“There’s some red flags, I admit. Doesn’t mean I’m not capable of change.” —Raylan Givens
When Joss Whedon’s Firefly first aired back in 2002, Fox infamously altered the intended airing order of the initial episodes, choosing not to air the actual first episode of the show until five episodes into the season. Many people, including myself, considered the move to be the worst kind of network blasphemy, a crude assault on artistic creativity that almost certainly contributed heavily to the show’s truncated run.
I felt the same way when AMC tried a somewhat similar tactic with The Walking Dead in 2011, causing showrunner Frank Darabont to leave the show and saddling viewers with a bizarre second season that had more in common with The Waltons than Dawn of the Dead. After two such dramatic examples of meddling, I thought that nothing could ever make me think that a network scrapping a premiere could be a good idea.
Until now, that is.
This week’s episode is so superior to what we saw last week that I truly cannot believe that they are consecutive episodes of the same television show. There is more wit, tone and life in the first five minutes of this week’s outing than the full running time of the premiere. I could go on and on, but I’ll just end by saying that now Justified is really back on television. And I would have forgiven FX if they had scrapped the premiere and just started us here.
Justified and countless other shows and movies have found uncommon success by bottling lightning between compelling leads. There’s nothing harder to find in Hollywood than chemistry. Let us not forget that Walton Goggins as Boyd was originally meant to die in the pilot until the creative team saw what they had between him and Timothy Olyphant. But, sometimes you can take a shortcut. The Harris brothers are quite a shortcut. I don’t know how big a role the Seal Team 6 brothers are going to play this season, but I hope it’s an important one with lots of screen time. For the uninitiated, Wood “Avon Barksdale” Harris and Steve “Eugene Young” Harris are a tag team of secret television weapons who have been individually owning scenes on shows from The Wire to The Practice for over a decade now. Getting one would have been fabulous; getting both and getting them to play brothers is a Machiavellian coup. I found all of the missing authenticity and danger that was lacking in Michael Rapaport’s introduction last week. It’s dripping from every second of the Harris’ screen time.
Speaking of Rapaport, his second week is actually worse than his first, which is saying something since he only has three lines of dialogue. His accent has slipped from nasal New Yorker guest starring on Hee Haw to … I actually can’t come up with a quippy comparison to describe it—it’s that weird. And saddling him with dialogue that includes phrases like “Real good to see you, family!” isn’t helping matters. The less said about this developing train wreck the better.
Thankfully, the charismatic void is quickly filled by the only person whose chemistry with Tim Olyphant rivals Walton Goggins’, the increasingly impressive Kaitlyn Dever as Loretta. Can we please get a Veronica Mars-esque spinoff series about Loretta slinging pot at the local high school into active development as soon as possible? The writing team was at least smart enough to minimize Daryl’s screen time and let Loretta drive this week’s plotline. Not only does Loretta’s unwise occupation bring Raylan and the Harris brothers together, it also introduces Raylan’s new love interest, the gracefully aging Amy Smart (has it really been 14 years since Road Trip?). Credit where credit is due—much like Tarantino, Mamet and Sorkin, not every actor can handle Elmore Leonard-speak, but Smart acquits herself very, very well. Hopefully she won’t turn out to be quite as scheming as Raylan’s last blonde. Then again, that actually wouldn’t be so bad.
It’s worth noting that it takes a pretty spectacular plotline to make what Boyd and Wynn Duffy are up to seem like filler that you want to fast forward through. Raylan’s day-to-day doesn’t quite manage it, but it does get a little close for comfort. Paxton’s nearly-ex wife, Mina, is fun enough as a throw-away character, but with so much good material going on elsewhere, having a free brunette who seems made-to-order to tempt Boyd away from his incarcerated blonde doesn’t quite measure up to the increasingly high standards that the rest of the show is hitting.
That reminds me—how is it that nobody has killed Deputy Mooney yet? Seriously, cats must take notes from that guy on life preservation. Unfortunately, he’s one of the least interesting characters on a show that has too many good ones to waste time on mediocrity. The sooner either Boyd or the near-widow Paxton puts a bullet in him the better. William Gregory Lee does his best with what he’s given, but why should I have to sit through yet another sniveling, non-scary threat from Mooney when I’ve got a hall of fame badass like Tim Olyphant making Memphis gangsters wet themselves, dry off, then wet themselves again? Seriously, the loading dock face-off with Hot Rod Dunham (the effortless Mickey Jones) is one for the ages. Plus, it’s nice to see Raylan letting his reputation do the work every once in a while.
All in all, not only is this a far more acceptable start to the season than last week’s offering, but now we also have some tasty hints at where we may be headed over the course of the season. It will be interesting to see how far Art takes his doubts about Sammy Tonin’s call to Raylan, and I doubt Raylan will be able to live in a drug dealer’s house for very long without some consequences. Truth be known, though, this episode succeeds less on future promise as much as by reviving past glories. Watching Loretta completely own Raylan will never, ever get old (wouldn’t Loretta Givens be a lovely name for a little girl?), and Damon Herriman has been spinning verbal gold as Dewey Crowe since the pilot. (Here’s a mind-blowing tidbit for you: Damon Herriman is Australian. You’re welcome.) But there’s no laurel-resting going on here. This week was a big step forward for the season both in plot and style.
I couldn’t be happier to be reassured.
I usually like to wait until the season finale to do an all-quotes closing thoughts, but this is just too good to pass up. Here we go:
—“So, more than $100, then?”
—“You’re right, it sounds fantastic!”
—“Are you being funny? ’Cause I can’t tell anymore.”
—“You accidentally killed him?!!?”
—“Next time, lead with that. It’s bullshit, but at least it’s an attempt.”
—“He can’t even pee on his own shoes.”
—“Ok, hire that big bitch back!”
—“What held you back, high school diploma?”
—“He’s a nice enough fella, but I wouldn’t ask to borrow his corduroy jacket.”
—“I would much rather help you than hurt you, so start talking.”
—“Am I liable for any damages he causes if I say yes?”
—“Homeboy hit me with a shovel.”
—“Goddammit, Loretta!” (I know this doesn’t seem like much, but Olyphant’s delivery is perfection.)
—“I don’t suppose you boys are unarmed?”
—“You the type of fella that walks under a flock of birds and is surprised when he ends up with shit on his face?”
—“Derek, I’ve got a loaded gun. Get out of my car.”
—“I didn’t play you, Raylan. You are who you are.”
—“You’re just gonna use me and go home, huh?”
—“Unless Hitler has risen from the grave and is in my whorehouse, go away right now, Messer!”