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‘Justified’ Series Finale Goes Out With Its Boots On (SPOILERS)

FX has produced noisier series over the years that “Justified” has graced its schedule, but none better. The final season has been a particular treat, with terrific cast additions (topped by Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen) that augmented the central focus on the trio of Raylan, Boyd and Ava. Expectations were thus high for the series finale, which stayed true to the program’s modern-cowboy ethos as well as the heady mixture of drama, comedy and tension that has always defined the dynamics among its key players.

As usual, this adaptation of an Elmore Leonard story (which included a classy ending-credits thank-you to its late pappy) juggled a multitude of plots, and even by this season’s standards had to hustle to bring resolution to most of them. At its core, though, the entire finishing flurry has been devoted to the determination of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) to tidy up loose ends regarding Boyd (Walton Goggins) and Ava (Joelle Carter) before relocating to Miami to be near his baby daughter.

In the finale (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched), credited to a handful of writers and directed by Adam Arkin, Raylan and Boyd did indeed face off. Yet Raylan ultimately couldn’t make good on his pledge to kill Boyd, instead putting him back in prison, where the two exchanged a moment at the very end that niftily captured their longstanding bond, essentially just two sides of the same coin. (Truth be told, Boyd’s final line, “We dug coal together,” came through a bit garbled, but the sentiment — the fine line separating cop and criminal in these hardscrabble precincts — was crystal clear.)

Similarly, Raylan’s willingness to let Ava go, having finally located her four years after her escape, felt right, as did his attempt to secure her peace of mind by lying to Boyd about Ava’s fate. Given all that’s transpired among them, that merciful act — and just allowing Raylan to be part of his child’s life — was probably as close to “happily ever after” as “Justified” could reasonably venture.

In a sense, the foundation for this first-rate finale was laid throughout this sixth season (witness the jaw-dropping exit of Steenburgen’s character) and throughout the last episode. That included an old-fashioned gunfight between Raylan and the gun-twirling henchman (Jonathan Tucker) who had clearly been itching for such a showdown since the two first laid eyes upon each other, following Boyd’s brutal shootout with Elliott’s Markham and his gang.

There was certainly a degree of symmetry in the casting of Elliott, someone so born for cowboy roles it’s a wonder he and “Justified” hadn’t crossed paths sooner — and who would have made a great Raylan himself a few years back. The series has a long history of memorable villains (hats off to Margo Martindale and Neal McDonough, to name two), but with Elliott, Steenburgen and other smaller roles this season, such as the “Of Mice and Men”-like Choo Choo, this season was as good as any.

A word, too, about Olyphant, who with this series and “Deadwood” on his resume, has enjoyed a better career in cowboy hats than seems possible, given how far Westerns have fallen out of favor from their TV and movie heyday. Nor should the combination of wry humor and tough-guy bravado he brought to the role be downplayed just because the actor made it look easy.

That sense of effortlessness, frankly, might explain why “Justified” was sometimes forgotten in the discussion of great dramas — widely lauded by critics, yes, but anointed with scant attention in awards circles. (Martindale’s slightly miscategorized supporting-actress Emmy represented one happy exception.)

Still, this was a series that exhibited with humor, not condescension, a rare feel for low-life society, churning out hilariously eccentric figures like Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) and his misbegotten family, or Patton Oswalt’s Constable Bob. The writers also managed to serve up these Southern-fried characters without resorting to reality-TV-style caricature.

Even the abundance of praise heaped on the show in the run-up to the finale likely won’t be enough to jump-start its awards prospects at this stage, so an “atta boy” and slug of Kentucky bourbon will probably have to suffice. Then again, given the code by which the series lived — as showrunner Graham Yost has put it, “What would Elmore do?” — “Justified” should derive considerable satisfaction from having splendidly answered that question and gone out not only on its own terms, but with its boots on.

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