Prashant Gupta/FX Networks
April 8, 2014 12:21 PM EDT

Ask fans of Justified about the show’s current fifth season and they’re likely to hem and haw before ultimately confessing that it isn’t the show’s finest. It’s hardly an insult. After all, Justified has been one of television’s best dramas since it debuted in the spring of 2010. That first season — at least through its first nine or 10 episodes — was a touch too procedural to crack the upper echelon, but each season since then found the ideal mix of intrigue, humor and bourbon to make the show as enjoyable an hour of television as you can find.

There’s always been a certain graceful effortlessness to Justified. Certain contemporaries — Mad Men in particular — are impressive because they stay compelling even when little of consequence actually happens. Others, like fellow FX drama Sons of Anarchy, rely on countless shocking twists and turns that rarely lead anywhere significant. Justified can’t be shoehorned into either category. When something shocking happens on Justified, it’s born of logic and purpose; it advances the plot or demonstrates something crucial about the characters. And because the show has done such a good job of developing those characters, they’re people with whom we would want to spend an hour — even if they didn’t do anything too surprising.

The main problem for Justified this season is that we haven’t spent all that much time with those characters — and the ones we have spent time with either haven’t been quite themselves or aren’t worthy substitutes for the characters whose screen time they’ve been occupying. Magnifying that disappointment is the fact that we don’t have much time left with the Justified gang. Shortly after the fifth season premiere aired, FX announced that the show’s sixth season would be its last. The writers have all but exhausted the useful Elmore Leonard material on which the premise of the show hinged, and Justified is not kind of show that would be well-served by showing its age. Still, the notion of spending only 14 more hours in this carefully crafted Kentucky universe is a tough one to bear.

Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) has been more or less the same as he’s ever been. For awhile now he’s done an impressive job toeing the line between asshole and awesome. You can call him the former for helping to arrange the killing of one Detroit mob boss by another, but the fact that he did it to save the lives of his estranged wife and unborn child pushes it closer to the latter. On the other hand, spending this entire season neglecting the ex-wife and baby daughter is genuine asshole — no shades of gray.

Though it’s the neglect that has us disappointed in Raylan, it’s the killing that has Art (Nick Searcy) pissed at him. The relationship between the two, despite its ups and downs, has always been one of the high points for the show. Sure, Art is almost always annoyed at his “problem child” for something or another, but it’s exactly that sort of frustration — one that exists between father and troublemaking son. That paradigm shifts when Art realizes that Raylan has done something that went beyond his usual bending of the rules. Art abandons his usual cool, socks Raylan in the face and all but tells his most veteran deputy he’s dead to him. Then Art gets shot. It hasn’t been a particularly happy season for the chief deputy.

Things have been even worse for the show’s most prominent female character, Ava (Joelle Carter), who’s spent the entire season in a poorly-timed prison subplot (let’s just say it doesn’t quite measure up to Orange Is the New Black). Ava has always been best when playing off the show’s other regulars, particularly Boyd, but ginning up interest in her prisons endeavors has been an uphill battle at best.

Of course, it’s tough to talk about Justified‘s character problems without mentioning the much-maligned Daryl Crowe Jr. (Michael Rappaport), the closest thing the show has to a “big bad” this season. For a show that so consistently nails its casting, Rappaport has proved a curious choice to play an intimidating Florida hillbilly. If he was a disaster in the season’s first episode, he’s been downgraded to entertaining distraction since then, but that’s not quite enough given the impressive footsteps of M.C. Gainey, Neal McDonough and especially Margo Martindale that he’s had to follow in. It was a bold idea, but those don’t always pay off.

The bigger issue is that Rappaport has brought a sense of anxiety to a show that never needed it. For the first time in Justified‘s history, it has a villain who seems to stick around simply because the show requires a villain. Worse, Rappaport’s prominence seems to leave even less time for the characters we’d rather be spending time with. Boyd (Walton Goggins) and Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) are as delightful as they’ve ever been, but the latter has disappeared for episodes at a time, despite becoming a cast regular this year. And though there was hope that the chronically underused Tim (Jacob Pitts) and Rachel (Erica Tazel) would continue their enhanced roles from last season, they’ve been more absent than ever before. It’s a real shame too, because both Pitts and Tazel have such wonderful chemistry with Olyphant.

The good news is that Graham Yost and his writing staff are among the best in the business and it won’t take a whole lot to bring Justified back to its former glory. (And mind you, even with the aforementioned concerns, it remains an excellent hour of television.) If prior history is any indication, Daryl Crowe isn’t long for this world, which should help things mightily, particularly if the final season is to be centered around the inevitable Raylan-Boyd showdown — and season five’s penultimate episode strongly indicated that it will. Yost has also said that Tim and Rachel will play far more significant roles in the sixth and final season.

It’s also hard to imagine Ava spending another season in prison, so that’s another problem that should be easy enough to solve. More difficult will be fixing the damage done to Art and Raylan’s relationship, but perhaps it won’t require fixing so much as a turn in a new direction. Trying to force a return to previous norms could prove an even greater strain than the one currently on their relationship.

While Justified‘s problems aren’t especially difficult to solve, final seasons are notoriously tough to nail. Breaking Bad managed it, but it’s a rare exception. Though one final clash between Raylan and Boyd would certainly be satisfying, Justified is more than a show about events; it’s a show about people. A character on the show once told Raylan and Boyd that their tale sounded more like a love story than anything else — a bizarre, subversively funny, wildly entertaining one, but a love story nonetheless. As long as the final season focuses on the characters of its story, not simply what happens to them, Justified should be just fine — regardless of whether anyone ends up leaving Harlan alive.

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