There is so much going on in this seemingly casual show that it’s silly to reduce everything down to two characters.
But Justified has, not just one, but two extremely charismatic characters at its core (not to mention some pretty good ones outside of those two). The title is also the theme of the series: when are our actions justified? Raylan Givens is a marshal who gets bad guys, and is very cool doing it. He is also a deeply disturbed individual with one of the worst fathers ever. The first scene of the first episode set the standard for how Raylan answers the question embedded in the title: he forces the issue until he is justified doing what he wanted to do anyway. It’s the old “he drew first” justification, and Raylan uses it on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, Boyd Crowder is the bad guy. He and Raylan grew up together. Raylan’s dad liked Boyd more. When they grew up, Raylan became a lawman, Boyd a criminal. Timothy Olyphant is the star … Walton Goggins is the secondary character. We root for Raylan, because for the most part, Justified helps us understand why he does what he does. We root for Boyd, too, but that’s more a case of Goggins grabbing the screen. In the crucial conversation between the two in the finale (and Justified is always good when Raylan and Boyd have a chat), each in turn accuses the other of lying to themselves so they can wake up in the morning. And they are both right. Raylan tells Boyd, “I think you love anything lets you put your head on the pillow at night believing you’re not the bad guy,” a particularly cutting remark since it casts doubt on Boyd’s great love for Ava. Boyd’s reply is on target, as well. “What do you tell yourself at night when you lay your head down allows you to wake up in the morning pretending that you’re not the bad guy?”
Nicky the Gangster knows how Raylan’s mind works. He knows that Raylan always goads the other guy into drawing first. So when they meet, Nicky doesn’t bring a gun. He knows Raylan won’t shoot first. What he doesn’t realize is how far Raylan will go to make things happen the way he wants them to happen, and still maintain the fantasy to which Boyd refers. Raylan doesn’t shoot Nicky, but he sets Nicky up to be murdered by other gangsters.
Justified is good enough, though, that it doesn’t let Raylan off that easy. Over the course of four seasons, Raylan has become more like Boyd (which is to say, more like his father). And he knows it. The message of Justified isn’t that Raylan’s way is right because he’s a lawman. The message is that Raylan is being destroyed from the inside. He no longer believes that his actions are justified. But he can’t escape those actions.
Grade for season finale: A. Grade for Season Four: A.