“Hello, Raylan.”-Boyd Crowder
Before this season began, the creative team made a point of talking up the shift in focus that Justified was going to take in its fourth season. Elmore Leonard’s latest Raylan-centric bestseller had hit shelves, and while it contained a story that shared elements and characters with some of the events in season three, that tale was only one of several that wove together to form the structure of the book. In many ways, it seemed more like a collection of short stories than a novel, and the writers of the show decided to apply that same paradigm to a 13-episode television season. This new approach has paid dividends in many ways, but as we approach the halfway point, it is still unclear how well this season as a whole will stack up against the instant classics that were seasons two and three.
There’s no question that this season lacks the finely honed focus of past seasons. With no true “big bad” to center on, the characters have meandered from case to case and tension-wise, the tone of the show has meandered a bit along with them. Don’t misunderstand; Justified’s meandering is better than an average show’s strict plotting, but there is something to the idea that after five episodes, I can’t tell you what the driving force of this season is. There is no representative character or dramatic relationship pushing the story forward.
Season one was the Crowder season with Boyd and his papa dueling to see who Raylan’s true nemesis was; season two was all Margo Martindale and the Bennett clan, and season three was the Detroit invasion and the double-trouble duo of Quarles and Limehouse. See? Easy. So what is the single-sentence shorthand description of this season? Something about the courier pouch mystery? Not likely, since we’ve been able to make it through entire episodes with only a tangential reference to it. Maybe it’s Preacher Billy and his old-timey church? Probably not, since Billy has been dead for two episodes (though we still haven’t seen a body…I’m just saying). You see my point. The bottom line is that while I can’t deny the amount of fun I’m having as we go along, this season is edging closer and closer every week to being a bridge season. Without a memorable identity, it will become the season that fades in your memory and makes you say, “Wow, I totally forgot that ever happened” when you catch it in reruns.
Of course, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, because you’d still be just as riveted the second time through.
Meandering or not, this show can still pin you against your sofa whenever it pleases, and this week’s episode was a sofa-pinner. The opening scene picked up precisely where last week left off with Ellen May (forget what I said last week; I’m just going to resign myself to calling her Ellen May no matter what the dialogue sounds like) missing and Colton forced into a standoff with a surprisingly tough gas station attendant. It is a wonderfully taut scene, and Ron Eldard does some fantastic work showing the methodical and clever contortions that Colton uses to gain access to the security cameras. This could easily have been a throwaway scene with Colton exhibiting the same sudden violence that we’ve seen from him before. Instead, we get a Colton who realizes how deep a hole he is in and knows when to stop digging. Without this scene, all of the later moments that demonstrate the slow unraveling spiral of Colton’s world would have less teeth. Taken together, this is a man on the verge of collapse, and unlike Boyd or Raylan who are at their most dangerous when broken, Colton simply seems pathetic and pitiful. He is, of course, still violent, but even the prostitute that he beats and threatens seems to know that he is in more trouble than she is.
On the brighter side, Natalie Zea makes her first (and possibly only) appearance of the season. All in all, though it is difficult for me to complain about seeing Winona, the scene is pretty perfunctory. There’s a cute little riff about Raylan’s punctuality and some dewy-eyed business about the baby kicking when Raylan speaks, but the scene felt more like an item on a checklist than a meaningful dramatic moment. We knew that we needed to see Winona at some point. We occasionally need a tangible reminder of why Raylan makes the sacrifices that he makes. Check and check, nice to see you Natalie Zea, and now we’re moving on.
As we say hello to Winona, we say goodbye to Agent Barkley. Oh, Stephen Tobolowsky, we hardly knew ye (is it just me, or do all of Timothy Olyphant’s old Deadwood guest stars meet really violent ends?). Barkley’s untimely demise brought some much-needed answers and some much-needed jarring violence to the proceedings. In one scene we found out how Theo Tonin has been keeping himself safe from the Feds and then watched as that safety net got viciously cut. Violence plays a major role in every episode, and it would be easy to get acclimated to it, so it’s nice to see that the writers understand the need to blindside the audience occasionally to keep us on our toes. More importantly it puts Wynn Duffy and Boyd in bed with each other with Cousin Johnny conspiring on the side.
On that note, Boyd really needs to take some notes from Ava on how to manage his underlings. I understand that Boyd takes more of a hands-off approach to personnel management, but right now his two main lieutenants are a drug addict who is constantly about eight minutes away from rock bottom and a gimp cousin who is actively plotting Boyd’s demise. I talked earlier about how pathetic Colton is, but this weaselly, spineless version of Johnny could give him a run for his money.
Ellen May survives yet another week, leaving me to wonder if she might actually have angels watching over her. At the very least she has Sheriff Shelby protecting her, though what he is actually protecting is whatever she knows that can hurt Boyd. The unfortunate truth, of course, is that it is Ava who Ellen May’s knowledge can destroy, and it is difficult to conceive of what lengths Boyd might go to in order to prevent that from happening. I fear mightily for Shelby’s long-term health.
The real Boyd story of the evening, though, is his parallel pursuit of Drew Thompson in competition with Raylan. Both are waylaid by crotchety old hermit Josiah (a most welcome Gerald McRaney) and find themselves at the mercy of a clan of hillbilly mountain folk who may or may not be cannibals. It is fitting that our first Boyd/Raylan scene of the season happens with both of them chasing the same goal from different ends and for different reasons. They are, as ever, a perfect mirror of one another. Raylan doesn’t even seem surprised to find Boyd in the ramshackle cage that he gets thrown into. After all, where else would he be?
Thankfully their captivity is lengthy and filled with delightful banter that pushes all the way to Raylan finally getting the last word in. With their undeniable chemistry, the long wait for a scene with the two of them more than pays off. This relationship truly is the heart of the show, and in hindsight it seems wise to have delayed it until now. I had almost forgotten the impact of their dynamic, so when it finally showed up, it was an emotional blindside. Much like revisiting a favorite film or forgotten album, the familiarity of the rediscovery can be revelatory. The entire scene, with the two of them working together while simultaneously trying to double-cross each other was a microcosm of their complete history. Fun stuff.
It worked out well in the end and was worth our patience, but hopefully we won’t have to wait so long for their next encounter.
Some closing thoughts:
-Another subtle yet strong representation of Southern culture this week. The idea that Raylan knew enough to take the picture of his mother and her cousin with him into the mountains was a clever bit of detail. The whole storyline makes an interesting point about hierarchies and loyalties among Southern families. Many people outside the region seem to think that being Southern is like being a member of an exclusive club where full membership is gained simply by virtue of being born and raised below the Mason-Dixon line. This is, of course, ridiculous, and it’s fairly humorous how much fearful regard the residents of Harlan county seem to have for the Hill people (amusingly, it is never clear whether “Hill” is meant to be a last name or simply a reference to where they live). Once again, there is some nice symbolism going on here with a larger group showing fear and distrust toward a smaller subset that is viewed as being backward and ignorant. Note Raylan’s surprise that the family has a phone. Incidentally, the “this ain’t darkest Africa” retort was a great line.
-Nice Blue Velvet reference to end the night. Instead of a severed ear, it’s Josiah’s foot. It may be hard for people under 30 to imagine, but when Blue Velvet came out in 1986, the opening ear scene was considered shocking and grotesque. Flash forward 27 years (ouch) and we have an entire sawed-off foot on a cable television show. How far we have come.
-I had to giggle a little bit at the mystical treatment given to the Hill people. I talked last week about the nice work the show puts in portraying Southerners as three-dimensional, fully realized characters rather than lazy outdated stereotypes. That said, the reverence given to the Hill folk may be a little over-the-top. They are treated with an attitude somewhere between mythical and mystical and seem to possess a supernatural ability to detect when someone trespasses on their land (to say nothing of their ninja-like skills of stealth and camouflage). While never crossing over completely, it certainly borders on ridiculous, but I have to admit my amusement. At least they wore shoes and didn’t play the banjo.
-Cousin Mary’s information regarding Drew Thompson further supports my suspicion that Thompson will turn out to be a character we already know. The idea that he is some kind of civic leader who rubs shoulders with the mayor narrows the list somewhat. I’m rooting for Judge Reardon for no other reason than it would get Stephen Root back on the show.