April TV has finally reached a balancing point, with lots …
When it comes to planned-in-advance TV endings, in general, you can do it straight, or you can do it serpentine. Do it straight (Breaking Bad, The Wire) and you guarantee a high degree of fan contentedness, though usually at the cost of spontaneity. Do it serpentine (Lost, Battlestar Galactica, The Sopranos) and you run the risk of pissing off a large percentage of the fanbase, though you’ll have the side-benefit of being debated into eternity. On occasion, a series finds a way to split the difference and reaps incredible rewards. Justified seems destined to opt for the former route. While it’s supplied some artful twists and surprise developments in the past, it’s never been a series built on narrative trickery or hifalutin thematic development. It’s always had (at least) one foot planted firmly in the realm of traditional genre storytelling.
Justified has looked and felt a little different with each new season, so it should perhaps be less surprising in retrospect that its fifth season was, once again, something new: a letdown. The series’ incredible writing team has been articulating variations on a narrow set of very old themes so gracefully for so long that, if anything, they deserve immense credit for their unlikely four-season streak of greatness. It wasn’t that the Crowe-family-centric fifth season was bad, per se – one could easily stitch together a potent highlight reel – it was more that it finally felt like the series was simply spinning its wheels for the first time. It’s the job of the series’ sixth and final season, then, to right the course and get us re-invested in Justified’s vision of Harlan County and its assortment of charismatically gifted heroes and villains. “Fate’s Right Hand” has a lot of work to do, but for the most part, it’s a smoothly paced and assured premiere, one that portends a back-to-basics approach, albeit a ruthless one.
That’s what you get for cautious optimism. Justified’s fifth season finale has a lot of heavy lifting to do: it has to convince us that our time spent with the Crowes was meaningful, that Boyd’s Mexican misadventures amount to more than a diversion, that Ava’s prison scenes weren’t just a too-sadistic sojourn into tonally misaligned territory, and that Raylan’s sense of detachment this season has been leading our perpetually behatted hero somewhere new and intriguing.
Watching a season of Justified expand and contract its narrative can be a thing of beauty, even when it feels like the show isn’t necessarily at its best. “Starvation” continues down the sullen path of Season 5, a year that’s seen Raylan grow increasingly distant amidst a particularly nasty and bleak set of circumstances, but does so in a way that honors its main character’s histories and relationships. For longtime viewers, it’s a welcome sign of things likely to come. Probably.