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Justified Review: “Kill the Messenger” (Episode 5.06)

February 12, 2014  |  8:46pm
Justified Review: “Kill the Messenger” (Episode 5.06)

“Art?” —Raylan Givens

I do not approach this show without sympathy. Outside of police procedurals and westerns, it is hard for any show to sustain itself for more than a few seasons. Once you attach a high expectation of quality, the level of difficulty ramps up so quickly that it is easy to understand some trial and error coupled with a need to try new things.

I am, of course, talking about Darryl Crowe Jr.

First, a mea culpa. I counted six deaths last week when in reality there were only five. I’m not complaining, Mickey Jones is always a joy to have around as Hot Rod Dunham, and I imagine he will be moving on soon enough. Between Cousin Johnny and the Wood Brothers, I figured for sure that someone had capped him. My mistake.

Now, back to the pitfalls and dangers of long-form television production. Graham Yost and the creative team obviously realized after the miracle that was season two that it wasn’t going to be enough to just keep hauling out the same old bag of tricks. They needed a new bag and newer tricks. Season three upped the ante by splitting the duties between two antagonists though it could be fairly argued that Limehouse was never a true bad guy (more of a troublesome observer). Bringing in a crazed Detroit sadist was about as far as you could get from a back-country pot clan and, in general, it worked. Last season, they took a risk by foregoing the usual plotting and introduced a genuine (that’s gin-you-wine for those of you about the Mason-Dixon) whodunit. For myself, I thought it worked like gangbusters. There were some dandy secondary characters (where, oh where, has Patton Oswalt gone?), not one but two compelling romances, and we actually got to see Raylan do some according-to-Hoyle detective work. Fast-forward to this year, and suddenly, at least on paper, we’re right back in season two territory. We not only have a backwoods family running the show, but it includes a deceptively cunning leader and two bumbling brothers, one big and violent and the other slight and dim. Hell, there’s even a mouthy teenager to boot. All we’re lacking is another sibling who has some kind of occupation with an air of legal legitimacy to act as the public face of the family … dammit.

This cannot be an accident.

Somewhere, there is a darker purpose at work here. Parallels and echoes have been a major theme of the show all along, so I can’t believe that the next-to-last season just happens to be a bizarre mirror image of the second season purely by chance. The real question we should be asking is, “Why?” Just to remind us all that the second season was just that good? Are they hoping to skate by on subconscious familiarity? I suspect that the answer is less sinister. Much like the other parallels throughout the show, this is a tool for character development and examination. What better way to see how far our characters have come than to see how they handle a mulligan a few years down the road?

Equally different is how the writers have handled the two families. Regardless of whatever the original plan was, the introductions have been noticeably different, and as we have seen recently, even good shows have to make it up as they go sometimes. Graham Yost revealed this week that Jean-Baptiste was planned to live until the finale, but dissatisfaction with the role on the part of the actor led to the character’s early and abrupt demise. (If they had given him more scenes like his last one, he might not have left.) Thus, it is possible, even likely, that Darryl was initially meant as a bigger player off the top. Instead, the writers have eased him into the mix, for the benefit of both the actor and the audience.

To my surprise, it’s working.

Margo Martindale must have seemed like a stork dropped her off. Southern by birth, she slipped into Mags Bennett like an old robe. It was easy to put her front and center and just sit back and watch it happen. Michael Rapaport was the polar opposite of comfortable. His natural New York tones have grated against his attempted everglades twang since word one, and his sleeveless shirts have done little to help him access the brutish presence that Darryl needs. He tried for “conniver” when he should have gone for “conqueror.” I am happy, however, to report that the breadcrumbs approach has worked, and not only does Rapaport finally seem at peace with Darryl’s physical menace, the character also finally seems real to the audience.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was only by ceding command momentarily to another that Darryl finally came to life. Past transgressions wreaking havoc in the now is a going concern for both Boyd and Raylan. Both are paying the price for honesty that has come too late, Raylan for admitting to Art that he played a role in the execution of Nicky Augustine, and Boyd for betraying the racist code that he so proudly spouted during his time as a white supremacist preacher.

Raylan’s issues take a backseat this week. In fact, his predicament gets only a single word of dialogue (see the opening quote of this review), but it’s the only word that is needed in an otherwise wordless and brilliant pre-credits open.

Boyd’s problems seem endless. First, he’s playing multiple angles of a triple cross in an attempt to rid himself of his cousin for good. It’s nice to see that Hot Rod Dunham has at least some code of ethics when he subtly warns Boyd that all isn’t going to plan. Then again, I guess Hot Rod has a pretty good idea which side is more likely to let him live. Boyd’s larger issue, however, is the ever-tightening noose around Ava’s neck.

Boyd’s efforts to protect Ava start the ball rolling on our plot progression. Unfortunately, Boyd miscalculates how much money means to hardcore supremacists, and his actions temporarily put Ava in more danger, not less. Regaining the upper hand requires manpower, and such is the way that regrettable partnerships begin. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that before they start singing kumbaya, the Crowes did attempt to kidnap Boyd before settling on his lieutenant instead. But, as Boyd said to his Neo-Nazi buddy, “Never let politics stand in the way of business.” Hell, that should probably go on Boyd’s tombstone. Not only does Darryl seem to relish his role as Boyd’s enforcer (not to mention the opportunity to dish out some violence), their new agreement has obvious long-term benefits for both. Boyd needs backup for his meeting with Dunham. The Crowe family needs regular money coming in to support their new Kentucky lifestyle. Two dangerous sociopaths who work well together—what could possibly go wrong?

More importantly, this is the episode that ties Raylan more tightly to the Crowes, as well. After Alison is assaulted by Danny during a routine check on Kendal’s wellbeing, Raylan heads to Harlan for some payback with Rachel in tow. I’ve said it many times, but Erica Tazel and Jacob Pitts need more screen time. Rachel’s banter with Raylan continues to be a high point for the show, and her interactions with him almost always add depth to our understanding of Raylan’s relationships with his officemates. Rachel is a keen observer, and she never fails to offer up analysis of Raylan’s choices that surprise Raylan and give him pause. Tim Gutterson is the tactless voice of reason, and it is fitting that he is the only person who actually wants to talk about the obvious altercation between Raylan and Art. He is often a stand-in for the viewing audience. We want that storyline addressed as well, but it’s a clever way for the writers to let us know that the show isn’t going to give us those answers just yet.

So now all of our primary players are tied to each other, and the second half of the season will most likely involve all of them being slowly drawn in as the knots tighten with predictably problematic consequences.

Some closing thoughts:

—Danny Crowe is one scary bastard. I want to send kudos to A.J. Buckley for a very effective performance. The way Danny likes to toy with prey before sudden explosions of violence makes Coover Bennett seem positively oafish by comparison.
—I can only postulate that all of the similarities to Orange is the New Black during Ava’s release into gen-pop are intentional. There are no creative ties between the shows that I’m aware of, so maybe the folks in the creative team are just big fans. For starters, the speech that Ava’s bunkmate gives her when they meet is a carbon copy of Piper’s arrival in gen-pop on Orange. Said bunkmate could be Natasha Lyonne’s stunt double and happens to be named Nicky, just like Lyonne’s character. It also just can’t be a coincidence that Ava’s “protector” shows up and has fiery red hair and bears a passing resemblance to Kate Mulgrew. Also, much like OitNB, all the other inmates seem obsessed with Ava’s silky blonde hair. Fun stuff.
—The writers really need to decide whether Alison is going to be a convenient plot device or an actual character. A few short weeks ago, she was world-weary realist who would plant drugs to ensure a child’s future. That Alison is nowhere to be seen as this week’s plot calls for a version of her that is unsure and easily shaken. The difference is a crucial one. Both versions may be frightened, but the Alison from a few weeks ago would never have let it show. That may be a small variation, but it’s an important one, and it strongly suggests that, at least at the moment, more plot device than fully-fleshed character.
—I want to give the week’s biggest shout out to the person at FX who chose the background music at the bar in the opening scene. It was an obscure choice from an obscure singer. The song is “Please Take This Cup From Me” by Watermelon Slim. The song is about a man dealing with alcoholism and references Luke 22:42. It’s hard to imagine that a song about a man battling inner demons and touch choices was a random selection. Carefully curated choices like this, even on something as seemingly unimportant as a song playing quietly in the background, really speak to the creative depth with which this show is planned. It shows an awareness that every detail in a scene is an opportunity to enrich and deepen the viewing experience. Nicely done.

Jack McKinney is a professional camera salesman by day and a freelance filmmaker, Paste contributor, and amateur prestidigitator by night (and occasionally weekends). You can cyber-stalk him on Twitter.

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