“Carrot didn’t work. That means it’s time for the stick.”-Boyd Crowder
It’s amazing how often television and movies get the South wrong. Non-Southerners have been making shows set in and around the region for decades now, and, to be fair, we often have only ourselves to blame (Hee Haw, I’m looking at you). You would think that in this age of information where everyone is instantly connected to everyone else and where “rural” simply has a different definition than it used to that the days of portraying Southerners as stupid, shoeless simpletons would be over. Yet it seems that endless cable channels are climbing over each other to find the dumbest, most ignorant sideshow Southerner that they can find (Honey Boo-Boo, now I’m looking at you).
Beyond all else, that is the thing that sets Justified apart.
Many of the characters on the show may be ignorant. Some may even be shoeless. The one thing they are not, however, is dumb. The show goes out of its way to show just how cunning and clever these people can be, and this week’s episode has a wide assortment of brilliance on display.
There continues to be an impressive amount of actual policework going on this season as Rayla, Art and Tim (Tim appears! It’s a Tim episode!) track down the former wife of missing hijacker, Drew Thompson. It’s a nice Elmore Leonard touch making the ex-wife a psychic fraudster who is just good enough at her job to befuddle Raylan and bemuse Tim. The primary progress that we get from the plotline is some dependably fabulous dialogue between the three marshals and some decent forward movement on the season’s mystery arc, notably that Drew Thompson destroyed every photograph of himself before he disappeared. I am loving this whodunit undercurrent that the writers have going on, and I particularly like the twist of searching for a man with no face. It puts the audience in the same boat as the marshals and adds a potential twist of possibility that Drew Thompson could turn out to be someone we’ve already met on the show. Better still was the realization that the impetus for Drew’s demise fakery was fear of reprisal from Theo Tonin (a wonderfully dry Adam Arkin) who you may remember was Quarles’ boss from Detroit last season. Again, I think the creative team does a tremendous job of world-building on this show and being able to place current events in the larger story of the show adds immeasurable texture and depth.
Meanwhile, Raylan is also struggling through his relationship with Lindsay and the return of her cage-fighting ex-husband. In many ways, Raylan and Lindsay make a more interesting couple than Raylan and Winona ever did. Evidence money theft aside, Winona was a straight-shooter whereas Lindsay is as morally flexible as Raylan is, probably more. It would be easy to read their light-hearted, flirty bedroom scene as nothing more than a verbal seduction, a cute little bit of foreplay that’s only there to add some background to Lindsay’s character. In fact, though, it is the other kind of character that is really in play here, the “test of one’s ethics” kind of character. The tone is feather-light, but there is some heavy lifting going on here symbolically as to who these people really are, not just who they are with each other. It is yet another subtle insight into where Raylan’s moral compass is pointing this season. It’s just hidden inside pillow talk. Ask yourself this: would the season-one Raylan that went through hell to get Winona’s stolen money back into police lockup have shared a bed with a deeply criminal con-woman, even one as hot as Lindsay?
No matter what answer you come to, the important thing is that you wondered.
Across town, Boyd is having problems of his own trying to rid the town of preacher Billy and his mission of redemption. Little sister Cassie is as corrupt as expected, and the early scene between her and Boyd is a dandy. Visually it’s like the wolf taking on Red Riding Hood, but verbally and emotionally it’s a dead heat. The dialogue is almost entirely innuendo and implications, and it’s devilishly fun to watch the two of them try to out-maneuver each other without any overt statements or threats. They both speak the same dangerous shorthand.
Once, as Boyd so eloquently puts it, the carrot fails he sends in the stick. To say that it goes wrong just somehow doesn’t say it. The snake attack in the tent is almost definitely the most upsetting and graphic scene in all four seasons of the show to this point. Considering that last season’s finale showed a man getting his arm chopped off with a meat cleaver, that’s really saying something. It would be bad enough if the writers were simply preying on the basic human instinctive fear of snakes, but the duration of the attack was so long as to be punishing. Good for them. The minute your audience starts to feel safe is the minute that you lose your audience.
More important, it wasn’t shock for shock’s sake. It was the snake attack that gave Boyd the realization that the snakes were being milked of their venom to make them safer to handle thus setting up his final confrontation with Billy. Speaking of keeping your audience on their toes, I was as shocked as Boyd to find out that preacher Billy was a true believer. It was easy to assume that both siblings were scheming to somehow control Harlan, but now it seems more likely that Billy was on the level with Cassie simply using her brother as an unknowing frontman. It will be extremely interesting to see where Boyd takes things from here. He went to the church tent expecting a nemesis and ended up finding an echo. Billy’s fall from grace is set up to mirror Boyd’s, but the question is what will happen to Billy if he survives the snake bite. Either way, this plotline just got a whole lot more interesting.
The sliding scale of morality has always been a major explorative theme on the show. With three episodes down this season, it feels like moral presentation is the big motif. The question is not simply “who are we inside?”, but also “who do we pretend to be?” Raylan presents himself as a lawman yet constantly compromises his values. Boyd presents himself as a criminal warlord even while he wrestles with his faith. Cousin Johnny acts the part of the dutiful lieutenant while he conspires with Winn Duffy. Lindsay presented herself to Raylan as a reformed bad girl, yet at episode’s end she had run off with Russell along with Raylan’s money stash.
Week in and week out, Justified is a case study in the examination of moral compromise and the acts we rationalize to get through the day. That’s high praise for a show that is basically about cops and robbers.
Some closing thoughts:
-Big week for folks in smaller roles. I already mentioned Tim’s excellent appearance, and we even get multiple scenes with Erica Tazel as Rachel. Her split with her husband gets mentioned again, which makes me think that it will be important later on. Mostly she works well in the same way that she always has, as a friendly foil for Raylan, and the two of them continue to have a different yet compelling dynamic that is different from any other relationship on the show. Hoping we get an all Raylan/Rachel episode at some point.
-There’s another reference to Art’s difficulty in managing his marshals this week along with the previously mentioned appearances of Tim and Rachel. All this attention is setting something up, but it isn’t clear to me yet just what it is. Wherever it’s headed, you definitely get the feeling that something will be different around the office by the end of the season. Could be a death, could be a personnel shakeup. We’ll wait and see.
-Nice to see Josh Stamberg show up as an crooked FBI agent. He plays smug and smarmy with the best of them.