TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The TV series "Justified" ended its run on the FX cable network last night. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, couldn't wait to talk about it, so here he is.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: TV series used to just end. Now - the best ones, anyway - they conclude with a final episode attempting to give viewers a sense of satisfaction and closure. And the way a series chooses to say goodbye these days has an impact in the long run on how it's perceived overall. A great last episode of like the ones for "New Heart" and "Six Feet Under" can cement a show's reputation. A unsatisfactory ending, as with "Dexter" and even "Lost" can weaken it.
Last night, after six seasons on the FX network, "Justified" called it quits and went out with a finale that was as unpredictable and poetic and entertaining and memorable as the series itself. What a triumph. "Justified" series creator Graham Yost based his TV show on a short story by Elmore Leonard heard about Kentucky coal-miner-turned-U.S.-Deputy-Marshal Raylan Givens. "Justified" was true to the spirit of Elmore Leonard to the very end and loyal as well to its three central characters and actors.
There's Raylan, the trigger-happy, confrontation-enjoying lawman played so confidently and playfully by Timothy Oliphant. There's Boyd Crowder who worked in the coal mines with Raylan in the old day, but turned into a local outlaw and schemer with big dreams and a bigger vocabulary. He's played with snake charmer charm by Walton Goggins. And squarely between the two of them, there's Ava Crowder, played so tenderly and inscrutably by Joelle Carter.
By the final episode, Boyd had stolen millions of dollars from a new criminal boss in town, Ava had shot Boyd and run with the money, Boyd had escaped from the hospital to hunt for Ava, and Raylan was hunting them both. The final "Justified" built to a series of showdowns and not just with those three central characters.
I don't need to go into detail on the particulars, especially about who shot whom and how, though each of those scenes was spectacularly exciting. What I love the most about this last "Justified" were the brushstrokes - the touches of grace and the emphasis on character and tone. For example, almost every season-ending episode of "Justified" managed to include a version of a song whose lyrics have particular meaning to a drama set in Harlan County, Ky. Last night's series finale included it, too, just before Raylan was set upon by yet another deadly threat.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'LL NEVER LEAVE HARLAN ALIVE")
DARRELL SCOTT: (Singing) In the deep dark hills of eastern Kentucky, that's the place where I trace my bloodline. And it's there I read on a hillside gravestone, you will never leave Harlan alive.
BIANCULLI: That music, heard almost every year on "Justified" is so ominous, you expect things to end poorly. And when we finally get to the central showdown with Raylan begging Boyd to draw his gun while Ava crouches in fear, there's added tension because Raylan's eagerness to draw and fire his weapon is what got him reprimanded and sent back to Harlan in the first place and because he's already shot Boyd once in the show's very first episode.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JUSTIFIED")
WALTON GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) I ain't doing it, Raylan.
TIMOTHY OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) Yeah, you are.
GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) No I ain't.
OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) You are going to raise that gun, and we are going to end this.
JOELLE CARTER: (As Ava Crowder) Raylan.
OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) You stay out of this.
GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) I ain't going to pull on you, Raylan. So you go and do whatever it is you're meant to do 'cause someday I am walking out, and when I do I'm going to kill her, Raylan. And then I'm going to come, and I'm going to kill you. So what's it going to be, Raylan?
BIANCULLI: After that faceoff and a scattering of the surviving characters, there are more surprises, some nice scenes of goodbye, then a totally unexpected time jump. A superimposed title says, four years later, and suddenly, there we are. And in the future, what do we learn? We learn that for the former citizens of Harlan County, old habits die hard, and old loyalties even harder. We learn from the perspectives of the characters that make it to the very end of "Justified" what matters most and why it matters to keep going. And we learn, as viewers, just how rewarding a TV series can be when it ends as well as it began.
You know that feeling you get when you turn the final page on a book you've really enjoyed reading - how you're sorry there's no more but so happy you took the time to experience it? That's exactly how I feel about this 6-year-old FX drama series. The time I spent watching it, in the end, was more than justified.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches television and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.