Justified: “Harlan Roulette” (Episode 3.03)

TV Reviews
Justified: “Harlan Roulette” (Episode 3.03)

“I didn’t come all the way out here to discuss ideology.” -Boyd Crowder

For those looking for “shades of gray,” may I suggest tuning in to the FX Network Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. This week’s episode was about two things, storytelling and what the stories we choose say about the teller. There were (at least) three story monologues tonight, and each one was illuminating not only in showing where each storyteller thinks they fall on the spectrum of right and wrong, but also how mistaken they may be about that. Often our best stories are the ones we tell ourselves.

This week we open with more of Ellstin Limehouse, the lye-wielding butcher of Harlan County who closed last week’s episode with a story of his own. It turns out that he and Ava are old friends and Ellstin acts as a bit of a town protector for battered women looking for shelter with no place to go. Under the right circumstances, a devil may be just the savior you’re looking for. And the angelic blonde to your right shot and killed her husband and is sleeping with his brother. Shades of gray.

The result of this reunion is that Boyd and Ellstin are now business partners, though neither is particularly happy about it. I suspect they see too much of themselves in the other to feel comfortable with the arrangement.

The primary plot is driven by guest star Pruitt Taylor Vince (The Mentalist, Deadwood) as Glen Fogle, a pawn shop owner working for the Dixie Mafia that launders stolen goods in exchange for Oxycodone. When two of his addicts get caught at a roadblock with a truck full of stolen goods, he takes sadistic pleasure in cleaning up the mess. The scene that follows gives the episode its name and should nab Vince an Emmy nomination for best guest star if there is any justice in the world. If there’s such a thing as cuddly menace, Glen Fogle is it. He knows that poor J.T. is never walking out of the back room of the pawn shop, but rather than simply kill him, he can’t resist the opportunity to manipulate, demean, denigrate and torture him. And he does it almost entirely with words.

Words are never just words on Justified. For these people, words can be shields, guns, knives, toys, hammers, jabs and often prayers. Take the scene where Boyd and Devil discuss Devil’s future in Boyd’s little enterprise. You may as well be watching a boxing match. The entire conversation is verbal sparring. Alliteration keeps your opponent off-balance. Analogies hit like a right cross. God help you if you make a non sequitur. Poor Devil never stands a chance. When it comes to verbal haymakers, Boyd is in a league of his own.

The same is true of Glen Fogle’s game of Harlan roulette. The words are much more dangerous than the gun. But Glen is a completely different fighter than Boyd. Boyd is all about misdirection and moments of flash. Fogle is about raw power. It isn’t enough that he wins; he wants to destroy. Sometimes how we tell the story is more important than the story itself.

Raylan gets involved thanks to his past association with the second of Fogle’s addict thieves, Wade Messer. The last time Raylan saw Wade, Raylan was hanging upside down and getting batted around by Dickie Bennett. Current crimes aside, Raylan is more than a little motivated to find Wade.

The two finally come face-to-face on Wade’s front porch, where Raylan details the origin of his “don’t enter unless you’re invited” rule. Wade just wants to get inside to his snub-nosed .38 so that he can follow Fogle’s instructions (which came down from Wynn Duffy) to gun Raylan down. As usual, Olyphant nails the moment, letting Raylan’s swagger dip just for a moment and revealing some youthful vulnerability. Raylan is a straight-ahead fighter. Except when he’s not. Raylan knows three things that Wade doesn’t. One, it’s better to be prepared than brave. Two, that .38 isn’t where Wade thinks it is. Three, it isn’t the lines we won’t cross that define us, it’s the ones we will cross when we have to.

Using Wade as a lure, Raylan pulls Fogle (and his drug-addled thug, Beckett) to the scene and what follows is the Justified version of a Mexican stand-off. In other words, it’s nothing like any stand-off you’ve ever seen, and nothing quite goes to plan. What you end up with is three different verbal fighting styles in the same ring and the result is that five minutes later, two men are dead yet Raylan never even pulled his gun from his holster. Sometimes you tell the story. Sometimes the story tells you.
Meanwhile, Boyd and his gang have retaken cousin Johnny’s old bar as a headquarters. Though it ends with force, it’s over by the time Boyd’s conversation with the current owner ends. Mostly it’s just good to see Johnny again.

We end with a premonition of things to come, the first face-to-face between Raylan and Quarles. Wynn Duffy gets a taste of Raylan’s non-conversational communication, and the two gunfighters weigh in and size each other up. Electric doesn’t even start to cover it. It’s fitting that an episode so weighted towards dialogue ends with Raylan giving in to his nature and taking action. When words fail you, try bullets.

In three short episodes this season (has it really only been three?), Justified has defied, subverted, and downright beaten every expectation, plot device and prediction I’ve made about it. At the second commercial break this week, I finally just broke down and admitted a hard truth to myself: “I have no idea where this is going but I can’t wait to find out.” Now that’s good storytelling.

Then again, I’ve watched every episode of Justified since the pilot, and the only thing I’m absolutely sure about is that Raylan Givens is the good guy. Most of the time. I think. I mean he does wear the white hat, right? It’s a gray hat? I should have seen that one coming.

Some closing thoughts:

-Winona only appears for a quick conversation with Raylan about their ongoing search for a new house. Again, the dialogue does all the heavy lifting. Doesn’t it tell you volumes about Raylan that he sees a “separate commode area” as a huge selling point?

-Quarles gets a couple of short scenes this week, but his best character development happens in three seconds and requires no dialogue. The man keeps a woman tied to a bed in his house. That’s creepy, but not the important part. The important part is his complete nonchalance about it including how little he cares that Duffy stumbled onto the situation. Wrong door, bathroom’s over there. So creepy.

-Pruitt Taylor Vince was a standout tonight, but excellent guest stars are becoming par for the course. Desmond Harrington was fantastic in the season premiere as Fletcher Nix and then there was Carla Gugino last week. But the really cool thing is all the reunions. Creator Graham Yost has mined his old projects masterfully since the pilot, culminating with the additions of Neal McDonough (Band of Brothers) and Mykelti Williamson (Boomtown) this season. Frank John Hughes as Poe last week was a Band of Brothers vet as well and Vince is the latest in a series of Deadwood actors to rejoin Olyphant in the series. Kudos to all involved for rising above the stunt casting and tailoring the roles to the actors. Margo Martindale’s absence gets easier to take by the week.

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