If you’d told me before the episode aired that at the end of Justified, Raylan, Boyd, and Ava would’ve survived, I’d have probably been disappointed. I probably would’ve suggested that a happy-ish ending to Justified would’ve felt like a complete cop-out.
But we also know that showrunner Graham Yost had one abiding principle in writing the finale of Justified: What would Elmore Leonard do? I’ve read enough Elmore Leonard to know that, in addition to the economy of writing, the crackling dialogue, and the page-turning plots, he often preferred a tidy ending. He didn’t like to leave things messy.
The more I thought about Elmore Leonard’s work, and the more I thought about these characters, the more I came to realize that the Justified finale could not have been more perfectly realized. Leonard’s novels were gritty, fast-paced, and authentic, but they were not bleak, and any ending that saw Raylan, Boyd, or Ava buried in Harlan would’ve left us with an ache, and not the good kind. Justified is not Breaking Bad. It is not The Wire or The Sopranos. It is its own peculiar entity, and I absolutely loved that it broke away from contemporary convention and gave us an ending that was not just satisfying, but hopeful. The good guy one. The bad guy lost. The girl got away. In the end, they all ended up where they should have in a just world, and outside the Harlan County line, the world is more just.
It was simple, a little too convenient, and low-key for a modern series finale, and there are things about the episode that would be easy to criticize (and in light of the way it ended, Boyd killing Shea Wigham’s character last week, for instance, not only seems out of line, but unnecessary). But it seems foolish now to nitpick. The finale left us content, and yet, still wanting more — what became of Art? Of Rachel? Of Tim? Did Loretta McCready grow into Mags Bennett’s role in Harlan? — and that’s the way any great show should end. You have to leave some things up to the viewer to decide for themselves.
Most importantly, the death of Raylan or Boyd would’ve deprived us of that flawless final scene, of Boyd and Raylan sharing a moment, bound by brotherhood, bound by a shared history of two men who dug coal together but who diverged into two parallel paths on either side of the law. The thin pane of glass separating them in that final scene was the perfect metaphor for the circumstance and luck that bisected their lives. You did right by these characters, Graham Yost, and more importantly, you did right by Elmore Leonard.