“Pack a bag. We’re going to Detroit.” —Boyd Crowder
Over the years, a certain amount of jargon has been created in the world of television production in order to describe specific television episodes that stand out from the crowd. For instance, there are “backdoor pilots” which is when a network wants to capitalize on a popular series by spinning it off into a second show. Instead of producing a standard pilot, the cast of the new show appears as guest stars on the parent show, thus introducing a large audience to the new characters so that hopefully folks will tune in when the new series premieres at the start of the next season. Then there are “bottle episodes” where a show sets an entire episode in a single location like, say, an elevator during a power outage, in order to save budget money for a more effects-heavy episode and dedicate some screen time to character development. Tonight, I am proposing a new term: a “chess episode.”
A chess episode is an episode whose sole purpose is to move pieces into place to prepare for future plot developments. There is no true plot progression per se in a chess episode outside of basic character interaction and/or introduction. You see where I’m going with this.
The fifth season premiere of Justified is a chess episode if there ever was one.
There are few shows on television as fun to watch as this one when it is just spinning its wheels, but don’t kid yourself, there are some deep gouges being dug in the Harlan mud this week.
Though we never get an exact day count, a good chunk of time has passed since we last saw Kentucky, and thus an equal chunk of time is necessary to catch us up on how everyone is doing. Baby girl Givens arrived during the hiatus, and though she remains nameless, she does get a little screen time along with Winona. No way to tell yet if this is an attempt to get some video chat product placement money or an arrangement necessitated by Natalie Zea’s schedule on The Following, but either way, I’ve always liked Raylan as a lone operator so a few more weeks of Skype money would be fine with me.
Boyd and Ava are just where we left them, one struggling to keep a handle on the Harlan drug trade and the other struggling to deal with being stuck in prison. The more interesting portion of their storyline is the developing situation in Detroit.
The Detroit organized crime community appears to have hit on some hard times since Theo Tonin ran off to a non-extradition country, and the Sammy Tonin that we saw this week seems a far cry from the slick private jet-setter that dispatched Mike O’Malley in last season’s finale. Then again, it’s hard to get a real sense of a person when they get shot in the head 20 seconds after you meet them. Honestly, the entire Detroit sequence felt a little tone-deaf to me. It seemed like the writers couldn’t decide between Pulp Fiction or Hostel tonally, finally deciding on Judgment Night instead. (For those of you that haven’t seen the Emilio Estevez/Cuba Gooding Jr. gem from 1993, consider yourselves lucky and go watch Young Guns again.) While there were some interesting touches—I liked the analog quaintness of pulling the IDs up in a bucket—the whole Detroit side story seemed conceived for two purposes, each one more clunky than the last: to show the Detroit crime family as so perversely psychotic that we understand where Robert Quarles came from and, secondly, to introduce us to a whole new brand of criminals, the Canadians.
It’s never a good sign when a show feels the need to justify the existence of a character who died two seasons earlier. Beginning with, quite literally, the first scene in the series, Justified has been about Raylan working his way through ever-expanding rings of a large criminal organization. We’ve witnessed the methodical introduction of widespread connections that range from Miami to Detroit to Frankfort, and, much like Burn Notice (I swear, this is the one and only time that I will ever compare these two shows), the thrust of the show seems driven by our main character’s quest to work far enough up the food chain to eventually confront a single nemesis. Given the amount of time and energy that has been spent building up Detroit as the bad guy headquarters, it seems strange that when we finally arrive there, the Detroit gang is immediately discarded and we suddenly jump over into Canada. Maybe I’m forgetting something, but up until this episode, has there ever been even the slightest suggestion that Canada had any kind of organized crime, let alone the capacity to be a threat to Theo Tonin’s group?
As if to add to the off-kilter mood, a solid half or more of the running time is spent in the Everglades rather than Kentucky. Stranger still is that despite having two excellent sidekicks to choose from (which, I might add, the show consistently struggles to find screen time for), the premiere saddles Raylan with a brand new character from the Florida field office. Don’t get me wrong—I like David Koechner, and he does consistently good work, but aside from giving Raylan someone to talk fatherhood with, he just isn’t given anything to do here. Why not have Art go to Florida with Raylan? We know Raylan seeks his approval, and at least then the half-hearted attempts to get Raylan to stop off to see Winona and the baby would have had some resonance. Unfortunately, that isn’t why we went to Florida.
We went to Florida to meet the Crowes. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I’m happy to meet them.
I’m always happy to see Dewey, but the rest of his kin aren’t all that compelling so far. Stuttering Dilly was the most interesting, so naturally he couldn’t live to see the end of the episode. I was excited when I heard that Michael Rapaport was cast, and he definitely looks the part, but his nasally accent sounds like anything but gator country. Nothing but his outfit says redneck felon. More worryingly, despite their history, the chemistry between Daryl and Raylan didn’t pop for me. I got the distinct feeling that I was just supposed to believe that they had a backstory because every other character kept bringing it up, but somehow none of it made it onto the screen. So far Daryl seems like a less interesting mashup of Elstin Limehouse and Robert Quarles but with only a third of the charisma. However this season turns out, a lot of it will hinge on where that character goes from here.
A middling premiere would signal trouble on most shows, and when good shows go bad you can usually look bad and see when the warning signs appeared, but Justified isn’t most shows and I’m not that worried, yet. It hasn’t ever been about a flashy start. To the contrary, slow and steady consistency has been the status quo on premieres. Instead of a solid season premiere this time around, we got something that feels like both a backdoor pilot (seriously, who can’t imagine a reality show called A Murder of Crowes) and a bottle episode mashed together. As the season moves forward, I fully expect tonight’s episode to be the exception, not the rule.
It’s worth noting that the show lost its guiding star with the passing of Elmore Leonard last year. So it isn’t all that surprising that what we have here is an episode with all the right pieces in place but little of the heart that usually drives the show.
Some closing thoughts:
—Since I’m saddling this episode with a “satisfactory” rating, it’s only fair that I mention the final scene, which felt like either something from a different episode entirely or, at the very least, a loosely connected epilogue. Boyd’s emotionally satisfying wrath is important not only because it shows that the show’s heartbeat is very much kicking but because it casts Boyd and Ava’s relationship in an unfortunate light. If it wasn’t clear from Boyd’s actions in last season’s finale, it should be crystal clear now; Boyd may love Ava deeply, but she will always be second fiddle to his pride, his freedom and his power. The length to which they can overcome their inner demons and be better men to the ones they love is rapidly evolving as the most important theme of the show for both Boyd and Raylan.
—Someday someone is going to make an amazing graph of all the various shows and guest stars tied to this show. Except for obvious connections like Deadwood and previous Graham Yost projects like Band of Brothers, it isn’t clear how much is intentional and how much is simply that good character actors are inevitably going to show up on good shows. For those keeping track at home, by my count there have now been two guest stars that were previously regular players on USA Network shows. There was Maggie Lawson as the kidney-stealing nurse back in season three, and now we have Monk’s excellent Jason Gray-Stanford as Dilly, the stuttering Crowe. It isn’t really fair to base too much on one episode, but it’s a shame that Dilly died so soon. Of the newly introduced Crowes, he was by far the most compelling.
—Since we’re talking about guest stars with past connections to the creative team, let me take this opportunity to rally support once more to get Ted Levine on the show in some capacity. Not only does he have a history with Graham Yost, he was also one of the best parts of Monk along with Gray-Stanford. Seriously, if Art Mullen ever decides to make good on his threats to retire, Levine would be a dynamite replacement. Make it happen, people.
—For the record, I’m not married to “chess episode,” I just couldn’t think of anything I liked better. If anyone has any suggestions on a better name, I’m all ears.