Because Justified is so filled with colorful characters of the Elmore Leonard school, there can be a weightlessness to it that makes you forget the primal motivations and passions that are behind their actions. The wordless, slow-motion shots of Raylan at the beginning of “Reckoning” are like a cold splash of water in that respect: We’re suddenly reminded that Aunt Helen is not just the brassy, shotgun-toting woman chained to Raylan’s father, but the person responsible for Raylan’s upbringing, and her death is of real consequence to him. Add to that his part in the chain of events that led to Helen’s murder and there’s no escaping the guilt and grief that defines much of this first-rate episode.
Just sorting out the various blood feuds and betrayals that drive “Reckoning” takes some doing, and the writers are smart to stay close to Raylan and let the story unfold through his freelance investigation. Though there’s some lip service paid to the possibility of an angry local killing Helen over the Black Pike deal, there’s general agreement among all interested parties—namely, Raylan, Arlo, and Mags—that Dickie was responsible, lashing out over Coover’s death, his weakened status as Boyd takes power, and his own exclusion from the Black Pike deal. By killing Helen, Dickie gets to strike back in the Bennetts’ longtime grudge against the Givens clan, and prove that he can’t be so easily pushed around by Boyd and his mother. The effort seems suicidal, but he proves to be a much wilier adversary than anyone—not least of all, us as viewers—credits him for being. What looks like a reckless crime of passion turns out to be a savvy act of calculation, making him a major player in next week’s finale.
“Reckoning” is a great showcase for Jeremy Davies, who hasn’t gotten quite as juicy a part as the first episode of the season might have suggested. Dickie looked like Mags’ right-hand man and heir apparent when he put the screws to Walt McCready in Episode One, but he’s looked more like an incompetent rogue for most of the way, endangering the family business in an effort to expand it. (And where is that Frankfort mob anyway? It couldn’t be a red herring, could it?) The scene where Dickie squares off against an angry Mags is Davies’ best of the series: At once assertive, proud, pleading, and diabolical, Dickie tries to make himself heard both as Mags’ son and as a force to be reckoned with. (“That’s a damn good plan you’ve got there, my darling son!”) It’s a critical scene for the character, too, because it forces Mags’ hand and gives him an important ally for his showdown against Raylan.
The ingenious thing about “Reckoning” is that Raylan is a step ahead of his adversaries for nearly the entire hour, only to have things unravel at the last possible moment and through no fault of his own. He recognizes Dickie’s culpability in Helen’s shooting; he can see how Dickie is going to pin the crime on his dim partner Jed; and he knows how to leverage Mags, Doyle, and Arlo’s positions to his get the Helen situation sorted out to his liking, with Dickie in jail (not dead) and the lid back on the Bennett/Givens feud. But as we’ve learned all season, blood ties run deep in Harlan County, and the reformation of the Bennett clan dramatically undoes everything Raylan was trying to do in this episode.
So what’s the finale going to be like? Last year, some expressed disappointment that a season’s worth of intrigue resolved itself in a climactic melee. (Not me, however. A Rio Bravo-like standoff seemed like a perfectly appropriate way to wrap things up, even if it lacked nuance.) But given how sophisticated the plotting has been this season, with several keen criminal minds operating at once, I think more of a burden has been placed on the writers to revolve things more cleverly. (And relatively bloodlessly, too, if it means having most of these characters back next season.) FX has been keeping the finale under wraps, but needless to say, if you have any insight into what happens, please don’t spoil the surprise.
• Mags: “I had every intention of living the simple life.” Mags accounts for her life of crime semi-plausibly.
• A great episode for Raymond J. Barry as Arlo, who gets to show more than his conniving side. Fascinating to hear Arlo’s regret (“I was a lousy father”) and his happiness over his time with Helen, which belies the cloud of misery and scorn that seems to follow him around.
• Curious about whether the scene with Loretta is meant to assure us she’s in good hands or still an active element of the show. Either way, a great scene with her foster mother. (“I sold weed to kids at school.”)
• “You head out now and everyone will think you’re a two-pump chump.”
• Anyone else get a Miller’s Crossing vibe from Raylan bringing Dickie out into the woods? Of course you did.
• “We’ll take care of all that. Don’t you worry. We’ll take care of everything.”