Justified’s mix of short cases, full-season stories, and series-long arcs is one of its special qualities, and one I never want to see go away, especially given that so many of my favorite recently defunct TV shows (Lost, Fringe, and Terriers all come to mind) have done the same. I prefer long-form storytelling when it’s divided into episodes that are memorable in and of themselves. But the last two B-level Justified episodes have shown the downside of this approach: By mid-season, there gets to be such a pile-up of minor characters and blind alleys that the show’s best qualities become more diffuse.
Last week’s “Money Trap” and this week’s “Outlaw” have begun to clear a way through the thicket , via a fiendishly simple narrative device: killing folks. A lot of folks. Seriously, if you’re an actor who had even one line on Justified this year, there’s a good chance that you’ve just been made available for pilot season.
Because of this, “Outlaw” is an improvement over the last couple of Justifieds, and one of the best of the season, held up only by one hiccup in the master-plot that I’ll get to later. A big reason why the episode works so well is that the parade of corpses in recent weeks has raised the stakes in every confrontation. I’ve often felt that too much killing can defuse drama in a TV series, because it’s more interesting to see how people who hate each other learn to live in wary peace than it is to see them just pull out guns and start blasting. Still, knowing that cold-blooded murder is on the table does make even the quietest moment tenser.
Consider one of the best scenes in “Outlaw” (an episode not lacking for great scenes, goodness knows). When Colt shows up at the home of the character only ever known as “Drug Dealer”—or “Drug Dealer Who Used To Be The Brother On Blossom,” if you prefer—we get a funny callback to the the dealer’s last appearance when he tells Colt, “Take your clothes off, make yourself at home,” and we get a great bit of Justified-style street-smart deduction when Colt determines that the gun down the front of the dealer’s pants can’t be in ready position, because the dealer’s “not afraid of blowin’ your nuts off.” It’s neither surprising nor especially meaningful that Colt kills the dealer, as part of a plan to steal his money and pay off a blackmailer claiming to be Ellen May. The twist comes when Colt learns there’s someone in the adjacent bedroom: Mark, Tim’s pill-addicted army buddy. The two men have a friendly(ish) chat about addiction and family—Mark says he feels he “best get clean first” before he settles down, and Colt nods, “That’s smart… I should do that too”—and then after Colt gets Mark’s assurances that he’s not going to say anything about what he saw, he shoots his fellow vet dead anyway.
“Outlaw” was directed by John Dahl, a master of neo-noir who’s bounced between TV and features over the past couple of decades—never making as many movies as he should, in my opinion. While TV is more a writers’ and actors’ medium than a directors’, I’m going to assume it’s not coincidental that the pacing and the performances in this episode are so much stronger than the last couple. Ron Eldard’s been great all season as Colt, but he’s at peak form in his scene with Mark: so calm as he tries to downshift from “menacing” and make another druggie feel relaxed before he dies. In a larger narrative sense, this conversation doesn’t need to happen. Colt killing Mark matters to the overarching plot of season four because it’s bound to get Tim involved with what’s going on in Harlan, but what Colt says to Mark before he kills him isn’t that important. Yet that’s what makes the scene so brilliant: It’s a humanizing moment for both the killer and the victim, and one that makes Colt pulling the trigger at the end more poignant. (Also, I don’t think I’ve written enough about how much I appreciate that Justified tends to lets scenes like these play out at length, like little self-contained mini-episodes, rather than cross-cutting them with other action happening elsewhere.)
What’s also great about Colt’s scene with Mark and the drug dealer is that it shows the character in total control of a situation, which is something that hasn’t happened too often since Colt was introduced. This is developing into a neat little sub-theme for this season: Who’s really in charge? Who works for whom?
That sub-theme is what drives the Boyd Crowder parts of this episode. When “Clover Hill swell” Gerald Johns follows through on last week’s condescending reminder that the Crowder family has always taken orders from the Hill, Boyd immediately starts looking for an angle. “Mind if I do my own formulatin’?” he asks Johns when Johns starts mapping out the best way and time to kill his enemy, Frank Browning. “It’s not my line,” Johns shrugs, making sure Boyd knows his place as “the boy who takes out my trash.” The two men never raise their voices, but they’re screaming at top volume with their eyes, and their choice of words.
So Boyd goes to see Browning, to see if his intended victim is willing to beat the price of the colleagues who want him dead. But while Browning sympathizes with the way Boyd’s new would-be bosses look down on him (something Browning has experienced firsthand himself), he too treats Boyd like a servant who’s stepped out of line. Then Wynn Duffy shows up at Boyd’s bar, reminding Boyd that he promised a week ago that he’d deliver the location of Drew Thompson in a week. When it rains, it pours. Boyd’s a shrewd dude, with ambitions to take the tiny criminal empire he’s wrested from his family and foes and turn it into something legitimate, for Ava’s sake. But making that jump requires him to take jobs and ask favors from people who have no long-term interest in seeing him succeed.
Which is why Boyd places his boldest bet yet in “Outlaw”—and one I fear is not going to pay off to his satisfaction. When Wynn warns Boyd that Theo Tonin has sent down his own assassin—an ice-cold killer who swipes one of Sheriff Parlow’s deputy uniforms and uses it to get into the homes of his targets—Boyd feeds Wynn the names of Frank Browning and another Clover Hiller, Sam Keener, and suggests that Deputy Doom kill them both. Then when an enraged Nick Augustine calls Boyd to complain about the wild goose chase (which ultimately costs Deputy Doom his life), Boyd persuades the Tonin family to get the Clover Hill boot off his neck, and demands that those CH assholes pay him $100,000 each and set him up with a Dairy Queen franchise. The problem with this scheme? As Augustine coolly explains, every favor the Tonin family grants is really “a debt, which we will expect you to repay.” Something tells me that Boyd is about to be ordered to do something that he’s going to be unable to follow though on—like kill Raylan Givens—and that his dreams of Dairy Queen are going to be as dead as Sam Keener.
As I said, I was mightily impressed with almost all of “Outlaw” (and even moreso after my customary pre-review second-viewing), but I’m not qualm-less. What follows enters into the realm of “speculative spoilers,” so if by this point in the season you have no idea who Drew Thompson might be, and you’d like to keep it that way, I’d suggest you skip the next paragraph.
I can’t take any credit for the revelation that the long-lost Drew Thompson may well have remade himself as Shelby Parlow, since some of you fine commenters first suggested this a couple of weeks ago. But everything about Shelby’s demeanor and dialogue in this episode made the Drew-connection seem so obvious that I was hoping “Outlaw” would just go ahead and end with Shelby confronting Eve, and her saying, “Hello, Drew,” or something along those lines. I could be wrong, of course, and it could be that the writers mean for us to think that Shelby is Drew, and that they’re about to pull the rug out. But with Shelby talking this week about how his wife left roughly 25 years ago (or 30, according to Eve), and him telling Ellen May that, “If you pretend to be something long enough, it’s not pretending,” it sure seems like the matter is meant to be settled, which means that teasing it out for another episode or two is fairly pointless. So that’s a slight slip-up. (Maybe. Future weeks will confirm.)
But now back to our regularly scheduled “Outlaw” lovefest. I’ve got nothing but praise for the scene between Shelby and Ellen May, where she talks about wearing other people’s clothes and starting to feel like becoming someone else. There’s some irony to the way that Ellen May is planning to start a new life by selling out the Crowders, who themselves are trying to start a new life (and who tried to secure it by having Ellen May murdered). Much of this season has been about what it takes to make it out of Harlan, and one notion dominates: There are only so many open spots in the departure line, and people must do whatever it takes to secure a place.
Another stellar scene: the one where Raylan goes to see the Crowders and discovers they’re being detained by Deputy Doom. Everything about that scene plays magnificently. It’s surprising and more than a little nervous-making to have the Tonin hitman just be there, all of a sudden, with neither Raylan nor the Crowders fully aware of who he is. And it’s funny to watch Deputy Doom’s mounting frustration as Raylan ignores him and just keeps chatting with the Crowders about their recent engagement. (Raylan half-teases Ava that her habit of marrying Crowders fits that old “definition of crazy.”) Then Deputy Doom makes the rookie mistake of trying to draw on Raylan, and gets gunned down by the Marshal. “Jeez, I hope I got that right,” Raylan mutters.
As good as Ron Eldard is this week as Colt, and as good as Walton Goggins is as Boyd (more on that in the Stray Observations), I don’t want to undersell the star of the show, Timothy Olyphant, who has one of his best episodes in “Outlaw.” Early in the episode, Arlo takes a shivving from former Sheriff Hunter Mosley—in another fantastic scene, full of reversals—and for most of the day, Raylan is preparing for his father to die, while he tries to go about his business, nonchalantly. He has some small hope that Arlo will make a dying declaration about Drew Thompson, and will thus make Raylan’s case for him and leave a legacy for his future grandchild. Instead, Arlo whispers, “Kiss my ass.” Think about that for a second. Think about how that must feel, to grow up raised by a complete son-of-a-bitch, and for his last words to be, basically, “Fuck you.” The show handles Raylan’s reaction well, showing him hearing the news about the shivving at a distance, and then later having him casually mention to his stunned co-workers that Arlo died earlier that day. And as he’s leaving the office to take care of the funeral arrangements—ordered to do so by Art, in fact—Raylan chokes up just a little while waiting for the elevator. Powerful stuff from Olyphant.
So here we are, with the players departing the field in bunches. At the start of this episode, Raylan tries to appeal to a higher code of justice to get Hunter to help with the Drew-hunt, and the former sheriff scoffs, saying that Raylan only pretends to be a lawman because it gives him an excuse to be a violent prick. Raylan doesn’t disagree, but neither does he explain to this con that he’s been trying to change for his kid-to-be. Raylan doesn’t need to answer for himself. He may lack self-awareness when it comes to some things, but he knows he’s a good man, deep down. Boyd, on the other hand, spends this episode taking abuse from rich jerks, and when he flips the script on them, he defensively declares, “I am the outlaw, and this is my world.” He’s owning their scorn, even though he too is trying to change. There are five episodes left in this season, and as the chaff keeps getting culled each week, almost certainly the lawman and the outlaw will remain in play, on a course for a confrontation. And when that happens, it’ll be interesting to see which man will be the most faithful to the parts they’ve assigned to themselves.
- Ladies and gentlemen, a hearty round of applause for Walton Goggins. Am I right? So, so good this week. So cool when Boyd tells Wynn that meeting with him is like sitting in the assistant principal’s office, and so much cooler when gets cocky with the Nick “you have 30 seconds” Augustine and says, “Now how’m I doin’ on time?” That line was the funniest of the night, and (as always with Justified), it’s not like it didn’t have some competition.
- Another big development in this episode: In between extorting $20K from Colt by pretending to be Ellen May, Johnny Crowder gets the word from Wynn that it’s time to take out his cousin. But, similar to how Augustine warns Boyd, Wynn warns Johnny: “Remember, you asked for this.”
- I thank Zack for his fine service in Second Opinions week. I would’ve given “Money Trap” a “B” as well, mainly because it felt very disjointed to me, and Napier’s party was kind of a letdown. (Great ending to the episode, though.) I was reminded of how disappointing the party was when Frank Browning talked about how Gerald Johns and his ilk really only care about keeping Browning’s wife Tricia in play for swinging. Given how much everyone talks about the wife-swapping in Clover Hill, I expected more decadence at Napier’s. Perhaps there’ll be more to this storyline later.
- For example, I wonder if Eve has any association with the perversions of Clover Hill. Why else would she give Raylan 27 names to investigate—one of whom is dead by the end of “Outlaw”—unless she’s looking to exact some revenge? Does this perhaps have something to do with the string of burglaries at the homes of Eve’s clients?
- The drug dealer can give you $20,000 in singles if your plan is to make it rain at The Lobster Box
- Do you think that Tonin’s assassin’s cell phone has one of those apps where if he scans the face of five of his victims, he gets half off an entree at a local eatery?
- Words to live by, from Raylan to Tim: “Don’t say shit unless you know for sure it helps.”