There was something so unbearably sad about the season finale of Justified season 2. From start to finish you could feel hope sliding away from Raylan, even if he wasn’t quite aware that it was happening. The episode started off on a high, hopeful note—Winona revealed that she’s pregnant. Raylan (Timothy Olyphant, who is going to need to win some hardware for this at some point) reacts as expected—overcome, overjoyed, scared shitless. With one line Olyphant communicates Raylan’s nerves and excitement at the prospect of having a child with Winona. But almost immediately Winona begins shitting on Raylan’s joy. If he can’t get out of the field, either by transferring to the US Marshal’s field-training facility in Glencoe or by quitting the service all together, she’ll leave him.
Sidebar: I HATE it when writers take an interesting, well-developed female character like Winona (Natalie Zea, also doing fine work) and then have her react to a situation in such a clichéd way. I don’t buy that she would issue this ultimatum to Raylan. Winona knows better than anyone who and what Harlan is. She knows he isn’t cut out for civilian life, and that law enforcement offers him an acceptable outlet for his anger and daddy issues, so why would she punish him for being what he is? She’s already bailed on him once, and this whole season for Winona was about her realizing that Raylan, despite his massive flaws, really is the best man for her. Reunited and pregnant with his child, I just don’t think she’d leave him again. Encourage him to get out of the field? Yes. Issue such a dumbass ultimatum and stomp her feet like a toddler not getting her way? No. However, in the last glimpse we got of Winona she was pleading with Art Mullen to rescue Raylan from whatever fresh hell he’d discovered in Harlan, but Art said no. Later on, Art does in fact sweep in to rescue Raylan, so I do wonder what kind of bargain Winona struck with him. Season three…
From Winona’s good news/bad ultimatum, Raylan learns that Loretta (Kaitlyn Dever, Party Down) ran away from her foster home. So begins the slow slide into sad. The finale episode, “Bloody Harlan”, brings the three-way feud between the Givens family, the Bennetts and Boyd Crowder to a head. The violence is steady and explosive. A Bennett-lead raid on Boyd’s house results in Ava being wounded, and in a frightening scene Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies, Lost’s Daniel Faraday) gets the drop on Raylan and strings him up to beat him with a baseball bat. Davies and Olyphant sell the shit out of that confrontation—throughout the season Raylan seemed unwilling to put an end to Dickie and in the final episodes, there were real consequences to allowing Dickie to continue running around Harlan. Amazingly, Raylan gets through the finale without killing anyone. (Raylan’s total body count for season 2: 3.)
In fact, he goes the other direction and prevents death. He stops Boyd from killing Dickie and he talks Loretta out of killing Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale, who was so, so good) out of revenge. One of the best things about Justified from season 1 to 2 is the evolution of Raylan Givens. After all the bloodshed in season 1, he really did become a man determined not to kill unless he absolutely has to. In “Bloody Harlan”, Raylan finds other ways to solve his problems. It’s fitting, then, that an episode involving Winona, a bag of drug-bust money, and the well-timed arrival of Art Mullen to the evidence locker resulted in Art losing any faith he had left in Raylan. Just as Raylan achieves real change, Art gives up on him. It made for a prickly dynamic between the two throughout the latter half of the season and lead to Art’s reluctance to bail Raylan out once again.
Season 2 improved on season 1 a lot, but there’s still room for more improvement. Deputies Gutterson (Jacob Pitts, The Pacific) and Brooks (Erica Tazel, Jericho) are still being short-changed and need more to do on an episode-to-episode basis. My biggest issue with the show at this point is the character of Harlan, Kentucky. The town is so integral to the show that they need to film at least one episode a season on location (the pilot was shot in western Pennsylvania but everything else is filmed in Caifornia). It’s Olyphant’s deal—getting him out of Los Angeles and away from his family pretty much requires a case of TNT these days—but Tim, really, would it kill you to spend a couple weeks a year in Appalachia shooting Justified? The production designers do a great job mocking up coal country in California but nothing can replace the real thing and I think the show would benefit from using the actual landscapes. If nothing else, get some B roll footage to pepper throughout the show. It’s a touch of authenticity that would enrich Justified even more. The cinematography is a little stifled since they can’t really expose too much of the surrounding California environment.
“Bloody Harlan” was not as action-packed as “Bulletville” was to end season 1, but the steady building of tension punctuated by episodic violence fit the more even tone of season 2. I thought for sure Raylan would wipe out the Bennetts in the season finale but in fact, he doesn’t. Though ultimately only Dickie is left standing, Raylan stays on the path he’d been navigating all season, trying to diffuse a situation without resorting to his gun. And it all lead to the final confrontation between Raylan and Mags. Both wounded, they sit to drink a glass of Mags’ moonshine. The antagonism between Raylan and Mags was always made scarier by the cordiality of their relationship and in this final scene that mix of fear, respect and distrust is working at an all-time high. We know immediately that Mags has done her thing with the poison again, and it surprised me more than it should have that she used it on herself. Mags’ death is pitiable but Raylan seems more put out—you can almost hear him saying, “It didn’t have to be this way!”
Season 2 ended with Raylan, injured but alive, clutching Mags’ hands in silence, a little baffled and a bit pissed about what just happened. There’s no gunfire, yelling, or any kind of action. It’s just a slow-fade of Raylan sitting in Mags Bennett’s living room set to Brad Paisley’s cover of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” (an inspired and inevitable song choice). It’s a sad, soft ending to this otherwise forceful show. As Paisley sings the line, “You’ll never leave Harlan alive”, you know it’s true for Raylan. He’s too deeply rooted and cares more than he’ll admit for his hometown. Winona and the baby or not, there is no Glencoe for Raylan. Glencoe is a dream, a nice thought but an empty one. Reality is Harlan and, already waiting at his family’s home there, Raylan’s grave.