Justified: “Alive Day”

(Episode 6.06)

TV Reviews
Justified: “Alive Day”

This is a review. Thus, it is likely to contain spoilers. If you haven’t, as yet, found yourself at liberty to view this episode then consider yourself apprised of the potential jeopardy and proceed at your peril.

“Anyone but me just tired of the bullshit burdens of Southern hospitality?”—Ava Randolph Crowder

The plotting of a television show is similar to a combination of punches in boxing. Both rely on carefully considered timing to achieve maximum effect, and there’s no way to know in advance for sure which punches you will land and what hits will miss. In boxing, the best combinations include pauses that allow your opponent to drop their guard, not knowing that the biggest blow is yet to come. In hindsight, last week’s lighter and more leisurely than usual episode seems very much like just such a pause.

Without question, this week is the punch.

With six hours gone, this week puts us on the cusp of the halfway point of the season so it is no surprise that “Alive Day” marks not only a turning point chronologically, but dramatically as well. Through twists, turns, and death, all three of our primary story arcs undergo major dramatic change. We will take them in order.

Last week ended on something of a shocker/cliffhanger combo as Raylan not only got smoochy with Ava, but also decided to stick around until Boyd came home. The ensuing scene is the closest we have come to both Raylan and Boyd admitting to each other that they know, or strongly suspect, precisely what the other is up to. It’s a classic Raylan/Boyd conversation which means that it is littered with clever lines, dripping with double entendre, and positively silly with personal history. I found it initially surprising that Boyd would jump so quickly to the idea of Raylan and Ava rekindling their romance, but by the end of the scene I realized how well it worked as a cheap, but effective, opening jab.

For starters, a relationship with Ava is one of the few realms that Boyd can claim outright success over Raylan, so there is an element of re-opening a wound to it. Even more, it leads nicely into Raylan’s continued resistance to relocating to Florida where another troubled relationship is waiting, and the delay certainly hasn’t escaped Boyd’s attention. The scene is also the season’s most overt callback to Season One, as we return to the same table where Raylan shot Boyd while Ava’s famous fried chicken grew cold on their plates. It is the latest reminder that history is, in a sense, repeating itself. Similar events are being replayed but may they may not end the way we remember. Boyd becomes the latest in a string of people to warn Raylan that his lightning draw may not fire the same shot twice. Fittingly, it is Ava, emerging patron saint of desperation, that finally has enough of the posturing and calls both men on it, effectively ending not only the evening but also any tenuous threads of friendship that might have remained between the two men.

It is an important scene because it subtly suggests to the audience that all similarities to the past are over now. Our big three have gotten to sit one last time and size each other up. From here on out, it is a blank slate and anything is possible, perhaps even the unthinkable. Especially the unthinkable.

Second, Boyd and his crew finally venture into the mine. For a show that so often references coal mining, it is curious that this is our first extended view of the act itself, particularly the dangers involved. In just a few shots, the claustrophobic darkness, thin air, and backbreaking labor make it all too clear why Boyd swore to never venture into the deep again. As it turns out, and as is so often the case, the biggest danger is a man. I commented last week that I hoped that Zachariah would turn out to be more than zany comic relief. Jeff Fahey gets his accent under better control this week and is rewarded with richer material as well. His front porch conversation with Ava further solidified that the theme of the night, jumpstarted earlier by Raylan and Boyd, was “communication”. More specifically, the writers want to address what a person means when they can’t find the words, and what the listener is willing, and able, to hear.

Zachariah’s talk with Ava can be seen as an apology, a threat, and possibly a farewell, once we learn that the only reason Zachariah agreed to help Boyd was so that he could kill him as payback for Bowman’s transgressions. Boyd was already playing a game with little-to-no room for error, and it will be interesting to see how he reacts when he only has three men to do a four man job, and one of those men is trying to kill him. If he doesn’t outright know that Zachariah was responsible for SJFM’s death (that would be Square Jawed Former Miner… seriously, did you know what the character’s name was? I didn’t think so), he’s bound to suspect, so once again it becomes a question of how much Boyd is willing to risk at a chance for a fairytale future.

Suspicions and thinly-veiled conversations carry over to the Markham camp as well. In a move that surprised even the immovable Katherine Hale, Markham popped the question. Actually, it was more like two questions: “Will you marry me?” and “Did you rat out your husband?” Each question is intrinsically tied to the other, which can only happen in an Elmore Leonard story. What we (and Katherine) suspect, however, is that Markham’s offer of immunity is really both an offer and a threat. He does want a future with her, but if she A. suspects he may have ratted out Grady and/or B. is involved in any way with Boyd’s plan to rob him then she can take this one time opportunity to abandon those ideas and they can start their new lives together with a clean slate (that seems to keep coming up). If she keeps the ring and says yes, it’s happily ever after but, you know, with a weed empire and the occasional blinding of thieving employees. If she says no, then it is a declaration of war. I don’t think Zales will be putting this in their commercials.

Our last major arc of the night is also the most dynamic and most shocking. It didn’t occur to me until the shootout broke out between the Tiger Hawk mercs and the marshals just how little “action” there has been this season. During past middle seasons of the show, you could count on at least one major act of violence per week and to be honest, it got to be a little expected and predictable. I suspect the creative team had that on their minds when they plotted this season, and each big action beat has been preceded by a long run-up. What a difference. It also doesn’t hurt that a gun battle pitting Raylan and Tim against Ty Walker and his boys was something that I assumed we would wait till the end of the season for. Until the first shot was fired, I truly thought that they were going to find a way to back out of it, so it was a genuine surprise that we got to it so soon.

If the two motifs of the night are A.) that no one is safe and anything is possible, and B.) the dangers of coded communication, then it is fitting that Choo-Choo died at the end as no character who summed up those themes so perfectly. Choo-Choo has been the biggest surprise of the season, a shining gem of a character in a show lousy with diamonds. He will be missed, which is precisely the point.

Though there were numerous valid complaints about last season, a major issue with the show as a whole has been the creative team’s unwillingness to kill a major character. We’ve lost an Arlo here and a Cousin Johnny there, but thus far we haven’t lost anyone in a way that gave the audience a sense of legitimate impending doom. Choo-Choo was far from a major character. Hell, we just met him. But he was a rich, charismatic character that we genuinely liked, and it was fun to think about how he was going to fit into the final equation and that is the important point here: unexpectedly losing a character that we thought was around for the long haul. I don’t know that we can infer too much from it, but it’s certainly not a step we’ve seen the creative team take before (Edi Gathegi as Jean Baptiste in Season Five doesn’t count. That death was a result of an unhappy actor, not by narrative design).

Even more crucial than its narrative value, Choo-Choo’s death had enormous symbolic value. There is no such thing as black and white morality in and around Harlan County. For all the talk of white and black hats, really everyone is a player in grey circus with Raylan and Boyd as the ringleaders. This season it is clearer than ever that the writers really enjoy playing with the notion that Boyd may actually be the good guy on the show and Raylan the bad. After all, it is Boyd who really just wants a future with the woman he loves and the means to get there are, in the end, irrelevant to him. If it means running a legal business, then all the better. Raylan, the one that refuses to join his family and who continually finds ways to stave off his future, seems to genuinely relish the violence. If his brutal upbringing left him with a damaged moral compass, then why not put it to good use. If he cannot be moral, then at least he can be legal. Neither man is who he says he is. It cannot be an accident, then, that the first major casualty in this final war is the one man who has no problem speaking his true mind. Consider also that although Choo-Choo may have been confused about many things, he wasn’t confused about his morality. It just never entered into the equation. When he was given a problem to solve, he solved it in the most efficient way possible, regardless of the means.

Choo-Choo was the Elmore Leonard version of Frankenstein’s monster, an anomaly that had no place in his world.

Some closing thoughts:

—Sam Elliott in a bathrobe is a lot like your parents having sex; you know in the dark recesses of your mind that such a thing is possible, but that doesn’t stop it from being deeply unsettling if you happen to ever witness it.

—Suppose that Markham and Katherine are telling the truth and neither ratted out Grady. Is it possible that the reason Wynn Duffy is the cockroach survivalist of the criminal underworld is that he is a C.I.? No idea, just spit-balling. But that would be fabulous.

—I love that Schreier’s prostitute steps in for the audience momentarily and calls out every character besides Choo-Choo for all the endless double-talk and deception.

Jack McKinney is a professional camera salesman by day and a freelance filmmaker, Paste contributor, and amateur prestidigitator by night (and occasionally weekends). You can cyber-stalk him on Twitter.

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