One of the best dramas on television is coming to an end in three weeks, and while there have been some pitfalls along the way, you can stack the characterizing, the dialogue, and the acting of Justified against nearly any other show and come out ahead. The sly, laconic humor and homespun wit and wisdom is unlike anything we’ve seen on television since Rockford Files. What’s doubly amazing about Justified is that — with the exception of Michael Rapaport’s Daryl Crowe — even its villains (Dickie Bennett, Dewey Crowe, Kathleen Hale, Avery Markham, Mags Bennett) are as interesting and dynamic as the heroes.
For all that’s right about Justified, however, there’s always been that one hink in its armor, and that’s no more apparent than in this season: It’s those goddamn MacGuffins. The $10 million in Avery Markham’s safe has been driving the plot of this season, and in a series with so many characters, so much rich history, and so many possible backstories, it’s confounding to me that this final season comes down to a bag of money.
The fact that there wasn’t a huge precipitating event that transformed Raylan and Boyd from friendly rivals to arch enemies in this final season has been an issue for me since last year’s finale, when the series assassinated one of the best couples on television in Boyd and Ava. It’s still not immediately clear exactly why Raylan hates Boyd enough to put off his transfer and devote himself so fully to taking him down. Meanwhile, Raylan seems more of a nuisance than nemisis to Boyd, an obstacle standing between him and the $10 million, a sum far more than Boyd once needed for a modest home in the country for he and Ava to grow old together.
That’s a shame, too, because with so much history and bad blood between Raylan and Boyd, it should feel more personal. It should feel bigger than a cat and mouse game between a lawman and a thief trying to get away with another man’s cash (cash that probably shouldn’t be lying around in a safe in the first place, regardless of how impenetrable the safe is).
This is not new for Justified. The stakes have been a problem inherent to the series. The Americans has a well-defined push and pull between allegiance to Mother Russia and an allegiance to family; Game of Thrones is about power; The Walking Dead is about survival; and Breaking Bad was about hubris. The stakes in Justified have always felt more ephemeral — land deals, drug rings, money — when the animosity between Raylan and Boyd could be rooted more into Harlan, into their lives growing up, or even over the respective relationships with Ava. That was hinted at in last night’s episode when Ava asked why Raylan left her behind when she was 16, and pondered what life might have been like otherwise. That — and those crackling scenes between Boyd and Raylan in their old high school in “Decoy” — are more of what Justified needs.
Look at Netflix’s phenomenal new series Bloodline, a show that involves human trafficking, drugs, and money, but it’s never really about any of that. It’s about family, and relationships, and revenge and that makes it feel more personal, more intense, more immediate. Justified has the means to go there, too, but it persists on focusing on surface motivations. What happened between Boyd and Raylan in the coal mines? Why did Raylan really leave? What happened to Boyd in Kuwait that prevented him from going his attempt to go straight? Boyd has spoken about how similar he and Raylan are, about how they’re the same except for the side of the line they sit on. What drove Raylan toward the law and Boyd toward crime? What happened to Ava after Raylan left? Where’s the seed of friction between these two men?
There’s so much history left to explore, and only three episodes left in which to explore it. It’s too bad because answers to those questions in this final season of Justified are far more important to me than whether Boyd (or now Ava) get away with two duffel bags full of cash. Justified is meant to be a show about a man who tried to escape the ghosts of his past, only to be pulled back in to a dying town. It’s those ghosts — and Raylan’s relationships to them — that are interesting. I don’t care about the money.