FX's Justified, hands-down one of the best dramas currently on television, concluded its second season last night. Did the finale live up to the explosive end of Season 1?
“Bloody Harlan” leads off as season antagonist Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) reconciles with her surviving sons and calls a parlay with Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) and Raylan's father Arlo (Raymond J. Barry). Arlo is still bitterly angry at Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies) for his actions in his home.
Meanwhile Marshal Raylan Givens (remember him? The “good” guy?) tries to keep Winona (Natalie Zea) appeased with promises of quitting his dangerous lifestyle and taking an instructor position. But first, he has to investigate the disappearance of young Loretta (Kaitlyn Dever) who was stolen away from her foster parents and looks to exact revenge on Mags.
Due to the extremely serial nature of Justified's narrative, you'll likely be lost if you jump in to “Bloody Harlan” cold. In the last few episodes several long-term players have been killed off or switched allegiances. The few seconds of prologue is nowhere near enough to catch up - though the writers have helped somewhat with the questionable move of leaving some loose ends.
Perhaps the thing I like most about Justified is its honest and unapologetic depiction of the rural lifestyle. While most country folk won't find themselves in a shootout any time soon, the show depicts some of the issues that real people face on a daily basis, while never deriding or judging its setting or characters as more mainstream depictions often want to do.
If you're hoping for the pulse-pounding action of last year's final episode, you may be somewhat disappointed. The finale starts with a bang, but spends the rest of its time building dramatic tension for the last few moments. What action is there is fleeting, especially considering some of the unrestrained chaos of Season 1.
But that isn't a bad thing. Because in place of a storm of bullets is some of the finest acting you'll see on television - on this or any other network. While Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins play their cat and mouse game with practiced skill, it's the two new women of Justified's second season that really shine.
First is Margo Martindale's depiction of Mags the crime matron. While she's not exactly a sympathetic character, her motivations are always clear and understandable. Her pain and loss is laid bare, ever while she pulls strings that leave men dead and broken. Martindale deserves a Supporting Actress Emmy nomination for her work, particularly in the finale and “Brother's Keeper.”
But the real surprise is newcomer Kaitlyn Dever, who plays Loretta with a skill and confidence far beyond her years. With the possible exception of Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit, Dever is the best child actress I've seen in years. Her career is one to watch.
Justified loves its flawed characters. Between the dope fiends, murderers, adulterers, thieves, gun thugs and drug mules (and those are just the ones you're supposed to root for) there's a lot of bad blood running through Harlan County. The players connect and intertwine well, except perhaps for Mark Atteberry, Ava Crowder, and Joelle Carter, whose entire season boils down to a few short minutes in the episode.
Like all of Justified, the finale has some pacing issues. Characters jump from location to location with little explanation or transition, leaving the audience spinning at times. Put down the smartphone and close the laptop: you'll need to focus to follow along. But even if you don't, the capable story takes a backseat to the performances on display.
The music for the finale is a bit of a let down, given the impressive range of the soundtrack up to this point. Aside from the haunting stanza that serves as a period for the season (a repeat of last year's Brad Paisley tune) there's no real score or soundtrack to speak of.
Justified has largely set aside the weekly excursions of the Marshal's office to focus on its characters. This makes for very enjoyable drama, but some promising players like Erica Tazel and Jere Burns get left in the dust. This is the Bennett's show, and Raylan and company are playing catch-up.
While the conclusion to Justified's 2011 run leaves a few rounds in the magazine, especially when compared with last year's finale, it more than makes up for it on the strength and confidence of the actors on display. There's still plenty of questions left to answer next season, but the final moments create a satisfying symmetry that won't soon be forgotten.
Overall, Justified continues to be one of the most rewarding shows on TV. If you've enjoyed it up to now, the conclusion will not disappoint.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @MichaelCrider