Justified Review: “Whistle Past the Graveyard” (Episode 5.08)

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<i>Justified</i> Review: &#8220;Whistle Past the Graveyard&#8221; (Episode 5.08)

“Needing you and trusting you are two altogether different things.” —Boyd Crowder

Anyone besides me spending about ten minutes every week wondering if a Justified spin-off has been scheduled in the usual Justified timeslot?

Bear with me for a second because I know that I sound like a simpering fanboy right now. The thing is, while we have had a handful of episodes this season that felt a bit off-key, at least we had the easy rapport of our regulars to fall back, on and we were happy to coast for a bit. Last week’s episode is a good example. My problem right now is that new and variably interesting characters are chewing up the bulk of the screen time, and most of our regular characters haven’t even been in the same room with each other this year.

We’ve spent four seasons watching a compelling web being woven throughout the greater Harlan metro area and a sizable chunk of the show’s draw has been the gradual ways that the web has grown wider and deeper as the cast of characters has danced around, through and with each other. Through all that, Harlan was the center. The heart. Ground zero.

Name one major character who is currently in Harlan County. Couple that realization with the fact that so far we’ve seen scenes set in Mexico, Canada, Detroit and Florida (twice), and the idea of a show adrift jumps from metaphor right into overt reality.

Wynn Duffy might be in Harlan, I suppose. It bears mention that Jere Burns finally got promoted to series regular this season, yet we haven’t seen him for nearly two episodes. I’m assuming that he’s working on plans for Boyd’s south-of-the-border exodus and that we will see lots more of him starting next week, but my point is that we shouldn’t have to assume.

Instead, we get another extended member of the Crowe clan, Uncle Jack (Kyle Bornheimer), who is yet another type of low-rent grifter who has pissed someone off somehow and who is on the run and blah blah blah. Lord, this is some lazy stuff. It’s bad enough that Jere Burns has been temporarily benched, but this episode committed one of the cardinal sins of cable television:

It wasted William Forsythe.

I truly cannot believe it. They land one of the great character actors of our time, a guy born to play scumbag criminals, an actor who you would choose as your starter in the Elmore Leonard all-star game … and they completely blow it. It isn’t Forsythe’s fault—he’s as grimy, gritty and effective as ever, but he has nothing to play against. Uncle Jack is a featherweight, and even after a half-hearted buildup, Forsythe’s run-in with Raylan is over before it starts. What the hell were they thinking? Between Forsythe and Olyphant you have two of the best steely gazes in the business, and both actors can deliver a call-out threat with the best of them, so why was there so little fizzle?

Writer Chris Provenzano has to shoulder some of the blame, but since he also wrote “Shot All to Hell,” one of the season’s best efforts, I’ll give him a bit of a pass. This wasn’t a terribly well-written episode, but there were enough zingers and banter to remind us what show we were watching. Unfortunately, there were plenty of sluggish exchanges, as well. That said, Provenzano had the good fortune to be paired up with Adam Arkin as director last time around. His collaborator this time, Peter Werner, doesn’t quite hold up his end of the deal. The blocking felt sloppy, rushed and uninspired, and the compositions didn’t have any flair.

Take the late scene when Boyd and the Crowes are about to head for the border. Before leaving the café, Jimmy asks Boyd for money as a cover for the two of them to speak briefly. Neither trusts the Crowes, and they need to be on the same page. This is supposed to be a scene between two characters who we know to be slick operators, and they are supposed to be disguising their true intent from other known slick operators. Instead, as blocked and shot, their meeting is the very definition of suspicious. School children would assume that these two were up to something. It is inelegant and not what we are used to seeing on the show.

Earlier, the desert scene where the truck is hijacked is equally clumsy. It’s a scene where I should have been focused on the subtle ways that Boyd and Darryl are playing off each other’s cues to con the captain. Beneath that, I should have been wondering if they were each trying to sell each other out. Beneath that, I should have been thinking about whether the police finding them was an accident. Instead, all I was thinking about was how obvious all of Boyd and Darryl’s moves were and how awkwardly staged the entire scene was. I should have had an “A-ha!” moment mid-scene when I saw Boyd subtly change course, saw Darryl follow and figured out exactly how they were conning the cops just before the truck pulled away. Instead, I had to watch the scene again to completely understand what happened. This is not a well-constructed scene.

In fairness, only Joelle Carter had a stellar night. Her jailhouse storyline isn’t getting any more interesting, but thankfully she isn’t asleep at the wheel. Whether it is better notes from the producers or Carter’s own invention, Ava is one of the few characters with a logical character progression this season. After her unfortunate move to big girl prison, there was a short period where she was stuck in one-note moroseness (or what I mistook for it), but as time and episodes have passed, she has moved steadily from grim resignation to wily maneuvering. This week she arrives at my favorite Ava mode and one that I feared we might not see again—the “you don’t know it yet, but I’m about to run this goddamn place” mode. It’s a good sign for the character, and it gives me something to watch while everyone else is still treading water and looking for the shore.

Surprisingly, the always rock-steady Tim Olyphant seemed distracted throughout the hour. Perhaps it was seeing Raylan in casual dress, or perhaps Olyphant thinks Raylan’s suspension is weighing heavy and this is his idea of how to play it. Regardless, it didn’t entirely work. Especially difficult to watch were the coupling scenes with Raylan and Alison. All their scenes felt more like a read through than a production take, though part of that falls on the faltering chemistry between the actors. Despite promising initial sparks, this pairing never gelled. So good riddance, I say.

Unless, that is, the breakup sends Raylan into the arms of a certain redhead. If anything, that single purpose seems to be the whole raison d’être of this episode. At this point, Raylan and Wendy getting together feels like a foregone conclusion, and a lot of time and energy seems to be going into making the pairing palatable to the audience. See, she finally admitted to Kendal that she’s really his mother, so thus she’s really a good person. See, she and Raylan have all sorts of things in common, like having eyes and lungs so thus they’re perfect for each other. See, in her heart of hearts she really wants to tell Raylan about Mexico, so thus they should make sweet, sweet love to each other. I can see it now. We will just be one meet-cute between Kendal and Loretta away from being able to spin the show off into a bizarro Three’s Company-esque sitcom.

All joking aside, the obvious truth is that the show is in a rut. If you want to extend the same kind of symbolism as I did above with the numerous locales, Boyd’s problems in Mexico seem apt. Since getting into bed with Yuen, Boyd has faced a constant spate of changing landscapes. The sand, literally and figuratively, keeps shifting under his feet. That we know of, the creative team this season has faced the loss of their leader (in word if not in title) and has had to scramble to course-correct after at least one unexpected character death. Those are just the things that have been made public. The somewhat sudden announcement regarding the end of the series raised some eyebrows. Could the recent reliance on guest stars point to a budget problem? Probably so. This is still a cable show after all.

Time will tell, but I suspect Boyd will ultimately succeed by falling back on the few people who he trusts and who have been with him the longest. The show needs to do the same.

Some closing thoughts:

—Even the Star Wars reference is wanting this week. Millenium Force? That’s a terrible name for a roller coaster. Oh sorry, rolley coaster. Sigh.

—It’s unexpected that the actor doing the best job elevating average material is the 17-year-old newcomer. Jacob Lofland is making Christal Karge and Camille Patton look like mad casting geniuses. Between Kendal and Loretta, Karge and Patton ought to be the first two calls for anyone looking to cast a teenager.

—I don’t really have a third thought due to the down week, so I’ll just leave you with a little tidbit that I meant to mention before Dewey left Wade Messer to die in the mountains. In 1997, a TV movie was made of Pronto, Elmore Leonard’s first novel featuring Raylan Givens. The actor who portrayed Raylan all those years ago was none other than James Le Gros. That’s right, the original Raylan was played by Wade Messer. That ought to hold you until next week.

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”:https://twitter.com/one_true_jack.