Justified: "For Blood Or Money"
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Justified: "For Blood Or Money"

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Justified

"For Blood Or Money"

Season 2, Episode 4

Tim and Rachel. I’ve been writing about Justified since the pilot, yet every time one of those characters gets featured in an episode, off I go to the IMDb to confirm their names. And keep in mind: The actors who play them, Jacob Pitts and Erica Tazel, appear fourth- and fifth-billed in the opening credits, behind Timothy Olyphant, Nick Searcy, and Joelle Carter. This has been a persistent issue with the show and one the writers haven’t quite solved. Tim and Rachel are occasional ride-along partners to Raylan, but they haven’t become distinctive, well-defined characters yet. Both strike me as characters who were part of the show before they were properly conceived; it’s as if creator Graham Yost and his writers figured they could cast Pitts and Tazel, then figure out what to do with them later.

So far, season two has made more of an effort to bring Tim and Rachel into the fold, after they more or less disappeared in the back half of last season, but they haven’t grown much. Tim got a big episode two weeks ago and proved quite engaging and funny, though his dialogue (and marksmanship) had me thinking of him more as a soft-spoken Raylan clone than his own man. Rachel has been a tougher dilemma; her status as an African-American woman in Harlan reefer country in the season premiere was more crucial than her actual personality, since she was really serving mainly as a way to emphasize Raylan’s connection to the locals.

“For Blood Or Money,” the weakest episode of the season so far, gives Rachel her fullest airing to date but doesn’t make much progress in sketching out a compelling character. Larenz Tate guest stars as Rachel’s brother-in-law, who makes a violent escape from a halfway house in a reckless bid to reconnect with his son on his 12th birthday. Rachel has reason to hate him: His substance abuse problems led him to an accident that killed her sister. So she’s properly (though not entirely) relegated to a supporting role when Tate bashes his program manager’s face in with a phone and takes to the streets. With both the Marshals and the program manager after him, Tate gets in even more trouble when he steals a car from his friend, a would-be reformed drug dealer named Flex, leading to the sort of Mexican standoff we see often on the show.

The A-plot of “For Blood Or Money” is disappointingly straightforward, ending with a shot-up, bloodied plush toy that echoes Bad Santa a bit too uncannily. But it has some redeeming facets, particularly Joel McCrary’s powerful turn as a halfway house manager whose fearlessness speaks to a life that’s frequently been on the edge of mortal peril. (“I snorted, shot, drank, grundled, and douched more junk before I was 30 than Rick James did in his lifetime, and I’m still kicking.”) Not to keep beating up on Rachel and Tim, but in just a few scenes, I feel like he’s drawn more richly as a character than either of them has been in a full season and a half. I also liked small details like Tate’s Furby knock-off doll, which speaks in Chinese and is a good six years late as an appropriate gift for his son. Or Flex’s scotched ambitions to reinvent himself as a magician.

To paraphrase Milhouse in the classic “Poochie” episode of The Simpsons, maybe I’m getting a little impatient in waiting for Justified to get to the fireworks factory. Much like last season’s first half, the three episodes after the premiere have teased out the main story one-third of the time but mostly stuck to the cases at hand. That’s fine as far as it goes—at its worst, Justified is still an engaging and flavorful twist on the cop show—but when you have a scene as spectacular as this week’s pre-credits visit to a Bennett cookout, you want to see more. Margo Martindale has gotten one scene each in this episode and one two weeks ago, and they’ve both been the standout: two weeks ago with her terrifying inquiry of young Loretta McCready, and this week with her alternately hospitable and hostile treatment of Raylan for crashing her party. Raylan comes with the difficult goal of trying to quell any potential blowback from the Dixie Mafia for the Oxy bus robbery while driving a wedge between Mags and her conniving children. That leaves Mags in a sticky situation: She has to protect and defend a family that’s actively undermining her. Martindale plays the scene at many different registers at once, emphatically denying any involvement in the bus robbery while also supporting the fiction that she’s just a nice woman who deals a little reefer on the side. She’s brilliant.

That said, I suspect the Bennetts and Boyd will assert themselves more forcefully very soon. If Justified is following the road map of its successful first season—and I think it is, with greater refinement—then a shift should happen right about now, just as it did after the Alan Ruck episode last year. Bring it on.

Stray observations:

  • Love Martindale’s dismissal of the Dixie Mafia: “That sounds like a mighty dangerous outfit,” she says with a chuckle.
  • Boyd’s difficulty in escaping his old self now comes with literary support: Of Human Bondage.
  • Some good intrigue from the wonderfully oily Gary, who suggests a divorce to Winona as a clever jujitsu move to win her back. Raylan sees it and gets a laugh. Don’t know about Winona.
  • Last week, a commenter made a well-reasoned argument that these write-ups should include more discussion of performance, direction, and photography and not focus so heavily on story developments. I responded thusly: “Shows tend to establish a firm visual template and follow it rigorously, no matter who's directing; for example, a frequent TV director like John Dahl is a master of noir atmosphere, but I'd be at a loss to tell you the difference between one of his Justified episodes and, say, Adam Arkin's.” And lo, Dahl directed this episode, and I don’t have much to say about what he specifically brought to the table. Any thoughts from the galley on that question?
  • Line of the night candidate, courtesy of Flex, who Tate shot in the hand: “I was going to be a magician, you dick.”