Justified's creative team may have changed their minds over the years about how the Southern-fried FX drama will end, but one thing was never in question: The final season will be the ultimate showdown between Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens and his childhood friend-turned-criminal nemesis Boyd Crowder.

In fact, executive producer Graham Yost says the sixth season had to be the end because Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) and Boyd (Walton Goggins) could no longer dance around each other. "If we tried to extend that into an additional season, it would've become too watered down and it would've, I think, taxed the audience's patience," Yost tells TVGuide.com. "It would've taxed our patience, I know that."

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Many fans and critics might argue that the show's fifth season — undoubtedly the show's weakest — suffered from that very problem. The good news: The final season gets off to a rip-roaring start that suggests those stumbles won't be repeated. "[Ending the show] makes it easier because ... we're not thinking about a season beyond this. So, things can end," Yost says. "We have that flexibility. Characters can die and stories can come to a conclusion."

But just who's going to die? At the beginning of the season, the character in perhaps the tightest spot is Ava (Joelle Carter), Boyd's former fiancée whom Raylan sprang from prison in order to make her an informant against Boyd. So, what's a girl to do? "She still has a deep affection for Boyd," Yost says. "She also has affection for Raylan, even though he treats her quite harshly in the early episodes of the season. So, she's pulled back and forth, and I don't think she entirely knows where her loyalty lies. She's just trying to stay alive more than anything."

The tricky balance for the writers, however, is to make Ava a credible threat without tipping off Boyd, who generally seems to be the smartest guy in the room. ("He has some suspicion, but he's not going to entertain it," Yost teases.) But while Boyd's affections for Ava could be his Achilles' heel, Yost suggests Boyd might have an even bigger blind spot.

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"Boyd is a sociopath, so he sees everything from his own point of view and really everything is oriented toward that," Yost says. "[He might not know] whether he truly loves Ava or if it is a fantasy that he has spun up in his mind because it serves his vision of himself as this great man. I think that's interesting. What do we project on other people and do we create these situations because it fulfills some need within in us? So, does he truly love her or does he love the idea of being in love with her and being that guy? He gets pulled back and forth on that."

Raylan will wrestle considerably less with his feelings about the danger he's put Ava in. "He has his whole rule about 'riding the rap,'" Yost says. "'You chose a criminal life and you've done criminal things, so being in jail is not the wrong place for you. I'm giving you a way out. You do what I say, and everything will be fine.' That's Raylan's hard line — the thing for him that he doesn't want to admit so much, but he still has an affection for Ava and always will."

But it's the other women in Raylan's life that loom large in the final season. Will Raylan actually walk away from Kentucky and move to Florida to be with his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) and be a part of his daughter's life? "That's the big question for Raylan," Yost says. "I think his fear always with Winona is that he can't be who he is at heart, which is a lawman, and be in her life. He wants to be a part of Willow's life, but will that include a relationship between Raylan and Winona? I think that's a question for him, and in the middle of the season we get more clarity on that."

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Of course, the final season can't be all about Boyd and Raylan. Enter Ty Walker (Garret Dillahunt), an ex-military enforcer who's trying to buy up property — including Raylan's — in a dwindling Harlan County. Walker works for Avery Markham (a mustache-less Sam Elliott), a legendary Kentucky gangster who is returning home with boatloads of cash to rebuild his empire and rekindle the flame with Katherine Hale (Mary Steenburgen). And it doesn't take long for Boyd's plans to get mixed up in that mess in a big way.

Even now, as the final season begins, Yost, who is working on the last two episodes of the show, says he's still not completely certain exactly where the show will end. "The ending's changed through the years. It's changed a lot," he says. "It comes and goes in this direction, in that direction. I go off into elaborate sort of things in my mind: 'Oh, I can imagine this song playing, Raylan's doing this, and this is how it ends.' Then we talk about it and something else comes up."

That said, Yost isn't worried too much about fan reaction, even though series finales get much more attention than they used to. "That's both a good thing and a bad thing," Yost says. "The upside of it is it means that you're choosing your ending, so you're not just running out your string and being canceled. We could've done just The Adventures of Raylan Givens [forever], but like with Harry Potter, it comes down to Harry versus Voldemort. Boyd is by no means Voldemort, but there is a contest --and eventually that contest has to come to an end.

"So to that degree, the audience knows what the ending of our show is going to be," Yost continues. "They don't know the particulars of it. They don't know who's going to live and who's going die, but they do know that the contest is going to come to an end. We're still just ultimately trying to tell an Elmore Leonard story as Elmore-y as we can. I always say to people, if you want clues as to how it's going to end, just read Elmore. That's as far as I'll go."

Justified premieres Tuesday at 10/9c on FX.