Justified: “Cash Game”

TV Reviews
Justified: “Cash Game”

“I’d say I’ll see you around but it sounds like you won’t be for very long.”
-Boyd Crowder

It is so tempting to describe this show as a comedy.

It isn’t, of course. There’s far too much genuine drama and darkness for it to fall fully under the comedy moniker. But, when they manage to pack more humor into an episode than 99 percent of the ‘according to Hoyle’ comedies on television, it’s worth mentioning. Even more noteworthy is the type of humor that Justified has always excelled at. It’s rarely ‘laugh out loud’ funny, because what’s there is entirely situational, organic, and character driven. That’s a long way of saying that it’s hard to describe it to your friends and co-workers the next day.

Let’s take my favorite new character as a perfect example. Choo-Choo is a classic James Bond henchman from the 1960s by way of Mongo from Blazing Saddles. He is, at once, a perfect Elmore-ian character. That’s a long way of saying that he couldn’t exist on just about any other primetime drama on television (seriously, I tried to think of one and truly couldn’t).

He isn’t the perfect replacement for the late, lamented Dewey Crowe (Dewey was irreplaceable), but he is a perfect evolution of the character type that the show needed Dewey to be. Dewey, being too stupid to ever be taken as a legitimate threat, was still an important cog in the narrative machine. He was comic relief that could also drive the story forward. That worked just fine, so long as there were other folks around that were genuinely scary and lord knows Harlan County is positively lousy with sociopaths. In fact, we met a truly scary new plot-driver tonight (more on that in a minute) so what we really needed was someone who could be both the comic relief and dangerous. Those are big shoes to fill, but Choo-Choo is a big old boy—all the better to really set him apart from his comedic predecessor. Where Dewey was tiny, Choo-Choo is absurdly large. Where Dewey could never shut up, Choo-Choo says only what is necessary (or what he thinks is necessary, anyway).

Choo-Choo’s scene with Raylan is an instant classic. It bops seamlessly from Raylan being cool and all Raylan-y, to Choo-Choo being genuinely threatening before finally ending with an Elmore Leonard version of an Abbott and Costello routine. It’s three minutes of genius that are absolutely impossible to describe to someone else while accurately conveying the content, and I really think that is the most accurate measure of this show. The better the scene, the harder it is to effectively explain.

For the most part, this week belongs to the bad guys. Not only do we get Choo-Choo, but also a trio of dandy Ty Walker scenes and our first glimpse of Sam Elliot as Avery Markham, this season’s evil puppet-master. Walker continues to be a bespoke foe fit for Raylan with his Jesse James looks and John Dillinger tongue; though. with a simple nod, the seeds were planted for an eventual rivalry between Walker and Marshal Tim Gutterson. I suppose that is fitting given their unofficial roles as lieutenants to their respective generals. Besides, Raylan is bound to have his hands full with Boyd and the Kentucky Three of Duffy, Hale, and Markham (they should start up an evil law firm like Wolfram & Hart).

Elliott as Markham is as effective as anyone could have hoped, though you don’t usually expect such menace from a scene that takes place entirely in a hotel bed. It was a good call to have Elliott clean-shaven for the role. With his trademark walrus mustache, his roles usually take on an unavoidable geniality, even when he is playing tough guys. Without it, his face takes on a stretched oiliness that seems to never settle into a solid form. With his molasses voice and Grinch-y grin, he seems less like a man and more like one of those creatures in human form that only exist in Lovecraft stories or Stephen King novels, where they turn out to have more teeth than can physically fit in their mouths. Still, Markham has that same tried and true, mildly dopey, Sam Elliott tone when he speaks. Where it gets creepy is that when the conversation shifts from smoking pot to ripping a man’s eyes out, the tone should shift with it. When it doesn’t, you get a very clear idea of just how dangerous this guy really is. Even Katherine seemed unnerved by him and she doesn’t unnerve easily so there’s that.

Boyd and Ava’s relationship takes center stage and is a topic of concern for almost everyone on the show. I’m greatly enjoying Boyd’s genuine attempts to re-woo his fiancé and it appears that his affection toward her is as strong as ever, even as he lays traps for her to fall into. Since Ava’s release, there is a real tenderness that we don’t often see from Boyd. This can be partly attributed to his doubts as to the mechanisms behind her release, but there is also a layer of shame and guilt that manifests as chivalrous protection. Note how he allows others to discuss and regard Ava. Even as he tests her by planting stolen evidence in her shed, he won’t allow her to be disrespected by anyone else. If he weren’t a sociopath, it would be adorable.

Alas, he is, in fact, a sociopath. And his doubts about Ava’s situation are nothing compared to the doubts of other people on both sides of the equation. Between Katherine, Wynn, Boyd, and Raylan, there is a massive game of “I don’t know if he knows that we know what he thinks we don’t know that we know” going on, with poor Ava caught in the middle and more than a little out of her depth. Then again, it bears noting that it is her and not Boyd who notices the important detail about the pizza parlor in the stolen documents, which underscores both her value and his level of distraction.

It is sad to think that we have a finite number of scenes between Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins to look forward to at this point, but that’s the reality—so they really need to count. Tonight’s hallway conversation is right up with their best encounters and beautifully underscores the game playing that is developing between the marshals and their prey. Though there is little in the way of outright violence in this episode, it doesn’t affect the tension level at all. It is a testament to the amount of world building done over the last five seasons that, at this late stage, wordplay is every bit as effective as gunplay in ratcheting up the thrills. When these two adversaries get together, every sentence is a jab, every question a feint. Every utterance in Scheier’s office corridor is dripping with hidden meaning and underlying intention. In truth, I can only think of two lines of dialogue where each man was being entirely honest with the other. I think Boyd truly means it when he admits his newfound clarity of thought, saying, “I’ve learned to think without arguing with myself.” Raylan, in turn, is entirely forthright with his threat: “When you hand me them items, do it slow or I’ll shoot ya.”

They’ve been delivering mortal threats to each for so long that they are positively gentlemanly about it.

We are only two episodes into the season and the show is purring like a finely tuned engine, the sluggishness of last season already but a memory. The new additions to the cast have endeared themselves so quickly that every scene feels like a highlight reel that we have been looking forward to. Consider the last scene of the night when Raylan and Tim descend on the pizza parlor to confront Walker, Seabass and Choo-Choo (I’m as amused by their names as Tim was). At that point we are only ten minutes removed from a dynamite Raylan/Boyd scene and two of the characters in the scene were just introduced in this episode. Yet, not only is the scene not a letdown, it has more electricity than a single moment that I can recall from all of last season involving the Crowe clan. I can think of no better compliment than that.

Any concerns that the show wouldn’t be able to get back on course have been answered and then some. If things had not improved, it could have been a very long 13 episodes. Suddenly, the 11 remaining episodes seem like not nearly enough.

Some closing thoughts:

-Big shout out to Friday Night Lights alum Brad Leland who makes the difficult transition from slick Texas car salesman to slick Kentucky realtor with ease and flair. He is predictably fabulous, and of all the potential Justified spin-off shows dancing in my head, something involving Calhoun Schreier and his absurdly well-informed secretary has raced to the top of my list.

-No idea if ‘Calhoun Schreier’ is some kind of tip-of-the-hat to four-time episode writer Keith Schreier, but it’s an unusual enough name that it seems likely. Maybe it’s the Justified version of employee of the week.

-Wynn Duffy seems awfully convinced that he can outmaneuver Boyd, considering that there are probably still tiny chunks of the last guy that thought that in the sofa that Duffy is sitting on.

-I’ve meant to mention this many times and keep forgetting, but tonight’s episode was directed by show veteran Dean Parisot. Parisot has directed many episodes of this show and several others. He has also done a number of feature films including the modern classic, Galaxy Quest. Mr. Parisot, if you’re reading this, PLEASE make a sequel. Whoever owns the rights, I’m quite certain that buying them is just a Kickstarter away. It can be about the studio trying to reboot the franchise and wanting to involve the original cast so that it smartly references the current Trek franchise or, hell, it could be about the crew going back in time to prevent the invention of internet memes for all I care. Just make a sequel. If begging would help, my contact info is below.

And here are some of my favorite lines of the night:

“Get out of the road, cock holster!” (I may have heard that wrong, but I’m going with “cock holster” anyway.)

“An employee? You open up a donut shop?”

“Oh my goodness, do you have the cancer?”

“Could you ask him to bring back my car?”

“You’re kind of a dick, huh guy?”

And, of course:

“I’m not following you.”

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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