Justified: “Sounding”

TV Reviews
Justified: “Sounding”

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.

“So long as you ain’t playing me. That wouldn’t be wise.”—Ellstin Limehouse

With four straight episodes terrific both in quality and pace, it was probably unrealistic to think that we would get through this sixth and final season of Justified without hitting at least one speed bump.

But let’s be clear, a speed bump is different from hitting a wall. Episode five is not a bad episode by any means. It hits most of the same notes as those that came before it, but somehow it just doesn’t sing the way that they did. Worse, most of the problems are the ones I was concerned about when the season began.

Way back in my review for the season premiere, I said that one of the dangers of a finale season was that trotting out fan favorite characters for one last encore could become predictable at best, gratuitous and self-parodying at worst. I won’t go far as to say that we arrive there this week, but we do dip a toe in those waters.

Things start off well with Raylan finding a clever way to check in on Ava and her state of mind. Predictably, Ava’s slow trek to Crazytown continues as Boyd’s ever evolving plans to takedown Markham become increasingly manic. It is difficult for Ava to formulate an escape plan when Boyd can’t even decide from where exactly it is that she would be escaping. As Ava astutely points out, Boyd has rapidly gone from despairing at Kentucky’s inescapable demise, to giddiness at Kentucky’s supposedly bright future. It is Ava’s desperation that leads us to our first guest star of the week, Ellstin Limehouse.

I’m sure that every Justified fan has a shortlist of characters they want to see one last time, and two more get checked off the list this week (technically, I guess it’s three). The first fares better than the last.

I expected that Limehouse would show up before things were through, and it makes perfect narrative sense that Ava would run to him for cover when things got bad, given that she has done precisely that, multiple times in the past. The first surprise is that Errol, Limehouse’s right hand man, is still walking around and breathing, since the last time we saw him he had just taken a bullet to the chest from Robert Quarles. The second, and considerably less positive, surprise is how poorly conceived this whole subplot becomes once Ava reaches Noble’s Holler. It unravels fairly quickly as Limehouse almost immediately deducts that Ava has little money and even less of a plan.

And that’s where they lost me.

Up to this point, I’ve been able to buy into Ava’s descent into desperation mainly because we got to see everything that led up to her current circumstance. She was saddled with an unfortunate storyline last season that seemed to go nowhere, but the dividends are just now coming in. It’s worth remembering that right before she was arrested and jailed, she was only inches away from her dream life. She had the man she wanted and a real shot at a legitimate normal life. All of that was swept out from under her and she has never really regained her footing. But all that said, somewhere in there Ava is still the canny, clever, woman to be reckoned with, who stood by Boyd’s side as they reclaimed Harlan. The writers put in a nice reminder just a couple of episodes ago when it was Ava, and only Ava, that noticed the relevant detail hidden among Calhoun’s stolen documents. At the time I took that as a sign that the old Ava was working her way back out but unless you count cooking a fabulous breakfast for her man as clever trickery, all we’ve seen lately is anxiety and confusion.

Don’t misunderstand me, I can make an argument for her current mindset being a logical progression of Ava’s predicament and past experience, but it is not the only possible conclusion for the character nor, sadly, the most interesting one. For one thing, I have a hard time believing that Noble’s Holler presents a more palatable solution than simply coming clean to the man who, not 30 minutes earlier, sat her down and returned her engagement ring to her finger. If there was ever a moment for a mea culpa, that was it.

I think what I’m trying to say, in my usual roundabout way, is that there are elements of Ava’s storyline that, like last season’s prison arc, are starting to feel mildly contrived. Next week will be very telling to see which direction things head in.

When Limehouse sends Errol along with Ava to recover the fictional buried treasure that will serve as Ava’s ticket to freedom, it leads us to our next returning character, Constable Bob Sweeney. Bob was undoubtedly the unexpected delight of Season Four and his return has been highly anticipated. Somehow, his appearance is both a blessing and a curse.

While there is undeniable joy in watching Patton Oswalt wield his particular brand of unjustifiable swagger (now with cop facial hair), there is an element of self-referential parody that wasn’t as overt two years ago. I can’t lay it all on Patton Oswalt because even the direction seems to be in on the joke given that we are reintroduced to Bob via a classic “hero reveal” shot of Bob shaving with that oh-so masculine of film clichés, the straight razor. Then again, this is a guy who keeps a “go bag” in his car so it’s difficult to rule anything as “out of character.”

The larger problem is that it seems like a revisionist version of the character. When we last saw Bob, he had proven that his unjustifiable swagger was, in fact, justified. He toughed out a torture session and proved his mettle in a gunfight. His badass act turned out to not be an act.

The version of Bob that we meet here seems to have taken that experience and dialed himself up to eleven. Every facet of his character has been amplified and upgraded, even his ride. Everything, that is, except his toughness. When faced with taking on Errol, Bob is somehow more bumbling and less capable than ever. I can’t help but wonder how it would have played if, rather than having Bob change up his act as a result of his experience two years ago, the writers had chosen to have Bob remain exactly the same, and change how everyone else acted toward him. I really don’t think it is too much to ask of a show that has a rich history of subverting viewer expectations to do something with the chubby, short, nebbish character other than having him be awkward and inept.

Much like Ava’s storyline, I did genuinely enjoy much of Bob’s appearance, but once again I came out of the segment with a troubled nagging sensation in the back of my mind.

Similarly enjoyable yet strange is Boyd’s attempted recruitment of Ava’s estranged uncle, played by a very burnt out Jeff Fahey. I love seeing Fahey show up just about anywhere but his accent as Zachariah is such a bizarre blend of creole, hillbilly, and I-don’t-know-what that it ends up feeling like yet another small detail that wasn’t completely thought through. There’s plenty of amusement in watching Boyd navigate an old family feud, but it raises the question of why exactly we needed yet another new character when we already have so many, both old and new, constantly battling for screen time. This is yet another area where I had some mild flashbacks to last season, except that in that case there were too many characters and too little for them to do. This year we have lots to do and we’re running out of time to watch them do it. I really hope Zachariah ends up being legitimately important, and isn’t simply there to rib Boyd and act zany.

At least a little damage is already done, seeing as we get far too little of Markham, Walker, Choo-Choo, and Seabass this week.

Side note: Why are they insisting on calling Choo-Choo by his given name, Mundo, all of a sudden? Everyone single person called him nothing but Choo-Choo for two episodes and now it’s all Mundo all the time. I don’t think it means anything; it’s just weird. But I digress.

Possibly my biggest concern of the night is the small bit of progress we get on the Tiger Hawk gang’s storyline. The primary scene is a stare down between Markham and Walker that serves to re-align them into a head-to-head confrontation with Boyd. That’s fine, but we can’t just have them bouncing from Boyd to Raylan and back again every week. My larger concern is that with only a small setback they’re already showing signs of unraveling, and that is not a trait that you want in your bad guys. Not to belabor the point, but this is strikingly similar to what happened with the Crowes last season. An enormous part of why the Crowes, and Daryl in particular, never gelled into memorable villains is because they were always just a step away from imploding all on their own. It was pretty clear that none of their plans were ever going to work, whether Raylan stopped them or not. There’s plenty of good drama to be gleaned from the internal dynamics of any group of interesting characters, but until tonight the Tiger Hawk group seemed airtight and nigh on invincible, and it’s disappointing to see that façade fall so easily. If there is a silver lining, it is that the second reason that Daryl et al failed to generate any legitimate momentum as antagonists was that none of them (again Daryl in particular), ever seemed cunning enough, tough enough, or smart enough to pose a believable threat to Raylan and the marshals. Even with tonight’s infighting, Markham and his mercs still definitely qualify for all three adjectives, so I’m going to file this under ‘N’ for ‘Nothing to see here’ and move on.

Much in the same way that Boyd has Carl putting off the sale of farms to Markham, the whole episode has the air of a stalling tactic. It’s as if the writers knew they wanted to work Bob and Limehouse in somewhere, but overestimated how much screen time was really needed to do it, and once the schedule was set, they just filled in the blanks the best they could. Then when they realized they needed to eat up some time, they gave Jeff Fahey a bad perm and told him to make up an accent.

As I said when I started, this isn’t a bad episode, merely an ordinary one. Unfortunately, with only eight episodes left, “ordinary” is something we just don’t have time for.

If there is a saving grace, it is the two strong scenes that we end on. Calhoun’s death brings the efficacy and lethality (even when they don’t mean to be lethal) of the Tiger Hawk crew back into sharp focus and the final scene with Raylan and Ava adds an unexpected wrinkle and even higher stakes to an already tense situation. It had crossed my mind that with Raylan and Ava being back in such close proximity on a regular basis, some sparks might fly again. I even thought that a reunion had been hinted at a time or two, but I told myself that I was reading too much into things. Even now we can’t be sure what the reality of the situation is. Is Raylan feigning interest to keep Ava under control? Is Ava feigning interest to keep Raylan under control? Could they truly still have feelings for each other? Most importantly, what the hell is Raylan thinking when he decides to stick around knowing that Boyd may be on his way home?

And just like that, we’re right back on track.

Some closing thoughts:

—I didn’t want to bring this up in the review proper because it isn’t related directly to the narrative within the show. What I want to talk about is the confrontation between Constable Bob and Errol. I have no wish to engage in a political discussion and my concern has nothing to do with leaning in one political direction or another. But I feel like I have to at least mention the creative team’s decision to end the confrontation with Bob tasing Errol. Given the current political climate, it isn’t a moment that is easily dismissed. After all, there’s no getting around the fact that it involves a white officer of the law taking down an unarmed (there’s the shovel, but we don’t know if he has a gun) young black male during what amounts to an illegal detainment and questioning under false pretenses. I have no problem with them leaving the scene in, but they must have known that it would raise an eyebrow or two, so to simply play it for laughs and move on seems like a bit of a cop out. It isn’t clear what exactly the writers are trying to say about that moment or if, indeed, they are trying to say anything at all. A year ago, they could have gotten their laugh and moved on without notice but to write themselves into that setup in this day and age and then ask for the same laugh seems tone deaf at best and a little insulting at worst. Or maybe they were trying to say something, and I just didn’t get it. If anyone else has thoughts on this, I would love to hear them.

—Wynn Duffy and the kids. Heck, Katherine and the kids. Scariest. Grandmother. Ever.

—I love that Choo-Choo’s solution to all of life’s little problems is always to kill someone.

Here are some of my favorite lines of the night:

“They seem nice.”

“I don’t like that guy, he aplexes me.”

“How about skim milk? You got any skim milk?”

“You got a badge and a set of balls, don’tcha?”

“You, I can’t wait to hear what’s going to come out of your mouth.”

“You ask me, he gets Amtrak’ed.”

“Honestly, I kind of like to yell at you some more.”

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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