[This is a review of Justified season 6, episode 12. There will be SPOILERS.]
At the end of ‘Collateral,’ the flashing blue and red lights of a squad car illuminate Raylan Givens’ face as it fills the screen. The proximity isn't really necessary, but it makes a point. This man is unmistakably the protagonist of Justified in all his (now) lawless glory, being lit by an equally unmistakable signifier of the law. And yet, Raylan answers the question of his identity, posed by the two gun-toting lawmen, by asking a question of his own. “I don’t suppose you’d believe me if I said ‘no’?” he asks, in what is a fitting end to the series’ penultimate episode that challenges its characters to define who they are, for themselves as well as for those around them.
The scene offers a compelling narrative cliffhanger, seemingly placing Raylan directly where ADA Vasquez wants him: in the hands of the law. But the intimation of Raylan’s flippant question is that it doesn’t really matter whether or not the cops would believe him if he said “no,” because the question has already been answered. After turning in his badge, and leaving Earl for Tim Gutterson to find, he is no longer the Raylan Givens who is ultimately bound by the law. This is Raylan relieving himself of the burden of his badge and occupation, becoming what the son of Arlo Givens seemed destined to become.
And that brings up the series’ long-lingering question of the importance and inescapability of history and legacy, something that has haunted Raylan and many other residents of Harlan from the beginning. It’s why Boyd responds so intently when Shea Whigham begins blowing smoke, seemingly singing ‘The Ballad of Boyd Crowder,' when really he's just stalling to save his own life. Whigham’s character initially calls Boyd a hero, the kind of outlaw who is really trying to protect his own (i.e., the fine folks of Harlan). But it’s not long before he’s calling Boyd a plague, knowing perhaps that the legacy of Boyd Crowder is to put himself first, all others be damned.
So, just who is Raylan Givens without that star fashioned to his waist? It’s an interesting question to ponder as we head into the series finale, and it is one the episode here seems determined to leave as a question. Raylan has been blinkered all season long with the prospect of finally busting Boyd, and losing the badge is a way of making what needs to be done easier. This way, Raylan won’t be hamstrung by the limitations of the law he’s sworn to uphold. He’s going after someone the way he wants it to be done – consequences be damned. So, in a way, he’s still the same old Raylan. But in a more profound way, Raylan has inched closer to what Boyd Crowder proudly announces himself to be.
There is circularity to the episode that works to its advantage, making most of the various threads add up to the same thing: a redefinition of the roles these characters are playing in what is now an endgame. It is essentially asking whether or not people can change by demonstrating what they no longer are. In Ryalan's case, that means he’s no longer a deputy marshal, while Ava is seemingly no longer anything more to Boyd than an obstacle in the way of him getting Avery's money. And that brief spark of role reversal, wherein Boyd is painted as something of a folk hero, is blown out long before it can be fanned into a flame – not unlike uncle Zachariah and his second failed attempt to kill Boyd with too little dynamite.
Elsewhere, Harlan's criminal element keeps ticking away without much in the way of permanent change. The compassion Wynn Duffy expressed for Mikey last week has turned once more into coldhearted pragmatism, after he earns a free ticket out of jail on account of being a snitch. Ever the opportunist, Wynn exchanges Katherine's tennis bracelet for a custom made dog grooming van, equipped to handle all his criminal needs. But before he can sit quietly on an unassuming park bench like a felonious Forrest Gump, Wynn has to steel himself to lie to Vasquez about who really killed Simon Poole.
Duffy's slipperiness is in itself a definition of the man, just as Bob's willingness to help Raylan (at any cost) or Loretta's craftiness and business acumen becomes not only her calling card, but also the reason she uses to convince Avery not to kill her. Maybe Avery is just feeling compassionate in the wake of Katherine's death, not unlike Duffy was when Mikey was dying in his arms. It's clear that certain circumstances can change people, as Avery finds himself talking to the dead, even though he knows his words fall on ears that can no longer hear. Not that it would have mattered much anyway, as Katherine was apparently just as stubborn as everyone else on the show.
All of the characters are set in their ways, satisfied by how they define themselves. All of them except Raylan, that is. As the series nears its conclusion, Raylan is in flux, seemingly sure of who he is and what needs to be done, but uncertain of how best to go about representing that need. He signs over Arlo's house and land to Cope and his kin in moment of pessimistic altruism, and in the next, he's shooting unprovoked at Boyd's glow-in-the-dark teeth. It seems as though Raylans' still walking that line, the one Boyd vows to tell his enemy's daughter that her "daddy spent his whole life trying to walk…and failed."
With just one episode to go, it looks as though that line is going to take Raylan all the way to the very end. And it won't be until the end that we find out which side he ends up on.
Justified will air its series finale next Tuesday with 'The Promise' @10 on FX.
Photos: Prashant Gupta/FX