April 14, 2015 11:08 PM EDT

Spoilers for the series finale of Justified, “The Promise,” below:

The last gunshot in “The Promise” is fired 20 minutes before the episode ends. The scene is as Western as Western can be without the tumbleweeds. Raylan and quick-draw artist Boon stare each other down on a lonesome highway. We see Boon framed, classically, from the vantage of Raylan’s holster. There’s a cut quick enough to just show Boon draw first. We see a long view of the two shootists, firing exactly at the same time. Raylan falls, Boon crumples, and Loretta kicks away his gun before he can fire the kill shot at Raylan, who has suffered only a graze.

Then the guns are holstered and put away.

Justified from the beginning has been a kind of modern-day Western. Timothy Olyphant, previously the seething Sheriff Seth Bullock on Deadwood, played Raylan Givens as a tortured hero in an (off-)white hat, basically decent yet–as ex-wife Winona pointed out in the show’s pilot–“the angriest man I have ever known.”

But it’s only a kind of Western, and what has made it great–its true legacy from late godfather Elmore Leonard–is that its choicest ammunition has always been the word. It shoots nothing as well as it does the breeze. This was not a series that was going to end in a climactic bloodbath with one gunslinger standing. In the end, contra Darrell Scott’s ballad, Raylan, Ava and Boyd all leave Harlan alive, albeit in different states of liberty. And Justified spends its final 20 minutes displaying its verbal firepower.

So Avery Markham’s story ended in blood, as was inevitable since Sam Elliott’s mustache-less, menacingly turtle-mouthed visage made its way to the screen. (Of Justified‘s many villains, he was probably the most compelling save for Margo Martindale’s Mags Bennett and of course Boyd Crowder.) But Markham was always merely the turtle-soup appetizer to this final meal, and Boon the middle course. The meat of the supper was the confrontation between deadly frenemies Raylan and Boyd.

That showdown at first seems to come too soon, Raylan getting the drop on an out-of-ammo Boyd halfway into the finale. (“God damn, Raylan, your timing sucks!”) But it turns out to be a non-shootout shootout, in which Raylan urges Boyd to draw, and Boyd refuses; if Raylan wants him dead, he’ll have to cross that line. That’s the penalty of being the good guy: you have to let the other guy draw first. We met Raylan as a good guy, but a pissed-off one, seething, grudge-bearing, giving crooks the make-my-day nudge that made his shootings, as the title says, justified–just barely.

“You make me pull,” he tells Boyd in that first episode, “I’ll put you down.” Two questions have hung over Raylan all these six seasons. Would he ever rid himself of that chip on his shoulder (which even his criminal daddy Arlo’s death could not dislodge)? And would he ever kill Boyd? In the end, he achieves the first by letting go of the second.

The scene is one of many callbacks to Justified’s pilot, fitting for a series so conscious of the pull of the past. History, in Justified’s Harlan, is a living thing–and it’s an ornery, spiteful bastard, lurking below your feet in a mine you thought was long closed, waiting to pull you back down. At best, it can be a source of pride. (Loretta, maybe my favorite character, makes the pot business into a kind of higher calling by promising to protect Harlan’s patrimony from Markham.) At worst, it goads you to keep soaking the ground with blood to feed it. Justified’s strength has been to show without condescension how Harlan’s people–beat-up, exploited, looked down on–have been both victims and enablers of this kind of historical cycle.

“The Promise” uses its callbacks to give us the happiest ending this show can: suggesting that, with work, old patterns can be broken. Raylan picks up Boon’s hipster-shootist hat after their showdown, but when we meet him four years later, he’s hatless, eating ice cream with Willa, being friendly with Winona who’s moved on with a new guy. He’s still, she says, “the most stubborn man I’ve ever known,” but as Raylan says, playing off the last line of the pilot, “It beats angry.” And so Raylan finds Ava, who–unlike his first visit to her after she blew her husband away–does not have Co’Cola or RC, and takes her hand off the rifle she’s hiding.

Which leaves Raylan one last challenge: to keep Boyd out of Ava’s life forever, and to do it with words, not bullets, by convincing him that she’s dead. Amazingly, the lie works. The bullshitter has finally been bullshat, and yet Raylan does it with a noticeably heavy heart.

There is no joy in Raylan’s final con, only necessity and the final awareness of how birth, family and the land mark you in ways you can’t escape or deny. Raylan may have contempt for Boyd, his schemes, his mud-people theories (another pilot callback), yet they will each always have Harlan under their fingernails and in their lungs: “We dug coal together.”

It’s no shootout, but it’s a confrontation as intimate as any. The two men are framed tight, from either side of the glass, cradling the receivers like a mother’s hand. There may be no love lost between them, but there’s a sadness; through it all, Olyphant and Goggins convey that this end may be no tragedy, but it’s a damn shame all the same.

And it falls, of course, to Boyd Crowder, infinite font of flourish and flim-flam, to give the last, best benediction to Justified and its love of lingo. “Raylan Givens,” he says, “I know you have never believed a word that has come out of my mouth. Though I have harbored a secret hope that you have nevertheless enjoyed hearing them.”

Every word, Boyd. Every damn word.

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