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Cautionary Tale

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As an author and a fangirl, I know full well that it’s possible for heroes to fall. But I never anticipated that the series I recently praised for having some of the sharpest writing on television would give me not only a piss-poor final season, but the singlehandedly worst series finale I’ve had the displeasure of watching in my twenty-six years of being alive. Yes. It’s that bad.

You might be wondering why I’m writing this blog post over a week since Justified’s series finale premiered. That’s because it took me this long to calm down enough to do something other than scream into my pillow (which I did twice during that abysmal finale) or smash my keyboard in incoherent rage. I’ve finally gotten enough distance between its airing and now that I can properly explain why Justified’s series finale is a cautionary tale in every sense of the term.

You don’t need to rush to Amazon Prime and binge-watch the series to understand what I’m about to explain. The show made one of the most common mistakes of long-running series, which is going one season past where it should have ended. It is so very apparent that the writers ran out of material, because every single plot point and character beat in season six is predictable, nonsensical, and forced. No longer is our wonderful cast of characters acting on their own. There is an invisible hand shoving each one of them across the chessboard, making the most illogical moves in a vain attempt to get to the other side. If you’re patient enough to stay with me, then let me warn you that I will have to spoil the entire series in order to explain why this season and its finale were a holocaust of wrong.

For example, we have our main lead, Marshal Raylan Givens, completely giving up any sense of being a proper lawman by pursuing Boyd Crowder for the sake of murdering him, not bringing him to justice like the marshal service is supposed to do. In season six, Raylan and his ex-wife Winona just had a precious baby girl named Willa, and Winona asked Raylan to consider moving back in with her to raise the baby. This is where the inconsistencies with Raylan start. We’ve seen him talk to Winona and the baby via Skype and he is clearly enamored with the precious little girl, and then we finally get an episode where Winona and Willa visit, and Raylan takes her along with him and spends time with them both. Then, out of nowhere, that entire plot point vanishes and Raylan becomes obsessed with nailing Boyd, to the point where he flat out leaves his badge behind and starts illegally pressuring Harlan country residents to locate him. Raylan has always treaded the line between marshal and vigilante, but it’s always been clear that he wants to see these bastards in jail, not in the ground. The only exception was Nicky Augustine, and that was because Augustine held the pregnant Winona at gun point last season in an attempt to get to Raylan, and Raylan turned the other way while a separate party took care of him. Was it the right thing to do? Hell no. Was it in character and believable? Yes. So Raylan going off the deep end obsessed with killing Boyd makes zero sense when just a few episodes ago we saw him seriously contemplating moving in with his wife—whom he still loves dearly, by the way—and raising his daughter with her, and he wouldn’t be able to do that if he murdered Boyd and landed himself in jail.

Next, we have Raylan’s cowboy attitude not only screwing up his chances of actually getting to raise his daughter, but he also manages to screw over one of my favorite characters: Rachel Brooks. Rachel is a fellow marshal and she’s sharp as a whip, so much so that after Deputy Chief Marshal Art Mullen, Raylan’s boss, gets badly injured in a gun fight in the previous season, he promotes her to his position. Rachel is put in charge of launching a full investigation against Boyd Crowder, who up until this point in the series has managed to cover his tracks well enough not to land in jail for more than brief periods of time. Rachel uses the leverage of Ava Crowder, Boyd’s fiancée, to become an informant to give them something solid to put Boyd away for good instead of a mere slap on the wrist. At one point, Rachel gets the feeling that Raylan is soft on Ava (they slept together in the first season) and she is faced with a choice: taking Raylan off the case because he’s been compromised, or letting it slide because he’s still a good marshal who can get things done. She sucks it up and lets it slide, only for Raylan to literally choke at the last second when Ava shoots Boyd in the shoulder and runs off with the ten million dollars he stole from local criminal Avery Markem. Rachel is now faced with a career-ending debacle after Raylan seriously just stands there and watches Ava drive off with the money instead of shooting out her tires or shooting her in the arm or the other ten thousand things he could have done to prevent her from taking that money. And you would think Raylan would deeply regret putting his friend and colleague—a woman he once told, “I think the world of you and I trust you with my life”—in such an unbelievably bad position, but does he? Nope. He just waltzes off into the dark saying he’ll catch Boyd and Ava and not once apologizes to Rachel for having faith in him for nothing and letting her get steamrolled by the higher ups for HIS screw up. Awesome.

Next, we have Boyd Crowder, who aside from Raylan is the most flushed out character in the series and serves as a foil for him on most occasions. Boyd has been hired to steal ten million dollars from a local weed crime boss who keeps it all in a vault below his pizza parlor. Boyd, for some God-forsaken reason, is still in love with Ava and doesn’t know she’s now an informant, though he clearly has a notion that she’s being secretive about something. Boyd Crowder is ruthless, pragmatic, and intelligent, and that is why he has managed to murder people left and right, sell drugs, and steal huge amounts of cash and get away with it. However, when it comes to Ava, Boyd is, for lack of a better term, a baby back bitch. He constantly waxes on and on about his “lady” and how they’re gonna run away together with the money and how much he luuuuuuuuuuuuvs her. Naturally, because he isn’t a complete moron, he finds out Ava is an informant. And what does he do? Nothing. I’m not kidding. Absolutely nothing. He doesn’t hit her, he doesn’t shoot her, he doesn’t do anything but reaffirm his luuuuuuurve for her, despite the fact that every single criminal who has turned on Boyd Crowder in the past—including his own cousin, Johnny, whom Boyd shot in the head in cold blood—is summarily executed. The season has been building up to what might happen if Boyd found out Ava turned on him, and it’s nothing but a gigantic anticlimax. Are you starting to see why I had to take a week off to calm down?

Speaking of anti-climaxes, Boyd and Raylan have been building up to a final confrontation literally since the pilot episode. They grew up together, but ended up taking separate paths: one to law enforcement, the other to a life of crime. They have a yin-and-yang sort of relationship going, and that was one of the show’s strongest points. So after six seasons of buildup, how do things end between them?

Boyd gives up.

Yep.

The character notorious for being all-or-nothing and being one of the fastest guns in Harlan county won’t pull on Raylan and just lets the authorities take him to jail.

Ryan facepalm

Wow. Just…wow.

Wave goodbye to six whole seasons of tension. Wave! Bye bye, excellently foreshadowed final showdown! Nice knowing you!

Last, we come to the real reason why this season and its finale are the worst thing to air on television. Ava Crowder. This will sound incredibly rude, but I’m going to say it anyway: I am convinced that Joelle Carter, the actress playing her, is married to one of the writers. That is the only explanation for why Ava Crowder got the ending she got in this series. Because it makes absolutely no sense.

Let me paint you the picture of Ava Crowder. Ava used to be a cheerleader, so she was popular in high school, and she married a jock named Bowman Crowder, who was apparently an abusive asshole. So after literally decades of putting up with it instead of just leaving him, Ava makes him dinner and then promptly shoots him to death with a shotgun. Ava is acquitted of premeditated murder because…reasons…and then she takes up with Boyd, Bowman’s brother because…reasons…and they start their absolutely nauseating love affair from season two and onward. Now that she’s banging Boyd, Ava has become number two in his criminal organization—not because she’s smart or skilled or has a background in criminal activity, but seriously just because she doesn’t want to get a damn job and do any legitimate work. Instead she just struts around as his arm candy and reaps the benefits of his work, doing pretty much nothing other than overseeing the whorehouse or keeping an eye on potentially disloyal henchmen.

At one point, Ava murders someone and one of the whores, Ellen May, witnesses it. So Ava tries to summon the balls to kill her, but can’t seem to do it so she asks Boyd to do it, but thankfully Ellen May has someone on her side who helps her go into hiding, and eventually Ava gets caught trying to move the body and gets sent to prison. Boyd tries to find a way to get her out, but since he can’t do it instantaneously, Ava breaks up with him to find her own way to survive in prison. Except Ava is stupid and a coward and a hypocrite, so that doesn’t exactly work. For example, apparently this particular prison is a drug ring. The girls get protection and product in through the guards by sleeping with them. Ava finds this out and despite being in charge of a whorehouse, finds the idea of having sex for power to be utterly appalling and unacceptable, so she instead tries to take out the head of the drug ring named Judith just so she doesn’t have to be like all the other girls who either don’t participate at all or sleep with guards to get what they want. Judith is a sixty-something old woman. She proceeds to beat Ava’s ass, but eventually Ava gets the upper hand and kills her, which pisses off Judith’s band of followers, who set their sights on framing Ava for the murder of her bunk mate. Ava is pretty much screwed, and by her own hand, but guess what? The marshals coincidentally Deus Ex Machina her out of prison to become a C.I. while they take down Boyd.

So, fine, maybe Ava will finally wise up and be a proper informant to put Boyd away for good, right? No. She’s useless. She doesn’t find any incriminating evidence aside from a necklace that used to belong to one of Boyd’s henchmen, whom he murdered but of course he disposed of the body, and so the marshals are all but ready to throw her back in jail. Ava proceeds to bitch and moan at Raylan in every single possible moment about how hard it is to be a C.I. and how it’s so unfair that they’re going to put her back in prison for not doing her job as a C.I., and takes zero responsibility for the fact that she was sent to jail for murdering someone. And what’s worse is for some reason Raylan takes pity on this selfish cow and lets her get away with the money…twice.

What really tears it, what made me scream into my pillow twice during the finale, is not only does Raylan let her get away twice, but the second time she actually somehow manages to escape Harlan county and live under an assumed name for entire years before Raylan catches up with her. And then Raylan finds out Ava had a kid and so he doesn’t take her to jail.

Yes.

You read that correctly.

Ava gets away with all of it.

Sam Jackson stare

That is precisely what broke the series. Ava has NO redeeming qualities. She is not nice, she is not humble, she is not smart, she is not likable, she is not noble, and she is not a three dimensional character.

But you know what she is?

White, female and blonde.

And so that’s why she got away with all of it. I’m not one to go on at length about white privilege, but this is the most insulting example of white privilege in fiction that I have ever seen in my life. We have hard evidence that Ava Crowder is not only a terrible person but an actual murdering criminal, but just because she’s white, blonde, and allegedly “pretty”, Raylan sweeps all that under the rug and lets her go. She did not earn a happy ending. She absolutely did not deserve to live happily ever after with her bastard son because she has made countless people suffer and doesn’t even have the common decency to take responsibility for her own actions. If this were the case for other characters in this series, maybe it would be less infuriating, but that is NOT the case. Every single character in Justified has to deal with the consequences of their actions. Raylan, Tim, Boyd, Rachel, Art, Winona, all of them have made bad calls that affect them negatively and so they have to bust their asses to right the wrongs and make it out alive. Apparently those rules firmly established by the pilot episode of this series do not apply to Ava Crowder.

And that, if nothing else, is why the Justified’s series finale became the worst series finale in history.

Justified turned itself inside out. We had so many seasons of clever writing and excellent pay off, and yet its last run on television is packed to burst with trite, cliché, contradictory, half-assed writing that derails nearly every single character that it spent painstaking amounts of time getting us to love. I loved this series, guys. Loved it. I praised it constantly for its outside-the-box thinking and genuinely surprising turn of events. Hell, just last season it gave me what I considered to be the best and most satisfying villain death ever to air on television. I cannot express how betrayed I feel that this team of writers let this happen.

And so Justified is now the new cautionary tale about how not to end a long running series. Look, I don’t dispute that it is hard to end a series. My own series ends on Friday with The Holy Dark. But there is no reason for something so witty and groundbreaking to crash and burn like a downed satellite. I can’t even explain to you what could have possessed these writers to let this filth pass through onto the airwaves. I just can’t. I’m at a loss. Every single thing they set up for these characters fell flat on its face and then exploded. I’ve personally adopted a stance of denial that it ever happened. I maintain that season five ends with Boyd dying in a shootout, Ava gets murdered in prison, and Raylan moves to Florida with Winona to raise Willa.

What you can take away from this awful ordeal is that you have a responsibility as a storyteller to consider the gravity of your endings. You have to think of your characters as threads. Will these threads be snipped off or tied to other threads? How long is each thread? Where does it intertwine with other threads? Do the colors of the threads work well together? If they don’t, unravel them and start over. You absolutely cannot let this sort of thing happen to your work, because there is nothing worse than betraying your audience, than betraying people who took the time to invest in your world and your story when they could have easily chosen someone else. Don’t insult them. Write something that not only makes sense but that fits the tone and consistency of the narrative. Don’t pander to one demographic or let an outside force make you shove your characters into places where they don’t belong.

If nothing else, let that be Justified’s final legacy—teaching us what not to do with an ending.

“See them long hard times to come.”

Things Justified Taught Me About Writing

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If you’re not watching Justified, you need to reevaluate your life goals. It is by far one of the best, most consistently good shows on television, and after six awesome seasons (including the one starting this week), it’s finally saying goodbye. For that reason, I’m pouring one out to my long-legged, drawling, whip-smart, deathly sarcastic, eternally troubled badass modern cowboy, Marshal Raylan Givens.

First, a brief introduction: Justified tells the tale of Raylan (Timothy Olyphant), a Kentucky-born U.S. marshal who is a living, breathing modern cowboy. He was chasing down criminals in Florida before he faced off with a crime boss in a crowded restaurant. The crime boss pulled his gun and Raylan shot him in full view of the public, prompting a huge investigation that got him into so much trouble he was reassigned to his hometown. Harlan County, the area where his new jurisdiction covers, is absolutely teeming with all kinds of criminals from prostitution rings to drug dealers. Raylan is put under the supervision of Art Mullen (Nick Searchy), and works alongside fellow Marshals Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel) and Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitt), whom he has friction with at first but they soon get along.

Meanwhile, things start to get heated when Boyd Crowder (Walt Goggins) blows up a church and makes trouble for his former brother’s wife, Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter) when he finds out she killed him with a shotgun in his own home. Raylan and Boyd grew up together as teenagers, so Raylan is assigned to get him under control, kill him, or bring him in. Raylan’s life also gets even more tangled up as he crosses paths with his former wife Winona (Natalie Zea), a court stenographer, who remarried but they both still show signs of being attracted to each other.

Sound juicy enough for ya? Well, let’s dive in. Spoilers ahead, as always.

Sharp dialogue can be the most effective way to get your work noticed. Justified has a lot of unique things going for it, but what I’ve always considered to be this show’s most valuable asset is the dialogue. The stuff that comes out of these characters’ mouths is nothing short of genius. When Raylan, Art, Rachel, and Tim get in a room together, you don’t need violent criminals to have a good time. These four engage in the most intensely awesome snarkfests you will see in your natural born life. The relationships they’ve built over the years make for some of the best scenes you have the privilege of watching, especially Art and Raylan, who are equally exasperated with each other but still see the value of one another. If you need the highlights, check out the Crowning Moment of Funny page on Tvtropes.

It’s more than just humor, though. Justified has made a name for itself by carving out beautifully intricate characters through words alone. Boyd Crowder would be just like any other drug dealing crime boss if it weren’t for that legendary silver tongue and trademark drawl. He’s constantly cool under pressure and unlike 80% of the criminal underbelly of Harlan county, he uses his brain to get out of scrapes more than he uses a gun.

Similarly, Raylan’s biggest asset is that he just flat out pays attention and listens to the things around him. That is why he’s such an unbelievable marshal who nearly always gets his man. He knows how to manipulate bad guys and how to either talk them down or trick them into giving him the info he needs.

This is tricky for writers. Every author, and aspiring author, has strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are awesome at dialogue. Others are awesome at descriptions, diction, spinning whimsical plots, or creating imaginative worlds. Stick to what you’re good at, but also remember that great dialogue from your characters can set them apart, whether it’s humorous or poignant or terrifying or heartwarming. It also adds extra layers to their personality if they have a particular speech pattern or a quirk, like how in my series Belial insists on calling Jordan “my pet” just to work her nerve, and gives these grand overblown Hannibal Lecter-esque speeches just because he likes the sound of his own voice. Make the words coming out of their mouths matter and make them work for you, not against you.

 

Know the durability of your villains. One of the things that I’ve always loved about Justified is that they always pick a season-long villain to antagonize the marshals. This is a brilliant tactic because it allows us to get the full scope of someone without allowing them to drag along forever like Percy from Nikita or Abbadon from Supernatural. We get to see what kind of threat the villains present, why they need to be stopped, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what their hubris is if they have one (which they typically do because they are human.)

My personal favorite villain thus far has been Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) because for me, she’s the most layered and three-dimensional villain of the show. Mags actually had good sides to her, even though we find out she’s incredibly ruthless and scary. Hell, Mags was so amazing the role won Martindale an Emmy, and for good reason. She was expertly used and executed, and by far the best female character in the show’s entire run.

Conversely, Justified is a bit guilty of overusing their villains too. Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies), Mags’ wretched son, is still alive and kicking when he wore out his welcome by the end of season two. He’s a despicable coward, but yet he’s somehow managed to hold on to his life despite Raylan having every single reason to wipe that slime off the face of the earth. Thankfully, though, Dickie was downgraded to a minor character in the recent seasons, so while his presence still induces headaches, it’s tolerable.

Managing your villains properly is a hard trick to master as an author. You can’t look at it on a case-by-case basis. You have to unfurl your villain like a scroll and consider both the short and long term effects of their presence in the narrative. If you make their presence too short, then readers question why they were there in the first place. If you make their presence too long, then readers can get fatigued with them. I can freely admit one of the biggest struggles in writing the upcoming Black Parade novel The Holy Dark is that I had a villain who just wouldn’t fall into the category of major or minor character. It took me forever to figure it out because there were so many possibilities. It’s important to remember that nothing bogs a story down faster than a boring impervious villain who lasts longer than they should. You have to know when to fold ‘em.

 

Make your characters earn their keep. Alright, I’m going to get a little salty for this lesson—I f*@king hate Ava Crowder. I won’t launch into my 3,000 word essay about why, but if you’re curious enough, watch the following video (skip ahead to 12:35). I’m sure people would debate with me why she’s supposedly a good character, but the number one reason I can’t stand Ava is because she isn’t an independent character who pulls her own weight. Almost everything in this show just conveniently gets Ava out of a fix rather than her getting herself out of her own problems.

For instance, her introduction is killing Boyd’s brother with a shotgun after years of abuse. Look, fine, I understand that because domestic violence is pretty much the worst, but he was an unarmed man sitting at a dinner table eating and she shot him. In damn near any other case, Ava’s ass would have gone to jail, but no, she doesn’t. She gets off scot-free, which irritated me when I began the show, but I let it slide with the hope that she would give me a definitive reason why she was taking up time on my TV screen. She then enters a borderline creepy relationship with Boyd, which again annoyed me but whatever she clearly had bad taste in men to begin with, but what tears it is that Ava is basically just coasting off of Boyd’s reputation. She’s his lackey, except she gets to sleep with him and pretend that she’s his lieutenant. They keep up this disgustingly long pretense of being in love and wanting to buy a home and get married until finally the season four finale has Ava being apprehended in possession of a dead body and she’s sent to jail. Finally, Ava will prove she’s worth a damn, right?

lana-kane nope

Ava gets in jail and immediately gets help from Boyd, even though it later backfires. Then she gets mad that he can’t find a way to help her, so she breaks up with him and starts to learn the pecking order in the prison. It turns out they have a drug ring inside the prison and the guards are in on it in exchange for sex. The girls play along, but Ava—who is such a hypocrite because she ran a whorehouse herself before getting in jail—is too good to trade sex for status and rebuffs a guard. She tries to make a deal with the local nurse to get the product in and out of the jailhouse, but the guard she rejected frames her for attacking him. She is later saved by someone Boyd hired to watch over her. Then, Ava decides to take out the head of the drug ring so she can be the queen bee and it turns out it’s some elderly woman. And they get in a fight. And the elderly woman kicks Ava’s ass for a while before she finally stabs her to death. The woman’s followers suspect Ava and she’s all but tied her own noose because half the prison now wants her dead.

And then the entire season-long subplot is rendered pointless because Raylan gets her out of jail so she can tattle on Boyd to finally send him up the river. That’s right. After an entire season of her skating by on pure dumb luck, she is Deus Ex Machina’d out of trouble. Yep.

There is little worse than making someone a main character and then letting them constantly get away with everything with few relevant consequences. People are flawed, yes, but bailing a character out over and over again is the quickest way to make your readers dislike them. Not everyone needs to be a badass, but they all need to earn their keep and solve as many problems as they create. This is part of what authors mean when they say “kill your darlings.” It refers to more than getting rid of pieces of your work that you like but isn’t relevant to the overall story. It means push your characters off that pedestal they are on and force them to be worth your readers’ time. You can’t babysit them. Make them matter.

Don’t forget to just plain have fun. I am about to introduce the most brilliant moment ever put to television thanks to Justified. If you take nothing else away from this blog post, then you must do me the one favor of indulging me while I set up the best scene in the entire series, and in any series if you ask me.

In our fifth season, we’re introduced to Dewey Crowe’s family—a bunch of horrible, ignorant, slimy, back-stabbing guttersnipes who come up from Florida after they find out Dewey has come into some money thanks to suing the marshal service (long story.) They pressure and bully Dewey into sharing the wealth, and in doing so, cross Raylan and the marshals’ paths as they try to get a foothold on the crime syndicate in Harlan county. The Crowes are led by Darryl Crowe (Michael Rappaport), and consist of his sister Wendy (Alicia Witt) and his unbelievably stupid brother Danny (A.J Buckley).

Danny has been an incredible thorn in the side of everyone he meets for just being stupid as a bucket of shrimp, a coward, and a bully all in one. He bullies Wendy’s son, Kendal, in front of one of their dangerous allies Jean Baptiste (Edi Gathegi), who challenges him to either leave the kid alone or face off with him. Danny shoots him in the back and then threatens to kill Kendal if he tells anyone, and then tries to kill Kendal after he accidentally lets Danny’s beloved pit bull run off and get hit by a car.

At the end of the season, Raylan finally tracks Danny down to try and get him to lead him to Darryl. Danny decides to have a showdown with sharpshooter Raylan by setting up the 21-foot rule, a legend where a person with a knife is good enough to take someone with a gun within 21 steps of each other.

The result is the most glorious thing ever created ever. Please enjoy.

Reportedly, this scene was so amazing that Timothy Olyphant himself simply could not stop laughing in between takes because it is by far the most satisfying villain death ever made. When this happened live, my mother and I both jumped straight up off the couch and gave it a standing ovation for over a minute. You just have to have fun when opportunities like this present themselves. Justified went for it and they knocked it straight out of the park. True, you do need a bit more context to fully appreciate why the aforementioned scene is perfection, but nothing beats just having fun in your work.

No matter what the genre, it’s important to have fun with your writing. You have to love it. You have to put yourself inside it and make your readers turn those pages, the way that Justified is so good it practically demands me to watch it. Be audacious. Be bold. Do risky things or edgy things and make the pay off so great that people are excited to share it with each other. Even if you’re not Stephen King, you have the ability to gain readership by making your work an experience they cannot get elsewhere.

I’m super nervous about how Justified will end—after all, this is FX we’re talking about and they don’t pull their punches—but I’m so glad for the ride. It truly has been a show that no one can touch. It has its own voice and style and I will miss it sorely after it’s gone. If you’re curious, tune in Tuesdays at 10 o’clock pm EST. See you, cowboy.