Justified circles back to old friends and enemies to close out its fifth season [TV Recap: season 5, episode 13]

It was never really about the Crowes, or Ava going to prison, or the trip south of the border, or the gangsters in Detroit. This season of Justified, and by extension the entire series, has all been one long road to a final showdown between Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder.

It was the central duality expressed by the pilot, and now that the creative forces behind the show have decided to call things off after one more season next year, that's the major story resolution to build toward. Raylan has gone after many different villains through the Lexington Marshals office, many of them centered in Harlan County, but the one slippery beast who continues to elude permanent capture is Boyd Crowder. There's a poetic justice to positioning the end of the show as a showdown between those two men.

What's unfortunate is that a messy season like this one just feels like a big placeholder delaying the final 13-episode chess match between the two of them. "Restitution" is a fine finale to cap off a mostly good season, but Justified has touched greatness before when keeping Raylan and Boyd apart, sending them after the same objective, or throwing them together. This season barely had any blips of that greatness—mostly confined to one episode that had more to do with Chief Deputy Art Mullen, "Shot All To Hell"—which resulted in a quip-heavy, moderately satisfying few months of shuffling characters around before offing them and making way for the Raylan/Boyd conflict at the center.

Ava's stint in prison now seems like the most disappointing development, a stall tactic that draws her away from Boyd to the point where they no longer car for each other in the same way—which makes it easier for her to turn against him. All the way back in the first season, it was Raylan who swung in to protect Ava, to be with her, and it was in part due to her jealousy that he went back to Winona that Ava even ended up with Boyd. Perhaps the stint in prison showed her that while she's made of tougher stuff than she looks, she's not cut out for a fight every day until her term is up, and that's the life she was looking at while tied to Boyd's increasingly dangerous criminal interests. But most of this plot line was executed clumsily, isolating a character the show only seems to care about in relation to the men in her life, and only tying her into the plot in this finale as a way to set up next season.

As for the Crowes, only Wendy and Kendal make it out, and neither of them are unscathed. Dilly took a bullet in the premiere, Danny accidentally fell on his own knife in a showdown with Raylan, and now Wendy shoots her brother in self-defense. Yes, that last one is far more complicated, but it's the cruel price Raylan exacts in order to be rid of the Crowe infestation once and for all. It's going to sound like a broken record, but the Crowes are not the Bennetts, which became frustratingly clear when Dickie showed up in a guest spot earlier this season. The only way the show knows how to deal with families like this is to send most of them to their graves, which makes it easy to predict that despite all the tension the episode squeezes out of Wendy, Kendal, and Darryl, it's always going to end with Raylan standing over a dead body, threateningly victorious.

To get to that resolution, Raylan pulls out one of his patented stories about Arlo, commiserating with Kendal about the first time his dad forced him to kill an animal. For Raylan, it was a feral pig, for Kendal it was a gator, being a Florida Crowe and all. And in that tense, drawn out moment where Raylan puts the screws to Kendal without coming off like a jerk, the one shot that stands out is the one from behind the two-way mirror, showing a distraught Wendy. She sees the effect her absence has had on her son, and though she tries to take ownership of that failure and move on to something better, it costs her and her son any remaining family connection. She records Darryl after turning on the waterworks, and gets her hands dirty in a way she avoided previously in helping her family deal with legal troubles. Raylan's final words to Darryl Crowe Jr. are as chilling as anything he's ever said to a dying foe, but because the Crowe plot twisted in so many familiar ways, it just didn't punch as hard as usual.

Boyd Crowder spends most of the episode in a situation he has grown familiar with: on the verge of losing his life. The heroin cartel guys catch up with him, and though they kill one of his most loyal associates, Boyd is sly enough to eventually turn things in his favor, changing the contact for Raylan in his phone to make it look like he's contacting Darryl. The shootout at Ava's house between the cartel men and Rachel and Tim rescues Boyd from certain doom. And his justification to Rachel—that he was merely keeping Darryl out of the situation so he could be alive when the Marshals proved Kendal didn't attempt to murder Art—is exactly the kind of clever, wry retort that makes Boyd such a compelling character. (But it's also a major reason why Rachel finally turns her attention to capturing Boyd for his litany of crimes.)

The same goes for his tentative reaction to Ava finally returning home, on the opposite end of the spectrum to present him at his most exposed and vulnerable. He was so hopelessly devoted to her, but unable to secure her release, that now he feels disconnected from what guided him through the past few season of the show. He's thinking about a hypothetical future for their emotions, but all Ava can do is consider the here and now. A bath, pajamas, sleep, and her deal with the Marshals. They're not on the same page, and even if Ava comes back to him when the show resumes next year, it'll be a cover for her stay-out-of-jail motivations.

In the good news department, Art finally wakes up, and then Raylan gets what he says he wants but has been avoiding all season: a transfer to Florida. Winona looks positively thrilled—though Natalie Zea again only appears via Skype—but it just wouldn't be Justified if the show didn't dangle closing the loop before dashing the mother of Raylan's child's hopes once more. US Attorney David Vasquez and Rachel tell Givens that he can't leave just yet, since they're preparing to make the big move on Boyd Crowder, to use everything they have in that thick file on his criminal activity, and take him down now that he's in cahoots with Wynn Duffy's friend Catherine. It's a classic "Just when I think I'm out…they pull me back in!" kind of ruse, but the lure of finally catching Boyd and putting him away for good is too appealing for Raylan to pass up. And now the rest of the Marshals are finally on board, so they're prepared to go all-out by releasing Ava on the condition that she informs about everything.

This whole season had a feeling of biding time, waiting for the real story to come into focus. Last season, the next-best for the show after the Bennett clan in the second season, at least presented some resonant finality with Raylan's father, racing against Boyd to find Drew Thompson, and themes of sons repeating the actions of their fathers. This season, there was just a hellfire of bullets, makeshift bombs, and drug deals obfuscating that there wasn't any underlying thematic depth. It's all been the run-up to the final lap, where everything once again hinges on how Raylan can get his Harlan County doppelganger. Justified is always entertaining—with Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins spouting drawled one-liners it couldn't be anything else—but what kept it among the best shows on television was always the feeling that all the pulp crime lawman stuff was tied to something weightier in the end. Though this finale also ends with the same song as last year (though a different cover, to connote a different mood), it doesn't feel like the end of a chapter. It's the beginning of the final stage, which will pit two sons of Harlan against each other, fates tied together since childhood. There's a classic kind of harmony to that bookend, but it rendered this season as more of an ellipsis along the path to the ultimate conclusion.


Extra Bullets

• Boyd wants credit from ex-Army sniper Tim for shooting a man with his hands cuffed behind his back. Tim's excellent response: "Good guys don't need to shoot people with their hands cuffed, Mr. Crowder."

• That's all for Justified this season, thanks for sticking around to read these reviews this season. It's too bad things took a turn for the disappointing after starting out as electric as ever, but hopefully the final season will go out on a high note, since this has been a wonderfully satisfying show over the past five years.

More "Justified" in our review archives.