“Justified” begins its final season with a customary slow build. The new threat, played by Sam Elliott, doesn’t even really present itself until the third episode, with another fine addition, Garret Dillahunt, as his vaguely threatening surrogate. Still, that’s emblematic of the laconic charm that has characterized this Elmore Leonard adaptation throughout its run, with Timothy Olyphant’s modern cowboy becoming one of FX’s unsung heroes. Although the program isn’t as showy or heralded as the network’s other dramas, its sixth-season start reinforces a sense that “Justified” will be sorely missed when it rides into the sunset.
As season five made clear, the home stretch is shaping up to be an inevitable showdown between Olyphant’s U.S. marshal, Raylan Givens, and boyhood pal-turned-criminal Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), with Boyd’s significant other and Raylan’s one-time fling, Ava (Joelle Carter), uncomfortably caught in the middle. In that sense, it’s an artful and appropriate way of circling back to where this rodeo began, made all the saucier by the drama that has unfolded in the interim.
As always, though, that’s just the main event in a series teeming with colorful and quirky characters, with Elliott — an old hand at cowboy parts — a perfect choice as a soft-spoken bad man who gives off an air of menace, and Mary Steenburgen harboring mysterious motives in pushing Boyd into robbing banks. No other show this side of “The Good Wife” has been as adept at loading up on topnotch players in guest and supporting roles.
There’s an added sense of urgency as Raylan looks to settle his score with Boyd before leaving to live with his wife (Natalie Zea) and baby daughter. There’s also an underlying sense that Raylan’s cockiness might catch up with him, especially now, with the question of whether concern about family changes someone in his line of work.
Perhaps foremost, “Justified” has consistently been one of the more disarmingly funny hours on TV, as illustrated by a scene when Raylan interrupts a married man in the midst of a dalliance with a prostitute. When the lawman jokingly pretends to mistake the woman for the man’s wife, the hooker gets the punch line: “Ew, gross.” The series also revels in a slice of Southern life (actually, more like low-life) newly popular in reality-TV circles, but where few dramas dare to tread.
Leonard, who died 2013, and maintains a posthumous exec producer credit, won’t be around to see the finish. But for a series whose guiding mantra according to showrunner Graham Yost has been “What would Elmore do?,” the show has done him proud.