“We gonna take it to the edge.”-Jody Adair
Back in week one of this season, I commented that I hoped we would see more of Jody Adair, the escaped convict who is played with such sociopathic glee by Chris Chalk. If you’ve seen Chalk’s nerdy production assistant on The Newsroom, his transformation here is less like impressive acting range and more like multiple personality disorder. It took a visit to IMDB to figure out where I knew him from, and even then I couldn’t quite believe it. Skin color notwithstanding, Jody is truly the yin to Raylan’s yang, and this week’s episode more than delivers on the premiere’s promise that left me wanting more six weeks ago.
My favorite thing about Jody is that he is fully aware that he and Raylan stand opposite each other across the line of the law, and every step he takes is half self-gratification and half a step toward a showdown with Raylan. Where most of the bad guys on Justified dread a run-in with the “man in the hat,” Jody not only welcomes it, he expects it. In Jody’s world, all roads lead to Raylan, and neither can have peace while the other lives.
The idea of a blood nemesis that you are destined to encounter is as old a dramatic motif as the western genre itself, but it is welcome here just the same. In fact, I rather enjoy it when the writers occasionally take a time-out from deconstructing the western ideals and just full-on embrace them. If this week’s episode is any indication, they should do it more often.
We start off with a classic riff: the bad guy guns down a friend of the hero, which kicks off a blood feud and an inevitable confrontation. In this case, the unfortunate victim is Raylan’s former flame and favorite bail bondsman, Sharon. It would be easy to play the misogyny card here and accuse the show of making women into stereotypical victims, except that the show has earned its stripes with a plethora of strong female characters and besides, Sharon manages to get a shot into Jody’s shoulder before she goes down, which is more than I can say about her partner. Seriously, I realize that Jody needed to escape in order to kick off the plot, but it does undermine my emotional investment a little bit when I don’t believe for a second that Sharon’s sidekick had ever transported a dangerous criminal before. Not to nitpick unnecessarily, but just an hour earlier (in show time) Jody had a hostage at gunpoint and tried to kill a U.S. Marshal. Now I’m supposed to believe that he was just loose in the back of the van with nothing on but handcuffs? No shackles? There was nothing attaching him to the inside of the van? Nonsense. Come on, writers, next time take the extra two minutes and think up an escape tactic that you didn’t see on a rerun of The A-Team.
Luckily, we don’t have much time to think about that because we have several other storylines to keep track of. More than that, last week’s clunky dialogue looks to be an anomaly as this week’s episode is almost non-stop brilliance with each conversation more clever and entertaining than the last. Whether it’s Boyd’s insecurity about hobnobbing with the social elite, Ava comforting Boyd with a hand-job joke or Raylan giving voice to his self-awareness in regards to his recent history with women, this is the best writing of the season. I haven’t even mentioned the thing Art does with his eyebrows, Tim’s birthday forgetfulness or pretty much everything that comes out of Jackie Nevada’s mouth. Truly, the writing is that good.
Speaking of Jackie Nevada, here is yet another new character that I hope we see semi-regularly. That is getting to be a crowded subset of folks at this point. My personal list includes Dewey Crowe, Dickie Bennett, Judge Reardon and Ellstin Limehouse just to start. As you can tell by that rundown, Shelley Hennig as Jackie acquits herself very well and joins an impressive list of actresses on the series that are much more than pretty faces. Television history is littered with attractive people from both genders who shouldn’t have ever been given lines of dialogue, but Justified has never joined that club. Vague chauvinism and genetic stereotyping aside, I have to marvel at the deft touch that has marked the acting choices going all the way back to the start of the series. Casting for the show was handled first by Camille H. Patton and now by Christal Karge with some overlap between them, and they should both probably see their names in print more often than they do, so major kudos to them.
Jackie is housesitting for Jody’s ex-baby mama, and more importantly, she is the only thing standing between Jody and the money he hid before he went to jail. None of the details of the plotting are particularly important here. The real draw is the between-the-lines suggestions in the Raylan/Jackie scenes and the oafish bumbling of Jody and his pornographer sidekick, Kenneth. There are some near-meetings that approach slapstick but never quite dip over the edge. In the end, all of it is in service of setting up the final duel between Raylan and Jody so that when it finally comes, it feels less like plotting and more like gravity.
Across town on Clover Hill, Boyd and Ava are handling the heavy lifting of the Drew Thompson mystery this week. Actually, not much headway is made on the Thompson case this week, save for ruling out the bulk of the social elite. Much like the Jody plotline, the real story is what’s happening underneath and the “rich folks’ sex party,” as Ava so eloquently put it, is entirely about things underneath. It turns out that the real power in Harlan lies with the rich and they have big plans for Boyd, just not the kind of big plans Boyd had in mind. What Boyd takes for inclusion quickly turns to extortion as we finally come to understand how Boyd has avoided local law entanglements this long. Even more, the local bigwigs want the government money that will come from disaster cleanup, and they think Boyd is just the man to cause just such a disaster even if it means committing murder in the process.
I want to take a short time-out here to talk a little about some technical filmmaking details. The next time you catch this episode in reruns or on Netflix, watch the party scenes with Boyd very carefully. As Boyd and Ava enter the party, the camera is high above them pointed down. It was such an unusual angle to see Boyd from that he actually looked like a different character to me for a moment. Mostly he seemed vulnerable and boyish, which was precisely the point. Watch how the camera stays just above his eyeline until he feels more comfortable, only dropping below his shoulder when he asserts himself to belittle a drunken partygoer who insults him and Ava. Also notice how in the scenes with the rich men of Harlan, the shots are often composed with the rich men in center frame with Boyd pushed to the side and below their eye level. This is completely intentional and subtly drives our emotional perception of the power balance within the scene. You see this attention to composition in feature films, but not that often on television with its faster shooting schedules and limited budgets. It’s refreshing to see that level of craft week after week.
Getting back to the review proper, the end of Jody’s story comes as we knew and hoped that it would, with an honest-to-God duel between gunfighters. The scene is a beauty, filled with little details that elevate it above cliché. First off, there’s the fact that it is Raylan’s hunch that brings them together in the bar. It quietly sells us on the idea that there is something almost supernatural drawing these two into battle. Then there is the idea that the bartender is not merely unsurprised that the fire drill isn’t for a fire; this is something he has been expecting since Raylan started living above the bar. His rapid clearing of the premises (get the women and children off the streets) is a western staple that feels right here.
Next is the quick draw itself. The most telling detail for me was the look on Raylan’s face as he pulled the trigger. He was just as surprised as Jody was. It speaks volumes about Raylan’s deepest nature and his keenest instincts. Raylan is, as we have long suspected, a killer in his soul. Though his mind may fight it, his body knows the truth. Finally, there is a tiny detail that is only achieved through careful editing. It is not until Jackie has entered the bar that Raylan kicks the gun away from Jody’s hand. It was crucial that we see Jackie enter first because it is important that Jackie never have any doubts about the validity of Raylan’s actions. Even a glimmer of suspicion that Raylan might have killed Jody in cold blood would have altered the dynamic of the relationship completely.
Speaking of permanently altered relationships, the final scene of the night was a doozy. Any verbal sparring between Raylan and Arlo that might have ever seemed playful is long forgotten at this point. The divide between father and son has never been clearer than it is here. Raylan forgoes any deception and makes a final, noble effort to reach out to his father only to be slapped away and chided for the attempt. In the end, however, it is Raylan that gets in the final blow with the line of the night. To paraphrase slightly, “You’re gonna die here and I’ll tell you something. I’m gonna be glad when I hear the news.”
Once and for all, the only trait that Raylan ever learned from Arlo was how to be cruel.
Some closing thoughts:
-You could write a film school thesis on the western iconography and mythmaking going on in this episode, and most of it is pretty overt, so I wanted to mention one that was a bit subtler. Listen to how Raylan talks about a potential showdown with Jody, how he prefers a straight-up fight to looking over his shoulder all the time. Much like Jack McCall or Robert Ford, who shot Wild Bill Hickock and Jesse James respectively (both in the back), upstarts who want to gun down the top gunslinger are a common trope, and it plays well here.
-Ava and Boyd getting ready for the swinger party is just the cutest thing in the history of the show. They seemed more like two kids going to the prom than a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. I find myself pulling for them despite myself.
-If there was an Emmy for wringing the absolute most out of three minutes of screen time every week, Nick Searcy would win it every year. It’s no wonder the writers give him some of the best lines every week. He knocks them out of the park every single time.
-I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention director (and co-executive producer) Don Kurt and writer Chris Provenzano. Both turned in choice work here and deserve some notice.