After Justified launched its first season with “Fire In The Hole,” an exceptionally strong pilot by any measure—and the one episode explicitly based on an Elmore Leonard short story—I started my review of the comparatively lackluster second episode thusly:
“And now we settle in for the long haul.”
Point being, this is a television show about a lawman in Kentucky, it’s got an open-ended run, and some hours are just going to be of the case-of-the-week variety. Still, I confess, it was a little deflating, given all the momentum and intrigue coming out of the pilot, to see Justified settle so quickly into what looked like just an above-average cop show. It righted itself as the season progressed and the serialized material started to eclipse the episodic stuff, but I know several people who loved the pilot, stuck around for an episode or two, and stopped watching the show altogether.
“The Life Inside” finds the show settling into the season, too, but it strikes me as an improvement on all fronts, supporting a satisfying and thematically compelling self-contained A-plot with a lot of intrigue at the margins. So while we don’t spend a great deal of time with any of the principles—Boyd, Mags, Aunt Helen and Arlo, Winona, et al.—there’s enough to give the show a forward momentum that it didn’t have at the same point in season one. Perhaps that’s just a luxury of having a season two at all; no doubt creator Graham Yost and his writers felt an obligation to hook casual viewers early in the show’s run without confusing them with ongoing storylines. Now they can still involve non-fans in a transport-gone-wrong story while parsing out enough information to keep longtime viewers on the hook.
Let’s start with the main plot first: We know from every movie or TV show ever produced about prison transfers—including one from an episode in Justified’s first season—that prison transfers always get mucked up. (Yes, this one is just a trip to the doctor's office, but the same rules apply.) Out in the open, prisoners have that much thinner a wall between themselves and freedom and the outlaw friends to back them up. One of the great touches in “The Life Inside,” which follows the botched transfer of a pregnant inmate, is that Raylan immediately recognizes trouble before it happens. Just a quick scan of the obstetrician’s office leads him to suspect that the lone, bearded man in the waiting room could be a problem, but there’s nothing he or his partner Tim (the underutilized Jacob Pitts, finally getting some action) can do about it.
The scam has many twists and layers to it and was appreciable most for showing where some criminals draw the line and some don’t. We learn that the ringleader of this operation has kidnapped the inmate with the intention of selling the baby and killing the mother, all with the approval of the prison guard who knocked the woman up and doesn’t want the news to get back to him. The ringleader has brought along a man with medical experience who’s willing to help with the birth and take a cut of the money from selling the baby but balks at the idea of killing the mother, too. Kidnapping and black-market baby trafficking are one thing, murder is another. This sets up a tense standoff between the two men, amplified when Raylan and Tim get their location from the prison guard and get themselves in the sort of standoff that Raylan is better skilled than anyone at ending.
(We’re reminded again of how Raylan really does back up his words with action. His little speech about the “apricot”—a sniper’s term for a shot aimed at the medulla oblongata, which makes it impossible for a target to react after being shot—isn’t just tough talk, meant to intimidate a suspect in dropping his weapon. He means it, and when the ringleader doesn’t do as he’s told, Raylan cuts him off mid-sentence. Badass.) (UPDATE: Upon further review, it's Tim who does the shooting. Still badass, though.)
As for the other developments in “The Life Inside,” let’s bullet-point them much as the show does:
• Boyd continues to be a question mark, and I suspect will remain so until much deeper into the season, when his true (and almost certainly diabolical) intentions come to light. For now, he’s an honest man making an honest living by day—working in the mines, as he and Raylan once did—and by night appearing in Ava Crowder’s house. Any thoughts on the latter development? Given the history there, I’m confused.
• Raylan still enjoys his ex-wife’s company, but she isn’t happy with the lack of intimacy or commitment on his part. Though Raylan insists that he’s there for good—and offers his decision to turn down his old job in Miami to stay in Kentucky as proof—Winona legitimately wonders why he hasn’t moved into an apartment on his salary and why he won’t tell her something as simple as what he did on a given day. (“I can’t handle silence.”) Then there’s the matter of her spurned husband, Gary, a sleazebag who isn’t looking to go away quietly.
• In a gloriously funny scene of Redneck Theater, Aunt Helen and Arlo reveal their tense domestic situation. Raylan comes to check on Arlo, who’s gone out of range with his ankle bracelet; turns out Aunt Helen has kicked him out of the house, despite his being on house arrest. Both caution him to leave Mags Bennett alone, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why: Is she just “an old lady helping people with glaucoma and stomach upset” (wink, wink)? Does Arlo have plans to get back in business, as Raylan seems to believe? Or is there some note of parental concern on their part that messing with Mags Bennett isn’t good for anyone’s health?
• Finally, there’s Mags herself, who appears in an early and absolutely chilling scene with Loretta, the 14-year-old girl whose pot-selling father was just killed by Mags and son. Mags summons the girl for a talk, provides her with some apple cider (noting, cruelly for those of us who know her father’s fate, that she’s too young for her famous “apple pie”), and lies to her in a reassuring, motherly tone. Loretta isn’t stupid; she’ll know something is up soon if she doesn’t already. But how can she take on a woman this utterly fearsome?
- • Raylan on the mineshaft: “I’m not afraid of heights, snakes or red-headed women, but I’m afraid of that.”
- • Line of the night candidate (Mags to Loretta): “[You] don’t wanna be one of those girls starve themselves to death because she thinks a man wants to cuddle up with some gristle.”
- • A perfect example of Mags being simultaneously motherly and diabolical: “I’m looking forward to our time together, Loretta,” she says, smiling.
- • Elmore Leonard has griped a little about Raylan still wearing his signature hat. Maybe the writers had him in mind when the inmate looks him over and asks, “Are we going to the doctor or the rodeo?”