When season two of Justified began, the show was in a good position to coast. Season one had already set the template for a satisfying procedural, with a great lead in Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens, a cast teeming with first-rate character actors (Walton Goggins foremost among them), and enough regional flavor to keep it a notch above the standard cop show. But the show found another gear in season two, most obviously by adding intrigue in the form of the Bennetts (and, of course, spectacular performances in all the new roles, particularly Margo Martindale’s), but also by coalescing around strong themes of family ties and the insular culture of a place like Harlan County. It was a more exciting, tense, and elegantly plotted season to be sure, yet it was genuinely rich, too, earning the right to be mentioned in the same breath as top-drawer shows like Breaking Bad or The Wire. (Or, perhaps more fittingly, last year’s great Ozarks noir Winter’s Bone, which was again evoked tonight in the Loretta subplot.)
Where season one ended in a crude, Rio Bravo-style shootout, season two demanded a slightly subtler conclusion, and though “Bloody Harlan” certainly delivered on its title, it felt like all the major characters got their due. There’s a part of me that wishes the Bennetts could have stuck around for another season, if only to watch Margo Martindale and Jeremy Davies tear it up a little more, but the gears of the plot made the Bennetts’ demise inevitable, and they go out the right way. The finale had to take care of a lot of business—and messy business, too, given the orgy of violence necessitated by the Boyd/Bennett deal falling apart—but the payoff turned out to be both explosive and unexpectedly moving, and you can’t ask for more than that.
Like many great works of art, Justified steals from the best, and it got a lift tonight from exploiting the sort of cross-cutting used in the famed baptism sequence in The Godfather. The sit-down between Boyd and the Bennetts—set, amusingly, in a church where the kindly old pastor collects their firearms before leaving them to do their business—never had a chance of re-forging their alliance, and both sides are smart enough to know it, too. When Boyd moves on the Bennetts’ weed business—the one thing Mags explicitly told Boyd not to do—there’s really no going back from that. So we gets thi fantastic sequence where the sitdown exists entirely to take the key parties away from the war their respective clans are carrying on in their absence. Though outnumbered, Boyd and Johnny prove to be the slyer foxes, defending their homes by ambushing their assailants. Once again, Boyd proves to be the smartest guy in the room.
In other developments, Raylan resolves to leave the marshal service for a safer job teaching firearms training at Glynco, a decision reinforced by the news that Winona is pregnant. Raylan seems surprised that Art isn’t happy to give him a recommendation just to push him out the door, but we’re learning Art’s resentment of Raylan runs awfully deep. Art may want Raylan to go, but he’s not too keen in helping him get a promotion. Getting out isn’t easy in other ways, too, because Raylan does feel responsible for seeing his obligations through. Winona doesn’t understand why he’d head back into Harlan to rescue Loretta, thus risking the possibility of her giving birth to a fatherless child. But if anything, the news that he’s going to be a father only stiffens his resolve to protect Loretta, who’s still a child, after all, and whose actions could derail her life before she reaches adulthood.
And wow did Loretta’s journey pack a wallop. When she left James Le Gros’ car to make her way into Harlan, I was struck again by how much she resembled Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, another character seeking answers (and justice) on her father’s behalf. Keep in mind, too, that Loretta had earlier expressed disappointment in her father’s weaknesses, but she has the same instinct for family loyalty that runs through the entire community. She cannot allow her father’s murder to go unanswered, and Raylan’s understanding of that impulse is what leads him to know exactly what her plans are.
Maybe Mags knows, too. When Loretta arrives on the heavily guarded Bennett compound, no effort is made to search her for the concealed weapon the guards should suspect her of having. Mags seems to believe that she can talk the girl off the ledge; she’s had pistols pointed at her many times before—and by steadier hands—and beyond that, she truly loves Loretta and believes she can reassure her like only a mother could. “It breaks my heart seeing you hold that gun,” says Mags. “I wanted to keep you away from this life. I wanted to let you be a child a little longer.” Mags’ reasons for not telling Loretta about what really happened to her father are obviously self-serving, but there’s a genuine part of her that wants the girl to remain an innocent and be shielded from life’s uglier realities.
Raylan wants that for Loretta, too. Justified is always full of unlikely alliances—he and Boyd foremost among them, of course—and briefly Mags and Raylan are united in a common purpose, which is to prevent Loretta from pulling that trigger and becoming like them. (This exchange between Raylan and Loretta knocked me flat: “Ask yourself what your daddy would want you to do.” “I want him to be here to tell me.”) Beyond Loretta’s situation, we get a sense of the sad arc of Raylan’s life: He can’t leave Kentucky, not just because there wouldn’t be a show if he did, but also because he has ensnared by the place. He can’t escape the consequences of choices that either he’s made or were made for him.
Having the season come full circle with Mags falling prey to the same deadly “apple pie” brew that she used to kill Walt McCready in episode one was perhaps a too-neat bit of writing, but it felt more of a real ending than the messy shootout of season one. And though they give themselves a few loose ends to work with, the writers are now faced with the challenge of rebuilding for season three. The bar has been set awfully high.
- FX wasn’t able to get finale screeners out to critics, so this is getting posted a little later than usual. (And perhaps a little sloppier, too.) The one benefit of seeing it live: This was the first time I saw an episode in HD all season, and it gave me an appreciation of the show’s strong visual style that I hadn’t gotten on the screeners.
- One loose thread: What of Doyle’s right-hand man? Money and the likelihood of a big promotion give him the motivation to turn Doyle over to Boyd, but that seems to be a red herring. Is this set-up for next season?
- Speaking of next season, where’s the Frankfort Mob? And with the Bennetts out of the picture, whom do they have to kill?
- Another loose (but let’s face it, not really) thread: Gutshot Ava. I assume she’ll survive the wound. A clinic doctor’s life depends on it.
- Great tension in the scene between Winona and Art, as Winona tries to convince him to save Raylan from harm. We find out much later that Art decides to honor her request, but he’s still so angry over her shenanigans that he lets her stew for a while.
- Between this and Hobo With A Shotgun, I’ve now seen two scenes this week featuring a man hung by his ankles and treated like a human piñata. Has this become a recreational sport for sadists?
- “Put an end to my troubles. Get to see my boys again. Get to know the mystery.” Lovely end to a brilliant Martindale performance.