“I believe the time has come to start making some changes.” —Boyd Crowder
This is about as good as it gets.
I joked a few weeks ago that I thought perhaps a Justified spin-off had inadvertently been scheduled in the parent show’s usual timeslot. That week’s episode was driven heavily by guest-stars and when I questioned its quality, it was episodes like “The Toll” that I had in mind as a comparison. I would never describe the inconsistencies of this season as “bad”—I’m not sure “bad” Justified is even possible—but, for me, there are three things that separate very good from sublime where episodes and whole seasons are concerned: focus, balance and stakes.
“The Toll” is a master class in all three.
The stakes are life and death, it doesn’t give a damn about balance, and it focuses entirely on our primary characters. About damn time.
I was wondering how the writers were going to get around the Art problem. With his relationship with Raylan on the rocks, Art has had a target on his back all season. Raylan started down a dangerous path at the end of last season, and a tragedy involving his surrogate father seemed like just the thing to point him back toward redemption. The catch was that killing off Art would most likely just send Raylan down the bad path even quicker. I must admit, I admire their end around of a solution, even if it is a bit overdone. I suspect that Art will sleep for a while (maybe 12 episodes or so), Rachel will get the screen time she so richly deserves, and Art will come to just in time for Raylan to find himself and become the man he is supposed to be. That’s my suspicion anyway. (Knowing Justified, Art will have a heart attack and die next week having never woken up to contradict Kendal’s version of the shootout.)
Nick Searcy got some good work in on the way to his hiatus. So did Amy Smart, for that matter. If Art lives and the Dickie/Dewey spin-off doesn’t come together, some kind of Art and Alison private investigator show could be fantastic. He’s a retired Marshal, she’s a pot-smoking former social worker with bad taste in men. It would be like Remington Steele but without Stephanie Zimbalist and if Mildred the secretary had been bald. Maybe we should just stick with the Dewey and Dickie version of Perfect Strangers.
Anyway, let’s get through some quick hits before we get to the big stuff. I appreciate that the writers are trying to get through Ava’s jail arc as quickly as they can, but I don’t really buy that a blood smear on her arm is Ava’s biggest problem. The bloody towel, bloody clothes and bloody scratch on her face strike me as being just as serious and immediate. But, if the creative team wants to just breeze over that stuff and move on, I’m completely okay with that. Also, apparently gangs in women’s prisons vote for their new leaders with ice cream. It’s just like choosing a new Pope, but with dairy. Seriously, I learn something new every episode.
The writers also seem to have hit upon how to get some quality mileage out of Michael Rapaport. Apparently, the secret to making Daryl startlingly effective is to use him sparingly and with a simple purpose. I realize it may not sound like it, but I mean that as a major compliment. Daryl never worked as a legitimate foil for Boyd. Daryl was outclassed by every Crowder he came in contact with. As a direct threat to Raylan with the same tendency toward sudden and brutal violence, however, Daryl is very, very convincing and compelling. The verbal showdown on the way to the elevator between Daryl and Raylan is a gem, and my only complaint is that is took us this long to get here.
Speaking of Raylan, he and Boyd defy description. The list of perfect moments on display from Walton Goggins and Timothy Olyphant this week is endless. Raylan interrogating Picker. Boyd’s instruction to his lieutenants. Boyd’s first trip to the hotel. Boyd’s second trip to the hotel. Raylan driving Art’s wife to the hospital. Raylan discussing problem children with the new chief. Boyd exclaiming “Wynn Duffy, I am impressed!”
I could pretty much list every scene in the episode, and while that is wonderful, the important thing isn’t that all of their scenes were so good. The important thing is that one of them is in pretty much every single scene. Focus, remember?
It is almost scary how good Goggins and Olyphant are when they get pitches right in the sweet spot. I have no doubt that they could turn a finger painting into a Vermeer anytime they want, but you give them some really good dialogue and they will give you a masterpiece every time. Writer Benjamin Cavell outdid himself with this one. So did director Jon Avnet. This was an important episode for the show that could have really jeopardized the remainder of the season if it had gone wrong. Not only did they not play it safe and try to just “get by,” they went for the fences and it paid off. This is the epic stuff. This is the Emmy-worhty stuff. This is the “darkly funny one minute, funnily poetic the next” stuff. This is the stuff that you can’t get enough of the first time through but that you can’t wait to watch again, knowing there’s tons going on underneath just waiting for a second viewing.
This is the good stuff.
Some closing thoughts:
—Star Player of the Week goes to whoever thought it was a good idea to cast Leslie Riley, the real-life wife of Nick Searcy, as the spoken of but heretofore unseen Leslie Mullen, fictional wife of Art Mullen. She hits all the right notes. She is motherly but caring with Raylan, hurt but brave at the hospital. You feel like she’s the kind of woman who can reach in her purse and pull out whatever she needs right that moment. I hope we see more of her.
—It was a big week for female guest stars. Mary Steenburgen gets more screen time than last week, and boy does she own it. She’s more wolf than woman, and she wisely lets her teeth do most of the heavy lifting. I actually thought she might eat ADA Vasquez. I can’t wait to see more of her.
—Adios, Mr. Picker. I’m sad to see him go, but what a way to leave. I appreciate the shock of occasional gore when it is needed, and there’s something very promising about Boyd realizing that explosives are his first, best choice in most situations.
Jack McKinney is a professional camera salesman by day and a freelance filmmaker,Pastecontributor, and amateur prestidigitator by night (and occasionally weekends). You can cyber-stalk him on Twitter.