‘Justified’ Showrunner Graham Yost Talks Tonight’s Finale, Plans for the Final Season, Elmore Leonard & More

By April 8, 2014

Look, I could go on and on about my mad passionate love of FX’s show “Justified.” My man crush on Raylan Givens is only matched by the one I have on Boyd Crowder. But that’s not what this article is about. Tonight, we’ll see the final episode of the show’s fifth season. Inspired by the Elmore Leonard short story Fire in the Hole, “Justified” has continued to deliver writing and performances of the highest caliber to cable television. Recently, we had the chance to join a conference call with showrunner Graham Yost and in the hour that followed, he touched on many topics including Boyd Crowder’s character evolution, the importance of family in the “Justified” world, and the pressures in delivering a satisfying finale. Check it out!

Elmore Leonard 2

On Elmore Leonard’s enduring influence on the show:

His name comes up every day in the writer’s room and on set.  You know, Tim, Walton, the other cast members talk about him and his work all the time.  We really do take seriously the notion of what would Elmore do? And we think about it a lot and we refer to his texts almost as if they were scripture, you know. It’s, well, in Tishomingo Blues he did this, and in Gold Coast he did that and, oh boy, City Primeval.

City Primeval was one of his earlier crime fiction books and we look to that for inspiration a lot this season. Our bad guy had that ability, a Daryl Crowe, Jr., like the bad guy in City Primeval to sort of always get out of the good guy’s traps.

On Raylan’s motivation to get Daryl Crowe and his “hardcore” emotional shift this season:

You know, it’s interesting that you can see it as the hardcore Raylan who, as Winona called him in the pilot, the angriest man she’s ever known and I think that is part of it. But it’s also Raylan’s struggle because he wants to get Daryl, but he can’t just kill him because then that would doom Kendall to a long stretch in prison. And so Raylan has the struggle in him of the guy who wants to get revenge and yet can’t because of the kid, but he also wants to try and do things in a way that Art would respect. We’ve always seen Art as his good father and he’s obviously, incredibly disappointed Art this season in a way that he never has before, so that’s the struggle.

You see what he does in those scenes with Ava and I think it tears him apart. I don’t think he wants to be the guy who says I’ll get the guards to look the other way, but he’s desperate. And I think that it’s more than him being hardcore Raylan as being desperate Raylan. And he is really just trying to figure a way out of this.


On the evolution of Boyd Crowder’s character from bit part to show favorite:

I remember this phone call I had with Walton. I remember I was in a car. I remember where I was going and I was calling up and saying, “Walton, we’re think that maybe Boyd Crowder should live,” because we were remembering that we killed him when we shot the pilot and then decided to bring him back to life. Walton was thrilled. And I remember him talking about other things that Boyd could get involved in. We came up with the idea of him finding religion in that first season. And we like the idea of Boyd getting sort of passionately attached to things.

You know he goes this way, he goes that way. And one of our guiding principles has been something that Elmore said to us when he was watching the episode through the first season, he said about Boyd, ‘I don’t believe a word he says, but I love to hear him say it.’ But our thing is that Boyd believes it. And the one anchor he’s had is that he loves Ava. That’s the most important thing in his life. And yet, he makes certain decisions at the end of this season that sort of makes you wonder how important that is. Big questions are asked about Boyd and about Ava and that’s stuff that we want to explore next year. So, I think we’ve evolved and our opinion of him has evolved, but there’s also a degree to which Boyd is always going to be Boyd.


On finding the balance for Boyd as the show’s main antagonist and a character the audience roots for:

Well, I mean that’s been part of the DNA of the show, right from the beginning. You know, Boyd has always been the big bad. He’s always been essentially the white whale for Raylan. And I think Raylan has looked the other way because Boyd has served his purposed at times. I think we see toward the end of this season, Raylan’s frustration with that and where Boyd’s life has taken him and brought him to do things that Raylan is just agog at. Also the effect it’s had on Ava… I think that that’s one of the things we were going for in the penultimate episode. So, it’s not going to be easy. We can’t just, you know…Raylan is not just going to go shoot Boyd in the first episode of the final season. We have to figure a story. That’s one of the reasons we brought Mary Steenburgen in, to create and bring in another world and another thing that Boyd can be involved with for the final season.

On Art’s role in the final season:

We’ll see Art. I’ve tried right from the beginning, since Art was shot in the 11th episode of the season, I’ve tried to not be coy at all. We’re not playing that for suspense. Art lives and he will be a part of things. I will say this, that one of the themes of the final season, as it were, theme might be not exactly the right term for this, but is the notion of one more thing before I go. And that is certainly the case for Raylan. It’ll be the case for Boyd and we also think it’ll be the case for Art. In talking to our technical advisor, former Chief Deputy in L.A., Charlie Almanza, he said that it’s not uncommon for a chief deputy before he retires to say, you know, there’s one more case I want to handle – one more guy I want to get. That will be part of Art’s story.

JUSTIFIED: Nick Searcy as Art Mullen. CR: Frank Ockenfels III / FX

On Natalie Zea’s ongoing bit role as “Winona” on the show:

You know, it’s so funny. Back in the first season and then for the second season, there were camps. There was Team Ava and Team Winona. It’s so funny how it’s evolved because there were times when people loved Natalie and just thought she was doing a brilliant job, but didn’t enjoy Winona entirely. It became truly one of our goals, because we like Winona. We thought Winona was speaking truth to this pretty messed up guy and loved him nonetheless. And so we made it our goal to rehabilitate Winona and really cap it with her and Raylan firing guns in the nursery in the last episode of Season 4. So, yeah, it’s kind of a story thing, too. We just need to sort of figure out where we’re going if Raylan gets to Florida, what that relationship is going to be. Yeah, we love Natalie. So, we’ll see.

On Joelle Carter’s work and Ava Crowder’s evolving role in the series:

Listen, we decided very early on that she would be a part of the series. We just loved what Joelle was doing. We thought the character of Ava was really fun and interesting and so, we started off with her as Raylan’s girlfriend. And then we thought, ‘you know what, let’s play with that!’ Let’s have that break apart and then the question became how does Ava stay a part of the show? And we went for the idea of her linking up with Boyd. That then gave her a position for the rest of the series. But a lot of that was just predicated on loving Joelle and just wanting her to be part of the show.

As much as we love Joelle, we also like to torment her. The whole decision to cut her hair was a big deal to see and we went back and forth on that a lot and she was just such a game player and said, yeah, let’s do it. But the goal of this season was to see Ava on her own and how she would survive. And she does survive.

JUSTIFIED: Joelle Carter as Ava Crowder. CR/ Mark Seliger / FX.

On the show’s balance between stand alone episodes and the bigger serialized story:

You know, it’s really our goal to make it more serialized than we have in the past and to make it more one big story. The marching orders I got at the beginning of this series, from John Landgraf at FX, was that you can do stand alone episodes in the first half of the first season and start really focusing on the serialized aspect. We’ve done fewer and fewer stand alone episodes as the series has progressed because, in general, we have the audience that we’re going to have, they’re very loyal and they know the stories. There was a certain frustration with some of the long-term fans with any stand alone stuff we did this season. And we’ve heard that, but we were already intending to go more serialized in the final season anyway, because that’s what we really have to serve is the stories of Raylan, Boyd, Ava and the Marshal.

On the importance of the family themes throughout the series:

It’s been a big part of the show, obviously, and I think that part of it comes from the region. Listen, I think family is important everywhere in the world and I think that that is one thing to always keep in mind that no region has a particular ownership of that story. That said, the notion of family and clan is very important in Appalachia. That’s something that we gravitated to, especially in the second season and the notion of a feud between Raylan’s family and the Bennett family. But then that also sort of brought up the notion of Raylan’s family and Boyd’s family, that there was a bond and a rivalry in that kind of thing.

And then, the notion that Art has been Raylan’s good father and that’s his true family, his family of choice. It’s his family of origin that he had no choice over but his family of choice has been the Marshal service. And so that’s the one that we could really see the fractures in and the problems of what it means to be Raylan and what it means to work with someone like Raylan. So yes, that will be a big part of the final season. And I think you see things in these last episodes of this season about Raylan and his Marshall family sort of coming together after the great fracture that happened in the middle of the season.


On the season 5 finale and how it leads into the 6th and final season:

Leonard Chang, one of the writers, called it pretty early last July when we were talking about Season 5. We found that we couldn’t help also talking about Season 6 and we knew by that point that that would be our final season. And we started discussing, well, how do we want this whole thing to end? Where do we want to go? And Leonard said, you know, maybe we should just be thinking about this one big season that’s divided in two parts. You know that the Crowe story reaches a conclusion, but the story of Raylan, Boyd, Ava and everything is pointed in a certain direction for next year and that was our goal from pretty early on.

On the decision to have season 6 be the show’s final season:

I don’t think we are the best show on television, but I think we’re all just incredibly happy to be even thought of in the company of other great shows that are on right now. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we want to end it after six seasons is we want to make sure we don’t overstay our welcome. We don’t want to run out of story. We don’t want to be treading water. We’ve already done a few things that to our mind are dangerously close to repeating ourselves. And sometimes we’ve repeated ourselves without knowing it. It’s like, wow, in retrospect that seems an awful lot like the one in season two or three or whatever. So, we want to leave the party on a high note.


On the pressure in delivering a satisfying series finale:

It’s something we’ve thought about almost from the beginning, but it’s something that changes year-by-year. Ideas we had for the ending two years ago don’t really sort of work with what we’re thinking now. I had an idea about a year ago or a little less than a year ago for how the series could end. And then, we kind of moved on from that into another version. But a couple of weeks ago we all gathered the writers and we went back to the previous one, so we still don’t know what we’re going to do. And you just hope that you come up with something that works.

I had the incredible pleasure of sitting at a table with Bob Newhart back in September and I asked him, because the end of “Newhart” is one of the best endings in the history of television, I said, ‘Who came up with that?’ And he pointed to his wife. It was her idea.

I had breakfast with Damon Lindelof a couple of months ago and I actually like the way “Lost” ended, but then again, I’m someone who really kind of goes with whatever the people doing the show are doing. It’s sort of like, well, I’ve entrusted you with this for a long time and I like what you’re doing, so if you choose to end it this way, then I think that that’s right and good.

That said, I didn’t like the end of “Seinfeld.”

Well there you have it, folks! I don’t know about you but I’m quite ready to kick my boots up, sip on some brown fancy libation, and dive into the season 5 finale. For those that need a refresher on the details, “Justified” airs Tuesday (tonight!) at 10pm only on FX. Be there!

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Aside from throwing words onto your screen here, he has written for the likes of FEARnet, Examiner, Dread Central and MTV Movies Blog. And yes, he was Percy on VR Troopers.