Spoilers for the season four finale of Justified below:
Raylan Givens dropped some wisdom in the first episode of this season of Justified that summed up a major theme of the entire series. “If you meet an asshole in the morning,” Raylan tells a criminal, “you met an asshole. If you meet assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”
It’s one of the wisest things I’ve ever heard on a TV show, and one of the most ironic lines as well, since the prisoner with whom Raylan confides this bit of wisdom is confined in his trunk. Yes, Raylan is the hero of Justified, and by the standards of modern cable drama, he’s pretty close to an actual, classical, non-anti-hero. He’s one of the good guys, on the side of the law, operating by a code and catching bad guys.
But also? Raylan Givens meets assholes all day and all night.
I was thinking of this earlier this season, when there was some sporadic grousing among some Justified watchers that this season had no “big bad”–no single, major new antagonist whose defeat was the driving force of the season. The previous two episodes, really, wrapped up many of the season’s big plot points, and the finale, “Ghosts,” didn’t close with the end of a kingpin—unless you want to confer the honor on Nicky Augustine, but in the words of this episode, he was ultimately an elf, not Santa (that being Theo Tonin, still happily in Detroit).
To me, though, that has been a strength, not a weakness of this powerful season, at least the best in two years and a coin toss for me at the moment with the mighty season two. There was no big bad in season four, and as a result Justified was freer to explore the bigness of the badness within the characters we already knew.
That exploration was captured in a remarkable set of exchanges between Raylan and Boyd, whom “Ghosts” showed to be as opposed and yet deeply connected as ever. Each of them accuses the other of being self-deceiving, and each has a pretty solid case. “I think you love anything lets you put your head on the pillow at night believing you’re not the bad guy,” Raylan tells Boyd. Fair enough, but Boyd notes that Raylan is out to warn Nicky to leave his family out of “the game,” while trying to coerce Boyd’s cooperation by threatening Ava with jail. “You know what I’m wondering,” Boyd asks, “is 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.”
Raylan doesn’t give the obvious answer—that at least he has the law on his side—maybe because it would be unconvincing even to him. Raylan is a just man, but that does not automatically make him a good man, not without qualification. Does a good man say, “That Ellen May, dumb as a box of rocks but she’s such a sweet girl. You get her talking and she’s just too lazy to shut up”? (Throughout this season, I have come to judge each Justified character by how well or badly he or she speaks of Ellen May. Most do not fare well.) Does a good man get one mobster to kill another, unarmed one, to avoid pulling the trigger himself?
Maybe—certainly Nicky gave Raylan cause, by promising to kill his family. I can’t say I wasn’t happy he did it. And yet it was just one more example of Raylan going freelance this season, the most extreme yet. Does it just get easier for Raylan to do his work off-duty in the future? His may not be the actions of a bad man; at the least, though, they are the actions of, as Winona told him the first episode we ever laid eyes on him, “the angriest man I’ve ever known.”
And that label just becomes searingly more real in the episode’s wordless, fantastic last scene, in which Raylan just glares at the grave of Arlo—whose murder didn’t seem to have repercussions on Raylan in the overt, obvious sense, but which really never stopped happening ever since the moment Raylan learned his spiteful daddy had been shanked. That’s echoed in turn by Boyd’s last scene, in which he breaks into the fancy-pants house he once visited with Ava, now off to prison, and stares at the manicured yard, as if feeling every putdown and repudiation of his life coming back at him.
There are good deeds and there are bad deeds. That’s why you need the law; and that’s why you’re relieved when Raylan steps outside the law to look the other way when Nicky is gunned down. But good guys, truly, uncomplicatedly good guys? It’s hard to expect to find any, at least in the quarters of Harlan we visit on Justified, where, as season four’s last moments remind us, these fellas have been meeting assholes all day, every day of their lives.