to cajole the people of Harlan into rejecting an outside corporation that would dramatically change their way of life. Things in Harlan have proceeded roughly the same way for a century — and for people like Mags, that's a feature, not a bug.

3) "Slaughterhouse" (season 3, episode 13)

The hugely ambitious season three of Justified bites off a bit more than it can chew, but it's worth it for this magnificent season finale, which underlines what sets this show apart from many similar shows of its era.

Where Breaking Bad, say, was centered on a man who gave in to his own worst impulses, Justified was always about a man trying to rise above his. Raylan might not have been the best lawman or person, but he was always trying. And in the universe of Justified, trying counts for something.

That's what makes the third-season finale — which concludes with one of the saddest lines in the show's history — so hard to take. At a certain point, moral goodness has to be its own reward. Raylan is tested by that idea over and over again, but never more than he was here.

4) "Decoy" (season 4, episode 11)

Season four is different from any other season of Justified, focusing not on a single villain (or set of villains) but on one big case, involving a man named Drew Thompson, who seemingly pulled off the D. B. Cooper heist and survived to tell about it. As you'd expect, that sense of a hidden past ensnaring the citizens of Harlan was rich thematic territory for the show to mine.

But it also resulted in this episode, which showed that Justified could do big, action-packed spectaculars, too. With Drew's identity revealed, the marshals hope to get him out of Harlan alive — while every criminal in the county is trying to hunt him down. It features a series of tense showdowns as good as anything TV has come up with, and it concludes with a reversal worthy of a standing ovation.

5) "The Hunt" (season 6, episode 7)

Boyd has always been Raylan's perfect foil. The character was supposed to die at the end of the pilot, but the writers loved him so much that they resurrected him, then spent five seasons forestalling an inevitable final confrontation between him and Raylan.

Season six, then, finally sent the two to war. What was fascinating, however, was that the pawn trapped between them was Boyd's fiancée, Ava (Joelle Carter). The fifth season was the show's messiest, but it did introduce the idea that when push came to shove, Boyd might not be as loyal to Ava as he claimed to be — and Raylan might be able to exploit that by turning Ava into an informant. The final season hinges on that idea.

Outside of Mags, Justified has struggled to know what to do with its women, dominated as it was by ideas of men and their tattered legacies. But the most remarkable thing about the final season is how Ava eventually refuses to simply be a pawn between the two men, something that builds to a head in this episode, the season's midpoint. It concludes with a scene between Boyd and Ava as good and as honest as the show had ever pulled off — and it sets things up perfectly for the amazing conclusion that followed.

Justified is available for streaming on Amazon Prime. The first five seasons are free for subscribers, while the sixth can be purchased. The sixth season is also currently available on FX Now.