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Justified: City Primeval's Surprise Ending Complicates the Show's Legacy

The FX revival concludes on a tantalizing but risky note

Ben Rosenstock
Timothy Olyphant, Justified: City Primeval

Timothy Olyphant, Justified: City Primeval

Chuck Hodes/FX

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the finale of Justified: City Primeval, "The Question." Read at your own risk!]

When FX's Justified ended eight years ago, the series finale became a highlight of the Peak TV era: an essentially perfect conclusion that honored the characters and their tangled histories. Everyone got what they deserved, dramatically speaking, especially the central trio of the show. Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), who had always straddled the line between antihero and antagonist, managed to make it out alive, albeit in prison for life. Ava (Joelle Carter), Boyd's often-complicit wife, absconded to California and raised a son destined to never know his father. And the protagonist, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), "grew, but not by much," in accordance with executive producer Graham Yost's initial vision.

It was a finale that resisted over-the-top sentiment while still jerking tears in its last scene, perhaps one of the finest closing scenes in any drama: Raylan visiting Boyd in prison and delivering the (false) news of Ava's death. In that moment, Boyd can tell that despite their rivalry, some part of Raylan still cares about him. "We dug coal together," Boyd says simply, a factual phrase that feels incredibly meaningful in this context. These two men were often nemeses and never quite friends, but there was a real bond there, forged in the coal mines. They understand each other better than anyone else in this world, and that means something.

Given that ending, the idea to bring back Justified years later was always a risky one. So the announcement that the revival would adapt Elmore Leonard's City Primeval — taking place in Detroit, with Olyphant as the only returning cast member from the original series — seemed to confirm some fans' worst fears. Sure, new Justified episodes are new Justified episodes, but what was the show without the small-town dramas of Harlan, Kentucky, and without Raylan's trustiest foil?

It's true that those absences are felt in the revival; this version of Detroit (filmed in Chicago) never quite attains the insular, lived-in quality that made Harlan such a fun place to spend six seasons. And though Raylan has a number of compelling substitute foils to play off this time around — especially his defense-attorney love interest, Carolyn Wilder (Aunjanue Ellis) — none of them capture lightning in a bottle the way Goggins did as Boyd Crowder. Justified: City Primeval is both better than I expected and not quite as good as I dared hope; it slots in comfortably above Season 5, the weakest season of Justified, but somewhere below most of the others.

Still, that's a high bar to clear, and during these eight episodes I often found myself surprised at City Primeval's ability to approximate the original series' tone, albeit with slightly less comedy and a cooler, flashier aesthetic. I'd always thought of Raylan's character arc as inseparable from Boyd's, given how often the two characters reflect each other, but this season proves Raylan Givens is interesting enough (and Olyphant plenty charming enough) to anchor his own additional stories, especially with the help of a strong ensemble. City Primeval has been billed as a limited series, but it's not difficult to imagine further seasons of Justified, possibly retrofitting other Elmore Leonard novels to accommodate Raylan as the hero.

But in the final 15 minutes of "The Question," this week's finale, that all changes. During the epilogue, set in Miami six weeks later, we're treated to the return of a handful of characters from the original: first Raylan's chief Dan Grant (Matt Craven) and fellow Deputy Gregg Sutter (David Koechner) from the Miami Marshals Office, then Raylan's ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea), and then, finally, Boyd Crowder himself.

Part of me was primed for a surprise cameo or two in this final episode. It makes sense that we'd see Grant and Sutter again when Raylan makes the surprising-yet-completely-unsurprising choice to finally turn in his badge and really focus on being a present dad after all these years. (Grant initially offers to recommend him for the chief position he's vacating, which makes Raylan's decision feel even more significant.)

And Raylan's wistful conversation with Winona, where she responds to his news with a confused, "Why now?" connects back to her old struggle to cope with the danger and obsession that came with her husband's profession. Her appearance with his daughter, Willa (Vivian Olyphant), closes the loop on Raylan's arc: He may not have been ready to prioritize a "boring" but peaceful life as a family man back in the day, or even a few months ago, but now he realizes his life truly is here — not in Detroit, not in Harlan, but in Miami. As Winona puts it, "Well, if you couldn't do it for me, I'm glad you could do it for her."

These are tender, necessary scenes that ground the events of City Primeval in Raylan's complicated past — and they leave space for a final check-in with Carolyn, who was a part of the events that most directly led Raylan to retire. (She suggests a visit sometime, so it's nice she could remain part of his present.) But I have to admit that I'm a little more mixed on the reappearance of Boyd, though that sequence is sure to be all anyone talks about. In fact, maybe that's the problem: In some ways, this cameo immediately sucks the air out of the room, slightly undermining the previous eight episodes by turning our eyes to the future instead of the past. In retrospect, Clement Mansell (Boyd Holbrook) feels less like a solid villain — the type of loose cannon who might anchor a few episodes in the original show — than a mere placeholder.

Timothy Olyphant, Justified: City Primeval

Timothy Olyphant, Justified: City Primeval 

Chuck Hodes/FX

Don't get me wrong; I immediately broke out in a huge grin the moment the word "Kentucky" splashed across the screen in gold, and I beamed the whole way through Boyd's escape from Tramble Penitentiary. It's tantalizing, too, to think about what this glimpse of him could mean for the future of Justified — especially considering the final scene of the finale, when Raylan gets an alert about an escaped inmate from Tramble, followed by a call from the Lexington Marshals Office. Could there already be plans, whether concrete or theoretical, to follow up City Primeval with another season that brings both Boyd and Harlan back into the fold? Is that old cat-and-mouse game back on, and could old favorites like Chief Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel), Deputy Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts), and even a retired Art Mullen (Nick Searcy) come back? Is it possible Boyd and Ava's now-grown son could come into play, threatening to expose his existence to his father?

But speculating about those possibilities feels a bit like speculating about Marvel casts, and that's rarely how I want to approach a drama as purposeful as Justified. For all City Primeval's faults, what made it so watchable was the way it steered clear of fan service, forcing us to get comfortable with a new story instead of rehashing old ones. You could even watch this revival season and grasp it without having watched the original show. The same wouldn't be true of a second season that pitted Raylan and Boyd against each other again. It might feel like a regression for the show, instead of a return to what made it work so well the first time.

Even more importantly, the reappearance of Boyd disrupts the legacy of that beloved final exchange from the series finale. No matter what a future Raylan-and-Boyd story would entail — and no matter how much I find myself selfishly longing for it — it's hard to imagine another exchange that would hold the same weight as their last one. How do you improve on "we dug coal together"?

Still, maybe a story about Raylan Givens wouldn't be complete without an appearance from Boyd. If we ignore the potential future implications, Boyd's return works well for what it brings out in Raylan's arc. After all, Boyd was always able to recognize and trigger Raylan's id, more than any other character in Justified. Take their car ride together in the Season 4 finale, when Raylan self-righteously suggests that Boyd only loves Ava because "you love anything that lets you put your head on the pillow at night believing you ain't the bad guy." Immediately after, of course, he admits his intention to ensure Nicky Augustine (Mike O'Malley) doesn't make it out of their meeting alive, no matter what he has to do. Boyd doesn't let that hypocrisy slide: "What do you tell yourself at night when you lay your head down that allows you to wake up in the morning pretending that you're not the bad guy?"

So perhaps this ending works just as well if we never see either character again. There's something perfect about that final glimpse of Raylan getting distracted by the alert on his phone only moments after claiming that he's enjoying relative boredom. In that one furtive glance of temptation, we see that part of Raylan is still at war with himself, and always will be. He hasn't even heard the name "Boyd Crowder" yet, but the path is already laid for him to renege on his decision to retire. It'd be "one last job," after all — finishing what he started.

At the end of the day, I'm still uncertain about the right path forward for Justified. But I can acknowledge that the ambiguity of this final scene has value outside of teasing the possibility of another season; in fact, it sums up our protagonist as well as anything we've seen since the last finale. As the phone continues to ring before the cut to credits, sitting right in the foreground beneath Raylan's gaze, we're left to wonder if it's truly possible for him to ever be fully out of the game. Could Raylan Givens ever really leave Harlan behind for good? Could Justified?

Justified: City Primeval is now streaming on Hulu.