As Kentucky-based 'Justified' comes to an end, actress reflects on her character, Ava, and what's next

JUSTIFIED -- Pictured: Joelle Carter as Ava Crowder. CR: James Minchin/FX.
JUSTIFIED -- Pictured: Joelle Carter as Ava Crowder. CR: James Minchin/FX.

The title of FX's Kentucky-based crime drama, Justified, is said to apply to leading man Raylan Givens who feels that his — ahem — unconventional approach to police work is, well, justified.

But as the series winds down to its final episode Tuesday night, it seems there are other characters the word justified could apply to.

"It applies to Ava No. 1, because they haven't allowed Ava to make one move that wasn't justified to the audience in a way that they could root for and support Ava," says Joelle Carter, the actress who plays the woman caught between Raylan (Timothy Olyphant), a U.S. Marshal, and Harlan crime boss Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins).

The series, based on the Elmore Leonard short story Fire in the Hole and mostly set in Harlan and Lexington, has had many chapters but largely focused on Raylan's pursuit of Boyd. Ava has spent most of the series on Boyd's arm. But she and Raylan have a past, and as the Marshals have focused their efforts in the final season on bringing Boyd down, Ava has become a key player in the drama.

In recent episodes, Ava was caught lying to both police and Boyd, shot Boyd and ran off into the Eastern Kentucky mountains with money he had just stolen. Mind you, this was after she was sprung from prison, where she was serving time for a crime she did not commit; put in an impossible situation of informing on Boyd, enduring numerous moments she thought she was going to be killed for being a snitch; only to be told she was heading back to prison because she didn't come up with enough information on Boyd.

"It was her opportunity to look out for herself, to count on No. 1 for her own survival," Carter says of Ava shooting Boyd at the end of the fourth episode from the end of the series. "She's not unlike these two men. She's learned from them that she has to take care of herself and be a little selfish right now."

When we last saw Ava Tuesday night in the series' penultimate episode, she was in the custody of crooked cops working for this year's guest villain, Avery Marcum (Sam Elliott), whose money she grabbed when she shot Boyd.

Her fate is unknown, but among the first to find out will be about 400 people in Harlan County who will attend a sold-out screening of the series finale Saturday afternoon with Carter and fellow cast members Erica Tazel (Rachel Brooks) and Jacob Pitts (Tim Gutterson), who both play U.S. Marshals.

For Carter, who has played an Eastern Kentuckian for six seasons, it will be her first visit to Kentucky, though she feels like she knows the place.

"Our writers and producers have gone down there ... and they have met the most wonderful people and made real friends and have found stories and ideas and brought them back. So I feel that it's very much part of our show. It's almost like a relative you know through talking about them but you've just never met them, though you feel like you have."

One thing Herald-Leader readers were interested in through questions on Facebook is Ava's accent, which Carter did develop for the show, as her regular speech is twang free.

"I have a background in country, I'm from Georgia," says Carter, a native of Thomasville, Ga. "I know the twang, and I'm familiar with the language, so to speak, how we abbreviate words. But I watched Harlan County, U.S.A. and other documentaries to see the difference where I'm from and Kentucky, and I kind of wore it around a little while."

And there is no doubt that Carter has enjoyed wearing Ava around for six seasons. Her character was originally conceived as just a guest part, but it quickly became clear she was going to play a key role between Raylan and Boyd, which required her to have chemistry with both of the show's leading, warring men.

She can't give away Ava's ending or even whether it's a happy one.

"I really love it," Carter says. "I hope people will be satisfied. I hope Elmore is looking down and smiling. I think they pulled it off ... sometimes your character ends in a way that fulfills you, whatever that is."

Now that Justified is finished, Carter knows it's time to look at what's next for her. But she says the next thing will have a lot to live up to.

"My people will be very picky," Carter says. "There have been some things that have come along, and I feel like I have had such a great run on Justified that it has to be something that will hold my interest as well as Ava did and this amazing show did; that will fill my heart and make me want to work. Otherwise, I might have to reinvent myself and do something different if it didn't feed my soul."