In the weeks leading up to tonight, “Brother’s Keeper” had been hailed by those who had seen it as Justified’s finest hour—the “episode that cured cancer,” as TV critics like to call such monumental events (see also: Mad Men’s “The Suitcase” or the Community paintball episode)—and I’d be hard-pressed to disagree, though its greatness comes from paying off the conflicts so beautifully established over the course of the season. In addition to introducing some powerful new characters—Mags Bennett foremost among them—season two owes its success to themes of family and community that are fundamental to the region. I compared it to the great film Winter’s Bone in the very first episode, and that comparison still holds true, as the show has gone beyond mere criminal chicanery and into the specific quirks of an area with its own language, traditions, and fierce generational clashes. Entering the domain of the Bennetts (and the Crowders and the Givenses) has been like visiting another world, ruled by its own codes and blood ties, irrespective of the law.
“Brother’s Keeper” is a heartbreaker of an episode, but the heartbreak arrives stealthily, because there’s so much intrigue and treachery first. Yes, the seeds are planted for Coover/Loretta conflict in the very first scene—and I’ll get to that in more detail later—but Mags’ “big ‘ole whoop-tee-doo” takes center stage for most of it, as Black Pike, the Bennetts, and an opportunistic Boyd Crowder finally put their cards on the table. The big powwow between Mags, Boyd, and Carol underlines just how well the show has established these larger-than-life figures, each driven by ruthless self-interest and tremendous savvy. Incredibly, the brash, ever-confident Carol is made to look overmatched, as both her adversaries understand the full scope of the Black Pike deal better than she does (or her company will allow her to, anyway). So when Carol comes storming in with a stern, arrogant, take-it-or-leave it proposition to Mags over the mountaintop mining deal, Boyd and Mags swiftly put her in her place. Turns out the critical part of the land-grab wasn’t the mountaintop itself but the properties needed to build a road to take the coal down. Mags knew it. Boyd figured it out. Carol was left holding the bag.
Carol begins the negotiation by addressing Mags: “You can condescend like I’m some carpetbagging shitstepper all you like, but I speak with the full authority of the company that employs me.” But it’s really Carol who’s doing the condescending; she’s not from this intensely insular place, and she has severely underestimated the people who lord over it. While Mags showed some fire in the town hall meeting and carries herself forcefully when necessary (“Now you sit your bony ass down and listen to my counteroffer while there are still pieces of you to find”), she hasn’t been uncertain of herself at any point in this Black Pike affair. The town hall speech was just a cynical tactic; Mags may know the region’s history of exploitation, but she’s all-too-happy to be doing some of the exploiting. She and Boyd are just crafty, cold-blooded business people who know the angles; that handshake of theirs at the end of the scene isn’t a show of friendship or honor but a mutual appreciation of two people smart enough to get their piece.
But Mags is not entirely cold-blooded. What makes “Brother’s Keeper” so effective is the sharp contrast between the calculated Mags who handles the mountaintop deal and the emotional Mags who presides over her family’s collapse. The pre-credits scene with Loretta and Coover is pivotal: Mags brushing the girl’s hair, giving her grandmother’s brooch, treating her with a tenderness that feels genuine and not borne out of any guilt over what happened to Loretta’s father. Her boys have all turned out varying degrees of rotten, especially Coover, and in Loretta, Mags has given herself a fresh start. What’s interesting about Mags’ bond with Loretta is that it’s fundamentally unsustainable and irrational; she may be able to kick the issue of what happened to Loretta’s father down the road a little further—and perhaps invent some terrible tragedy later—but Loretta is smart enough to where she’ll start figuring things out on her own. Mags, a woman capable of seeing many steps ahead in her business affairs, cannot allow herself to see how this will end.
As I wrote earlier, “Brother’s Keeper” is a great hour of television because all of it’s informed by the careful table-setting of the episodes that preceded it. Coover’s sad trajectory here has its roots in the infamous scene a few episodes ago when Mags took a hammer to his non-shooting hand, leaving him to plea to his “momma” like a helpless child. Coover never grew up—here he’s like Lennie in Of Mice And Men—and the vindictive way he punishes Loretta for attracting his mother’s affections is what a child would do, like when an older sibling pushes around a toddler for taking all the attention away from him. His issue is with mom, but he can’t push mom around, so he shatters Loretta’s illusions while rubbing her father’s murder in his face. He’s a vile creature, but a creature of Mags’ creation, even if she’s keen to dissociate herself from him.
As good as Margo Martindale’s town hall speech was last week, her scene with Raylan at the end was even better. She approaches him weakened, as a grieving mother, but the conversation reveals that the grief is not for losing Coover so much as it is for losing Loretta. She probably believes that her son needed to be put down like a wild animal, and there’s no blame cast to Raylan for doing the deed, but keeping her from Loretta is an unforgivable act. When Raylan makes it clear to Mags that her access to the girl is permanently severed, that’s when Martindale’s face hardens from grief to bitter resolve. It’s a “hell hath no fury” moment, and I wonder if Raylan underestimates what it means to be on the receiving end of that glare.
- Loved the story about Heinz, the man so nicknamed because he could perform 57 dance steps that no one else knew. (“Why isn’t he here?” “His wife shot him.”)
- Kaitlyn Dever struck me as a tad too precocious as Loretta on the first episode this season, but she was exceptional when it counted tonight. Her tense visit to Coover’s house is the highlight, but I also enjoyed smaller moments like the scene where Raylan kicks away the older suitor trying to give her alcohol. When she claims her father will be around to protect her, it’s a sad reminder that Loretta is still a kid and isn’t as wise to the world as we might believe her to be.
- In my interview with her, Martindale expressed an interest in appearing in a musical. I think her exuberant porchside performance of “High On The Mountain” is a nice audition tape.
- Though Jeremy Davies has been less of a factor this season than I expected him to be, I like the place Dickie occupies in the family—conniving, dangerous, in a more elevated position than Coover, certainly, but maybe not as clever as he thinks he is. I suspect he’ll play a larger role as the Bennett family continues to fracture.