Spoilers ahead for the season finale of Justified:
It could not have been more fitting that the climax of this fantastic season of Justified, “Bloody Harlan,” came with Mags Bennett telling a lie about her family, encased in a truth about family. Facing Loretta, whose father she poisoned, and staring down her own possible death, Mags tells her that she’ll understand someday when she had kids of her own: “You do what you must to protect them, even when you know it’s wrong.”
It’s a universal truth, maybe, but one that covers a specific lie: Mags is trying to pin the murder on her own dead son, Coover. She is, in this moment, doing what she must to protect herself. And yet within that lie there is another truth: Mags–self-serving as the murder was–was also acting to protect her child. It just happened to be not her sons, but Loretta.
That we’re able to see in that fabulous and complicated scene Mags’ evil and duplicity, as well as her genuine sentiment and affection for Loretta (seeing the gun pulled on her, she reacts as much with sadness as with fear), is testament to how thoroughly Margo Martindale owned this season of Justified.
She did not hold title alone, of course. Kaitlyn Dever in that same scene showed a command and a richness of emotion well beyond her years. And the finale offered a showcase for the great collection of actors the season installed around Timothy Olyphant: Jeremy Davies, communicating 20 years of bitterness and frustration in the baseball scene with a strung-up Raylan; Walton Goggins, he of the menacing whisper, who it had not seemed could get better after season one and did; and the rest of the season one crowd, including Nick Searcy and Natalie Zea, who added layers to their characters this year.
And the conclusion was a stirring return to the theme of the season: family as a magnifying glass for emotion and vengeance. Mags tells Boyd—in a negotiation over a war that each separately knows is already being fought—that business, more than money, is about agreements. Just so, the battles of this season were only nominally about pot and coal and cash; really, they were about blood. The rest is just a way of keeping score.
Throughout the season, the conflicts have been about past slights—a childhood fight or baseball game—that took root and grew over decades until they overshadowed the grudge-bearers’ lives. They were about what somebody’s daddy did to someone else’s daddy, and somebody’s daddy’s daddy. And—in the conniving yet somehow poignant Bennett family—they were about the slights a mother perpetrated on her children, who grew more reckless and criminal to try to be worthy of her love.
It is, as I’ve said, a fantastic enough story even without Raylan, the character who the series is actually about. But Justified has always been about his roots as well—the patterns he can’t quite escape, the hurts that he cannot quite let go. The marshal service was a way of trying to break with his past, but he can no more do that than a tree can tear itself out of the ground. And though his career fate is unresolved at the end of the last episode, it seems pretty clear that the only way he could permanently cut Harlan County out of his life is the way Mags does.
In a well-earned, season-closing death scene, Martindale puts a period on her performance as Mags envisions how her death will free her: “Put an end to my troubles. Get to see my boys again. Get to know the mystery.”
For Raylan, that mystery will be a longer, earthly pursuit. Hopefully for several more seasons to come.
Now a last hail of bullets for the year:
* Though I’ve paid a lot of attention to Martindale and other guests, the episode was still full of examples of the kind of cool-but-tense awesomeness that Olyphant delivers as a matter of course. Such as: “Stop. I don’t want you to speak any more. Because once you start lying to me there’s going to be a river between us with no bridge to cross. Do you understand what I’m saying? Nod if you do. Good. Start again.” It’s a finale in which Raylan is acted against as much as he takes action himself, and others do the shooting, yet he still comes across heroic.
* And he can even pull it off literally hanging upside down. How much of a headache—literally and figuatively—must that scene have been to shoot?
* James LeGros made an appearance in the episode as Dickie’s accomplice, Wade Messer, a funny irony as LeGros previous played Raylan Givens in a 1997 TV movie adaption of Elmore Leonard, Pronto.
* I could go on and on quoting lines and singling out performances, but I need to get this posted. Maybe nothing made me smile more, though, than Goggins’ sly delivery on the line: “Well, I take it that’s not good news.” Pour yourself a glass of apple pie and let us know what you thought.