While wise men will tell you that it is the journey, not the destination that matters, the ending of a story casts an outsized shadow over the whole.  A strong one can redeem a lot of rough spots on the way there, while a weak one pretty much kills the potential for it to be better than “pretty good”.  The idea here is that I’ll do a look back at a season of a show I’ve been following but I haven’t been covering week-to-week one episode before the finale.  I’ll give a brief(ish) take on how it’s been so far, and then engage in some speculation on what the finale will do or what it needs to do to salvage the season.  Then I’ll check in the following week with a look at how the finale met, exceeded or subverted my expectations.  Next up:  FX’s Elmore Leonard-based crime drama, JUSTIFIED, wrapping up its fourth season next Tuesday.  And as a special bonus, this week he will be joined by the inimitable Justin Wadell!

Justin Waddell:  What’s struck me most about this season is how much of a backseat Timothy Olyphant seems to have taken. Raylan has practically become an ensemble player.  Which actually turned out to be a good thing.  Kind of like the virtually McNultyless fourth season of The Wire.  It just makes me wonder what the fifth season will look like.  I imagine we won’t be getting another mystery that’s strewn through season five.  But there are so many interesting characters at this point, I just don’t see a way back to a Raylan-heavy show.  Would we even want that?  He’s not even that interesting on his own, really.  When he’s with Boyd, however….. The writers are obviously gifted at making any character they bring into the mix interesting. Anyway, I just want Wynn Duffy to be the last person standing (or running away) when the show ends.  

"Theeeeere goes my hero/watch him as he goes..."

Al Schwartz:  Justified’s a weird case when it comes to ensembles, as they excel at crafting one-off characters for their case-of-the-week storylines, people like Ice Pick Nix or Cameron the Dentist or Jody and his amateur filmmaker friend or the roulette-loving pawn broker.  If character actors are your thing, then every week they can get you a Tobolowsky or a Major Dad or a Beth Grant or a that kid from Jurassic Park, no problem.  In that sense, they do minor characters better than any show on TV.
But if Justified has one persistent weakness (and it definitely doesn’t have many more than that), it’s trouble with consistently utilizing the regular supporting cast.  Nick Searcy has been perfect whenever called upon, but that hasn’t been terribly often this year, and they’re still struggling to find a compelling reason for Rachel to be part of the show.  Also, doesn’t any scene not featuring Wynn Duffy reacting to threats/acts of violence feel like a missed opportunity at this point?  
 
However, it’s not as though they’re failing the ensemble across the board.  This has been the best season yet for Jacob Pitts’s Tim, and his slow-building rivalry with Colt has been great, great stuff.  Their phone call in the ambush may be my favorite scene of the year so far, slightly Tarantino-esque in how it manages to be clever and referential and badass and circuitous without losing immediacy.  Which I suppose is a roundabout way of saying that my crush on Tim is such that I hardly notice if Raylan is less in the driver’s seat than in year’s past.
But the biggest shift this year has been structuring most of the season as a single, longform mystery.  That’s a pretty big change for a show to take on its fourth year.  Any issues with how they handled that?
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Justin:  None, sir.  It’s funny, it did sort of sometimes feel like they were shuffling characters and mixing things up just to fill episodes.  For example, the stuff with the preacher and his sis felt like it could have been stretched over an entire season.  But, these guys are so good at creating interesting moments and characters, it doesn’t matter to me when things grow just a little slack.  Or maybe when something doesn’t necessarily work, it’s not as important because there’s something that comes right along and REALLY works.  One example of this is in the third episode from the last – the great Get Drew Thompson the Hell Outta Dodge episode – when Nicky Augustine tries to get under Ava’s skin in the bar.  It could have been a great scene, and it results in the outing of Johnny as a turncoat.  But the “shaming” of Ava went on forever and felt unnecessary.  It felt like it was meant to stretch the standards of FX or something.  And we have Louie CK doing that better and with more thought on the same channel.
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Al:  Actually, now that you mention it, one of my issues with the season has been Nicky Augustine.  Mike O’Malley’s been fine, but when you place him in the shadow of your Crowders, Bennetts, Quarles, Colt, and even our beloved Duffy…eh.  For a show that is so damn good at packing even incidental characters full of personality, his thuggery just feels a bit generic.  Also it irked me that they offed Tobolowsky so unceremoniously in service of establishing his villainous bona fides, and that he is clearly only around because Alan Arkin wasn’t available (given how personal the history between Tonin and Drew Thompson is, it wouldn’t have been much of a stretch to have him see to the Harlan business personally).  
 
But it’s a pretty small gripe, overall.  In general I agree that even slack scenes on Justified are a pleasure to watch.  And what’s struck me about making the show a mystery is how much it hasn’t changed it on an episode to episode basis.  The unique local favor, tense showdowns, whipsmart yet unpretentious dialogue, and laconic badassery, these have all been delivered as reliably as ever.  To a degree that I don’t mind that the question “who is Drew Thompson?” itself was not tremendously compelling, and they never provided much in the way of viable alternative suspects to Shelby.  
 
That’s about it for my complaints, though. Overall, I have enjoyed every single episode immensely, in no small part because its given good material to my favorite supporting performers in Beaver and Pitts. I’ve also liked Ron Eldard as Colt (RIP).  And every scene between Boyd and Raylan.  And even the church thing at the beginning of the season as a misdirect for the problems facing Boyd throughout the year.  And Jackie Nevada..  And the return of Limehouse.
 
I like this show a lot, in case that wasn’t clear.
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Justin:  I have no problem with Mike O’Malley’s Nicky Augustine.  He’s just one in a long line of great characters they’ve introduced on the show.  He’s been especially fun in his scenes where he’s dressed down Boyd.  But I still didn’t like that anti-Ava speech.  Anyway, another thing about this show is that it doesn’t hurt horribly when they kill off great characters.  Like Colt or Papa Givens. Probably because we know that other great unknown characters are lining up to get into Harlan and stir the pot.  The Walking Dead plays this same kind of Russian Roulette with its characters too. But all they seem to be doing is whittling down their very small group of interesting people. Daryl is left. Michonne is getting more interesting. Hmm, who else? The baby?
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Al:  I got a little tired of Arlo as they increasingly played up the senility last year, but any scene where he interacted with Raylan still crackled, so I would say he was used better this year.  Interesting that with both the reveals of when he had expired and why he shot the cop last year, the show eschewed showing Raylan’s immediate reaction and instead had him relate it to other characters after the fact. In a different show, I might suspect that they doubted their leading man’s ability to emote in big dramatic moments, but that can’t possibly be the case with Olyphant.  They must just really love the way he underplays sadness.
 
And I don’t disagree about the Ava speech; it was purposefully ugly, but also went on so long that you just wanted to get on with thing already.  Small hiccup overall, and I don’t want to oversell disliking Augustine.  It’s just that he doesn’t have any particular personality hook, beyond just being a thug.  Whereas I would happily watch Wynn Duffy watch women’s tennis all day long.  
 
I gave up on The Walking Dead back in the first season (if I recall correctly, it was at the moment when they located the Last Scientist on Earth holed up at the Center For Disease Control, and he told them that his months of research had yet to determine whether zombie-ism was caused by fungus).  But if we’re comparing things to other show’s on the air, let’s address the elephant in the room: Natalie Zea has returned from being a perennial hostage on The Following, apparently to become a hostage here.  Is this part of a comprehensive plan to dethrone Maggie Grace as America’s Most Abducted Actress?
 
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Justin:  I know Arlo is a character that people go back and forth on.  Like Raylan, some people outright hated him.  I’ll miss him because he seemed to be the one character on the show that could mess up Raylan’s swagger.  Winona in jeopardy for the finale has me stressed a bit.  Because if they kill off her character – well, it would feel a little too dark, even for this show.  But it means that Natalie Zea won’t be able to take a break from the dumb as shit The Following and recharge her chakras on a good show.  I’m worried about her real life mental health, basically.
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Al:  You and me both.  I love Zea, as Winona specifically, and it breaks my heart a little to watch her struggle with the nonsense they’re feeding her on The Following when I know how good she can be here.  But Justified doesn’t seem to have desperate need of the character anymore and that other heap got renewed already, so it seems plausible.  Even if, as you point out, it would be tonally off for the show.
 
Anyway, we barely touched on Drew Thompson’s story, or the abrupt departure of Raylan’s bartender galpal.   Thoughts on those developments?
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Justin: As far as Raylan’s bartender gal….I think the most transparent thing they have done on the show is removing Winona from Raylan’s life (well, for the most part) so they could get other women into his bed.  For example, Jackie Nevada….who I hope they bring back.  But Zea is so good on the show, I wish they had kept her integral.
I thought the Drew Thompson storyline was great, honestly.  I love that it gave the great Jim Beaver a larger role on the show.  As people have pointed out before, this show seems to be a catchall for Deadwood graduates (joining the ranks of Gerald McRaney, Ray McKinnon, Brent Sexton, Taylor Pruitt Vance, Sean Bridgers, Stephen Toblowsky and W Earl Brown).  I love seeing them pop up on the show.  I think some unsung beneficiaries of the Thompson storyline are Abby Miller’s Ellen May and David Meunier’s Johnny Crowder.  Wow, both actors were fantastic this season.  And the writers obviously loved writing for them.  Would love to see both of them figure into to season 5.  Ellen May appears to have dodged the actual bullet, but it’s looking grim for Johnny.  Oh, and Jacob Pitts should get his own spin-off.  
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But, anyway, I’d give this season a very high grade overall.  Justified hasn’t had a bad season.  I do sort of miss the case-of-the-week aspect for the first season.  It was kind of interesting to see them burn through so many interesting bad guys.  That’s some real confidence. 
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Al:  They certainly have an embarrassment of riches in that regard.  I’m giving the season an A so far, reserving the right to bump it down to A- if the finale is completely Duffy-less.  

As to Ms. Nevada, I am certainly not opposed to a return appearance, as she is an attractive, sharp, charming young lady.  But then I was fine with the bartender stepping up in prominence at this point last year, when she was just an attractive, sharp, charming young lady and not some sort of quasi-femme fatale of the pugilistic poultry circuit.  It’s hard to reckon an outcome that will keep Johnny alive and at large after next week, though, which is a good segue into predictions.  Here’s what I’m guessing for next week:
1) Johnny will go to jail.
2) Drew Thompson will be taken out by none other than Wynn Duffy, redeeming himself with Detroit and allowing him to return to his Wynnebago and underreact to violence for another year. (WYNN DUFFY MUST LIVE!!!)
3) Nick Augustine and Picker will become intimately acquainted with the contents of Constable Bob’s Go Bag.
4) Winona will live, but move far from Kentucky and Raylan, relieving us of trying to care about our favorite’s cowboy’s spawn.
5) Tim will find (or at least try to find) Jesus and help his new ladyfriend Cassie build a new church.
6) Boyd’s hair will openly mock all that men know of both physics and biology.
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Mine…
1)  Ava will go to jail. 
2)  Boyd will lose his shit, blame Raylan. 
3)  Johnny will find himself somehow getting what he wants – Boyd’s top spot.
4)  Winona will live but has to put an even bigger wedge between her and Raylan. A Kevin Bacon-sized wedge.  (poor, poor Natalie Zea…)
5)  Lots of Detroit dudes will dead. Will super dead.
6)  Tim will rock Colt’s shades “Dream a Little Dream 2″ style.
7) Raylan will sacrifice Drew Thompson. Like, human sacrifice. 
8)  Rachel will say one line.  (I’m thinking her one line might just be to invite Raylan to bed at the end of the episode.  They’ve been setting up a little attraction between the two this year, as much as such is possible within the bounds of the gypsy curse that prevents Erica Tazel from vocalizing more than three complete sentences in a given lunar cycle.)
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We’ll be back next Wednesday with a look at the finale and exactly how wrong our predictions were!