Justified's third season rode off into the sunset tonight with a lot fewer bullets but one direct hit to the heart. As everyone descended on Limehouse's butcher shack in Noble's Holler—the place where we all knew things would be settled since the episode was titled "Slaughterhouse"—we expected at least one Big Bad to die (which happened), we expected Justified-type violence (disarm, haha, good one Raylan), and we expected some trademark ambiguity to give us something to anticipate for Season 4. But what we did not expect was the blindside of emotion that rapped us upside the head at the very end.
Sometimes we get lost in the mystique of Raylan Givens. The hat. The gunplay. The witty words uttered from that handsomely crooked smile in the most dire of circumstances. But even though he's a man who's larger than life he's still a man, same as you and me.
What should have been an ultimate showdown between Raylan and Quarles and Limehouse and Boyd and whoever else Raylan had beef with turned into a sad story about a boy and his father. When Arlo Givens admitted to shooting Officer Tom, it cut Raylan down...though he was too strong to show it. We don't know for certain if Arlo pulled the trigger since we're trusting the words of Quarles and an old man suffering from dementia (I hope he did, because that would mean I was right when I predicted he was the triggerman last week), but that doesn't matter to Raylan.
With Boyd in custody for the murder of Devil, he admitted to Raylan that he had a connection to Arlo that he never got to have with his own father. And when put in front of the cops, Arlo says he not only shot Officer Tom, he killed Devil, too. And he did it to protect Boyd. Raylan's father and Raylan's nemesis have the father-son relationship Raylan and Arlo never had. Raylan coolly reacted with a wry smile and ran off to Winona's for an impromptu psychiatric session, but in the end, he left and was all alone. This is the life of Raylan Givens and it's the first time I looked at the man who I've idolized over the past three seasons and did not want to be him. This was a completely unexpected, tragic ending, and it left more of an impact than any barrage of bullets or buckets of blood ever could.
You can argue that Raylan is an angry man because he never had a connection to his father, leaving us to wonder what kind of man Raylan would be today if he did. One of the hardest things for a television program to do is open up a main character and show us what makes him tick, but Justified did just that with Raylan tonight.
Phew. Up until to that point, the episode was typical, 150-proof Justified, as Quarles was on the run from everyone and, I'll paraphrase for him, just wanted to get the f*** out of Harlan and back to the safety of good old Detroit. His way out involved kidnapping a family on a Christian rock vacation, begging Sammy Tonin to be let back into the family, and demanding money from Limehouse. But he would never make it to Detroit, as we all suspected, and Limehouse found a way to work around his slide-track Taxi Driver arm gun with an awesome cleaver cut right above the elbow. I don't think I'm being bold when I say that's one of the best things to ever happen on this show, and it was great that the writers gave him a few more lines while he bled out in a fit of hysteria.
But justice was not fully served. In fact, justice practically took the night off for the finale. Limehouse, Errol, Wynn, Johnny, Wynn's henchman, Limehouse's boys, and more people I've forgotten about didn't get clear punishments for their involvement in the last 48 hours of mayhem in Harlan. Wynn can be connected to the car bombing and admitted as much to Raylan, Limehouse will probably work something out, and who knows what'll happen to everyone else. However, I wouldn't count on Johnny lasting much longer once Boyd gets wind of his betrayal.
But that begs the question: Does a satisfying finale require that the good guys get the bad guys? On network television, yes. But FX is notoriously loose with its requirements to satisfy its audience, allowing showrunners to do what they feel best serves the story. Adam Arkin is particularly crafty at avoiding capture on FX programs, with no recourse as Detroit mob boss Sammy Tonin tonight and a scot-free escape as Ethan Zobelle in the second season of Sons of Anarchy.
This season hasn't been about one particular goal or destination, and the finale accurately reflected that. Instead we got a character-driven finale with plenty of ambiguity that mirrors real life...as opposed to the world of mainstream television and its necessity to wrap everything up in a pretty bow. It was sad, but so was last season's finale. Who didn't mourn Mags' death by moonshine and Loretta being shipped off to a foster home? Harlan is a gritty place, and one of the reasons we're so entranced by it is that it feels so real, despite the obvious caricatures. And the way this season ended, life in Harlan, troubled as it may be, will go on.
Postcards From Harlan County
– It's time to give some recognition to Raymond J. Barry, who has been absolutely incredible as Arlo over the last two episodes. He's been a completely different actor ever since Arlo went off his medicine.
– Raylan, upon seeing Quarles' sliding sleeve gun: "That's cute."
– Quarles, upon seeing that Limehouse keeps his money inside one of his butchered hogs: "Oh shit, it's a piggy bank!"
– Still some questions. What happened to Errol? He got shot, but why did he come back after Limehouse kicked him out? How often will Winona let Raylan come by and visit? Where does Ava get off punching Ellen May in the face? She turned into a pimp real quick!
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom