Justified

If "Slaughterhouse" is what you're going to call your season finale, after building up to a major bloody showdown all season, you'd better be able to justify it. Thankfully, we're talking FX's Justified here, and when does it ever not live up to expectations?

Even before he completely went off the rails in a drug-fueled psychotic frenzy the last few weeks, we've been waiting for Detroit villain-out-of-water Robert Quarles (the electrifying Neal McDonough) to get his comeuppance. And we all knew that eventually we'd get to see Ellston Limehouse (the equally riveting Mykelti Williamson) put his ominously brandished meat cleaver to good use. But even so, that collective gasp you heard Tuesday night — or was it a scream of delighted revulsion — was the appropriate response to Limehouse chopping off Quarles' arm (naturally, the one with the weapon up its sleeve) as the hostage situation falls apart.

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Timothy Olyphant's look of astonishment is a thing of wonder as Raylan Givens realizes the arm he's been struggling to control is now detached — and as Quarles staggers in numbed shock, reaching out to retrieve his severed limb, Raylan holds it away at more than arm's length, while Quarles finally folds to his knees, then collapses to the ground, bleeding out in a sea of gore.

But it's not over yet. Quarles first lost focus (before the dismemberment) when he realizes everyone assumes he's the one who shot the trooper Tom Bergen. Not so. And while he lays bleeding and dying, emitting a perverse wheeze-giggle, his last act is to tell Raylan that it was his "old man," Arlo, who put the trooper down.

Boom. Now that hits close to home. And takes us back to the start of the episode, when Raylan is at Boyd's bar in the immediate wake of Trooper Tom's murder and Arlo approaches his offspring to say: "I heard that a cop in a hat got shot. Guess it wasn't you." If we thought we detected a note of disappointment, now we know why. And so does Raylan. These would be some serious daddy issues, even if Arlo hadn't already pledged fealty to Boyd Crowder, whom he considers his true blood tie, confessing (falsely) to Devil's murder as well to spring Boyd from prison.

We're left with Raylan unloading his burdens to his estranged pregnant ex, the understandably wary Winona, who's holed up at her sister's place until the baby's born — yet another disappointment in father-to-be Raylan's unsettled family life. He leaves her with a zinger, his explanation about why Arlo shot Trooper Tom: "Didn't know he was a state trooper. Just saw a man in a hat pointing a gun at Boyd." And it doesn't take more than a beat for her to catch on.

It's a fittingly melancholy end for a season, and a show, that takes pains to find the humanity in even its most wretched characters. As despicable and terrifying as Quarles is, taking an entire family hostage (the mom is Cathy Cahlin Ryan, Vic's wife from The Shield) as a way to lure Raylan to Limehouse's slaughterhouse, his childlike desperation to go home and make things right with his boss Theo (a perfectly cold Adam Arkin) is almost poignant. As is the lusty passion between Boyd and Ava (Walton Goggins and Joelle Carter, both terrific) as Boyd takes the fall (initially) for Devil's murder and, reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde, she whines, "I want more time" as the feds come to arrest him. She begs him to run, but he knows better: "We didn't invent the rules, baby. We just got to play by 'em." Well, up to a point.

As I've noted before, no show is better than Justified at making you laugh on the edge of your seat, leavening high tension with hilarity. No scene better illustrates that than when Raylan, out for blood in the immediate aftermath of Trooper Tom's murder, confronts Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns in top form) and threatens to play a round of "Harlan Roulette" to get him to talk. As Raylan clicks on the first empty chamber, and then the next, Duffy barks: "Jesus Christ! There are cops outside! You're a cop! Raylan, you can't just come in here and shoot me because you feel like it!" (Prompting a "why not," which seems fair.) "Jesus, stop it! What is wrong with you?" The more agitated he becomes, the more dreadfully funny it gets.

I haven't been this entertained since I don't know when. Even at its most grisly, in the "disarming" of Quarles (as they now refer to it back at the office), there's a mordantly funny pitch-black humor at play here, a spot-on representation of Elmore Leonard's style.

And for those about to go into Justified withdrawal, let me take this opportunity for the last time this season to steer you toward Leonard's new novel, Raylan. It's a great read, with the same kind of blistering dialogue that Justified revels in, and an episodic structure (echoing elements of this and last season, but never a carbon copy) that may lull you into thinking the show hasn't quite finished yet. How great would that be if it were true?

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