“There is no frigate like a book.”-Emily Dickinson
Though it isn’t something that most people think about, nothing builds suspense like competence. There is something inherently involving about watching someone who is extremely good at their job, particularly if their skills are matched against the equally remarkable skills of an adversary.
I’m not talking about savants, mind you. No one loves Sherlock Holmes more than I do, and I’ve followed every iteration of not only that character but all of his modern analogues (The Mentalist, House, Lie to Me, Numb3rs and Monk just to name a few). Those characters are different though. They are innately different with gifts they are born with, not skills they developed over time.
I’m talking about ordinary heroes who have fought, bled and sacrificed in order to excel at specific abilities. It is the reason we love sports. It is the reason we love the Olympics. It is also the reason we love cops and robbers—and Westerns for that matter, particularly gunslingers.
Think about the brilliant insight and methodical dedication in The Silence of the Lambs. Think about the backwoods inventiveness and improvised gamesmanship in No Country for Old Men. Think about the clever tactics and brutal skill in 300. Think about the gutsy resolve and tenacious will in Die Hard. Normal people doing extraordinary things, but more importantly, things that they have spent their entire lives preparing to do.
I know this is a long lead-in, but I want to be clear about one thing: This may be the best hour of television you will see this year, and it deserves to be put in the proper context.
When we look back on Justified as a complete series, these last few episodes will serve as a turning point with this week’s hour being the fulcrum. As a character, Raylan Givens is shifting from a reckless gunslinger with an inborn sense of justice to an honest- to-God peacekeeper, a true officer of the law who sees that in any chess match it is the whole match that matters, not just taking an individual piece.
Last week we had Raylan versus Shelby in a battle of wits, but that was just the warm-up. Raylan moved up a couple of weight classes this week and has Boyd, Colt and Nicky Augustine to contend with. It’s almost a fair fight.
It probably would have been closer if Raylan didn’t have Art, Tim, Rachel and, I can’t believe it myself, Constable Bob on his side. First up is Colt versus Tim. This was telegraphed weeks ago, but the actual clash is better than I ever anticipated. Again, our expectations of a physical confrontation are subverted, and we get two warriors using their minds as weapons. If nothing else, these scenes completely salvaged Colt as a character for me. I finally completely understand Boyd’s faith in him. He is a cunning planner, cool in battle, and effortlessly projects his opponents’ moves so that his reactions are swift and sure.
No less impressive is Tim. While a little PTSD banter with Art brings some much-needed levity to the proceedings, in reality Tim is all business. His phone call to Colt is a smart play, and he knows just how to play it. Credit where credit is due: the writers for this episode, showrunner Graham Yost and executive story editor Chris Provenzano managed to come up with a tactic that I had never seen before. Given that I’ve seen every episode of every variant of Law and Order, I thought I had seen it all. The car stacking maneuver that Colt describes as “circling the wagons” is not only smartly conceived, it’s well-executed by director Michael W. Watkins. It would have been easy to lose track of what was happening in that moment, but Watkins stages it flawlessly, and what we end up with is a cool action beat that deepens the emotional stakes and heightens the suspense. I had no idea at all what was going to happen next. Remember what I said about competence?
The main attraction is, as it has ever been, Raylan and Boyd. The two of them have long been drawn as mirror images of each other, but this episode shades in a great deal of ink and color. They both take a certain amount of glee in outsmarting the other and in the parallel planning scenes it is obvious that each knows that the only real adversary in this battle of minds is his opposite number. It is fitting, then, that the final confrontation takes place in their high school, the place perhaps where they first truly met and that both focus on that location because of an event (an astronaut’s visit) that was seared into their young minds. The existence of that tidbit of knowledge means that, quite literally, Boyd is the only person who knows where Raylan is headed. If that isn’t fate, then it is something very much like it.
None of this would mean anything without carefully drawn characters that we care about. Top to bottom, I can’t find a single character that I’m not invested in. I even want to see where Picker, Augustine’s henchman, ends up. Speaking of Augustine, can enough be said about the work Mike O’Malley has done this season? Without changing his appearance one iota, he is completely unrecognizable from the actor that was on Yes, Dear and Glee. FX has a real knack for this. Hearing that Mike O’Malley was going to play a sinister gangster was like hearing that The Commish was going to play a hard-boiled corrupt cop, and look how that turned out.
The Ava/Augustine scene is a doozy, and while O’Malley shines, Joelle Carter is as dependably up to the task as ever. While Boyd and his 40 words where four would do get most of the attention, Ava shows that she can be just as silver-tongued when she wants to be.
The dialogue is as sharp as ever with equal bits humor and drama, and it is a testament to the cast and the direction that both are equally effective. You could take this hour, tack a 10-minute intro onto the front, give it a 20-minute courthouse wrap up and release it in theaters. It is every bit as good as The Gauntlet and maybe even as good (brace yourselves) as Midnight Run.
Just because they’re busy showing 3:10 to Yuma how it’s done, don’t think for a second that the creative team doesn’t have time to throw in some Western deconstruction. How many times have we seen the scene where the good guys are under siege and they finally decide to trust the prisoner they’re escorting and give him a gun so that he can redeem himself? I’m ashamed to say it, but I actually thought we were getting that scene here. I’m a stupid, stupid man. This isn’t that kind of Western, and Raylan isn’t that kind of cowboy. His cutting reaction to Shelby’s overtones was an overt message from the writers to the audience: “Anyone who thinks we’re going to cop out and give Shelby a gun is a stupid, stupid man.”
Genre satire continues with the Constable Bob ass-whupping. First off, can we agree that this episode had two of the most wince-inducing torture scenes in television history? It was a pinpoint combination of excellent sound design, direction and editing, but from the opening moments of Boyd’s interrogation to the never-ending slog of Bob’s beating, it was difficult to keep watching. And I say that as someone who giggles through the Mr. Blonde torture scene in Reservoir Dogs. The point is that Bob is supposed to be comic relief, not an actual badass. The Western trope at work here is the flawed sidekick that must redeem himself. He is Dean Martin as the drunken deputy Dude in Rio Bravo. My problem with Dude was that we all knew he was going to end up coming through in the end because, well, look at him, he’s Dean frickin’ Martin! I think Patton Oswalt was intentionally cast for precisely that reason. Frankly, we never thought he would come through because, well, look at him, he’s a dumpy little guy with tiny hands. Yet as Raylan so succinctly puts it, Bob is one tough sonofabitch. We are used to heroes who look like Timothy Olyphant; not so much Patton Oswalt. Fittingly, it is Bob who not only stays to aid Raylan in the school, but he is also the one who finally figures out the smartest way to get Shelby out of town.
We end much as we hoped, with Raylan and Boyd face-to-face. The important takeaway from this scene isn’t the stellar dialogue, and it isn’t the many funny nicknames for Yolo. The important bit is the way that Boyd and Raylan are operating at a higher level than everyone around them. You hear about this a lot with star athletes who have a rivalry like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. People who were around them at the time talk about how they were tuned into something that nobody else could hear, how they seemed to be playing a game above the game. It was something that was just between the two of them. When Boyd and Picker show up at the school, both men act as if Picker isn’t even there. Both knew that the other remembered the astronaut, though whether he swung a golf club or drove the car is up to some debate.
The point is that woven into the scene is a subtle reminder of what the show is really about and where, eventually, it is headed.
Some closing thoughts:
-Shelby referring to the bad guys as an “Apache raid” is a nice Western touch.
-I haven’t mentioned it before, but has anyone else gotten a vibe off of the Shelby/Ellen May relationship that they might actually be father and daughter? It doesn’t really jive with the general tone of the show, but with parents and children being such a major theme it kept popping into my mind.
-I desperately want a flashback episode where we get to see Art at the Guns ‘n’ Roses show in 1989.
-I love the little factoid about Raylan being a voracious reader in high school. Interesting touch to have him quote Emily Dickinson.