“The world is full of empty promises.” —Boyd Crowder
This damn season needs some medication. Keeping your audience guessing is one thing, displaying bipolar behavior is something else. Right now, Justified is leaning from the former toward the latter.
But I can’t worry about all that right now because I want to talk about how this was possibly the best episode of Justified ever. That’s right, I said it. Ever.
It’s hard to make judgments like that about good shows, even harder with shows like Justified that land under the “Great” heading more often than not. Even in the fondly recalled and award-winning second season, most viewers would be hard-pressed to pick out a single episode as a highlight. For myself, I’m particularly partial to last season’s finale. I thought it brought together everything that made the season, and the show, so satisfying. It had the wit, the depth, the humor and the gravitas.
This week’s episode has all that and more.
I really do think that the writing team spends a lot of consideration on the cold open for each episode. Much like the opening to Bond films, those precious pre-credits minutes set the tone for the night and, when done well, elevate a solid episode into excellence. This week, they bypassed excellence and went straight for transcendence. If the marketing folks at FX are looking for a highlight reel to send out to Emmy voters on Walton Goggins’ behalf, this Boyd Crowder monologue is all they need to offer up.
Everything needed to understand the character of Boyd Crowder is on display from the second that Paxton clicks on his bedside lamp—the casual malevolence, the eloquent insanity, the Machiavellian scheming, the righteous fury, and finally, the frigid brutality. I can only imagine the writer, Chris Provenzano, giggling with glee as he was writing Boyd’s speech. It is a sendoff drenched in cruelty yet so compulsively watchable that it seems destined to rack up youtube views for ages. (In the future, just search for “badass redneck justice speech,” and you’re sure to find it.) Regarding Boyd, I’ve often thought that everyone from hair and makeup to the costumers must have a post-it stuck to their mirrors with a single word on it: Lupine. With his spiked, tufty mane and impossibly toothy grin, he is, without doubt, a personification of the big bad wolf. Unfortunately for several Harlan residents, he has gotten off his chain.
Violence is the word of the week, with no less than six gory deaths on display. I was initially dismayed that Boyd killed Paxton while letting Mooney continue breathing, but I needn’t have worried. After all, there were 56 minutes left in the hour, and it was all-out war last night in Kentucky. Let’s take them one by one and see how each death will affect our season.
Paxton is fairly obvious. Boyd not only gets his redemption, but also casts so much mud on Paxton’s reputation that no jury would ever trust him enough to support a murder accusation. Thus, the only thing standing between Ava and blue skies (and blue grass) is … wait for it … consistently buyable Deputy Mooney. I loved that the only times we checked in with Boyd this week were to see him attending to one of the cogs in his machine, even when we didn’t understand exactly what that cog was going to do. Boyd’s conversation with the dying miner was confusing at first blush (I actually wondered if I’d missed a scene somewhere). Once Boyd excused himself from the table in the restaurant, I understood where we were headed though I must admit that I would have enjoyed seeing Boyd put down Mooney rather than leaving it to a go-between. For Boyd, though, you get the feeling that seeing a well-laid trap collapse around his prey is just as, if not more, satisfying than being the triggerman. Metaphorically speaking, I suppose they’re pretty much the same thing.
I was very surprised that he let the widow Paxton walk away from the table. It would have been easy enough to simply write her off as an innocent bystander who got caught at the wrong place at the wrong time but the key word there is “innocent.” Though we know now that she is anything but, she hasn’t actually wronged Boyd at any point and, sociopath or no, Boyd does have a code. Though we can’t be certain just yet, letting her live may have already cost Boyd dearly. More on that later.
I can’t believe I’m this far in and I haven’t even mentioned Raylan or the marshals yet. Raylan is present and in predictably good form (especially in an early scene with Social Work Hottie Alison and scene-stealer Kendal Crowe), but Art gets most of the heavy lifting this week, and it makes me very, very nervous. The writers are going to have to keep finding ways to poke Raylan in his sore spots and, truth be told, Art is the biggest spot that he has left. Winona and the baby are out of the picture until Skype sends another product placement check. Arlo and Helen are dead. Ava is with Boyd. Alison is too new to shoulder that kind of emotional load. So, if only by reductive thinking, Raylan’s marshal family is the most likely target to twist a knife in. Taken a step further, as a surrogate father and the only Kentucky marshal that Raylan has prior history with, in many ways losing Art would damage Raylan more than losing Arlo did. It is for all these reasons (and probably some others that I’m forgetting) that giving Art some expanded screen time scares the hell out of me. Couple that with closing the biggest case of his career and a resurgence of talk about his impending retirement and it suddenly feels like the creative team just painted a big old bullseye right on that shiny bald head of his. I really want to be wrong about this. Please convince me I’m wrong about this.
Speaking of the big case that got closed, how great was Alan Tudyk as the Detroit hitter? I’m always amazed when actors with boyish looks somehow turned wide-eyed naivety into dead-eyed solemnity. Go watch Firefly and then watch this episode again and tell me you aren’t impressed. Ironically, it’s Art who gets to do all the chest-puffing posturing against a gun-thug for once, even throwing Raylan a sideways compliment by couching it as “gunslinger Givens style.” (The more I type, the more worried I am for Art.) This does bring me to my one significant issue with this episode, and it’s going to cost it a few decimal points in my final score.
Why the hell were Art and Raylan the only two lawmen searching the warehouse that Picker sent them to? You’re telling me that you have a known violent killer (who, I might add, tried to kill Raylan once … then again, who hasn’t at this point?) in custody who gives you the location of a suspect that you’re looking for, but not just any old suspect, Theo Tonin’s go-to-guy, a man who by your own admission may be the most feared killer in Detroit, and yet when it comes time to search the location you were sent to, you let two guys search it alone without any apparent backup? Even worse, it apparently wasn’t a budgetary decision because as soon as the guy is dead the whole place is crawling with SWAT! Where the hell were they before? Why did they only show up once you killed the unbelievably dangerous assassin?!!?
The big shock of course was the revelation that Theo Tonin wanted Picker dead bad enough the come to Kentucky himself. Unfortunately for Theo, hiding out in a shipping container is a terrible idea when your trigger happy gun-thug has a gun that can shoot through shipping containers. Violence ensues, Raylan kills the bad guy (which I’m pretty sure he promised Picker that he would do), and Theo lands, minus a couple pints of blood, right in the marshals’ laps.
In any other season, it would have taken three or four episodes to chew through this much plot, which gets me back to my initial point. So far, this season has yet to strike a consistent tone or pace. The high points earn you a lot of grace, but is also makes the lows all the more glaring. I’m not expecting next week’s hour to match the mark that this week’s tentpole hit nor should I. Ebbs and flows are the nature of drama. Similarly, I don’t expect next week’s pace to match the breakneck tempo and breathless onslaught of this week, either. I also don’t want to go back to the sleepy doldrums of the premiere. Speaking of ebbs and flows, I guess I should touch on the smaller, but no less important, events of the night.
Most painful, of course, was the emasculated guard’s skillful betrayal of Ava (orchestrated by the widow Paxton perhaps?) that moved Ava to state prison and thus possibly outside of Boyd’s reach. More important to our story, though, is what this twist will do to Boyd. Boyd broke more than a few personal rules to free Ava and came within minutes of succeeding. The imbalance that drove him was not without a cost, and it was obvious that he was only able to endure that path knowing that Ava would be there to walk him back to a healthier place. To have that jerked away at the last second will have dire consequences. The Boyd we saw for the bulk of this season has been increasingly unhinged but stayed grounded because of a reachable goal. He wanted only to return Ava to the world. If it turns out that he can’t, he may settle for burning it down.
The other two deaths were of minor characters but with large implications. Hot Rod Dunham’s death sets the stage for a power void in the southern weed business. With Detroit out of commission, everyone will be fighting for what product is left, and the two major players are kin that happen to hate each other. The death of the Haitian may have a similar fuse-lighting effect on the Crowe clan as losing Ava will have on Boyd. The Haitian, with his smooth demeanor and steady countenance, balanced Darryl and kept the younger brothers in check. With him gone, it is only a matter of time before someone loses control again.
It would seem that the aftereffects of a major loss is starting to become something of a theme this season. Given my musings above, it makes me even more concerned about Art. I’m sure we will find out soon enough.
Some closing thoughts:
—Someday I’m going to go on the Justified wiki and just spend an hour reading all the Star Wars references. I honestly can’t believe they’re still squeezing them in.
—Very little Darryl this week. No wonder I liked this episode so much.
—I want to make a slightly longer “closing thoughts” than normal and examine the turnabout scene where Johnny turns the tables on Hot Rod Dunham. Much like the warehouse scene with Raylan and Art, I have some nit-picky issues with how that turn of events occurred, and I want to not only point out my problems but also demonstrate how easily they could have been avoided. Here is my main problem: I am supposed to believe that two smart, experienced henchman would, for just a single, sizable payment, turn on one of the most storied, respected, and feared crime lords in the South in order to join forces with a relative newcomer with no resources, no army and no connections. Does any of that seem right to you? Am I alone on this? Not three episodes ago, the Harris brothers were talking up Dunham to Raylan like Hot Rod was the devil in human form, yet now they are willing to turn on him as soon as somebody shakes enough money in their faces? I just don’t buy it. But, imagine if, when the Harris brothers turned their guns on Hot Rod, this exchange happened:
So, you boys are just gonna turn on the man that made you who you are over one little payout?
Nah, it’s like we always told you, man. We ain’t in it for the money. We in it for the action.
That’s right, and my new partners here didn’t think that the man with five armed guards who got pussy-whipped by one little ol’ Marshal was the man with the action any more.
And just exactly what action did you promise them?
I just asked them to do one little thing. Kill Raylan Givens. (Pause) But you first.
CUT TO BLACK AS WE HEAR THE SOUND OF GUNFIRE
Now see, wouldn’t that have been much better? A small addition, but it would have considerably more sense. Honestly, with an episode this good, you have to dig pretty deep to find complaints.