This essay is part of our series Episodes, a column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This entry revisits the epic second season finale of Justified: “Bloody Harlan.”
TV shows don’t get much cooler than Justified, and TV protagonists don’t get much cooler than Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens, who’s brought to swaggering life by Timothy Olyphant across the series’ six seasons. Fans of Graham Yost’s neo-Western saga tend to discuss Raylan like a real-life folk hero, spreading tales of his badassery with awestruck reverence or boisterous enthusiasm. Eventually, the characters in the show start to do the same. He’s a cowboy for the ages, a word-of-mouth local legend, and a man who wears his body count like both a badge of honor and a red flag. Few chapters of his story are as thrilling and bone-deep satisfying as the series’ second season finale, “Bloody Harlan.”
Elmore Leonard penned the stories that first brought us Raylan Givens, but by the second season, in 2011, the lawman had burned past the original source material and into places unknown. He’d also already become an indelible presence on our TV screens each week. Olyphant’s performance is smooth and assured, making the cocked hips, tense jaw, and appraising squint of a cowboy look less like antiquated mannerisms of a dead genre and more like a way of life. As “Bloody Harlan” opens, Raylan is filled with a quiet rage we’ve never seen the likes of before after the recent murder of his beloved Aunt Helen (Linda Gehringer).
Harlan County, Kentucky, is at the heart of Justified, and its Appalachian landscape is crawling with bad guys, lawmen, and everything in between. The series’ second season features a cast that’s stacked with talent, including several actors whose careers flourished after their time on the show. There’s Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder, a silver-tongued, empire-building criminal who grew up with Raylan and whose fate seems inextricably tied with the marshal’s own. Margo Martindale, who won an Emmy for her performance here, is the season’s key antagonist as Mags Bennett, a motherly — and deadly — weed farmer with gravitas to spare. Finally, a young Kaitlyn Dever holds her own as Loretta, a foster kid and teenaged weed dealer who has just realized Mags murdered her father.
By the beginning of “Bloody Harlan,” which is artfully directed by Michael Dinner, Mags is ready to go on the offensive. Her son, Coover (Brad William Henke), recently died after a run-in with Raylan, and now the marshal is after another son, Dickie (Jeremy Davies), thanks to his role in Helen’s death. She parlays Boyd and Raylan’s deadbeat father Arlo (Raymond J. Barry) in a church — the parish employee asks the two crime lords to relinquish any weapons, naturally — while elsewhere in town, her people attempt to take his crew out. Dickie shoots Boyd’s lady love, the tough, shotgun-toting Ava (Joelle Carter), in a sequence with gunfire galore and a massive explosion. Even as the terms are being set, the battle has already begun.
Meanwhile, Raylan’s just found out he’s going to be a daddy by way of his girlfriend Winona (Natalie Zea). He’s already been considering quitting the field to work a safer gig teaching firearms, but the newfound pressure of fatherhood puts an extra-fine point on the dangers of his job. Episode writer Fred Golan does an excellent job both calling back to past moments and establishing the series’ future, as when Raylan says he’ll sell ice cream if need be if it means no longer working in Harlan County. It’s a moment that in retrospect calls to mind an emotional scene in the Justified series finale, but it’s also just one of the dozens of noteworthy lines in an airtight script. Raylan has always been pulled to the darkness of Harlan despite himself, and it calls him back yet again when he finds out Loretta has run away from her foster family, taking a gun and a bundle of cash with her.
One of Justified’s greatest strengths is that, unlike so many of its genre inspirations, it treats the ideas of upholding the law and breaking the law as two sides of the same coin — with only a thin line between them. There aren’t villains and heroes so much as there are people who drew heads and people who drew tails. This sentiment carries the season into its tense and surprisingly emotional endgame. Raylan goes after Loretta, correctly assuming she’s aiming to kill Mags because, as he says, it’s what he would’ve done at her age.
Along the way, though, Raylan runs into some trouble. He comes across birdbrained Dickie Bennett, who gets the upper hand by knocking Raylan out cold and stringing him up outdoors alongside a gutted deer. Dickie is sour because Raylan busted his knee during a high school baseball game, and he sees the man as a bully. Davies would go on to win an Emmy for his performance as Dickie, and it’s easy to see why. In a season that calls to mind Mags’ dominance and Loretta’s bravery, Dickie’s hilariously confident idiocy shouldn’t be overlooked. He yelps victoriously when he smacks Raylan, a classic hillbilly whoop, then shouts, “Ain’t nobody gonna tell me that wasn’t no base hit!” Raylan’s dry humor wins out soon after, though, when Dickie starts his bad guy monologue by citing a fact he picked up, and Raylan — helpless and upside down, a baseball bat against his head — easily quips, “Go back to the part about you reading.”
Before Dickie can hit a home run on Raylan’s skull, an unlikely savior comes in the form of Boyd Crowder. The pair converse coolly as tentative allies. They’re two unshakeable men acting as if they aren’t moments away from killing or being killed. The thing about the two sides of a coin is that, although they’re opposites, they’re also a part of each other. Initially, Raylan relinquishes Dickie to Boyd, ready to look the other way while the man in black dispatches the person responsible for Helen’s death and Ava’s injury. When he realizes he needs Dickie alive to get to Loretta, it’s another opportunity for wry humor and more personal mythmaking. “Are you askin’ me or are you tellin’ me?” Boyd says, disappointed, with his gun still drawn. “If it makes you feel better,” Raylan says, “You can tell people I asked.” Boyd hands Raylan his hat before he goes. Heads and tails.
Across town, Loretta has just made her appearance at Mags’ place, which is armed to the gills with gun-toting hillbillies. Mags grabs a glass to serve the girl a drink — audiences know that she’s a poisoner, but few characters do — and when she looks up into the bar mirror, a rack-focus shot reveals an anxious but resolved Loretta aiming a gun at her. Mags, who briefly fostered the girl as her own daughter, senses a weakness and plays on it. She describes the feeling of holding a gun, the heaviness in one’s hand, and the relief when one realizes they weren’t ever really going to shoot. Just then, Loretta lets a shot off, hitting Mags in the leg. The gunshot incites a full-blown war outside, with the Bennett clan firing at just-arrived Raylan and Dickie. Dickie’s crooked cop brother, Doyle (Joseph Lyle Taylor) ends up standing over Raylan, gun cocked. “This bullet’s been on its way for twenty years,” he says, but in the knick of time, he’s shot through the forehead by Raylan’s backup.
Bad blood runs deep between the Bennetts and the Givens, whose family feud has lasted nearly a century, and Dickie’s scream as his only living brother falls to the ground is a sound of Shakespearean-level tragedy. It tilts the story towards its heartbreaking, inevitable final moments. Raylan heads inside to plead to Loretta for mercy. This is a clear inversion of his reputation; the renowned shooter is trying to prevent someone he cares for from taking a killing shot. Mags pleads too, saying that both she and Raylan have made their choices and “now we’re paying for ‘em,” but Loretta still stands a chance. It doesn’t matter which side of the law you’re on, she seems to be saying. Killing is killing is killing, and it’s a decision that can never be undone.
Loretta finally relents in a moment of raw emotion. She just wants her dad back. Raylan takes her gun and guides her out, but he decides to stay with Mags for a moment before the other marshals come inside. He tells Mags that Doyle is dead and Dickie is in custody. We see Mags break. This is the killing blow. A whole family line, extinguished by drugs and greed and a stream of bullets that flow like water. Mags thanks Raylan for telling her, and you can tell she means it. This, too, is Justified at its core: a relentless American tragedy faced down with a courteous nod and a tip of the hat.
Mags asks Raylan to sit with her for a drink. She pulls another glass from below the bar cabinet. It’s apple pie moonshine, the kind she’s famous for among townsfolk. One local legend sits with another, and she holds Raylan’s hand as the moonshine goes down, anything but smooth. “It’s as good as I remembered,” Raylan says gently, and he’s right at home at this kitchen table, even-keeled as ever in the most dangerous circumstances. It takes a moment for him to realize what Mags has done. “It was already in the glass, not the jar,” she says, as she begins to shake. Much of the light went out of her life just moments ago, and now she’s extinguishing the rest with a tall glass of poison. Raylan doesn’t let go of her hand until she’s gone.
As the episode comes to an end, a song begins to play, imbued with every inch of sorrow and soul Justified deserves. It’s originally by Darrell Scott, and through the series’ six-season run, several versions will wind through episodes like an anthem. This time, it’s Brad Paisley playing us out: “In the deep dark hills of eastern Kentucky/That’s the place where I traced my bloodline/And it’s there I read on a hillside gravestone/’You’ll never leave Harlan alive.’”