As the ex-wife of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), Natalie Zea's Winona Hawkins never quite fit into the world of Justified, FX's lauded modern Western based on the works of legendary crime writer Elmore Leonard. She wasn't a marshal like Rachel (Erica Tazel). She wasn't a morally compromised anti-heroine like Ava (Joelle Carter) eventually came to be. She wasn't even from the town of Harlan or its general vicinity. Winona was an outsider by all counts, brought into the narrative solely as a love interest for Raylan.
It wouldn't have been terribly surprising, then, if Winona — who was divorced from Raylan at the start of the series but who found herself drawn back into his life fairly quickly — had played a thankless role in the series, mattering only for how she reacted to the show's attractive, quick-witted gunslinging hero. Wives and girlfriends in stories like the one at the heart of Justified are sadly often relegated to nothing more than nagging hens who exist to remind the swaggering hero and his audience of the dangers of the job, to beg him to put down his weapon. And yes, there were certainly times when Winona filled that role; she voiced her concerns about Raylan's life and revealed her fears about never knowing if he was going to come home at night, since he frequently found himself in dangerous situations and took great pride in his abilities with a firearm. But Winona's role also meant she had an intimate and clear understanding of who Raylan was beyond his badge. And it was their complicated relationship that gave her a strength very few characters in the world of Justified possessed: Winona could surprise Raylan and knock him back on his heels, and she had the mental and emotional strength to stand her ground afterward.
In addition to being one of the few people who could clearly see through Raylan's bullsh-- — never forget the emotional kicker of the pilot, when she revealed to a shocked Raylan that he was the angriest man she'd ever known — Winona was capable of identifying problems and making the moves necessary to rectify them. This was most obvious when she extricated herself from her relationship with Raylan not once, but twice. Perhaps with the exception of her sticky fingers in the evidence locker in Season 2 — a misguided attempt by the writers to incorporate her character into the larger narrative — Winona was more than prepared to deal with the consequences of her actions. And this is partly because Winona was one of the few characters in Justified who felt like someone who belonged in our world rather than the one depicted on-screen.
It's easy to fall under the show's spell, but Justified existed in a heightened version of our own reality. The series took various problems affecting the men and women of Appalachia, a region regularly ignored not only by Hollywood but by the rest of the country, and embellished them in the name of drama. And it often made for excellent television. The dynamic between Raylan, a laconic and cool modern cowboy, and Boyd (Walton Goggins), a charismatic outlaw with lofty aspirations and a quick tongue, was nothing short of electric, and their relationship was the blood that pumped through the show's veins. But it also wasn't terribly realistic. Where the show was realistic was in its portrayal of Winona — and Raylan's relationship with Winona, which often served as the show's conscience. Their dynamic reminded viewers that Raylan wasn't always right, and that he was actually a pain in the ass who had the ability to change but chose not to.
And instead of attempting to change Raylan herself, Winona came to accept that he was who he was, at least until he'd dealt with the specters of his father and Harlan that had haunted him all his life. "If you wanted to change your life for me, Raylan, you would have done so by now," she told him when he tracked her down after she'd left him in Season 3. While everyone watching at home was enamored with the charismatic lawman who was as quick with a quip as he was with his sidearm, Winona saw through him. And even though she loved him, she also chose to walk away while pregnant with his unborn child, which is not necessarily an easy thing to do.
It'd be awfully easy to paint Winona as the bad guy in this situation; it's unfortunately common to blame a woman for a man's faults if the man in question is deemed cool or interesting enough, and the show certainly did its part to glamorize Raylan. But Raylan never blamed Winona for her actions, which included leaving him for their realtor. And if we let Raylan's and Boyd's many bloody transgressions slide but attempt to hold Winona accountable for things she's allegedly done wrong — which mostly amount to not wanting Raylan to end up dead — it only furthers the unfair standards women are held to.
Winona actually had agency in a world where women traditionally have struggled to gain footing — where they've been forced, with their backs up against a wall, to compromise who they are or give up pieces of themselves just to survive. The character of Ava Crowder became an example of the ways in which a person's behavior is shaped by their surroundings, as she frequently turned to violence to solve her problems: a reflection of her compromised moral code as a result of her relationship with Boyd and her existence in a toxic, frequently misogynistic environment.
Winona, who existed mostly on the periphery of the violence of Harlan, always held the power in her relationship with Raylan. It was her decision to leave, and it was the right decision, both for the character and for the series. Of course it was unfortunate to lose Zea's presence halfway through the show — Justified didn't have many female series regulars; with the exception of Ava and Rachel, the series usually had to settle for excellent actresses in even more excellent supporting roles, like Emmy winner Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett — but seeing Winona choose to leave Raylan of her own accord was preferable to seeing her wither away into nothing while he continued in his stubborn ways. It was also preferable to seeing her be put in the path of danger, the least exciting trope in the history of television.
Now, Winona did eventually return to Harlan with their daughter in the final season, revealing she would rather live a life with Raylan — and all the fear and uncertainty that came with it — than one without him, a gesture that signaled she was willing to accept the man for all his faults. Some viewers may have seen this as a mistake, while others might have even interpreted it as a sign of weakness on her part, but it actually felt like the natural progression of Winona and Raylan's relationship given that they never found real closure but still had a child together. Her return also played into the theme of Season 6, which involved Raylan accepting it was time to move on from Harlan and the life that came with it. They owed it to themselves to give their romance another shot once Raylan had successfully vanquished most, if not all, of his demons.
Even though it was revealed in the series finale, which jumped forward four years, that the two had split once again and Winona was happily married to someone else but co-parenting Willa with Raylan, both parties appeared to be content with the status of their relationship. Was it a happy ending? Not in the traditional sense. And maybe not from some viewers' perspectives. But it felt like the right ending for a man like Raylan and a woman like Winona, two people who'd tried to make it work but couldn't. A lesser show might have been tempted to force a happy union between the two even though it went against everything that had happened until that point, and it might have been hard to blame Justified for indulging in a fantasy of this sort. After all, the series came to an end with nearly every one of its main characters still breathing. But Winona and Raylan's relationship was always based in our reasonable reality, and it's fitting that their ending would therefore also be realistic.
Plus, there is a small sense of satisfaction in seeing Winona come out happy and in a loving relationship while Raylan has to stand there alone and watch her walk away. Raylan might be cool, but Elmore Leonard knew how to write nuanced female characters, and while we might not be able to give him credit for the woman Winona was and came to be, she arguably came out on top in the end. And that not only feels very much like the ending of an Elmore Leonard story, but it's also ultimately worth celebrating.
Justified is available to stream on Amazon.
This week, TV Guide is celebrating some of TV's most underrated female characters. As part of Women's History Month, we're looking at how Sex and the City's Miranda Hobbes became the face of a movement, why Doctor Who's Martha Jones deserved a better legacy, and more. You can check out all our Women's History Month content here.