(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
One thing you learn straight away when reviewing Justified for the first time: There are a lot of characters on this show, and nearly all of them are worth talking about, and that means tracking down names and trying to remember who did what when, and it can just be a huge pain in the ass. Worth it, though. There is a depth and breadth to the nutjobs, psychopaths, sadists, and flat-out jerks of Lexington and Harlan County and it helps carry episodes along even in their weakest moments. That and the eminently quotable dialogue. Plenty of shows have wit, but Justified gets the relaxed, lo-fi repartee of Elmore Leonard’s style down cold; the casual, tossed off one liners that nobody’s sweating much, that sound, more or less, like natural speech. (It’s been a while since I’ve read Leonard’s fiction, but I wonder if he’s as quick with the pop-culture nods as the show is.) The writers also have a sense of how Leonard builds stories, the way they build in fits and starts, looking at a distance like a conventional thriller but never fitting together in quite the way you expect. “Plot” in a Leonard novel is mostly just people bumping into each other until someone pulls a gun.
There’s a fair bit of gun-pulling in “Money Trap,” an entry with more focus than last week, but one that still feels at times like a stalling game to hold back the mystery of Drew Thompson. Raylan gets some marching orders from Art about where to go next—the ex-sheriff Hunter, and then a quick trip to prison to talk with dear old Dad—but before he can get to work, he gets some bad news: Sharon Edmunds, the bail-bondsman we briefly saw naked at the start of the season, is dead. Jody Adair, the “asshole” Raylan tracked down in that first episode, managed to escape her custody with some help from Kenny (Michael Gladis, who gives good arty idiot), but not before he strangled her partner and shot her in the throat. All of this was six days ago, and the bodies have just been discovered. Raylan, having something of a personal investment in all of this, decides it’s his job to track Jody down again. Edmunds death is a nasty shock, but the idea of spending another hour running down the same guy didn’t immediately jump off the screen at me. Even with Paul Kinsey, Auteur, at his side, the plotline is played out before it gets started.
And, for much of the episode’s running time, it basically is. First Raylan shows up at Jody’s ex-wife’s house, only to run into one of her friends, a hottie graduate student named Jackie Nevada who takes an immediate shine to Our Man Givens. As is always the case on this show, Jackie has a colorful backstory full of gambling and unfortunate names, and she and Raylan make with the banter as Jody runs around town, trying to figure out the combination to a certain safe so he can make himself a rich man. As with last week, there’s not a ton of urgency to this; the story has some weight behind it because Raylan had a connection to Edmunds, but apart from a few intense minutes at the beginning, Jody isn’t the most invigorating of threats. The most interesting thing about him is his connection to Kenny, a porn director who doesn’t seem to realize that officers of the law can read license plates. I kept expecting Jody to turn on the moron and shoot him, but the seemingly inevitable betrayal never arrives. Jody even leaves Kenny with a video message to show Raylan when he finally comes by, and it’s only here where Jody’s story picks up a bit.
Because Jody, it turns out, is a murdering moron, but one with artistic ambitions. Or maybe not artistic, exactly, but the man has an image, and realizing Raylan is on his trail has him determined to kill the marshal for humiliating him earlier. Like nearly everyone on the show at one point or another, Jody thinks he’s a bad-ass; and like everyone, he can’t always live up to his own legend. One of the reasons Justified has such a rich ensemble is that the characters are smart enough to pursue their own agendas—which means, in effect, that they’re smart enough to get themselves in a position to do something really stupid. No one is immune to the stupidity, either. Raylan, for all his arrogance, still gets his ass kicked every now and again, and as sharp as Boyd is, he doesn’t know everything. And Jody, who is scary enough to murder people, is also a braggart so caught up in his his delusions of grandeur that he thinks he and Raylan have some kind of destiny. But this only goes so far. While the lack of tension hurts the Jody chase somewhat, it also gives the final scenes a sort of weary inevitability. When Raylan finally confronts the guy, there’s no question who will win when it comes to drawing down, and not just because Raylan is played by the actor with his name in the credits. Jody is playing outside his pay grade. As much fun as it must be to trade quips (and more) with Ms. Nevada, there are still three corpses at the end of this pointless mess, and it’s gotta be tiring. Even Nevada, a charmer if there ever was one, is (probably) on the take. Not that that stops Raylan from shacking up with her.
Meanwhile—and it feels like a “meanwhile” too—Boyd and Ava’s adventures in the lives of the rich and hedonistic (along with Johnny’s discovery that Colt is full of shit) could’ve been ported over from a different series, the way Law & Order franchises used to do crossovers. The two plots are connected, slightly, by the ongoing hunt for Drew Thompson, the throughline that’s been holding the season together, but despite their best efforts, neither Boyd nor Ava make much progress in the hunt. Tillman’s shindig is about what you’d expect, full of middle-aged lechers getting drunk and making passes at each other, and unsurprisingly, Boyd and Ava don’t exactly fit in. Yet some folks make an active effort to ensure the two are welcome, to a degree that’s suspicious until the other shoe drops. Mrs. Tillman takes Ava aside, and flat out tells her that the women run everything, which is obviously the next step in Ava’s slow evolution into Mags Bennett, but with too much emphasis on the “obvious.” It’s not a terrible scene, but it feels abbreviated somehow, like we just got the bare Cliff Notes version because there wasn’t time for more.
More interesting are Boyd’s adventures with Lee Paxton and Gerald Johnson, two comfortably wealthy men who are particularly interested in getting to know the visiting Crowder. The truth doesn’t come out until late in the hour, when Boyd meets with Lee, Gerald, and Arnold, and they tell him they want to kill a man so they can make some money. It’s a colorful plot, but what it boils down to is, these men used to order around Boyd’s father, and now they expect him to fall in line. There’s all sorts of stuff about wealth and privilege, and it’s one of the more interesting scenes in the episode, paying off some on Boyd’s promise to Ava last week; he may want to live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, but the people next door are always going to see him as a tool to get what they want. It’s hard to see how this connects to the Drew Thompson mystery (although there are ways it could), and the stakes for Boyd and Ava are high enough to mean there’s potential here; but at the same time, it pushes against the disconnect that all Boyd-centric stories tend to have, that sense that the writers, having stumbled across a better actor and character than they were prepared for, are still figuring out just how he fits into the show. There’s an old line about Shakespeare saying he had to kill Mercutio, Romeo’s flamboyant, fascinating friend, or else Mercutio would kill the play, and as much as I dig Boyd (and Walton Goggins), I sometimes wonder if a similar situation exists with this show. But we’ll see. So far, this season has been more focused than last year’s—hopefully this will all come together eventually.
That’s the drawback of Elmore Leonard’s work; the stories don’t always come together. Sometimes it’s just a couple hundred pages of build-up that ends in a thud. That hasn’t quite happened on the show yet, and I think it’s because the writers have managed to find a few core relationships to fall back on, in case there’s a threat of the situation becoming too disjointed. Relationships like, say, Raylan and Arlo. At the start of “Money Trap,” Art tells Raylan to go talk to his dad, and the marshal keeps refusing; but in the end, he makes the appointment even before he goes to see Hunter. He tells Arlo he had this minor con set up with an FBI folder full of take-out menus (the actual FBI folder is, as Art says, “rare, vintage FBI bullshit”), but really, he just wants to find some way out of this mess before anyone else gets killed. Raylan has every reason to want Arlo dead, but just this once, it would be nice to cut the crap and get the job done. Earlier, Raylan watches Jody’s (hilarious) mini-movie, but he doesn’t really laugh. He’s got a “the hell?” grin on his face, but maybe something about that movie, made by a man who thought he was some kind of genius, has Raylan in a more introspective frame of mind. People always have plans, and those plans are almost always going to fall apart. Better, just this once, to stop things before they go too far. A man has already lost a foot.
But Arlo tells his son to eat shit, which is where the talks break down. I’m not sure Jody needed to return, but at least we know he won’t be coming back; and he was around just long enough to remind our hero that for some man, ego and rage will always trump common sense.
- I hope everyone noticed that Michael Gladis has a goddamn feather in his goddamn cap.
- I love that the video has end credits.
- Jackie Nevada strikes me as a little too Leonard to be real, if you follow.
- “Baby, you give as many handjobs as you need to,” Ava tells Boyd.
- “I can kill that man as easy I eat a Girl Scout cookie,” says Jody, right before he chokes to death on a Thin Mint.
- “You know what that word means, ‘placated?’” “Yes, I do. But I think the word you mean is ‘pacify.’”—Boyd, dropping some knowledge
- Arlo: “Didn’t I teach you anything?” Raylan: “Not really.”