“Reason not the need, marshal.” As Hot Rod Dunham’s former enforcer Roscoe launches into a gloriously tortured extended King Lear metaphor, he starts to make a funny sort of sense. In basic terms, he and his brother Jay are small fries; they only want their rightful cut of all the recent criminal activity and are then more than happy to be on their way. Their crimes pale in comparison to those of Boyd Crowder, Wynn Duffy, Mr. Picker, and Daryl Crowe, Jr., all of whom are now sitting right in front of Raylan and DEA Agent Miller in what the latter quite accurately terms “the United Nations of assholes.” Once again this season, Raylan is distinctly uninterested in the major players who he really should be spending his time chasing, and Roscoe is one of the few people to actually point that out, albeit in a rather nonsensical way. Now, leaving aside the unique interpretation of the deeper thematic content of King Lear, Roscoe and Jay’s argument still falls apart when one considers that they want far more than their allotted due from the heroin deal, and they did assault a DEA agent and kill a criminal informant in order to make it out to Harlan. But even so, why doesn’t Raylan care more about all the other outlaws before him?
There’s a boring but worthwhile procedural reason for this. Boyd and company are presumably only of interest to Raylan if a real criminal case can be built against them, and that isn’t the case. Roscoe and Jay appear to think they have done the lawmen a great service by leading them straight to these criminals; it’s certainly possible that Wynn Duffy and Mr. Picker had indeed dropped off the radar for a while in the aftermath of “Shot All To Hell,” but Raylan always knows exactly where he can find Boyd and Daryl Jr. All of Kentucky and now Tennessee law enforcement are aware that Crowder’s gang and the former Dunham crew have teamed up for the heroin trade, but that doesn’t mean there’s any tangible evidence to back up that general knowledge, and neither Roscoe nor Jay is important enough to help Raylan or Agent Miller in that area.
But that’s only part of the issue. As the two enforcers suggest, Miller is upset about the death of Hot Rod, and the agent doesn’t even let Roscoe complete his threat before shooting him. The confrontation with Jay and Roscoe is personal for Miller. None of his actions in this episode ever quite cross that line into full-on corruption, but his quick trigger and his chumminess with the dying Hot Rod suggest that Miller is what Raylan could eventually become, after another decade of questionable alliances and short-term decision-making blur the line between right and wrong still further. Raylan’s coziness with Boyd is increasingly problematic; no, Raylan doesn’t allow Boyd to excuse himself from the table, but the mere fact that Boyd thinks it’s a good idea to ask indicates how much the marshal and the outlaw have domesticated each other. Boyd never even considers that Raylan might be there for him, even though he was the one proposing everybody just resolve their issues by pulling on each other right as Raylan and Miller walked in. The relationship that Raylan and Boyd share is much the same as the one we see between Hot Rod and Miller, except Raylan has never even bothered to do the paperwork necessary to justify his constant reluctance to go after Boyd.
Indeed, “Wrong Roads” isn’t exactly subtle in emphasizing the similarities between the two lawmen, and the casting of Eric Roberts as Miller is inspired. He projects enough charisma as the DEA agent and forges such a natural chemistry with Olyphant that the two work brilliantly as temporary partners, even before we get into the parallels between the two men. (Plus Eric Roberts is a guy who always dresses for the occasion, which is nice.) Roberts doesn’t portray Miller with precisely the same energy as Timothy Olyphant plays Raylan—too much of an overlap between the performances would make the character’s narrative function a little too on-the-nose—but Roberts brings out that same smartass approach and general boredom with authority, even the underlying motivations for such behavior appear slightly different from those of Raylan. Wisely, “Wrong Roads” waits until the pair’s final scene together before revealing the biggest similarity between the two, as Miller admits he never makes time to see his family either.
What’s troubling then is Miller’s ultimate fate. After all, while it’s not confirmed that he died when Dewey Crowe hits him with the tow truck, his odds of survival are not good. The decisions he makes en route to that probable death are all those that Raylan might well have made in the same situation. Miller never even considers calling in backup, instead taking on a pair of desperate heroin smugglers on a deserted road in the middle of the night because, well, he might not get a better chance than that. When the reliably psychotic Danny Crowe started blathering about the 21-foot rule, Miller dismisses it as internet bullshit, but he is still prepared to humor him by holstering his gun. But the real mistake comes when Dewey made his own move; Miller figures he could incapacitate the driver before the tow truck hits him, when a less cocksure agent likely would have thrown himself out of the way of the accelerating vehicle. Again, Raylan could have made any of those same decisions, and the only reason he might have survived where Miller died—beyond the fact that Raylan is the hero of the television show Justified, so he’s afforded a certain immunity—is that Raylan is still at the peak of his skills.
All of Raylan’s macho, old-school lawman crap works because he is at the absolute top of his game, but that means he could be a liability the second he starts to slip, either physically or ethically. That’s especially true if, like Miller, he’s too damn ornery to recognize he’s losing his edge before it’s already too late. Art recognizes this essential truth about Raylan in the lone scene at the Lexington office, as he begrudgingly accepts that everything has worked out perfectly for Raylan yet again, with the DEA moving to bring in Raylan on their heroin investigation. The scene’s big line has been a long, long time coming, but it’s still no less sad when Art officially gives up on Raylan: “I tell you what to do, you do whatever you want to do, somehow it all works out, and I’m the dumbass losing sleep over it.” The only power over Raylan that Art has left is to leave his status as a marshal up in the air. Just because this world always seems to play by Raylan’s rules—again, the man is the protagonist, so he’s accorded some narrative benefits—doesn’t mean that Art has to. In the larger context of the show, Art’s refusal to engage isn’t necessarily the strongest choice, as it yet again delays a real conversation about the Nicky Augustine business, but at least their conflict has moved out of the realm of pure, passive-aggressive silence.
While Raylan and Agent Miller are the undeniable focus of this episode, “Wrong Roads” does make some progress with the show’s criminals. I’m still not sure we’ve gotten to the bottom of Daryl Crowe, Jr., but there’s a very real chance that he genuinely believes a deal with Boyd and Wynn Duffy to become the outfit’s official heroin smugglers will solve all his problems forever. As Boyd points out, Daryl made himself a liar when he and Danny shot up Dunham’s men back in Mexico, and he’s still yet to deliver on the one thing he said he was going to provide. But his conversation with Wendy suggests he’s finally ready to play his actual hand, and it isn’t until Boyd suggests Jay and Roscoe shoot Daryl and take his place that the man realizes just how badly he has overestimated his position. When Boyd tells Daryl that the old offer is no longer on the table, the leader of the Crowes looks and sounds defeated. The question now is how he will react now that he knows Boyd has no interest in making the Crowes part of any family and even less interest in making them part of his criminal enterprise. Daryl has spent the better part of this season slowly working toward this one moment, and the whole thing crumbles in an instant.
“Wrong Roads” isn’t a perfect episode of Justified, though it does represent a substantial step up from its three immediate predecessors. It suffers from many of the same problems that the show has struggled with since “Shot All To Hell,” or perhaps since the beginning of this season. There’s still not really a clear sense of where this season is headed, and the division of screen time between three separate stories makes for some glacial pacing. Once again, there’s only so much the show can do for Ava when she gets so little screen time; she continues to carve out her own sense of power when she coldly orders Boyd to do her dirty work on the outside, but there just isn’t enough time to depict her existence in prison in anything beyond the most cursory of terms. Dale Dickey does some nice work as Judith in the scene where she talks down Ava’s attacker, but the whole scene feels oddly weightless. That’s a terrifying, life-or-death moment for Ava, one of several she has faced this season, but the simple fact that her story is always the third most important plotline on a show that isn’t normally about life in a women’s prison undercuts the natural stakes. Hers is a story that demands attention in order to be developed properly. As a trickle of short vignettes, Ava’s story can’t attain the power that it ought to.
Here again, though, tonight’s episode offers the possibility of an endgame, as Ava’s would-be smuggling partner orders the murder of Judith as a precondition of their alliance. This has been a strange, rambling season of Justified, and the final conflicts still aren’t as clear as they probably should be, considering there are only four episodes left. But “Wrong Roads” takes some steps in the right direction, as it’s now possible to see where the show is head toward with Ava, with Art and Raylan, with Boyd and Daryl Jr., and maybe even with the likes of Danny and Dewey Crowe. And anyway, even if this story isn’t the one that snaps this season into focus, it’s still a great standalone story with a fun guest character. Whatever my bigger-picture issues, those still represent the makings of a fine episode of Justified.
- “Hi, this is Wynn Duffy in 236. Could you send up another pot of coffee, please?... Because this one tastes like my ass on Sunday. Thank you, dear!” Ah, welcome back Wynn Duffy. I damn well better be speaking for all of us when I say that we’ve missed you.
- “At least I ain’t dying in no jail cell like your daddy.” Even in death, Hot Rod Dunham is such a dick.
- The whole business with Boyd killing the nurse’s enemy was a bit rote; we’ve seen Boyd have plenty of people killed before now, and I’m not sure any outlaw has actually pulled over and gotten out to take a piss in the entire history of crime fiction. But then, Boyd was in fine form when dealing with Daryl, Jay, and Roscoe, so he still came out looking pretty good overall.
- I had some thoughts on why I don’t think this season of Justified is working as well as some of its predecessors, but I ended up having so much to say about the particular strengths of this episode that I had to cut them. Hopefully I’ll be able to get back to that topic next week. Whatever the case, I’d still say there’s every chance this season could end on a high note, as season four definitely took some time to click into place. But right now—and I know it’s not necessarily fair to judge an entire season when I still haven’t seen all of it—this year feels like a bit less than the sum of its parts.