And now we settle in for the long haul.
If you’re like me and were wowed by last week’s debut, “Riverbrook” feels a bit like the final shots of The Candidate or The Graduate: Something exciting and momentous has happened, but where do we go from here? For Graham Yost and his writers, that means setting aside the Elmore Leonard crutches—“Pilot” covered Leonard’s story “Fire In The Hole”—and learning to walk on their own. So the second episode is a crucial indicator: How adequately can the show imitate Leonard when it can no longer adapt him? How will the overarching story move (or not) toward the indefinite horizon of an open-ended television run? What kind of show is this going to be, anyway?
I’ll confess to feeling a bit of a letdown this week as Justified transitioned from the arresting, near-perfect pilot to the more workmanlike, nuts-and-bolts—albeit satisfying—cop show that it became this week. I think it’s reasonable to expect the writers to balance self-contained episodes like “Riverbrook” with more serialized hours, but Week Two strikes me as the wrong time to slow down. There are so many lingering questions about Raylan, his past, his relationships with various Kentuckians old and new, and the fallout over his back-to-back shootings that I’d have been happier if the show had not thrown on the brakes and punted so many of those issues down the road. Nevertheless, this is a marathon, not a sprint, and “Riverbrook” proved the show could settle just fine into a week-to-week groove.
Nevertheless, there is some forward movement here and there, starting with Raylan visiting the Federal Detention Center in Lexington, where we discover that Boyd is indeed still alive and ready to torment his old workmate some more. (Raylan regards Boyd’s revelation—“God was acting through you, through your gun, to get my attention”—with the appropriate measure of skepticism.) Raylan also gets to learn first-hand why his cohorts at the U.S. Marshals’ office dread prison transfer duty, as Boyd’s redneck buddy pelts him with racist invective and takes them on a wild ride. (Guessing it’s not common practice for prisoners to drive themselves in that situation. Is there any explanation for this, other than Raylan being the unconventional dude he is?)
But the bulk of the episode is devoted to Raylan on the job, here trying to apprehend the bassist for prison bluegrass outfit The Big House Boys, who has fled (along with the drummer) the authorities after a BBQ gig. The big mystery is why the bassist, named Cooper, would bother escaping when he had only a few months left on a 15-year sentence. Raylan has no trouble finding Cooper, but capturing him is another matter. Their tense showdown in a convenience store is another great lesson in how Raylan applies the law. He’s very relaxed and conversational; it’s telling that he feels more at home with the criminal element (witness Boyd) than the law-abiding type. He even fires off a really good joke, worthy of Leonard. (“How can you tell there’s a bad drummer at your door? Knock speeds up.”)
Turns out Cooper hid the loot under the floorboards of a house in development and wants to stop his stripper ex-wife and her new beau/relation (“it ain’t like we’re first cousins”) from getting there first. The three enter into a tense arrangement: The ex’s boyfriend knows a thing or two about disarming burglar alarms, which he’ll do if Cooper shares a cut of the money. And since none of the three are “honor among thieves” type, we’re really just waiting for things to unravel.
“Riverbrook” has a plot that’s more or less boilerplate cop show stuff, elevated by many of the elements that made the pilot so distinctive—a great sense of local color, Olyphant’s tremendous charisma as Raylan, and lots of flavorful dialogue. Yost, who scripted this week’s episode as well as the pilot, doesn’t strain to outdo Leonard, but he has the voice down cold, and he fires off some sharp colloquialisms and one-liners. For now, I guess we’ll just have to let the show inch along at its own pace.
• Among the overarching developments, I somehow neglected to mention more of the white-hot chemistry between Raylan and Ava, who sneaks into his motel room. Raylan needs every bit of discipline he can muster to keep from “getting amorous” with a woman who, among other things, was a witness to his latest shooting. (Another contender for line-of-the-night: “Do you know why the Pentecostals don’t have sex standing up? It could lead to dancing.”)
• Still more inference about Raylan’s father Arlo. At some point very soon, the writers are going to stop suggesting and start revealing.
• Okay, yet another line-of-the-night contender. Art to Raylan: “Put it like this: If you was in the first grade and you bit somebody every week, they’d start to think of you as a biter.”