Under the Gun: Justified Gets Ready to Take Its Last Shot

Prashant Gupta/FX

In 2009, producer Graham Yost brought FX his idea for Justified, a modern Western series based on an Elmore Leonard character: U.S. marshal Raylan Givens, the kind of guy who’d tell a criminal to leave town within 24 hours or get shot–and actually follow through. “We’d never really examined deeply the motivations of the white-hatted hero,” FX CEO John Landgraf says. “Justified does a masterful job of deconstructing Raylan’s character”–a Kentucky boy who managed, unlike most of his kith and kin, to make it out of Harlan County alive. In Leonard’s novella Fire in the Hole, on which Yost based the pilot, the Marshals Service sends Raylan back to the holler.

Five years later, on the Justified set, star Timothy Olyphant’s breath is steaming blue and red in the lights of a nearby ambulance. They’re shooting in the middle of a dark, winding road just south of Santa Clarita, California, where the production is headquartered. Director John Dahl seems content with the last take, but Olyphant calls out, “Keep rolling; we got one more.”

They may not be the deep, dark hills of Appalachia (where the show takes place), but the sharp folds of Southern California get chilly on December nights, and passing trains, hovering helicopters, and an insistent dog from a nearby farm have been wreaking aural havoc on this shoot all afternoon and evening. So Olyphant and costars Erica Tazel and Jacob Pitts, who play deputies Rachel Brooks and Tim Gutterson, are eager to wrap the scene, the aftermath of a shoot-out that will appear in Episode 7 of this sixth and final season. There’s just enough time between Tazel delivering her final line and the assistant director yelling “Cut!” for Pitts to indulge in some spectacularly foul-mouthed ad-libbing. Someone tells episode cowriter Taylor Elmore there’s potential romantic chemistry between Pitts and Tazel. “Hey, we’ve got three whole episodes left to write,” he says, laughing. “We definitely have time to explore that–why not?”

Raylan and Co. are on the trail of Ty Walker (Garret Dillahunt), a mercenary employed by drug lord Avery Markham (Sam Elliott), who has returned to Harlan to start a pot-growing and banking operation. While the Season 6 premiere episode focused largely on Raylan, his nemesis, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), and Boyd’s fiancée-turned-informant, Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter), the writers are leaning heavily on Walker and Markham as antagonists for the first part of the season. “They give Raylan something else to do before things finally boil down to him and Boyd,” says Yost. Putting Boyd away is the final item on Raylan’s to-do list before he escapes Harlan once more, this time to reunite with his ex-wife and baby daughter in Florida. At least, that’s the plan.

Raylan’s preoccupation with Walker and Markham gives Boyd the opportunity to put together his own escape plan. The one-time bank bandit is returning to his slightly humbler roots for One Last Big Score. “It just made sense for him to go back to how it all began,” Goggins says, “with him robbing banks and blowing s–t up.” But Boyd has more pressing concerns than small-town heists. After spending the better part of last season in prison for murder, Ava agreed to inform on him, trading certain death in the pen for uncertain life outside. It’s not just the prospect of selling out the man she still loves that’s fraying Ava’s nerves: Traitorous associates of Boyd’s tend to find themselves rotting in a slurry pond. When Ava voiced these concerns to Raylan in the Season 5 finale, she received an unintentionally ominous reply: “Everything’s gonna be fine.”

Everything won’t be fine. “That moment lays accountability on Raylan,” Carter says. “By saying those words, he has to make sure they come true.” He’s placed Ava in a situation he can’t control, though, and he soon finds his hard-line “ride the rap” stance isn’t helpful to her. “He tends to judge people based on a certain moral code,” Olyphant says, and Ava is, after all, a murderer who’s tied herself to a notorious ne’er-do-well. “But if she holds up her end of the bargain and does things the way they should be done, then Raylan will be on her side.” What Raylan would do well to remember, Carter says, is that, when cornered, “Ava’s going to resort to violence.” It’s Carter’s hope, though, that in the end Ava will no longer have to shoot or stab her way out of precarious situations: “I want her to live for once, rather than just survive.”

Prashant Gupta/FX

The end is on everyone’s mind these days. For most of the cast, the longest chapter of their careers is mere months from coming to a close. The reality hasn’t hit some of them; others have already started grieving.
“I had a little breakdown over the summer,” Carter says. “I was like, ‘This feels like someone is dying.’ Not only is the show ending, but for me, this character is, too.”

All agree that going out on their own terms is a rare and precious thing, and Yost had never envisioned more than six seasons. “At least it wasn’t like with Deadwood,” Olyphant says. Feeling secure as the lead on a premium-cable drama, he had just bought a new home when HBO suddenly canceled the show in 2006 after its third season. “I told [creator David] Milch, ‘You should come by and see the house before I sell it.'”

Goggins was on FX’s The Shield for all of its seven seasons, so he’s gone through this mourning process before. “I’m better prepared for it this time,” he says. “But I’m still too close to see Boyd Crowder from another person’s point of view, as the person he really is.” Who Boyd is has been flexible throughout the series (“We’re on, what, Version 6.0 now?” Goggins cracks), but his animating force has always been to move out of his criminal father’s shadow and rise above his own status as a common crook. Now, though, he sees Harlan turning into a ghost town. “It’s a place and a people he loves and a struggle that he loves,” says Goggins. “But he sees the writing on the wall. He wants out.”

Boyd may be defined by his aspirations, but Raylan, Olyphant says, “is a man who is defined by his enemies.” Since, if all goes according to plan this season, Raylan might soon be without a worthy foe, this is as good a place as any to end the series. As Yost puts it, “What happens to Holmes with no Moriarty?” But the Raylan-Boyd bond goes deeper, even, than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic rivalry. In the Justified pilot, Raylan apologized to Boyd for shooting him in Ava’s dining room, then explained his remorse to Ava with a simple “Boyd and I dug coal together.” There are volumes in those six words, tying together Harlan’s history as a mining town, the men’s shared heritage, and their divergent paths.

It’s fitting, then, that telling the tale of Raylan Givens has been not unlike the mining process, with the writers and actors chipping away at story and character until the richest veins reveal themselves. Not that Yost himself will reveal who leaves Harlan alive. “If you want to know how it’ll end, just read any Elmore Leonard and see how his stories end,” he says. “That’s what we’re going for.”

Back in the glare of the ambulance lights, Olyphant peers down the train tracks that run parallel to the road. “Let’s knock this out,” he says, “before the next one comes.”

Justified, Final season airs, Tuesdays, 10/9c, FX