Justified: An All-Time Great Episode Starts The Endgame

Justified Episode 6.9
Photo Courtesy of FX Network

Warning: Spoiler Alert

Throughout its history, one of the more intriguing elements of Justified has been the way that Graham Yost and his fellow writers and producers have defied the expectations vis-à-vis the formatting of their seasons.  It’s been consistently difficult to forecast the pacing of different seasons, exemplified most famously perhaps by the decision to unveil the identity of Drew Thompson about 2/3 of the way through Season 4 instead of much closer to the very end.  It’s one thing to be unconventional about the pacing and to mix it up from season to season as they do, but it’s another thing entirely to make it work – and coming into this final campaign, the public consensus seems to be that they made it work in every season except the last one.

So past performance means that Yost and Company had an 80% chance to get it right in this final season, even as they eschewed playing it safe yet again.  The Raylan/Boyd final battle has had many different complicating elements thrown in its path, from Sam Elliott’s badass Avery Markham character to the weird Avery/Katherine dance and emerging backstory to the whole subplot with the Tigerhawk Security boys.  And with the great strides made last week by Raylan in boxing Boyd in, the series certainly didn’t feel coming into Episode 6.9, Burned, as though it only had five episodes left.  Because aside from burning and then turning Ava – a feat negated by the fact that Raylan quickly sussed out that she had been compromised – Boyd was completely up a foul Kentucky creek at the end of 6.8.  His great caper is being undermined by Zach Randolph and Raylan, Rachel, Tim and the Marshalls are now just waiting for him to complete it so they can bust him for good.  On a lesser show, you’d fear that the epic clash six seasons in the making is going to fizzle out like a dud firecracker – and with too much anticlimax time left over after it.

But with Justified, the benefit of the doubt earned by the writers causes you to make the positive assumption that there’s nothing to worry about and that the final five episodes are going to be full of all kinds of twists and turns – chief among them being Boyd’s ability to escape the noose one more time before the climax of the series endgame.

So, with all of that said, there was no reason to expect going in that Yost and Company would turn to the Season 4 playbook, with Burned turning out to be the Decoy of this season, an explosive culmination of all that has happened thus far.  But that’s exactly what played out, in extremely glorious fashion.

There was so much that happened that developments that would have taken up a good percentage of the focus of earlier episodes are somewhat at risk of being overlooked; such was the magnitude of what was poured into an episode that remarkably fit into the standard broadcast window, without the overrun that has been utilized many times this season.  Some of these developments included:

^ Seemingly out of nowhere – in a sudden moment that probably deserved a bit more setup – Seabass breaks in on Avery and Katherine to hold them up for “severance pay.”  Unfortunately for him, he makes the mistake of trusting Katherine to pull an expensive tennis bracelet out of her purse, when her actual move is to fire a gun through it and through him.  RIP, Seabass.

^ Wynn being unmasked, in the cold open no less, as the snitch who got Katherine’s husband killed.  Raylan and Art squeeze him with this knowledge and the threat of a leak to the Dixie Mafia, who would not be gentle with him.  While Mike momentarily disapproves of his boss’s decision to inform again, Wynn chalks it up to just another consequence of the life.

Wynn’s first job for the Marshalls is to approach Boyd with the “tip” that Avery is moving the money out of the vault later in the day after a shindig that he is throwing at the Pizza Portal.  While Boyd, paranoid about a great deal these days, is suspicious of the intel, he decides to act on it anyway.  Thus, the episode builds to an incredible second half with Avery and Katherine beseeching the people of Harlan attending their party to trust him and sell their land, with almost all of the main characters on the canvas in the room – and the culmination of the break-in through the mines transpiring literally under their feet.

Before that, though, there are a few intriguing developments and pulse-pounding moments.  Loretta arrives home to find a menacing intruder, Boon, who has left her a dead animal as a thinly-veiled metaphor for her own fate if she doesn’t sell to Avery.  After staring him down, Raylan’s surrogate daughter figure makes the bold move of approaching Boyd to be her business partner.  Boyd accepts and offers her the chance to be the Queen of Harlan, being in a position to be generous in his own mind since he believes that he and Ava will be making off with their fortune before the sun rises the next day.  Later, Boyd’s final preparations for the heist appear to be airtight.  Initially irate when he learns that Ava fed Raylan info about the vault heist, he sees the bright side when he considers that the authorities will not fathom that he’s coming at it from underground.  And as we know, he’s wrong about that.

At Avery’s function, a gatecrashing Loretta again demonstrates her gumption by refusing to be intimidated by Boone and agreeing to purchase the Givens property (a deal which Raylan will later state is negated by her public revelations).  And once Avery takes center stage and tries to sweet-talk the townsfolk, he tries to use Boyd and Ava, the other party-crashers, as a foil.  Boyd starts to banter back as fans everywhere have flashbacks to his other memorable moments in public speaking.  But what follows is delicious misdirection from the creative team, as Loretta again takes center stage, playing the outsider card against Avery and turning her fellow locals against him.  Katherine whispers menacingly to Avery that something’s going to have to be done about her and the vicious visage of Boon suggests that it will be swift and brutal.  Boyd, unmasked in her remarks as her partner, is none too thrilled with her indiscretion, which means that she might be lacking the muscle she will need to avoid having her bluff called.

As all of this is unfolding, the robbery plot is building to a climax.  Raylan’s demeanor with Ava makes it plain that he’s sniffed out the fact that she’s been burned, so she tells him that her role in the matter, which is unfolding in real time, is to set a fire as a diversion and make sure that the alarm is pulled.  Ready for what’s to come, Raylan tells her to do so and the plot unfolds exactly as it should from Boyd’s perspective – until Zach Randolph finally makes his move against him, attacking him and chaining him so that the explosives will finish him off.  A dramatic last-minute rescue by his crew gets Boyd out of the mines, shaken, physically intact and lacking any of the loot.  He confronts Ava intensely, wondering if she was in cahoots with her uncle, until she reminds him that she was the one who pointed out that Zach Randolph was not to be trusted.  Given the damage to the facility and the knowledge that the vault is not safe from any angle, Boyd tells her that the money is going to be moved in the next several hours and he intends to intercept it.  Yet again, Boyd’s plan is sniffed out by Raylan, who relates it to Rachel in an attempt to placate her after she expresses extreme frustration that they still have nothing big to stick on Boyd.

So now the mine storyline has culminated in ignominious failure for Boyd, a development that many would regard as surprising.  His fallback plan has also been detected by Raylan, who has turned Ava against him again – at least for the time being.  Avery and Loretta/Boyd are now raising the stakes in the Harlan land grab.  Given the fact that the show doesn’t feature loose ends, Zach Randolph being out there in the wind has to mean something.  And the patience of the feds is waning rapidly with Raylan.  On first viewing, Burned belongs on a short list of the greatest Justified episodes ever, alongside Bloody Harlan, Decoy and Shot All to Hell.  Now, Decoy was acceptable as a highpoint for Season 4, with an entertaining anticlimax winding up the last few chapters of the season.  In the final run of the show, however, the writers have a much steeper challenge: to build off of the greatness of this episode and actually carry the momentum forward in even more memorable fashion.  It won’t be easy; it’s a thankless task.  But creating one of the most outstanding TV dramas of all time isn’t supposed to be easy.  We can only hope that the final four episodes can carry the program to the heights that we have come to expect over six seasons.

As is now the custom with the Justified reviews here at NJATVS, here’s an extended version of commentary for this episode between Jason Jones and myself: an immediate post-show breakdown of the episode recorded in real time.  Past webcasts for Season 6 can be found when searching the Justified category on this site.  Additionally, here’s our Season 6 preview and our 10-hour Season 5 “box set” containing a season preview, review and analysis of every episode.

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