“I’m guessing that don’t apply to me?” —Johnny Crowder
Pacing is a tricky task for a television show. Different writers and directors dip in and out every week leaving only the show-runner and head writer to try and keep everything consistent and steady. It isn’t an accident that networks are toying with writers and directors who are willing to commit to tackling an entire season. I have no doubt that plenty of network heads were chuckling behind closed doors when HBO decided to hand an entire season of a new show over to a former professor of literature with one novel to his name and a director whose entire IMDB page consisted of an indie film and the 407th film adaptation of Jane Eyre. It must have seemed like HBO, as a network, had finally jumped shark. Instead, True Detective is the unquestionable critical hit of the season and seems poised to own next year’s Emmys.
For most shows, that kind of setup simply isn’t going to work. You just cobble together the best group of like-minded word jockeys and solid shooters you can get your hands on and hope for the best. When things work out (and things have worked out very, very well for Justified) you get mostly winners, periodic genius, the occasional clunker, and, despite your best efforts, a decent percentage of episodes that simply get you from A to B. These are unremarkable yet solid, workmanlike episodes, and this week’s installment is a perfect example.
The problem with having several wheel-spinning “chess” episodes in the first half of the season is that now that we’ve passed the halfway point, you can almost sense the panicked urgency coming from the writers’ room. Suddenly, time is short, and there are still a lot of index-carded plot points lurking menacingly on the bulletin board. I actually struggled a little when I was faced with summarizing this week’s meandering plot. Here goes: Boyd travels to Mexico to try and head off Cousin Johnny’s coup attempt while Raylan battles enemies both vocational and domestic as he tries to recover from missteps at work and home. Meanwhile, Ava shows her fellow prisoners that nobody schemes like a Crowder.
I almost nodded off for a second. First off, can we all agree that we need to get Ava out of prison as quickly as humanly possible? Poor Joelle Carter is only being given two emotions to display at the moment: mopey and pretending-to-be-afraid-for-my-life-’cause-that’s-what-the-script-calls-for. Look, we know and she knows that she can out-con the wiliest boss bitch in the yard without even trying. Hell, she outmaneuvers the crime queen of the prison without uncrossing her arms. We’re bored with it, and she is obviously bored with it, so let’s just drum up a convenient legal loophole and get her back to Harlan before Boyd gets back from Mexico, what do you say?
And don’t get me started on the “Heavenly Mother.” Please. At this point, the craggily, sassy old southern woman who has seen it all and dishes out equal parts venom and wisdom has been done to death over five seasons. Between Aunt Helen, Mags Bennett and Raylan’s distant relative from last season, badass matrons seem to be like opiate addicts in Harlan County; you can’t throw a rock without hitting one.
So enough already, let’s get back to some secondary characters that we actually care about.
I admit that I really don’t understand the point of Boyd’s storyline this week. Other than tying Boyd tighter to the Crowes, what exactly did we accomplish? Who exactly was Boyd’s little ruse with Mr. Yuen meant for? Why even let Johnny know that Boyd was there? Why not just let Johnny bring the money and then let him be surprised once he arrives at the truck? The end result is the same, but it would skip over a pretty poor attempt at suspense as Boyd and Johnny spend their time zip-tied and reminiscing while awaiting their fate. Who will Yuen choose? I’m on the edge of my seat here … because I’m getting up to go get a snack. Sophie’s Choice, this was not. Not only was the whole plot thread a bit of a yawn-fest, once it’s revealed that Yuen was on Boyd’s side the whole time, the only reasonable reaction from the audience is anger at the realization that we just sat through that entire sequence for nothing.
Ocean’s Eleven is on cable pretty much every night these days, and each time I watch it (which is probably three or four nights a week), I am always annoyed by the scene where Clooney surprises Matt Damon in the elevator just before they break into the vault. Ironically, that always seems to be the part where I tune in. In that moment, you realize that apparently the entire subplot with Damon tailing Clooney, revealing Clooney’s relationship with Julia Roberts, and getting Clooney kicked off elevator shaft duty was just to set up Damon’s character getting surprised when Clooney is waiting on top of the elevator. That’s it. None of it had any effect on the outcome of the plan whatsoever. They just as easily could have just come clean about Roberts being Clooney’s ex-wife and made it part of the plan that both of them would be rappelling down the elevator shaft. The plan would have turned out exactly the same way. It took me till about my third viewing to realize how annoyingly meaningless that whole segment of the movie is and now I can’t shake it when I watch it.
I feel precisely the same way about the Boyd/Johnny subplot in Mexico. I suppose you could make a case that without the ruse then Boyd and Johnny wouldn’t have had the chance to have their little “glory days” moment, but it wasn’t a good enough moment to make it worth the effort. In reality, it probably would have been more impactful if they had saved it until Boyd had a gun to Johnny’s head and it was the last thing they said to each other before Boyd blew Johnny’s head off. Just a thought.
Raylan’s running misfortunes are good for a bit of comic relief, particularly between Raylan, Tim and Rachel. It’s almost strange to think how long that trio has been working together considering how little time the three of them spend as a unit. As a group, they have a rhythm that really clicks and you get a familial vibe off of them that registers as worthwhile. Hopefully going forward the writers will remember to fit in more moments with all of them in the same room.
That said, while I got a few chuckles out of Raylan’s rocky pursuit of a one-legged hacker, it felt like lesser Leonard somehow. After five seasons, we’ve seen so many wacky fugitive pursuits that they’re actually beginning to feel a little predictable, which, I admit, is a bizarre declaration. I understand thematically why it’s necessary for Art to bench Raylan story-wise, but that doesn’t mean that Raylan can’t participate in a plotline that ties into the larger story at least tangentially. Despite some vague references to The Fugitive, nothing that happens with Raylan this week moves the larger story arc forward. With six episodes left in the penultimate season, it feels like we’re jumping rope when we should be working the heavy bag.
Of course, the feathery weight of his recent caseload weighs heavily in the ultimatum that Raylan delivers to Art at the end of the night. So once again I can understand the narrative necessity of the story decisions that were made in order to get us to where we needed to go.
Yet once again I see where we have arrived plot-wise and can’t help but look at the machinations required tonight to get us here and think, “Did I have to be here for this?”
Some closing thoughts:
—It isn’t totally clear at episode’s end whether Johnny is actually dead (I think he probably is) or just severely wounded. All I can say is that if we really have seen the end of Johnny Crowder, David Meunier deserved better. He’s been a bit of an under- the-radar secret weapon since the first season and it bears noting that the writers often liked to keep him off camera for moderate periods, knowing that his reappearances inevitably brought a rush of energy to the show. This season was no exception. It’s a shame for our characters as well. Save for Ava, no one ever saw Boyd more clearly than Johnny, and that kind of clarity is something that our favorite Crowder is sorely missing right now.
—The look on Alicia Witt’s face when Raylan asks her to pick up the check (and thus realizes that she has completely underestimated him)? Priceless.
—Credit where credit is due, even if he can’t quite master a southern accent, Michael Rapaport knows how to handle guns. It sounds like a stupid thing to say, but it’s amazing how many actors have obviously never handled a weapon before their role called for it. You see the same thing with smoking. Rapaport falls comfortably into the “knows what he’s doing” side of the list when it comes to firearms.
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.