“We didn’t invent the rules, baby. We’ve just got to play by ‘em.” -Boyd Crowder
The writers on Justified enjoy their episode titles. This season alone we’ve gotten an Elvis Costello song reference and a line from The Wizard of Oz. Thus, it is worth noting that the final three episodes of the season have had single word names. The meaning is clear; all the fun and games are over, this is serious business now. We had “Measures” then “Coalition” and finally tonight, “Slaughterhouse.”
They didn’t name it that by accident.
They could have named it “Fallout.” Tonight’s episode didn’t have a plot so much as it had a tempo. This was the hour-long culmination of all the movements and motivations that have driven this season. Narratively it was the equivalent of a 10-year-old taking his action figures and bashing them together while yelling “Gah, gah, gah!”
Honestly, I don’t know how it could have gone any other way.
Mind you, none of the plot points ended up being what I expected, but the chaotic rage of it was precisely what was promised. Our characters have defined themselves and each other in fits and starts all season, and this week those definitions were taken to their natural conclusion. There are rules and there are codes of behavior, but nothing is more telling than the choices we make when things are at their worst.
Raylan Givens is an angry, violent man. Having a friend like Trooper Tom gunned down does not have a calming effect on a man like Raylan. Even so, he cannot simply be violent for violence’s sake. There has to be a point, and he will go to great lengths to determine exactly where the line is between justified and unjustified. Take this week’s scene between Raylan and Wynn Duffy. It was a nice dramatic turn bringing back Glenn Fogle’s version of Harlan Roulette for this moment, and it was the epitome of Raylan’s worldview. He could have beaten Duffy or shot him in the knee to get him to talk, but instead he gets to not only emotionally torture Duffy, but is able to do it using the preferred method of one of Duffy’s former flunkies. This is what passes for irony in Harlan County. If Raylan had actually shot Duffy? Well, he had a five out of six chance of not getting shot, so it’s not Raylan’s fault that Duffy was unlucky. This is what passes for the law of probability in Harlan County. Most importantly, when Raylan explains that he is just playing by the bad guy’s rules, he’s convincing himself, not Duffy. If your opponent cheats, the only way to win is to cheat better. This is what passes for a fair fight in Harlan County.
Raylan plays by the rules as they evolve and change. Boyd is usually the one doing the changing. Johnny’s betrayal leaves Boyd scrambling for cover this week and Boyd correctly recognizes that the only play is to stand pat. Sometimes the best move is not to make one. The first of two major dramatic turns in the finale dealt with Boyd and Ava. There’s something both beautiful and terrible about seeing the desperate way that Ava and Boyd love each other. These are people with huge chunks taken out of them that end up fitting together like puzzle pieces, and Ava’s shaking plea for more time together is heartbreaking. That the events of the night drive her to become an abusive madam to poor Ella May is even more so, but it was also probably inevitable. This is what passes for predeterminism in Harlan County.
It is somewhat surprising that I’ve gotten this far without mentioning Robert Quarles. What can I say? Quarles ended up exactly as dead as expected. One could even say that Quarles was a dead man at the end of last week’s episode. It just took having his arm chopped off for him to notice. In what is probably the show’s shining moment of western genre deconstruction, there is no gunfight between Raylan and Quarles. There is a brief struggle, but Raylan’s real contribution to the bad end of Robert Quarles is a curious look matched with a quarter turn to the right. This moment was simultaneously both the funniest and most badass thing I’ve seen Raylan Givens do thus far. Also, the subtle way that the gun that killed Gary Hawkins resurfaces slipped by me on first viewing. Well played. “That one you can keep.” Very well played.
It is saying something that in a scene where a half million dollars falls out of a dead pig and a man loses an arm that neither of those events ends up being the big bombshell. The big bombshell, of course, is that Trooper Tom was shot and killed by Arlo.
Last season had a strong matriarchal theme going on with Mags Bennett and her empire. Looking back now, it’s clear that the overriding theme of season three has been fathers and sons. Raylan and Arlo and the valleys between them that can never be crossed. Boyd and Arlo and the bonds they inexplicably share. Limehouse and Errol, Theo and Stanley Tonin. It was all there if we had known to look.
In the end, a freshly medicated Arlo gives Raylan a decades-late apology for the sins of Raylan’s upbringing. How that must contrast with the later revelation that Arlo probably only shot Tom because he was a cop in a hat pointing a gun at Boyd is unanswerable. It will be very interesting now to see if Raylan and Winona’s baby turns out to be a boy or a girl.
In the end, things wrap up as they must for Raylan Givens; a goodbye, the hat, and out the door alone.
This is what passes for resolution in Harlan County.
Some closing thoughts:
- Since this will be the last closing thoughts of the season, I’m making it an all dialogue celebration. The whole season has been rife with great lines, and the finale did not disappoint. Here were my favorites along with the speaker.
- Art: “I like the use of the word ‘cahoots’, though.”
- Limehouse: “Half a million ain’t getting out your hair money, it’s fightin’ money.”
- And then there is Raylan and Boyd’s final exchange:
Raylan: “Think it’s true what they say?”
Boyd: “Well, what do they say?”
Raylan: “One bad apple spoils the barrel.”
Boyd: “Well Raylan, even in a little town like Harlan, I think the apple barrel is obsolete.”
Raylan: “But the expression ain’t, cause of the truth contained therein.”
Boyd: “You trying to tell me we ain’t talking about apples?”
You never were, Boyd. You never were. See you next season.