Justified offers an interesting comparison to Shameless, which also just had its season finale. I argued that Shameless gets better in part because we learn more about the characters, and that this cumulative knowledge give more depth to Season Four than to Season One, just by virtue of being true to those characters over a longer haul.
Justified is a “better” show than Shameless, by which I mean 1) I like it more, and 2) my wife likes it, so we can watch together. As with Shameless, there is a lot of fine ensemble acting on. But unlike Shameless, where Emmy Rossum is the best among equals, Justified has evolved into a show with two characters who are above the rest: the most obvious one, Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), and the surprise, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), who I believe was originally meant to be killed off in the first episode. Raylan and Boyd make a great buddy team for several reasons. The most clichéd is that Boyd represents Raylan’s dark side, except Raylan does a pretty good job of representing himself in that regard. They are two men who grew up together, shared similar father-related issues, and grew up to be charming but violent versions of those young boys. The gimmick, of course, is that Raylan is a U.S. Marshal, and Boyd is a criminal. But they know each other so well, and Boyd is fond of pointing out that no matter how much Raylan justifies his actions, he and Boyd are more alike than different.
There are a lot of things that take Justified to the top of the TV series ladder. Olyphant and Goggins play the hell out of their tandem. Their scenes together, which are rare, are always delightful, and very Elmore Leonard-ish (as is most of the show, naturally). Fans of Justified often say we’d sit through an entire episode of Raylan and Boyd talking, with all of the subtext hiding in the words. But the folks behind Justified know it would be a bit much to create a TV series with nothing but two smart guys verbally jousting. So they give us an environment that feels real (no matter whether it is accurate to “real” life), a community in a specific place with a long, shared history together. This holds the show together from episode to episode and from season to season, because whatever happens during an episode/season, the community is always there. Justified also makes it easy for the audience to enjoy the banter, not just Raylan and Boyd’s but all of the characters, because they have done such a good job of channeling Leonard. Finally, each season has a “Big Bad” that gives that season a focus. This is a good thing (Season Two is easily the best, because of Margo Martindale’s Mags Bennett), but also works a bit against the show (because it’s unlikely they will ever top the presence of Mags). The Big Bad of Season Five wasn’t the most interesting they’ve had, although Michael Rapaport did grow into the role as the season progressed. And there were some interesting characters hovering behind the main ones … like Rapaport, Alicia Witt got better as the season went on, and it was fun watching real-life brothers Wood and Steve Harris.
But Season Five felt too much like it was standing in place. We didn’t learn much new about the main characters … I suppose it was interesting that Raylan professed to becoming a Marshal just to spite his father, and Ava Crowder’s woman-in-prison arc gave Joelle Carter more to do than usual (female characters and actors get short shrift for the most part on Justified). We learned that there is something Boyd Crowder is actually bad at (dealing heroin).
It was too obvious, though, by the end of the finale, that everything was just setting up the final season we've always known was coming. Season Six will be Justified’s last, and that can only mean that Boyd Crowder will finally be the Big Bad, and he and Raylan will finally reach the conclusion of their long trip together. It promises to be a great season … if they do it right, it could top Season Two. But Season Five suffered as a result, and so my season grade will be a bit of a drop to A-.