An ode to Ava Crowder, the real star of TV's Justified
In its gripping final season, FX's Justified has reasserted itself as the best cop show on television. With a team of U.S. marshals led by Raylan Givens mounting an elaborate case against Boyd Crowder, the series is doubling back to the conflict that began it. But for all the things that are coming full circle, one character has become the unlikely pivot point on which the entire series rests: Ava Crowder, the woman railroaded by the marshals into providing information on her criminal fiancée Boyd.
For all the bluster of its macho main characters, Justified has always harbored a barely concealed feminist streak. Longtime Harlan County crime lord Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) was a more intimidating and unflappable figure than any of the men who rose to challenge her. Teenaged drug-dealing prodigy Loretta McReady (Kaitlyn Dever) has routinely outmaneuvered anyone who has attempted to challenge her — including the show's own lawman protagonist. This season, Katherine Hale (Mary Steenburgen) is the frontrunner in a slew of competing villains as she works her own angle on Avery Markham (Sam Elliott), the man who thinks he's in control. And over the course of the entire series, the doggedly professional Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel) has climbed the ranks of Lexington's U.S. Marshal Office, finally taking over as interim chief deputy in Art Mullen's absence.
But the greatest character arc of any character in Justified belongs to Ava Crowder, the lifelong Harlan County resident played by Joelle Carter. Over six seasons, Ava Crowder has become the stealth heroine of Justified: endlessly resourceful, surprisingly shrewd when cornered, and scrappily clambering out of the seemingly impossible situations she's often forced into. At this late point in Justified's narrative, the show's dual protagonists, Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder, are supporting characters in her story — the angel and devil on her shoulders in the slippery moral trap that has been the thematic center of Justified's superb final season.
In Justified's first season, Ava was cast as a damsel-in-distress caught between two other archetypal western figures: the white hat (Raylan) and the black hat (Boyd). Carter's performance made an instant impression, but there was little sign of the active character she would eventually become; though she killed her abusive husband shortly before the pilot episode began, Ava spends both the first episode and the last episode of Justified's first season as a hostage, bookending her story with scenes of Raylan rushing in to rescue her.
The change in Ava's arc came, as Joelle Carter explains it, when the show's writers decided to untether her from Raylan in favor of an unlikelier (but infinitely more effective) pairing with Boyd, the brother of the husband she'd murdered. "When I got Ava it was potentially a recurring role, and then [series creator Graham Yost] came to me in the second season and said, 'Raylan and Ava are going to break up,' and I was like, 'This is it for Ava!'" said Carter in an interview with Vanity Fair. "I had a dream, I came to Graham, and I said I had seen Boyd and Ava together. I don’t know if that's what sparked Graham's interest in taking Ava to the dark side. But that's what happened — he said, 'You're going to the dark side and you're ending up with Boyd.'"
There are shades of Breaking Bad's Walter and Skyler White in the relationship between Boyd and Ava. But where Skyler White was an unwilling accomplice, trapped by her husband's criminal actions, Ava quickly becomes an equal and willing partner in Boyd's illegal enterprises. As the seasons go on, the duo become more sympathetic, even as they push each other to invest themselves deeper and deeper in Harlan County's bloody criminal underworld. "This is the price we pay for the life we live," she tells Boyd in season three, as the duo share the wounds they've acquired during a night of violence. "I chose this life, Ava," Boyd tells her. "So did I," she replies.
Now, Ava's story is ending the only way it ever could have ended. The difficulty and stress of criminal life has worn both of them down to the breaking point, eroding much of the mutual affection that brought them together in the first place. As an unwilling informant for Raylan, Ava has turned on Boyd — even as it's clear how much she's tempted by his promises of a new and stable life together.
It's an arc that has made Ava Crowder the most fully developed character in the series. Raylan, described as the angriest man his ex-wife had ever known in the pilot, is still angry; Boyd, whose upbringing and circumstances positioned him for a life of crime, is still attempting to reach the top of Harlan's criminal pile. Ava, alone, has fundamentally changed.
With seven episodes left in the series, the big question that remains is how Ava's arc will end. Is this a Bonnie and Clyde story, about a pair of doomed criminals? A Breaking Bad story, about a person whose criminal actions ultimately doom them? Or will there be some kind of redemption for Ava, who has already surpassed and survived so many of the obstacles in her path? In a 2014 interview, Joelle Carter said that her hope for Ava at the end of the series is "survival." Justified is full of surprises, but at this point, it's hard not to bet on Ava Crowder.