Much as I’ve enjoyed the last two episodes of Justified, I’ll admit to being a bit impatient with the slow developments on the serialized front. The pilot posed so many questions about Raylan’s past—most notably, his relationship to his shady father, which has been teased into the “when are they gonna get to the fireworks factory” of the early going—that the immediate downshift into crime-of-the-week mode was something of a disappointment. Justified has the potential for greatness, and in the current era of expansive small-screen visions, great television dramas are always moving forward.
That said, if Justified can put out hours as vastly entertaining as “Long In The Tooth” with some regularity, fuck serialization. It’s enormously encouraging that the writers—in this case Chris Provenzano, who’s credited with two of my favorite Mad Men episodes (“Shoot” and “The Hobo Code”) from Season One—have the flexibility and confidence to change locales (from Kentucky to Los Angeles), shift the focus away from Raylan (to a point) and onto characters who will only appear for one episode, and still produce a show that’s this much fun and in keeping with the Elmore Leonard mission statement.
The big revelation here, of course, is Alan Ruck, who could himself personify the “long in the tooth” of the title. Remembered forever as Ferris’ shy, neurotic best friend Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ruck here cannily plays against that image by merely seeming like an ineffectual dentist while revealing a much tougher side when provoked. His shift from kind-hearted family dentist accepting tamales in lieu of payment to a rage-filled, knife-wielding “repo man” made for a bracing pre-credits hook, and the episode added plenty of layers from there. (“You don’t want to pay me? That’s all right. But I’m going to take back what’s mine.”)
Ruck stars as Roland Pike, a former cartel accountant who’s been on the run from both the authorities and the cartel from which he embezzled money. A crook with a conscience, Rollie fled to Mexico for a time, but reemerged in L.A. and used his ill-gotten funds to open up a modest dental practice that caters to illegal immigrants and others who can’t afford insurance. (Subsidized, of course, by the elective procedures he performs on douchebags like the guy he attacks for insulting his staff.) Turns out that Rollie was a fugitive Raylan let slip through his fingers, so when “the crazy dentist” suddenly surfaces in the news (and back into the cartel’s crosshairs), he’s called upon to apprehend Rollie before the bad guys get to him. The only caveat: Rachel is not only coming along for the ride, but she’s also taking lead.
If there’s a flaw to “Long In The Tooth,” it’s that not much develops from Rachel getting more screen time; despite the official pecking order, she predictably takes back seat to Raylan’s go-it-alone style as he intuits his way into tracking down Rollie. This isn’t much of an issue with this episode, which has bigger fish to fry, but Raylan has been casting a mighty big shadow over the other Justified regulars so far, and that could spell long-term trouble. (See also: Dexter.) Then again, Erica Tazel has been very tough and funny in her limited minutes as Rachel, and not even Olyphant’s magnetism distracts from Ruck’s work here.
As with last week’s episode, about the Brooklyn fixer stranded in Kentucky, the crook here operates within a well-defined moral code that makes him more complex than the average hood. Here’s a man who had the courage to defy a murderous drug cartel—and the stones to steal from them—and seek a kind of redemption by providing dental services to the uninsured. There’s a fascinating mix of good and bad in the guy; he’s fundamentally good-hearted and decent, but he also knows how to steal cars and work the black market, and he’s fully capable of flying off the handle. One of the pleasures of the episode is watching his poor receptionist Mindy discover that the idealist she fell in love with has one hell of a dark side.
So many great touches abound, from the moodsetting of the Spanish-language version of “Low Rider” to the Vietnam veteran Rollie cajoles to look the other way (“Thank you for your service to our nation.” “I lost the leg to diabetes, but thank you.”) to the hilarious consequences of Mindy ordering ceviche from a taco truck. As a piece of writing, this was every bit as good as the pilot, and more fun to boot.
• Alan Sepinwall raised the question on his blog last week, and I’ll raise it again here: Any problems with Raylan’s body count so far? Raylan was shuffled back to Kentucky to allow time for his Miami shooting to cool off a bit, but he hasn’t exactly laid low. Tonight’s episode adds two more bodies to the list. Even allowing that a TV show about a gunslinging lawman will stretch the boundaries of realism, Justified may be pushing it.
• Nice twist having the Mexican woman who gave Rollie the tamales in the opening call the police on him when he comes asking for help across the border. Despite his generosity to him, she isn’t willing to break the law to do him a favor. (And even better twist having her father help Rollie by arranging a “coyote” and throwing the authorities off the scent.)
• Great bumbling gangsters this week. “See that guy in the hat?” “The tall one?” “The one in the hat.”
• Raylan, anticipating a showdown: “Better send a chopper… and an ambulance.”
• Rollie to Mindy: “You’ve got to go back. You’ve got to get away from me.” Dentist or wolfman?