Season Finale — Justified, “Bloody Harlan”

“It’s not your problem. Not today.”

I don’t usually preface my reviews with quotes from the episode. It’s something like a lot of good reviewers do (some regularly, some occasionally) and I guess it’s a way for me to separate myself. The format of these kind of post-air reviews is mostly standardized now, that’s my one way of stepping outside of it. But when Winona delivered those words to Raylan last night, I couldn’t help but write them down so that I could make sure to include them here. There were probably a dozen fantastic quotes in last night’s Justified season finale. It was that kind of episode, the perfect conclusion to one of the better seasons of dramatic television in recent memory. But that one really stuck with me and it’s one that serves my review well I think.

Who is Raylan Givens? In season one, I think the answers to that question were pretty easy. We knew he had a temper, he was trigger-happy and that he believed in a certain kind of justice, among a number of other things. Above all else, Raylan cared about his job and cared about catching his man — no matter if that meant he put them in cuffs or a body bag. Raylan was pretty much a smooth-talking bad-ass and I think we all probably loved him for that. I don’t mean simplify the character because Raylan was complex in season one.

But as season two progressed and came to an end last night, I think answering that question above becomes more difficult. If season one was all about Raylan readjusting to his home area and its surrounding counties, then season two was about Raylan moving past readjustment and perhaps into some semblance of comfortability. Obviously this is a story about a U.S. Marshall who often has people trying to kill him so “comfortability” isn’t necessarily common or really the proper term to use.

However, throughout the season, it was pretty apparent that Raylan’s past and his connections to that past were slowly starting to not only haunt him, but influence his decision-making. It started from the very beginning (which was really just a shot from last season) with Raylan letting Boyd go and pretending to shoot him in the back was he walked away. You could argue that from that moment, Raylan’s never really been the same. By not finishing Boyd off, he presented a softer side that wasn’t all about justified shootings. Boyd was just one of many “old friends” that Raylan encountered this season and oftentimes, Raylan let those people go, or was at least willing to hear them out a bit more than he was in season one.He encountered the Bennetts, a family his family has been warring with for generations, on a number of occasions and often had reasons to start firing. I’m almost 100 percent sure that Raylan killed fewer people this season than he did last, and it appeared to be intentional. He killed Coover, but only because he had to, and in some respects, because the anger got the best of him after Coover tried to kill Loretta. In that instance, it was like old Raylan took over new Raylan.

Along with that, Raylan’s lowered his guard personally. In season one, he was involved with Ava, but it wasn’t really a relationship. They had lots of sex, he protected her and that was about it. But this season, Raylan found (or I guess I should say, rediscovered) something a bit more substantial with his ex-wife Winona. Their new relationship began in secret, but that didn’t make it any less real. He jumped head-first into Winona’s stolen money problems, risking his life and his career to protect her from any sort of prosecution. Hell, he even admitted that he did all of it because he loved her. With all this, Raylan didn’t become soft and cuddly, but he certainly changed. His time back in Harlan County showed him both the person he used to be, but also the person he could be and by the middle part of the season, he was in a drunken stooper begging Coover to fight him because he wasn’t really sure who he was or what he stood for anymore. And by the end of the season, he was ready to pack it all in and move away.

Yet, despite all of that, Raylan is still Raylan. He’s shot fewer people recently and fallen back in love with his ex-wife, but he can’t not get involved in the affairs of Boyd, the Bennetts and Loretta. This is home, and as much as it’s changed him and suffocates him, these are his people. He wants to kill them all, but also wants to save them all a little bit. It’s a complicated relationship that only got more complicated as the season progressed, forcing Raylan to throw himself in the middle of a number of different feuds (Boyd v. Dickie, Dickie. v. Mags, Loretta v. Mags) even when he knew that he could just as easy get killed for taking another step. And so, Raylan can make all the changes he wants. He can try to start a family with his ex-wife, he can stop being so trigger-happy. But these people and this world is always going to bring it out of him. Here, it’s always Raylan’s problem.

And by the end of the episode, Raylan has perhaps saved someone else from becoming like him. He prevents Loretta from killing Mags in cold blood, knowing its a slippery slope that you can never return from.

“Bloody Harlan” brings all of Raylan’s most recent problems to a head. Boyd and the Bennetts consider a parlay, but it doesn’t hold for very long. Both Boyd and Mags planned on the other backing out, which leads to a well-executed shoot-out that leaves Ava severely injured. Meanwhile, Loretta decides its time to get the truth about her father’s death from Mags, which obviously doesn’t fit well into the warring sides’ plans for the day. Little girls stumbling into a territorial throw-down isn’t the best. And so even though he’s pushing Art for that transfer and sort-of celebrating the fact that Winona is pregnant, Raylan can’t help but get involved one more time this season. He clearly feels like Loretta is his responsibility, and subconsciously, “old Raylan” is probably disappointed in “new Raylan” for letting both Boyd and Dickie live. Everything that’s happened in recent days most certainly could have been prevented, and probably should have been so by Raylan himself.

What I especially enjoyed about this episode is how it subverted expectations. Last year’s finale was mostly a non-stop shoot-out with all sorts of bullets flying and people getting killed. But even though the dueling sides are actually more defined and deadly this season, “Bloody Harlan” doesn’t really live up to its name — and that’s okay. This season has been such a vast improvement because of its increased intensity and character work, so it’s truly fitting that the season finale has both in spades.

Because of our knowledge of the S1 finale and our general expectations about what a Justified finale could embody, this episode outsmarts us a bit. It wants to assume that people are going to start shooting and killing one another at any second, but it uses that palpable tension to slowly build up the episode’s narrative until the really exciting and satisfying final 15 minutes. There still isn’t much shooting here, but “Bloody Harlan” is still a better finale because the shooting that does occur actually means something. Even when Dickie hangs Raylan up in a tree and beats him with a baseball bat, it still felt like the worst was going to happen. We know Raylan won’t get too injured, but that didn’t stop the episode from making me feel otherwise.

In general, this is a very successful conclusion to the season as well. Loretta’s been just as integral to the story as Mags, Dickie and Boyd so it makes a lot of sense to have her make a move that disrupts all the adult plans. Moreover, the events of this episode really crystallize Mags’ perspective and journey this season. She said a few episodes ago that she never wanted this life and she saw some form of escape in Loretta. But because she got too wrapped up in “the life” with all the Black Pike posturing and issues with Boyd, Mags didn’t totally realize that she could never escape and she certainly couldn’t help Loretta do so either. All season, Mags did what she thought was right by her family and by her community but eventually found herself suffocated by all the pressures and tensions that those bonds brought her — sort of like Raylan. And thus, it’s damn fitting to have the final scene of the season be Raylan and Mags sitting at the table, gun shot wounds for both of them, calling a truce. The important thing is that Mags knew she realized she could never really escape, so she poisoned herself. But the big question now is whether or not Raylan recognizes the same thing as he watched her die. Next season will tell us, I guess.

This was really a fantastic season of television from start to finish. I wouldn’t put it in the top 10 of full seasons, but I would certainly be willing to discuss the matter. This much is true: Justified must now be mentioned when talking about the best series on television right now, and it currently holds the belt for Best Drama Series of 2011 and only Breaking Bad‘s fourth season has any chance to take it away. Everyone, from the guesting Margo Martindale and Jeremy Davies to Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins, were tremendous in this episode and throughout the season. I miss it already.

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