FX's "Justified" is usually one of my favorite shows on television, but the just-completed fifth season was my least favorite stretch of the show. The Crowe family never clicked for me as major villains the way the show's other big bads have, a lot of time was spent on the bleakness of Ava's life in prison and Boyd's struggles to become a heroin trafficker, and at a certain point I was just waiting for the show to kick off the Raylan vs. Boyd endgame that will be the subject of the final season next year.

As I usually do at the end of the season, I got on the phone with "Justified" showrunner Graham Yost, who was good-natured (and good-humored) about discussing a season he knows hasn't been the series' most popular, and who explained some of the ways plans changed over the course of the season.

When exactly was it decided that next season would be the last?

Graham Yost: We talked about it with Sony and FX towards the tail end of the fourth season. WE had a meeting: me and Tim (Olyphant) and Fred Golan and Sarah (Timberman) and Carl (Beverly) and Michael Dinner, because at that point we were all the executive producers on the show. It really came down to me and Tim, but everyone was comfortable with what we decided. It was just our feeling that we only had so much story left, and to try to stretch it to a seventh season would not be the smartest move. It wouldn't be an entirely clean and separate seventh season. We might have had to stretch the fifth season into 20 episodes and done 10 and 10, or done that with the sixth season. And we just thought that that alone would be so difficult, given how hard it is for us to make it through 13. We've got friends across the lawn in Culver Studios who do "The Good Wife," and I think they look at us as pikers, because they've got to knock out 22 every year. But that's the nature of our beast.

So if you knew that going in, how much of the goal of this season was to put things in place for Raylan vs. Boyd in the final season?

Graham Yost: We knew it was a target, that it was our goal. There were certain pieces that we had to get in place by the end of the season. But I wouldn't say that's what drove us. What drove us was trying to make the Crowe story work and the Ava story work. The Boyd/Raylan aspect was a little separate from what was going on with the Crowes. Though it was related to it, and we had to keep that in mind. The Ava story, we knew we had to get her out by the end of the season. We knew we wanted her to keep on going from the frying pan and into the fire; she would solve one problem and then have a worse one coming down the line. We wanted to get to a point where she'd done everything she could to stay alive, only to be confronted with the stark choice that Rowena the nurse gives her: you can stay in solitary, and that's its own kind of death, or be prepared to fight every day for the rest of her stay. And that would be a very tough decision. So we knew we needed to get to that.

You said that one of the goals of this season was to tell the Crowe family story. How well do you think you did that?

Graham Yost: It's so funny, because we were in this position in season 3, where people liked the season but weren't loving it. Although, I gotta tell ya, there are some people who think this is our best season, and I choose to listen only to them. (laughs) Our biggest concern was not to repeat ourselves and not to make this the Bennetts, part two — to make the Crowes a distinct family. What we got with the actors gave us that. It was a different constellation. Daryl Crowe was a very specific Elmore Leonard- type character, very loosely inspired by this bad guy, Clement Mansell in "City Primeval." Just the guy who the hero's trying to get, and he always manages to just weasel out. That wasn't such a big thing for Clement, but we quickly hit on that for Daryl: that he would always get other people to do his dirty work. And we liked that as an attribute for a big bad. The things we got along with that was Alicia Witt as Wendy, and I think that worked out great. Jacob Lofland as Kendal really emerged as a strong character and a really strong performance, and A.J. Buckley as Danny. We didn't really have Danny fully formed in our minds. We knew he was a knife fighter, and we knew he was brutal and that he had a shorter hair trigger than the other Crowes, but his performance really gave us something to work with. That was a real pleasure.

How much did Edi Gathegi's abrupt departure change the plan? What was Jean Baptiste's role going to be had he stuck around?

Graham Yost: He was really supposed to be the consiglieri: the most trusted person because he's not a part of the family, like Tom hagen in "The Godfather." But also that he had a special affection for Wendy, and a protective feling towards Kendall. And it was going to be a question of how far would he go to defend the Crowes, who aren't his blood, and where we could go with that. And Edi wasn't happy, we understood that. It can be hard to take a gamble on a season of work, and he didn't feel it was materializing at that point. So we had to get him off the show. And what happened with that is, honestly, we kind of feel that that gave us the season. When we came up with the notion, I think it was Chris Provenzano and VJ Boyd, who came in and pitched the idea that Danny would just get the shotgun and shoot Jean Baptiste with it. The additional thing there was us asking, "Is Kendal in the room or is he outside of the room?" We decided to leave him there and witness that, and that then started a whole thing for Kendal, which is his fear, his secret. He reaches out to his "Uncle Jack," who is his father, because he wants to get away. He's this kid who is trapped in this world. That gave us our eighth episode where he's on the run with Jack and Raylan helps Wendy rescue the kid, and that gave a little bond with Raylan and Kendal. We didn't have it all planned out. We were in the room working on breaking 11, the episode where Kendal says, "I did it. I shot the man." When I heard that pitch, I thought that was fantastic. It totally fits with Daryl, it puts Kendal in a really tough position, and it puts Raylan in a position where he can't go full Raylan and just kill the guy, because he needs Daryl to confess or the kid will go to prison for a long time. That gave us our last run of the season. It was one of those things where we had to just have faith that we would figure it out, and it ended up being something we hadn't anticipated, and I think it was better than what we had planned.

How are we to reconcile Daryl ordering the murder of his brother Dilly in the premiere with the family's extreme closeness and protectiveness of each other in the rest of the season?

Graham Yost: It's one of those internal inconsistencies that we like, and is certainly part of Elmore's world. I remember Tim bringing up, it isn't Elmore's world, but related, where in the "American Hustle" trailer, Jennifer Lawrence's character says something like, "I don't want to say anything bad about so-and-so, but this person is terrible."  You can say one thing and do another and really be unaware of it. Not only is Daryl unaware of it, but he would say he was protecting the family in having Danny kill Dilly. Dilly was the one who could have brought them all down. He was just so undependable, it was too much of a risk to have him around. That to us is fun — someone saying it's all about family, and you've already seen him order his brother's murder.

Was it difficult writing the Ava in prison material and having her be so separate from the other action for so much of this year?

Graham Yost: If you really go back, we didn't see her that much in the first four episodes, and then in the fifth, it looked like she was going to get out. We were just keeping Ava alive in the first five episodes, and then starting in the sixth one, she's in a much worse place, and she's all alone. We really liked the notion of giving Ava her own story, and seeing how she would do without a man to save her. Given that her MO in life has been to attach herself to a powerful, charismatic man who is going to get her away from tall this. Boyd's brother Bowman was a football star and he was going to get her out of Harlan, and that didn't work; he was an abusive bastard who deserved to die. And then Raylan comes onto the scene, and right from the pilot, she says, "I knew everything was going to be okay from the minute I saw you." And that doesn't work out because does she really want to leave Harlan? She's really a Harlan girl. And then there's Boyd. So there's always been this man to take care of her, and we liked the idea of her having to figure it out on her own, because we knew where we were headed in season 6, where Ava has found she has resources that she might not have expected, and how is that going to have an effect on the story?

Interestingly enough, those stories weren't that hard to break. We knew what the building blocks for that story were, what would happen in episodes 6-12, and roughly in 13. Stuff moved around a little bit, but it was also stuff that we would shoot on its own in this mothballed juvenile detention facility in LA. So there would be a day there every episode, and it was its own deal.

Boyd has the guard who has falsely accused her in custody and just lets him go, and when he has leverage to make a deal with Raylan that could maybe get Ava out, he instead asks for this nebulous "clean slate." What's going on in his head at that point?

Graham Yost: Boyd's so busy with his heroin deal, he doesn't see her from the fifth episode until the ninth. He's got good reasons, but I think Ava feels a little abandoned from that. But Boyd is separate from what she's going through, and he's wondering, "What am I doing? All this stuff and going to Mexico and this and that, and people dying," and the whole reason was to get Ava out. He was starting to lose faith in the whole enterprise in (episode) 9 when he's killed this old man. His state of mind is exemplified in the scene at the bar at Audry's where he's there with Duffy and Picker and Daryl, and then Jay and Roscoe come in, and then Raylan and Miller come in, but before that, Boyd says, "Why don't we just start shooting and see who's left standing?" He's at an existential precipice. And when Ava says they're done in 10, the very mooring has come loose for him. It was our feeling that in 11, when he goes to sit down with Picker and Duffy, he's thinking he has a 50/50 chance of living or dying, and he's kind of okay with it. I think he's in a very dark place. So having Ava get out at the end is a big surprise to him. We'll see in the sixth season if Ava ever asks why he didn't make a deal with Raylan, he can quite honestly say, "You broke up with me." He thinks at the end of the season that it's because he let Albert go that the guy was willing to change his testimony. Boyd thinks that by not killing this guy, Ava got out.

You mentioned Boyd being in a dark place and all the troubles he had. Ava was in prison all year and was constantly in peril, Raylan and Art weren't speaking to each other for much of the season. Did this feel like a darker season of the show to you, and if so, what was the intention behind that darkness?

Graham Yost: Again, I think there's a lot of similarity to season 3. There was a lot of darkness to season 3 with Quarles' character. We did want to, knowing it was the penultimate season, to re-establish Boyd's lethality. We did that from the top and kept it going. But we wanted that sense of the first four or five episodes that all these things are coming to a boil. And it looks like Boyd is going to win. He's done some very clever tricks to get Ava out, and he's made a deal with Hot Rod to take out Johnny. So everything is coming up roses, and then the whole rug gets pulled.

Similarly for Raylan and Art. Art has had this dawning suspicion that Raylan was involved with the death of Nicky Augustine. And he gets ever more confirming evidence to that end. But he gets that great win in getting Theo Tonin. And he has this great showdown with these guys in the diner, and he's on top of the world, and then Raylan's love and respect for him means he has to tell him the truth, in a veiled way to protect himself. And again, the rug is pulled out from under Raylan. That was our goal for the fifth episode, and from then on, it was our goal to just have things continue to get worse and worse for both of them. We said to ourselves at the end of the fourth season, "We can never again have a gun pointed at Winona again. This is it; We can do this once in the series." Just like that, we knew that chances are Art is the only one of the marshals who will take a bullet in the series. Though we haven't decided on that for sure about Tim and Rachel in season six. But we knew that was a big big deal. Things have got to get a lot worse before they're going to get better. That's just basic dramatic construction. So, yes, there is a darkness. If we have any shot at finding any light at the end of the series, we had to go there now.

Now, it seemed to me that the body count was higher this season because some significant characters like Johnny died. But is that just my imagination and this is roughly the number of people who die in a given season?

Graham Yost: (laughs) Oh, it's just so horrible when you put it that way. It's a violent world and a violent show. I would say it's probably comparable to the first season. I'm trying to remember in the third if there were that many bodies dropping. Certainly in the fourth not as much. It's above-par in that regard. But we don't do an actual count. I know season 1 ended with a lot of people dying.

Is the cartel just going to let Boyd off the hook for everything he's done now that Alberto and two of his goons were killed?

Graham Yost: It's funny, I was thinking about that. And I don't know. We haven't decided on that. We're done with heroin and we're done with Mexico, but maybe those characters could come back in some way.

Do you have a timeframe in mind for the final season, in terms of how much time is going to pass? Because "Justified" time is much shorter than real time.

Graham Yost: I think VJ did a timeline once, and we found out a couple of things. There have been a couple of jumps. This season was supposed to start essentially a couple months after the end of season 4. But other than those jumps, everything takes place in a very condensed timeframe. We just find we end an episode and we want to start the next one the next day. Especially as we get into more serialized storytelling.

So should we not be expecting Art to come back to work?

Graham Yost: Well, there might be a jump. It might pick up a few weeks later. It is our plan to have him come back to that office; we're just not sure when.

Where did the idea to have the Harris brothers play brothers come from?
 
Graham Yost: It came from Tim. Tim and Dave. Tim knows them. I think the same manager.

Did you wind up using them more than originally planned?

Graham Yost: They were really good. My standard line is that unless you actually see the doctor pronounce someone dead on "Justified," you don't know, so Jay and Roscoe could come back. It ended up working great. We had initially a different plan for that episode, where it was going to be one brother trying to avenge the death of the other brother, and they weren't interested in that. Which opened us up for that episode where they're teaming up.

Why did Allison break up with Raylan so abruptly?

Graham Yost: That was something we kicked around a lot. I wasn't entirely satisfied with the resolution of that, and tracking her logic and why she says "No." This is what we intended, and whether or not we dramatized it perfectly is another question, but our intention was that first of all, she says to him at the end of the sixth episode, "You're the guy who runs into the burning building, but I get the feeling you're setting the fires." And she's been saying that from the beginning. He is the cause of all the problems in his life, which Raylan absolutely can't see. In the eighth, when he says, "Let's go to Florida," it is a weird ask, to go visit his ex-wife and baby. She's game, but she's not jumping up and down. Our feeling was she's thinking, "Okay. Maybe I said you should change, and you're trying to change, and I should support that." But by the end of the episode, she's saying, "What am I doing?" We thought it was more interesting that they not be in a great place for what happens after with Art getting shot protecting her.

You sent off some significant characters this year. Boyd kills Johnny and it appears Dewey is going to prison for a very long time. Did you feel like you had to clear the decks of some familiar people before the final season began?

Graham Yost: Those are two separate things. David Meunier (who plays Johnny) is getting more and more work, and keeping him on the show was getting more difficult. So we made a deal with him that we would give Johnny a big exit if he came back for part of the season. And on the storytelling side, it was about how much more we could get out of the Boyd and Johnny dynamic. It felt like we had gone as far as we could go. It was my choice to not have a big speechifying scene before Boyd killed him. It was my choice to have them do that earlier in the episode when they're at the big house, and it was just matter of fact and in the moment, rather than making a big deal out of Boyd shooting him.

With Dewey, we sat him on the bench in the fourth season. He was really the impetus for the whole season, talking about Dewey Crowe and what we could do with Dewey. It started from talking about Dewey to wanting to bring in more Crowes, because Elmore loved his Crowes. Whether he goes to prison forever or not, we'll see. I did design that last scene between Raylan and Dewey, where he's being put in the squad car, to echo their first encounter in the pilot, where after the discussion about "the third person," Dewey says, "Man, I don't understand you," which was one of his lines in the pilot. So if he doesn't come back, they had closure.

Was there ever a point in the run of the show where you thought the Raylan/Boyd confrontation was going to come sooner? Or, once you decided to let Boyd survive the shootout in the pilot, did you always intend it to be the concluding story?

Graham Yost: I think pretty early on, we knew it would come back down to the two of them, and Ava.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com