“What we have here, contrary to appearances, is an amazing opportunity.” -Boyd Crowder
In the end, it all comes down to character. Character, as Heraclitus said, is destiny. We should know exactly how things are going to end up, seeing as we know these characters like we’re related to them at this point (any resemblances these characters may have to any members of my actual family are purely coincidental). Yet somehow nothing ever seems to go quite like I imagine it on this show.
This week’s episode brought, among other things, Quarles in a kimono, a shotgun bong, the world’s worst recon of a bank, and more twists and double-crosses than Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13 combined.
We’re getting down to the point where we really see who is motivated by what. Raylan is motivated by his duty and the need to occasionally beat and/or shoot someone. Boyd is motivated by money and a surprising (even to him I think) compulsion to protect Ava at all costs. Limehouse is motivated by the need to protect Noble’s Holler; he cares about money, but only insomuch as it helps the Holler. Arlo wants to still feel relevant. Wynn Duffy wants to have as many of his enemies kill as many of his other enemies as possible. And Quarles?
Well, Quarles is a drug-addled psychopath. The only thing we can be sure that crazy bastard wants is survival, and I suspect that even that is up for discussion if the stakes are right.
The beauty here is that all of these guys are brilliant in their own way. It makes you wonder what else any of them could have succeeded at given some different life choices, but the bottom line is that there are no dummies here (except Dickie, of course) and they all know that. This is a multi-sided chess match going on here with every player looking at least half a dozen plays into the future. What makes that so entertaining is that it renders so many genre conventions moot.
Many shows (and even movies) would have played this episode straight from the outset. Boyd and his crew would have into the trap laid out for them at the bank, there would have been a multi-group shootout, and most of the drama and tension would have been gleaned from the ramp up to the big event and the various confrontation and fallout that inevitably resulted.
The problem is that we’ve seen that before.
The last person that did an original spin on that particular kind of storyline was Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs in 1992, and Elmore Leonard was one of the many sources Tarantino was ripping off to do it.
Instead, the creative team here uses the ramp up to not only build tension, but to constantly complicate and invert the situation. Every phone call flips the narrative in a new direction depending on who is on each end, and the audience is left constantly guessing which character is going to eventually be without a chair when the music stops. In the end, the bank job never happens, the tension level is so taut you could pluck it like a banjo string, and somehow we’ve ended up somewhere that seems completely fresh. That’s good storytelling.
All the actors involved are gifted in general, but it’s amazing that so many of them are able to let us see them working things out in their heads even as they’re delivering lines about something else. It’s a tricky disconnect where you sense that their words don’t completely line up in a way that suggests gears turning in their minds. There’s been a lot of that this season and a ton of it tonight and it works every time they do it. That’s the kind of thing you can only do with believable, well-developed characters.
Raylan is mostly passive this week, but when he senses the moment is right, he moves into action quickly. His standoff with Dickie is a gem, but most importantly it speaks to who Raylan is at his very core. He could have simply disarmed Dickie and taken him in, but it was important to Raylan that he crush Dickie, verbally and then physically. Raylan quite literally instructs Dickie to try and use his gun so that Raylan can draw and shoot first. Raylan needs the violence, but it has to be justified. It says so right there in the name of the show.
Boyd had a big week, and as usual Walton Goggins does not disappoint. The two standout scenes were Boyd’s confrontation with Dickie (interesting that our two mirror-image leads more or less bookend the episode with a Dickie Bennett confrontation) and Boyd’s standoff with Arlo. Boyd survives mostly on cunning and guile, always letting the other guy get emotional and make a mistake, but when Boyd lays eyes on Dickie, the anger is more than he can suppress. In case you’re ever wondering, that’s what inconsolable rage looks like. Dickie Bennett owes Ava a debt of thanks. If she hadn’t stopped things, Dickie would drawn his last breath out of a trash bag.
Without a doubt, however, the moment of the episode was Boyd telling Arlo that the bank job was going down without Arlo’s involvement. We’ve seen Arlo deteriorating all season, but there was a desperation here that is new, and the result was wrenching. In his animated frustration, Arlo calls Boyd by the wrong name; he calls him Raylan. Boyd’s reaction combined with Arlo’s increasing mania hit all the right notes, and it gave me chill bumps. With all the high level crime drama happening, it’s easy to forget the human issues that exist underneath. It was a brilliant stroke to include Arlo’s error as it instantly conjures all of the history between Raylan, Arlo and Boyd.
This week ended on something that’s unusual for Justified: a cliffhanger. Quarles is hurt and in the wind, probably with Boyd right behind him. Trooper Tom is shot but presumably not dead quite yet, and Raylan seems just about ready to put his shield down and just start shooting anyone he doesn’t like.
One week to go this season? Right on time.
Some closing thoughts:
- Loretta, played so wonderfully by Kaitlyn Dever, returns for one more farewell tour this week. Well, I hope it’s her farewell tour for the same reasons I liked Winona’s exit a few weeks back. She gets one last scene with Raylan, all of the magic between them still works and she gets one last deadpan one-liner: “Marshal, do I strike you in any way as a Van Halen fan?” It’s rare that a character gets to go out on a high note with a perfectly stuck landing, so I hope we don’t see Loretta again any time soon. Her arc is done, her story is told. That said, if Justified should last seven or eight seasons, it would be nice to check back in with her at some later date just to see how she ended up. The really nice thing is that her reappearance isn’t just a gimmick (as is so often the case with returning guest stars), it’s integral to the plot. Not only does it make sense that she would be the recipient of Mags’ fortune (since only Loretta possesses the same equal measures of intelligence, resolve and sheer guts that Mags had but didn’t pass on to her progeny), it also sheds additional light on Limehouse and his motives. Given his sympathy for women in crisis, it paints all of Limehouse’s machinations to hide the money from Raylan, Boyd and everyone else in a completely different light.
- I feel like I don’t say enough about how well-shot and directed this show is. Longtime editor Bill Johnson steps behind the camera this week and does a fantastic job. The stable of directors the show has built up do a uniformly excellent job, but the camerawork seemed especially nimble this week. Journeyman D.P. Francis Kenny steps aside from his usual duties this week and another veteran, Richard Crudo, takes over cinematography. Both men deserve praise, Kenny and his team for putting together a compelling and cinematic look for the show and Crudo for knocking it out of the park when he got an at-bat. Let me call your attention to two great bits of business. First, there are the scenes at the bar. You might not think so, but it’s tough to map out a scene in a large space that involves a conversation between four (or more) people. It’s perfectly done here and uses multiple subtle camera moves and focus shifts that always keep the audience oriented without ever seeming flashy or calling attention. This speaks well for Johnson’s editing background. Second is a single shot when Dickie breaks into Loretta’s house and finds Raylan waiting for him. We see Dickie enter from across the room, and there is a slow camera slide that reveals just the side brim of Raylan’s hat as we also register Dickie’s reaction. It is exactly that kind of economy of production (and iconography as shorthand) that allows for the lean, propulsive tone that the show maintains from week to week. Kudos to all involved.
- Trying to pick great lines this week is like trying to pick a favorite doughnut; the first dozen are so good that your definition of ‘great’ stops having any meaning. The ones that really stood out to me are Loretta’s Van Halen moment and Raylan’s appraisal of The Wizard of Oz. You wouldn’t think you’d be able to verbally denigrate a backwoods butcher with a pop culture reference to one of the most beloved family films of all time. You would be wrong.