While the first season of Justified has some growing pains--the early-on struggle to find its ideal balance between serialized and episodic storytelling and a scrambling attempt to find a recurring role for Boyd, primarily--it has a weary soul and a sharp sense of humor and is deeply rewarding not just as set-up but as pay-off all its own. In some ways, in fact, its relationship to the rest of the series is a wistful one. The first season provides a strong foundation--it's remarkable how much of the ongoing supporting cast comes together here, from David Vasquez to Johnny Crowder--but it's even more compelling to note the pockets of sand in the midst of the bedrock. Ultimately, this season gives us one last look at a bloodstained but nonetheless fairly sunny road not taken.
There are three primary through-lines to Justified's first season: Raylan and Ava (and Winona), Raylan and Arlo, and Raylan and Boyd.
Raylan has several romantic entanglements over the course of the series, for the understandable reason that he's 1) incredibly charming and 2) bears a striking and uncanny resemblance to Timothy Olyphant, but his ex-wife Winona will ultimately prove to be the unshakable love of his life, the woman who is the exact right combination of the familiar and the aspirational. They will never get it right for good, but ever wilt he love and she be fair, and vice-versa. But he's likewise tied to Ava Crowder, who is not so much the one who got away as the one he knows he hurt. Her pursuit of him throughout the early episodes of the first season is straightforward and warm, and that makes the consummation of their relationship more accurately not their first time in bed together but the first time he betrays that straightforwardness by falling back into bed with Winona, by violating the commonality she'd thought they had. He takes risks on Ava's behalf--it's his relationship with her that facilitates Boyd's release from prison, and it's trying to protect her that embroils him in a mess with Bo Crowder--because there is a connection between them, and it's the shift from lust and liking to responsibility, over the course of the season, that is one of the most significant relationship evolutions in the show's run.
The evolution of his relationship with his father is sharper and more brutal: it gets worse. You could have a decent drinking game early on by taking a shot every time someone is cryptically ominous to Raylan about his father, and when Arlo Givens finally makes his first appearance, he somehow lives up to it all even as, crucially, his awfulness is mundane and nuanced. He genuinely loves Helen, Raylan's aunt and now stepmother--Arlo's violence on Helen's behalf is the one thing about him Raylan excuses. He's always just slightly smarter than people expect. "Harlan County, petty bullshit, you," Raylan says at one point, summarizing how short his train of thought has to be to connect the first two with the second, and Arlo's ambitions are petty... but he's pretty good at finding the necessary angles to achieve them. (It's not only entirely understandable that Boyd will recruit him in late season two to join his burgeoning criminal enterprise, it's in fact one of the better decisions Boyd makes in his role as the Man Who Would Be King.) He could be nothing more than that petty criminal, one smart enough to have lived into his declining years and one mean enough to sting, but at the end of season one, the show pushes him step by step towards an act that seems too huge to process.
All of Arlo's schemes here ultimately culminate with a decisive twist of the knife, as he goes from the father who manipulates, belittles, and insults his son--and the father who once beat him--to the father who, with only the slightest indications of regret, sells his son to a cartel to be tortured and murdered.
There are two brutal punchlines to Raylan's relationship with his father, and one of them comes in the first season: "This isn't something I wanted to do, son," Arlo says, of this betrayal, and Raylan reacts quickly enough, and with just enough breathless hurt, that we understand that even he is surprised: "No--don't call me that."
Justified is partly about the escalation of "Harlan County, petty bullshit" to the level of the Gothic and the tragic, and this season taps directly into that. I said before that the show is concerned with history--with the "place where [you] trace [your] bloodline"--and it's rarely more direct about that than it is towards the close of season one, as Arlo sells Raylan and Bo Crowder slaughters the members of the church Boyd had formed in--as it turns out--a genuine attempt at redemption.
Which brings us to Raylan and Boyd. Raylan has as much of a sense of responsibility concerning Boyd as he does with Ava, but in a very different direction--he feels the moral weight of Boyd's actions because he let Boyd live and then let him get out of prison. His honor as a lawman demands that he protect Ava and catch or kill Boyd, and for a long time, that's the fundamental drive behind his actions. Boyd claims to have seen the light and heard the voice of God, but Raylan understandably takes this for a con--having done so well recruiting men under the veil of white supremacy, why shouldn't Boyd try his hand at recruiting them under the veil of revivalist preaching? It's a position well-bolstered not only by the show's multi-episode ambiguity on the point but by Boyd's brazen self-satisfaction and Goggins's portrayal of him as a man who has found God but not humility.
That Boyd's faith was genuine, and his motives relatively pure, however, isn't the source of the pathos he ends the season with. For that, we have to look to the moment when he finally lives up to the beliefs he's been professing and risks himself--when he blows up the meth shipment his father was depending on but lets the two couriers live to inform on him. After that, everything changes. Knowing his remaining time may be short, he goes to Ava and offers her one of the best apologies on television: sincere, comprehensive, and delivered without expectations. He takes a prolonged beating for the sake of his church and accepts a kind of exile (like I said, this gets grandly tragic) for their sake as well, only to quickly discover that Bo has made his final point by killing them all. It's after that that we see him pray when no other eyes are on him--confirming officially what his actions have already suggested--and it's after that that he goes to Raylan and Raylan finally takes him seriously and accepts him as an ally and even a kind of friend. They'll never be on better terms with each other than they are at the end of "Bulletville," fighting side by side ("I'm Raylan Givens!" "No, I'm Raylan Givens!" "You tryin' to be funny?" "...A little"). The events of "Bulletville" are, tellingly, the only ones that Raylan ever mentions when explaining the nature of his connection to Boyd, the only part of their present that successfully puts on the weight of the past.
That is the core of the wistfulness of Justified's first season: it's the last full season where there's such a moving sense that things could have been different, where Raylan could have chosen Ava, where his rekindling of things with Winona could have worked out, where Arlo could have kept himself from failing his son 100% as opposed to the mere 95% he was managing before, where Boyd could have kept on the path. By the end of the show, the central triangle has, despite Boyd's assertion, succeeded in leaving Harlan alive, but only at considerable personal (and public) cost; here, they're all battered, but there's an air of open possibility that will later turn more bittersweet and more fundamentally nostalgic.
Later, Raylan not shooting Boyd is the difficult, suspenseful, and pivotal resolution to the highest-takes dilemma of the series; in "Bulletville," it's a grace-note. There's no chance he takes that shot, and this is the last time that will be true.
Ten Most Awesome Moments of the Season, in No Particular Order
1. The introduction of Wynn Duffy, who is a little more "turned up to eleven" here than he will prove to be later, but who nonetheless reacts to the suggestion that he take payment in part-ownership of land with a full-on screamed: "WHAT AM I, A FARMER?" It is magnificent.
2. "Dear Lord, before we eat this meal, we ask forgiveness for our sins. Especially Boyd, who blew up a black church with a rocket launcher, and afterwards he shot his associate Jared Hale in the back of the head out on Tates Creek Bridge. Let the image of Jared's brain matter on that windshield not dampen our appetites, but may the knowledge of Boyd's past sins help guide these men. May this food provide them with all the nourishment they need. But if it does not, may they find comfort in knowing that the United States Marshal Service is offering fifty thousand dollars to any individual providing information that will put Boyd back in prison. Cash or check, we can make it out to them, or to Jesus, whoever they want. In your name, we pray. Amen."
3. Raylan's provoked quick-draw with Tommy Bucks in a Miami restaurant. I know it got you exiled to Kentucky, Raylan, but it also won you a permanent place in my heart.
4. Raylan "deputizes" Dewey Crowe in order to press him for information on Boyd's church. Bonus: Dewey was on the road to run into Raylan in the first place because he was booted out of the church for onanism.
5. "No, Raylan, I'm gonna bet my life on you being the only friend I have left in this world."
6. Roland Pike, a seemingly mild-mannered dentist played by Alan Ruck, reveals his origins as an accountant with cartel connections by performing an impromptu extraction of some teeth in a parking lot.
7. Boyd stands up in front of a church--stands, vibrates, jumps, the whole nine yards--and turns a sermon about his personal redemption into a no-holds-barred strike against his father.
8. Ava walks into Johnny Crowder's back room to threaten Bo Crowder with a shotgun and make the point that she's not leaving Kentucky.
9. Staging a climactic shootout in a town (and episode) called Bulletville in what would be the best total commitment to the bit if it weren't for Breaking Bad naming an episode "Face Off," and, well, you know.
10. Tim Gutterson requisitions extra-spicy chicken to help Raylan defuse a hostage situation. "Tell them the US Marshal Service thanks them for their patriotism."