Justified: “Guy Walks Into A Bar”
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Justified: “Guy Walks Into A Bar”

Periodically in these write-ups, I’ve complained—or at least expressed some mild concern—that Neal McDonagh’s Quarles, for all the color and mayhem and fish-out-of-water comedy he brings to the show, has been too cartoonish a Big Bad, all outrageous gestures and no real substance. Granted, it wouldn’t be easy for any character to follow up Mags Bennett, who couldn’t have been more rooted to Harlan County if she were planted in the soil. But there was something synthetic and thin about Quarles, who at times seemed more a villain suited for a Batman comic or Buffy The Vampire Slayer than a real human being with a stake in Harlan beyond merely being a chaos agent.

Much as “Loose Ends” better articulated Ava’s purpose going forward last week, “Guy Walks Into A Bar” finally resolves any doubts about Quarles by simultaneously making him more human and more of a monster. The psychology might be too neat, but it helps bring the sex-and-death rituals that he’s been pulling in backrooms all season into greater and more chilling focus. It took having events in Harlan completely turn against him—up to and including a teenager with a gun inquiring about his missing friend—for Quarles to drop his guard and tell the story of what made him who he is. From this horror show of a heroin-addicted father, forced prostitution, and cold-blooded murder, we get the DNA of a psychopath who’s mired in arrested adolescence. He’s also mired in Kentucky with no where else to go, looking powerless and weak in his position, yet dangerous because he’s ruthless and has nothing more to lose.

There are good scenes throughout “Guy Walks Into A Bar”—which, among other things, digs into the finer points of Harlan politics—but it’s Quarles’ scenes that give it the biggest lift. We’ll see how the closing stretch of episodes play out, but it seems to me his mission has changed. With Boyd having brilliantly swiped the sheriff’s seat from under him by exploiting an anti-nepotism law, Quarles has essentially been given his bus ticket out of town. And Boyd can’t resist the opportunity to rub it in his face, either, calling him a “conquistador” who’s been able to enjoy the food, whiskey, and (er) women of Harlan but gets the rare chance to leave with his life. Even Duffy advises that maybe now would be a good time to leave Kentucky, and Duffy isn’t the type to skip town readily.

But there’s Quarles, in the end, back to sadistic business if not the money-making kind. When he first came to town, he seemed very much like the carpetbagger Boyd accused him of being, trying to seize on Harlan’s open territory with superior organization and force. Boyd changing his descriptive from “carpetbagger” to “conquistador” is significant—Quarles as someone raping the land rather than profiting off of it—but I think both assessments have to change now. Making money in Kentucky doesn’t seem to interest him any more (if it ever did), but creating mischief does. He wants revenge on Boyd, and, in maybe the most riveting scene in the episode, he flat-out threatens to kill Raylan, who will probably live to regret that the bartender pulled a shotgun rather than allowing him to quickdraw right then and there. Having been officially defeated, Quarles is in kamikaze mode—he’s going down hard, and he’s intent on taking others with him.

Elsewhere, Raylan tries to keep another personal chaos agent, Dickie Bennett, from getting out of prison on a technicality. Stephen Root, making another welcome appearance as the judge, describes Dickie as that turd that keeps floating the surface, and the episode mostly take a comic tone to the subplot, as Raylan flounders badly in his efforts. Though not nearly as compelling as the Quarles thread, Raylan’s bungled plans serve as a relatively light counterpoint and culminate in a hilariously pitiful attempt to persuade the judge in open court. Which brings us to potential line of the night No. 1, from Art: “Did that go the way you rehearsed it?”

Or finally, there’s potential line of the night No. 2, in which Boyd explains to Shelby, his candidate for sheriff, the unsavory business of Ava’s girls giving handjobs and blowjobs for votes: “This is the nature of Harlan County politics,” followed by mock-hopeful Obama pleas for change and “Yes We Can.” Handjobs or no, it’s entirely believable that the incumbent sheriff would have a huge advantage in the election, since few voters are that informed about down-ballot local candidates, but Boyd’s contingency plan is a brilliant one. The lingering question, now that Boyd has ascended at Quarles’ expense, is whether he can still see ahead of an adversary who’s completely lost his marbles.

Stray observations:

  • Why, Limehouse has the county clerk right here!
  • How compliant will Shelby be in his new post? Between his zeal for exposing the dirty cops who try to plant something in his car and his discomfort in witnessing Boyd’s GOTV campaign, perhaps he intends to take his job seriously.
  • Another funny scene in an episode full of them: Raylan bringing two milkshakes to the old woman to get her to turn on the Bennetts. She must be awfully thirsty.
  • “Hog-killing season.” As if the final three episodes needed more in the way of dark portent, here’s some more. 

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