Well, it’s official. Justified is my new guilty pleasure program. It may not have the depth of character or thematic complexity of something like Dexter (man I need to finish season four of Doctor Who so I can finish Dexter up as well), Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones, but it makes up for it with an unexpected sense of humor and more explosive (and satisfying) action than you can shake a ten-gallon hat at. The show has always been fun (the one incredibly boring episode from last disc excepted), but during the home stretch of this first season, the show finally found its real voice again for the first time since the pilot and managed to exceed all potential expectations. The two episodes leading into the finale were top notch material by this show’s standards, but it was its blazing finale that makes me believe this show has the potential to be truly great pulp fiction. Whether the show was making me laugh or cringe in the face of the tension and thrills of a classic old west shoot-out, Justified flipped on the ignition for its final moments, and both Raylen Givens and Boyd Crowder made strong cases for being some of the most consistently entertaining characters on TV.

I watched the entire disc yesterday so for the first time in ages (read that as my time with Buffy the Vampire Slayer), my memory of each episode is exactly the same. The disc begins with Raylen assigned the duty of protecting a judge notorious for his tough sentencing from an assassin who has made several attempts on his life. While this is arguably the main plot of the episode, we are also introduced to an important subplot involving Boyd Crowder and a group of “reformed” criminals that he is leading with a “church” as part of his mission from god. They’re more like Robin Hood-esque vigilantes as they threaten to blow up a meth lab if it isn’t shut down, a threat they follow through on. Unbeknownst to Boyd however, there was a police informant still in the lab when they destroyed it (he had no intention of killing anyone), and this brings the weight of the Harlan police and the U.S. Marshalls down on his band of merry men though nothing can be proved. This causes tensions to arise between Boyd and his father Bo because Bo wants to consolidate all of the crime in Harlan under his authority, and it is clear that Boyd is not playing by the Crowder family rules anymore. At one point during a church service (an actual church, not his vigilantes) with his father present, Boyd gives a rocking and reeling (and truly awesome) sermon that could only be interpreted as a clear indictment of his father. As Raylen learns that his father Arlo used to manage Bo’s accounts while Bo was in prison (and Arlo is now in danger for running the business into the ground), Raylen has to recruit his criminal father’s help if he wants any chance of stopping the ruthless Crowder clan.

Things only continue to spiral out of control in Harlan. Ava has tired of being pushed around by the Crowders, and after being pushed off the deep end when she sees Winona leave Raylen’s motel room after a sexual encounter (Winona has separated from Gary), she confronts Bo in his office with a sawed-off shotgun. Obviously, Bo doesn’t take well to being threatened by the same woman that killed his son. When a $2 million shipment of ephedrine meant for meth production is destroyed by Boyd’s men, Bo knows it’s time to go to war. He has Johnny Crowder (his nephew) beat Boyd within an inch of his life and murders (as well as hangs from trees) all of Boyd’s men. He kidnaps Ava as leverage against Raylen as well as hires Arlo to betray his son though Raylen pulls his gun on Arlo before Arlo can try and kill him because he suspected his father’s lack of loyalty from the beginning. Boyd and Raylen are forced to team up to take down Bo as well as heavies from the Miami cartel who want vengeance against Bo for screwing up the drug operation. After a shoot-out reminiscent of the O.K. Corral, Bo is murdered by the Miami cartel who in turn are gunned down by Raylen and Boyd. Even though Raylen obviously knows Boyd has done some illegal things, he lets him go to fight another day and perhaps this childhood friendship has finally been patched.

If Raylen is the most obviously bad-ass character on TV right now (though Daryl Dixon does give him some decent competition), Boyd Crowder makes for the best possible foil. In my review for the very first disc, I opined the lack of much Walton Goggins because Boyd seemed like such an enigmatic and mysterious character. You couldn’t tell if he was completely full of shit or serious. Well, since the season’s over, we know he was serious, but that didn’t make him any less awesome. The scene in the church where he is preaching was simply phenomenal. He sold the hell out of every second of that spiel. He was actually so good at the preaching that if Walton Goggins is a religious person in real life, he could certainly consider that as a profession. There was just so much charisma and fire in those scenes. He’s also easily the funniest character on the show (along side Chief Deputy Mullins). With his deadpan delivery, he manages to play the religious warrior but still have a snarky sense of humor. He’s not just a one-note vigilante either though. The scene where he finds out that all of his men have been murdered was played just right and you could really believe the inhuman scream of pain he lets out when he finds their grotesquely displayed bodies. Raylen was as cool as ever (the very last moment of the season where he points his finger at Boyd as he leaves the scene of the shoot-out and mocks shooting him was a season stand-out), but to me, this disc was defined by the theatrics of Walton Goggins as Boyd, and boy did he deliver.

The entire disc was really fun, but damn if that wasn’t a brilliant season finale. While it certainly left room for more stories to be told (the Winona/Ava/Raylen love triangle, Raylen’s father, Boyd’s life after his “church” is destroyed), it still managed to give a satisfying and thrilling close to the major criminal subplots of the season. There truly wasn’t a wasted moment in that entire final episode. For a series that in my mind was having trouble identifying exactly what kind of story it wanted to tell, let me state clearly that this is it. Yeah, bullets were flying and corpses piled up, but it all made sense in the context of the series universe. Everything that had happened so far led up to this explosion in a little town in Kentucky, and it really helped perpetuate the series view of itself as a neo-Western crime thriller. If there is any complaint to be made, it is that I wish the previous episodes had taken more time to establish the villains (especially Bo and Arlo) so that when they finally received their comeuppance, it would have meant a little more. M. C. Gainey was fantastic as Bo, and I would have liked to have seen more of him. Arlo is still alive so there is plenty of time for there to be more stories and screen time for Raymond Berry.

Sometimes I want to take a break from the Ingmar Bergman films or the Thomas Pynchon novels and just relax and enjoy some good old-fashioned testosterone fueled entertainment. However, lately my inner asshole has kept me from enjoying some of the simpler things because a whole year as a critic has forced me to nitpick all of its myriad flaws. So even though Justified isn’t exactly the most challenging program on TV, I can thankfully still say that I enjoy almost every minute of it. It never becomes too serious for its own good and its self-aware sense of humor adds to that nostalgic and visceral rush I get from its pulp action and dime novel dialogue. It’s fun TV in the truest sense of the word and sometimes that’s all a man can ask for. From what I hear, Season 2 is even better than Season 1 (there are several Lost alumni as well as an Emmy-wininng performance by Margo Martindale), and I can’t wait to return to Harlan, Kentucky. Season 3 starts on Tuesday and I want to finish Season 2 before that begins.

Final Score: A-