End of Season Report: Justified, Season 5

9 Apr


I’m a huge fan of Justified. I ranked it #5 in my rankings of every show that I watched in 2013, which covered Justified’s wonderful fourth season. Unfortunately, while still a highly enjoyable show, Justified delivered a fifth season that was not up to the caliber of its past four seasons, and I can’t see it appearing nearly as highly ranked next year.

There’s plenty to say about the season but here are the central problems, which I’ll break down in further detail below. First, the antagonists were not as compelling as in previous seasons. Second, the season meandered and never seemed to have a strong sense of direction propelling it forwards. Third, the finale was somewhat anticlimactic and seemed more like a set up for next year’s final season big bad epic showdown between Raylan and Boyd than any sort of satisfying conclusion to this season.

There were good pieces, which I will touch upon, and as with most very high level television, it’s enjoyable episode to episode even when not as satisfying as its peak. That said, it suffers the curse fairly or not of being held to higher expectations, and it’s against those very high expectations, and not the expectations for an average series that Justified is judged.

Justified’s first season was a largely a compilation of one-off stories, slowly building the world which Justified inhabits, before ending with a multi-episode arc. Since then, each season has had a strong serial storyline which guided the season along. Seasons two and three had primary antagonists – Margo Martindale’s Mags Bennett in season two and Neal McDonough’s Robert Quarles in season three. Bennett’s superiority to Quarles as an antagonist was the largest part of what made season two superior to season three.  Season four broke that formula and worked around the search for a man who had been missing since the ‘70s but was living right under the nose of both the police and the criminal element in Kentucky, unrecognizable in the present to anyone still living. Season five revolved around the trials and tribulations of the Crowe family and in particular primary antagonist Daryl Crowe.

Daryl Crowe just wasn’t up to those previous antagonists’ standards for two primary reasons. First, he simply didn’t carry the weight and intimidation that the previous antagonists (or of course series long antagonist Boyd) did. While a certified genius compared to his Crowe brethren, he is still fairly incompetent; it was never believable he’d pose much of a threat to Raylan or Boyd or to anyone else. The show tried to take care of this somewhat by having him become an employee/minority partner of Boyd’s halfway through the season, but it was somewhat hard to believe that Boyd would even place a small amount of trust in Daryl. He wasn’t a particularly good criminal, he wasn’t a particularly scary criminal, and he just never really found a place in Kentucky or in Justified.

Second, forget Daryl’s plot role. He just wasn’t very compelling. His brother Dewey is a complete idiot, but he’s hilarious, and always lights up the screen whenever he appears. Daryl didn’t. Wynn Duffy, who I was glad to greet as a regular this past season, always spoke his piece quickly and dryly, and had a way of being as wittily direct as Boyd is loquacious. Daryl simply didn’t have the same on-screen charisma as any of these other baddies. When he was on the screen, you never felt like you didn’t want to turn away. There was nothing about him that stood out.

It’s likely related to this first issue that the season meandered and felt directionless at times. Seasons two through four ratcheted up as they went forward, building tension until reaching a satisfying climax and resolution. I could generally tell approximately where Justified was in the season by the tension of the events on screen.

It’s not to say that Justified is tied to these rules of how a season must go, but past seasons were stronger and this is one reason why. There may well be more interesting paths for a season to take, and other shows may thrive on a meandering climax-less journey, but Justified season five certainly did not.

Characters came in and out of nowhere, and for most of the first half of the season I just took it on faith because Justified had yet to not deliver, but by the finale, or really by the last few episodes, I did wonder what the plan was for the season as a whole, if it changed, and if it was developed somewhat as the season went along. It felt like the writers hit a couple of snafus and weren’t sure exactly where to go.

I love Boyd as a character but it’s beginning to feel like he gets away from slippery situations one time too often. He’s smart and he’s good, but he isn’t that smart and that good to evade both the law and rival criminal elements for this long, especially if he keeps taking on far more of a burden than he can handle, like he did this season with heroin, not to mention a cartel which was a lot harder to battle than his Dixie mafia rivals.

This is all leading to the third complaint. Ultimately by the time we got to the end of the season it felt like less of a satisfying season long conclusion than just a get-ready-for-the-final-season hurrah where the two primary characters through five seasons of the show, Raylan and Boyd, finally go head-to-head, with the implication that since it’s the final season, one of them will actually go down for good. Eva’s time in jail had some interesting character building moments, and I’m certainly not claiming it was worthless by any means, but the way it ended made it feel at least partly like it was simply a way to separate Eva and Boyd and ultimately get Eva to turn on Boyd and cooperate with Raylan.

The season ended with a chase for Daryl which was less than inspiring; no one thought Daryl would get away, and Wendy shooting Daryl was fairly predictable by the time it happened and relatively uninteresting. Boyd outwitting the cartel employees was equally anticlimactic. Although they were legitimately scary dudes, the tension was cut somewhat by the fact that Boyd had zero chance of not coming out of the situation on top. Overall, the ending of the season seemed largely like an afterthought to steer us towards season six.

The best Crowe this season other than the always delightful Dewey was actually young Kendal. Justified did pull one trick from up its sleeve – hiring a surprisingly good child actor (Jacob Lofland, who was also excellent in Mud). Some of the best moments of the season involved Raylan with Kendal, and though Raylan’s obvious connection to Kendal, being raised by some serious criminals, is hardly subtle, the scenes pack power.

Like a Faulkner novel, Justified is about the power of history, and the inability to free one’s self from it. Harlan county and its environs are composed of families who have been doing what they do, often criminal activity in Justified’s case, for generations. Boyd’s daddy was a criminal, and he became a criminal. Raylan’s daddy was a criminal, and Raylan became a lawman, but the reasons were as much because of his father’s criminal behavior as Boyd’s becoming a criminal was. Family is essential in Justified’s world as an inescapable force from which people can’t free themselves no matter how much they might want to – the Bennett’s, the Crowders, the Givens’ and others. Even third season antagonist Robert Quarles’ aggression stemmed in part from his lack of family; he was adopted by the Tonin’s but no matter what he did, could never be seen as their real son. These themes are powerful and generally handled very strongly on Justified. The Crowes, another criminal family bringing down Wendy and Kendal, couldn’t compete with those other families, but I earnestly felt for Kendal, ruthlessly manipulated by his uncle and unprotected by his mother who was unable to, until the season’s end, find the strength to separate herself from Daryl’s orbit.

Raylan’s deteriorating relationship with Art was also a highlight of the season. Art’s punching Raylan in the bar was the most satisfying cheap shot on an arrogant bastard since Mike clocked Walter White. It’s hard not to root for Raylan in the big picture but it’s also only right that his general approach to simply doing whatever he wants on the job without much concern for what’s best for the team actually starts only to rub his boss the wrong way and have consequences for Raylan. It’s good to see Art start to stand up to Raylan and stop letting him get with anything.

What it comes down to is that I hope Justified has a blast in its last season (and I don’t mean this as a pun on Boyd’s love of explosives). This is a show I want to look forward to going out at the absolute top of its game. Hopefully, this past fifth season is merely remembered as a little bit of a weak spot leading up to a powerful finale, rather than a sign that peak Justified was in the past.


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