As the fifth season of Justified hits its midpoint, it’s still not clear what overarching story connects this year’s episodes into a coherent whole. That fact can’t help but drag down this episode; the constituent pieces to tonight’s story are solid enough, but, taken together, they don’t add up to as much as they should. The most compelling aspect of “Raw Deal”—Cousin Johnny’s final, ill-fated play—works well enough right up to the moment he’s shot. Such a sudden, arbitrary death feels true to Johnny’s character, as I’ll get to in a moment, but it inadvertently reinforces the notion that nothing Boyd has dealt this season has really been that important. Lee Paxton, Acting Sheriff Mooney, Mara, and now Cousin Johnny all seemed important, but they all ended up being no match at all for Boyd. The outlaw of Harlan hasn’t faced challenges this season so much as he has faced distractions, and the trouble is that I’m not entirely sure what they are meant to be distracting him from.
Admittedly, there is a relatively straightforward answer to that question: Boyd got tangled up with these smalltime adversaries as part of his effort to free Ava, but at a certain point, he began using these mini-fiascoes to divert his attention away from the fiancé he can no longer easily save. Boyd is still taking indirect steps to help Ava, but he no longer has the time—or perhaps the inclination—to visit her, which means Ava must assert her own identity in the prison. Last time, I suggested her decision to cut her hair was a sign of surrender, which it now appears was at least a slight misreading of the scene; it’s more that Ava has accepted her hellish new situation and resolved to fight as much as she can within those boundaries. Her actions tonight carry similar ambiguity, as she seems to have her own plans to set herself up as a powerful figure at the prison, but I don’t think we can entirely rule out that she really did risk her life to keep from having to screw a guard (not that I’m going to criticize such a decision). Ava’s story could benefit from more clarity; even if the character doesn’t know what she wants, it would be good to have a bit more of a sense that Justified knows where it’s going with her story.
It doesn’t help that each of tonight’s three plotlines are so disconnected from each other, giving “Raw Deal” a slightly airless quality. Ava’s initial acceptance that Boyd isn’t coming does help reveal some of her motivations, but it’s harder to get a handle on Boyd’s state of mind when he seems so consumed with the business at hand. More generally, while it’s not unusual for Raylan and Boyd to spend much of a given season on separate paths, their narratives have rarely felt quite so isolated from each other as they do this year. The one common element in their stories is the Crowe family, but the Floridian brood doesn’t represent the most pressing threat to either of the show’s leads, at least not yet. But then, in the case of Boyd, it’s hard to know who his true adversary actually is. It took him a few episodes to extricate himself from the mess with Lee Paxton and Nick Mooney, but he emerged the undisputed lord of Harlan County. The only person who might have argued that point was Cousin Johnny, and his big play tonight sure seems impressive, right up to the point that it becomes clear that Boyd had him outmaneuvered all along.
Cousin Johnny’s death is fitting, albeit in the cruelest possible way. His arc on the show has always been driven by his need to prove himself Boyd’s equal. That desire has had manifestations both reasonable—his demands in previous seasons to have a more influential role in Boyd’s growing empire—and twisted—his delusional belief that Ava will be his just as soon as he murders her fiancé. His alliance with and subsequent betrayal of Hot Rod Dunham suggested Johnny had his own fair share of the Crowder cunning. But Johnny’s great failure in “Raw Deal” is that he never realizes that the world doesn’t revolve around his silly feud with his relation. A massive drug deal with a Mexican cartel really isn’t the ideal time to play out multiple decades’ worth of simmering resentment. The story of Jemma Wright—beyond serving as a reminder that the show needs to do a high school-set flashback, with all the relevant actors donning deeply unconvincing wigs to play their teenaged selves—is the perfect illustration of how Boyd is just so much more than Johnny, how the latter has only gotten as far as he has because the former has allowed him to. That turns out to quite literally be the case here.
Indeed, a smart criminal would have realized that Mr. Yoon would want nothing to do with someone who would even attempt a stunt like Johnny’s, but then, by definition, a smart criminal wouldn’t try something that stupid in the first place. Johnny had his clever moments, but he was so obsessed with Boyd that he failed to consider Mr. Yoon as anything more than a passive pawn in the war between the Crowders. As such, it’s brutally appropriate that Johnny never gets his climactic showdown with Boyd. Hell, even the slow, agonizing death that Boyd had planned for him upon their return to the United States would have at least implicitly granted Johnny the status that he yearned for all along; Boyd wouldn’t bother to exact torturous revenge on someone he didn’t consider important.
But no, Johnny dies as he lived: He is an annoyance to his dying moment, and nothing more than that. He pisses off Boyd one last time, and that’s the end of his story. I might wish that Johnny could have had a more auspicious exit, if only because David Meunier has done such good work in the role, capturing all the characters’ nuances so that Boyd’s final lines to him ring true: “You know what you could never understand is that some men lead and some men follow. And when you can’t lead and you refuse to follow, you die alone in the desert.” Cousin Johnny was just smart enough to recognize the limits of his own potential—stuck in that middle ground between leader and follower, main character and supporting player—and he has spent the last season raging against that harsh, unfair reality.
But now with Johnny unceremoniously dispatched, who is left to challenge Boyd? Johnny at least gets to continue being a thorn in Boyd’s side even in death, as his corpse and those of his cronies leave Boyd with a mess that only the cartel will be able to clean up. That has all the makings of a distinctly awkward situation, though I wonder how much Justified can pursue a conflict between Boyd and Mr. Yoon’s backers while keeping the show tethered to Harlan County. In previous instances where Boyd has reminded a fellow criminal not to underestimate the hayseeds from Kentucky, he did so on his home turf; his statement tonight to Mr. Yoon, even if he only said it to help deceive Johnny, is rather less convincing when he is standing in a mansion in some undisclosed location in Mexico.
The more logical adversaries for this season’s endgame figure to be the Crowes, who at least have been hanging around since the premiere, but we still only have a vague sense of what each of them wants. As seen in the final scene, Danny Crewe unleashes chaos at every opportunity—although this particular random act of violence appears to be at Daryl Jr.’s behest—and Boyd seems to have learned just how much of a liability he is. Daryl Jr., on the other hand, remains a wild card more in the sense that it’s not clear what his larger ambitions are; we can see the beginnings of a scheme when he apparently directs Danny to kill the henchman, but what matters is what he intends to do from here. He’s the next logical rival for Boyd now that Johnny has been dealt with, but we’ve reached the point in the season where he needs to be more than just another thorn in Boyd’s side.
Raylan’s story tonight, in which he runs down one-legged cybercriminal T.C. Fleming, feels like the show taking a break from the main action. The structure of that plotline reminds me of season three’s kidney-themed “Thick As Mud”—which I will always insist on calling “The Ballad Of Dewey Crewe”—but the more intriguing parts of Raylan’s story occur on the margins. Both “Thick As Mud” and “Raw Deal” find Raylan staying in the Lexington area to pursue a frankly ridiculous case, but the difference tonight is that his fellow marshals aren’t really in the mood to see the funny side of it. Art openly despises Raylan at this point, and Rachel’s feelings don’t appear too different; only Tim doesn’t seem to have modulated his feelings toward Raylan, but that’s because Tim is too busy forging a beautiful friendship with Chris the IT guy.
The result is that Raylan is presented with the sort of goofy non-Harlan case that should provide him with the perfect opportunity to crack wise and look bemused, but his fellow marshals aren’t going to let him cut loose like that. Art is several light-years past the point of caring about how much Raylan loves the audacity of a given suspect, and Rachel has apparently decided the best course is just to shut Raylan out. All things considered, the story of T.C. Fleming ends up working better as an illustration of Raylan’s shifting circumstances within the office than as a story in its own right, in part because Raylan is quite explicitly being blocked from engaging with the case in the way that he wants. If the point of “Raw Deal” is to isolate and undermine Raylan so that he’s forced to demand that Art either forgive him or reassign him, then the story works well enough. But it’s a frustrating road to that point, and it’s not at all clear how Raylan’s story can proceed now that he has trapped himself and his colleagues in this Nicky Augustine-fueled, passive-aggressive stalemate. Maybe it’s time for that shitstorm to hit.
- Much as I wasn’t all that crazy about Raylan’s story tonight, I’ll admit that I enjoyed the consummate jerkiness of Larry Salmeron. Leaving aside the idiocy of threatening to turn over to the police a conversation in which he clearly threatens bodily harm to T.C., he finds the single dumbest way to get himself killed in his decision to lowball his hired muscle.
- “Is there any way to put a reply on T.C.’s blog?” “God no. The technology to reply to a post is decades away.” Also, that exchange was fantastic. Honestly, much I was disappointed with the story overall, I won’t deny that a lot of the little moments worked great, and Chris was fun throughout.
- “I find your blatant abuse of government privilege incredibly sexy.” Another character I’m having trouble getting a read on is Wendy Crowe. I’m guessing we’ll find out fairly soon which way she’s going to jump. It was also nice to see that the show hasn’t forgotten that Daryl and Danny killed their brother Dilly back in the season opener.
- Kendall Crowe is so fed up with his current situation that he decides to reach out to his Uncle Jack. That should work out great, because, if Breaking Bad has taught us anything, it’s that nothing bad can ever come of calling in Uncle Jack.