Justified, Season 6, Episode 13: “The Promise”
Written by Graham Yost, Fred Golan, Dave Andron and Benjamin Cavell
Directed by Adam Arkin
Aired Tuesdays at 10pm ET on FX
Midway through “The Promise,” the final episode of Justified, a dog-eared copy of George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle is passed between Marshals Raylan Givens and Tim Gutterson. While there are stricter parallels to be drawn between the novel, which tells the story of the dwindling fortunes of an aging, low-level hood trying to turn informant (or with the excellent film of the same name, featuring a stellar performance from the legendary Robert Mitchum), the prominent placement of the novel is a nod – one of many in this episode – to a mostly bygone era of genre storytelling, one which placed a premium on character, wit and dialogue above flowery prose or postmodern structural games. “The Promise” shows us the Higgins book because it can’t show us a work by the one man who, logically, can’t exist in its universe, barring some St. Elsewhere-style shenanigans: its originator, the late Elmore Leonard.
If you were expecting a guns-blazing, high-body-count, bloody finale, “The Promise” is emphatically not that, unlike, well, every other Justified finale ever. Instead, it gets the season’s stories wrapped up tidily in the first half of the episode, ensuring that it has the time to give its principals a denouement worthy of the time we’ve invested in them, or at least to attempt it. For anyone who had a death pool or quarter bets going, whoever lowballed probably won: only Markham and Boon bite the dust, the former by Boyd’s hand with a grisly bullet through the eye, the latter at Raylan’s in his last (onscreen) armed standoff. No fancy pyrotechnics (unless you count Boyd lobbing dynamite at federal officers, which was probably enough to earn him a life sentence right there), no last-minute betrayals, no stunt cameos. In the end, when the long-awaited showdown between Boyd and Raylan comes, Raylan opts to arrest Boyd rather than take him down. Once the episode’s final shots ring out near the half, bringing with them the last iteration of the series’ unofficial theme song, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” it becomes very clear that Graham Yost and his co-writers conceived of “The Promise” primarily as a way for them to say goodbye to the world they helped create through Leonard’s stories and characters, while staying true to the series’ beginnings.
What follows is a series of quiet scenes that toe a tricky line between saudade and outright sentimentality, mostly keeping to the right side. After we see Raylan say his goodbyes to the Marshals, we pick up four years later, with Raylan in Miami, looking after young Willa. Natalie Zea turns up one last time to greet them – and to make clear that despite her pledge and their probable best efforts, they couldn’t make it work (and/or Raylan maintained his record of being an incorrigible romantic screwup), and we soon discover that Winona has very solidly moved on. Of all the character decisions made in the epilogue, this is probably the most inspired, and the truest to what we know of the characters. Neither of them are a picnic, and despite Raylan’s look of longing as she, Willa and her new man walk away, it’s clear that he’ll have to settle for the fact that Willa still calls him “daddy,” though to be fair, it’s clear that his ability to be a real presence in Willa’s life has marked a real turning point. Winona even upgrades him to “the most stubborn man [she’s] ever met,” as opposed to the angriest, as you’ll recall from the last moments of the pilot.
Next, when we get a look at Raylan in his new Marshal digs, complete with the return of David Koechner’s Dep. Sutter, we get a sense that’s it’s not quite business as usual. It’s all in the hat; we first see Raylan don Boon’s smaller headgear just before the time jump, and while its primary function may be to serve as another nod to Leonard, who always insisted that Raylan should be wearing a smaller “businessman’s Stetson” akin to the one in this episode, it’s also a relatively subtle indicator that Raylan’s gunslinging days are done. Yes, he still carries a piece, but just as his “10-gallon hat” flies off in the aftermath of the showdown with Boon, we get a sense that he’s happy to take on less flashy duties (like prisoner transport!), leave the image and the attendant swagger behind, and make it to see Willa at the designated times in one piece. Still, there’s unfinished business: an unlucky Ava is captured in a local rag’s photograph and Raylan arrives at her door one more time, once again echoing the pilot. (There are a whole lot of explicit echoes to the pilot, possibly more than in any other series finale ever, so I’m just gonna go ahead and stop taking note of them now.)
The goofiest sequence of the episode, in a winning way, is the one in which Raylan speculates on how Ava could possibly have gotten out of Harlan – we see quick flashes of Ellen May (!) and Limehouse, who we are told left Noble’s behind, before Raylan lands on Wynn Duffy, who is rumored to be “surfing in Fiji.” (That we were deprived of one last sequence with Psycho Wynn getting in the mix this week is indeed regrettable, but this last glimpse of Wynn’s puppy-mobile will have to do.) Following that interlude though, Ava and Raylan’s meeting once again takes on a wistful tone, as Raylan finds out that Ava bore a child by Boyd, young Zachariah (aww), and fears what will become of the boy’s future should be ever discover his true parentage. Thankfully, “The Promise” restrains itself from suggesting any kind of Raylan-Ava hookup, merely glancing at their long history and exploiting it for a hit of bittersweet acceptance.
And then there’s Boyd. We find him once again a preacher, this time to a small congregation of fellow prison lifers, strongly echoing his status in the first season, albeit without the white-supremacist angle. There’s a hollowness to his sermon this time, though, the sense that he’s just going through the motions, playing out the same old narrative to keep himself in relative comfort. There’s no spark of inspiration, just the respun, faded glories of past grand misdeeds. When Raylan turns up to see him, there’s an undeniable warmth between them almost immediately, even as Raylan lies to him, informing him that Ava died in a car accident after stealing another woman’s identity. (I’m willing to bet good money that this fate is one that the Justfied writers’ room actually weighed at one point or another while breaking this episode.) When Boyd asks him why he took the time to go out of his way to deliver the news himself, Raylan can only add that it seemed the sort of news that ought to be delivered in person. And that they dug coal together.
Here’s the thing. There’s a part of me that remembers all of the horrible things Boyd Crowder has done – the murdering of innocents, particularly – and questions the tone of this last sequence. Does it really cohere that Raylan and Boyd can sit down and regard each other so warmly thanks to a few shared retorts and some long-ago coal mining? I’m not sure that it does, on a realistic level, but on a thematic level, this sequence is deeply resonant. When you first notice that the episode is entitled “The Promise,” you might be inclined to think it’s a reference to Ava’s assertion from a few episodes back about how “there’s a place in hell for a man who breaks a promise to a woman,” and it does work on that level, but it seems pretty clear that it’s more overtly referencing the phrase “you’ll never leave Harlan alive,” a sentiment that has hounded both Boyd and Raylan – and so many others – from the moment they were born. Boyd may have ended up in a federal pen to rot the way his Daddy did, Ava might always be looking over her shoulder, and Raylan may never find perfect equilibrium in his romantic life, but they all did what none of them thought possible and proved that there is in fact life beyond Harlan County. It’s easy to imagine the fatalistic version of the end of Justified, with all concerned getting into a free-for-all and none left standing. There’s a beguiling grace to this ending, which implies that all of the horrors these people inflicted upon each other were the product of a place and a culture that wrote them off before they knew how to speak.
It’s the pervasive humanism that makes “The Promise” work, and while I’m not sure it’s a perfect fit with all that came before it on a tonal and narrative level, there’s something rather beguiling about the way it pays tribute to the works and the man who spawned it, as well as the notion that there’s hope for even the stubbornest – or angriest – of people, just so long as they’re willing to accept that even if their past will haunt them forever, it doesn’t have to set the agenda.
Unlike most other crits, I didn’t have a screener for this, so you’re getting my take immediately after my first viewing. I suspect that only a proper series rewatch will tell me if “The Promise” lines up as neatly as it thinks it does. I’m really quite pleased with it, however, especially in the way its pacing is much more akin to the end of a novel as opposed to a high-octane TV series. It found one last way to play it serpentine. I know that’s Dennis Hopper’s line, but still, I feel as though Robert Mitchum would approve.
I’ll be honest, I still would have liked to somehow have found out if Robert Quarles survived getting dis-armed or not.
A lot of column ink has already been spilled about how Justified never got enough respect thanks to its genre underpinnings and unfussy style, so I’ll just add that they’re all correct, but the underdog status also perfectly suits it.
It would have been nice to see Loretta and/or Wynn get more to do, but we have a pretty solid sense of their fates as it is, and Loretta kinda-sorta-maybe saves Raylan’s life by securing Boon’s arm. See you in the Spynn-off, Wynn!
Some nice tidbits from Yost in this post-finale interview.
I could get another thousand words in, but I’m getting a little misty. Cheers to Yost, Olyphant and all concerned for what’s been a bit of a rebound season and for their work on the series overall even if I wasn’t quite as taken with season six as many others. On a selfish note, I reviewed 52 episodes (the last four seasons) for SOS, easily the most I’ve done for any series, and I’m going to miss it terribly.
And finally, just to tick everyone off rather than end on a sentimental note, my official Justified season ranking: 4 > 3 > 2 > 1 > 6 > 5.