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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Justified: “A Murder Of Crowes”

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The literary legacy of Elmore Leonard, who died last August at the age of 87, is far too expansive to boil down to any single theme, but one of his most important and enduring ideas is that criminals are idiots. Anyone smart and disciplined enough to break the law without ever arousing suspicion or letting his greed get the better of him is likely someone who is too smart and disciplined to become a criminal in the first place. On Justified, the notion of the criminal mastermind isn’t a complete myth, perhaps—there is Boyd Crowder to consider, after all—but it’s damn close. That’s rarely more apparent than it is in tonight’s fifth season premiere, and the introduction of Dewey Crowe’s Florida relations, otherwise known as the world’s dumbest crime family, is only part of that story. On four separate occasions, someone is killed by a person that he trusts, or at the very least considers a non-threat. Sudden, deadly betrayals define “A Murder Of Crowes,” and not one of them is what you could sensibly call rational or well-considered. There’s only one killing in tonight’s episode that suggests any particular cunning or foresight, and there,  it’s actually Raylan Givens who is maneuvered into pulling the trigger.

Fittingly, “A Murder Of Crowes” features road trips to Elmore Leonard’s two favorite settings: Boyd Crowder and Wynn Duffy visit Leonard’s adopted hometown of Detroit to witness the collapse of the Tonin family’s once mighty criminal empire, while Raylan heads down to Florida to investigate the disappearance of crooked Coast Guard officer Simon Lee. Finding himself in the unenviable position of being law enforcement’s foremost expert on the Crowe family, Raylan is tasked with investigating their decidedly underwhelming sugar-smuggling operation, as the Crowes are more than happy to kill each other over raw material for Mike and Ike knockoffs. But then, the goals of Darryl Crowe, Jr., don’t extend much beyond just keeping his family together, which makes the fate of his brother Dilly Crowe all the more pathetic.

It’s difficult to keep track of the myriad ways in which Dilly’s death is pointless. He only shoots Simon Lee because the man won’t stop mocking him for his stutter, but it’s not as though Dilly should even be there in the first place. Simon seems like just the needlessly officious sort of fellow who would have taunted Dilly even if everything went according to plan, but Dilly exacerbates matters by inviting himself along to the payoff and then spending half of the intended bribe at the Indian casino. Most Justified side villains are at least given the dignity of committing their boneheaded mistakes over the course of the story; they are given an opportunity to demonstrate at least a modicum of competence before their stupidity inevitably dooms them. In Dilly’s case, his introduction consists of a lengthy, unapologetic summary of his many failings, followed by an utterly unnecessary murder that he can’t even complete without Machado’s assistance.

That mistake is enough to get him killed, but it isn’t actually enough to get him noticed, as the marshals never even seem to consider that Dilly might have had a hand in killing Lee. Raylan only makes three substantive references to Dilly throughout the entire episode: once when he declares Dilly the dimmest of the bunch (and that really is saying something), next when he needles Darryl  about the family’s connection to Machado, and finally when he asks Darryl how Dilly handled Wendy’s abrupt departure. Raylan is a master of playing with his suspects and hinting he knows more than he lets on, but there’s no indication that Dilly is on his radar at all. Darryl acknowledges as much right before he has Danny kill their brother, as he tells Dilly that nobody is looking for him. As such, his death is an entirely preventative measure; the Crowes actually figure to come out ahead after this particular screw-up, but Darryl knows it’s just a matter of time that Dilly’s idiocy brings them all down. Keeping the family together must trump all other considerations, even if the only way to achieve that aim is to kill a quarter of it. Darryl’s devotion to the concept of family means he’s able to paint himself as a man of principle, even virtue, and the scary thing is just how much he believes his own bullshit, which is why he has the gall to complain about Wendy’s desertion the day after he ordered one of his brothers to kill the other. But, like so many other supposed outlaw’s creeds on Justified, it’s really just a way to disguise his ruthlessness as something nobler.

Still, at least Darryl shows a sliver of intelligence in how he sets Raylan and Machado against each other; nobody in Detroit manages anything that moderately clever. The execution of Sammy Tonin parallels that of Dilly Crowe, but the family’s no-account screw-up can do quite a bit more damage when he happens to be the theoretical leader of an entire city’s organized crime. Whatever leadership skills that Sammy demonstrated when he executed Nicky Augustine in last season’s finale—and those skills didn’t extend much beyond taking advantage of a situation that Raylan engineered—have long since dissipated, and his grip on reality appears to have been lost as well. The would-be crime lord hides himself away in a hellish apartment, one full of inadequately explained sex dolls and chainsaw-wielding torturers. His death at the hands of Mr. Picker could easily be justified as simply acting in the best interest of the family, but Sammy’s disastrous leadership leaves no room for even the façade of principled reaction. Picker kills Sammy to save his own skin, pure and simple, and to make good with a pair of improbably ruthless Canadian gangsters, who are even more improbably played by The Kids In The Hall’s Dave Foley and MadTV’s Will Sasso. (Honestly, between those two, Michael Rapaport as Darryl Jr., and David Koechner as Marshal Greg Sutter, Justified appears to be treating its casting process as an escalating series of dares—it’s hard to argue with the results so far, though.)

The downfall of Detroit and the indifference of the Canadians is very bad news for Boyd, who finds himself without any of the resources he so desperately needs to get Ava out of prison. Last season, Boyd proudly declared that he was no ordinary criminal, but rather an outlaw. Beyond the fact that the latter just sounds cooler, the term “criminal” implies someone who is defined by their opposition to the infinitely more powerful forces of law and order, whereas “outlaw” suggests someone who has set themselves up outside the parameters of orderly society. Boyd was able to exert some control over the natural chaos of such an existence because he always knew when to cut ties and when to find a more powerful ally; he emerged victorious against the Harlan elite by throwing in with Nicky Augustine and the Detroit mafia. But now Detroit is gone, and his carefully constructed illusion of control has been shattered.


Boyd’s troubles are never clearer than in his final scene, in which he begs Harlan funeral director Lee Paxton to help him curry favor with the judge appointed to Ava’s case. Boyd is all out of plausible threats and compelling bribes, and Lee knows it. The businessman uses this opportunity to humiliate Boyd, to offer him an impossible choice, as the only way to free Ava is for Boyd to turn himself in. A smart man—a man too smart to be in that situation in the first place—would recognize those really are his only options and decide between abandoning the woman he loves and making the ultimate sacrifice. A sufficiently cunning outlaw might recognize the only viable third option, which is simply to walk away from Paxton’s offer and hope that the passage of time provides some other opportunity to free Ava.

But Boyd, for all his undeniable genius, is still a criminal, still someone who lets his greed and his rage fuel him. When Paxton insults Ava, Boyd acts on his worst instincts, seemingly killing one of Harlan’s most powerful men. Even if Paxton survives the attack, Boyd has just piled a whole heap of complications on top of a problem that was already plenty messy. For Boyd, there’s just no way that his situation isn’t about to get infinitely worse. He was clever enough to beat the odds for four seasons, but now it appears that the inevitable fate of all those foolish enough to be criminals might finally be catching up to him.


Stray observations:

  • Raylan remains largely on the periphery of this story, although he does get in a pair of reliably fun interrogation scenes with the Haitian and the newly affluent Dewey Crowe. That scene, in particular, is a hoot, as Raylan effortlessly runs circles around the befuddled, naked Dewey Crowe; the moment where he produces a concealed weapon that literally has Dewey’s name on it—which is a very common name, we all must admit—is terrific, only topped by his using it to shoot holes in the pool as he walks away.
  • The more substantial material for Raylan deals with his family, which casts him in a more reactive role. As Greg Sutter, David Koechner dials down his gift for comedic obnoxiousness to provide a portrait of a likeable, well-adjusted family man who has long since mastered the work-life balance that utterly eludes Raylan. When Sutter mentions how he used to find excuses to stay in Kansas City so that he didn’t have to visit his family on the weekend—and, by extension, leave them all over again the following Monday—might help explain just why Raylan refuses to visit Winona and his newborn daughter, but it’s probable that Raylan’s real reasons are far more complex and ornery than that. Or maybe he just couldn’t find the Mario Chalmers onesie that he really wanted.
  • “I didn’t take you for a tennis fan, Mr. Crowder, but the only reason I can see you calling at this hour is to discuss Azarenka’s last match.” I cannot tell you how thrilled I am that Jere Burns is now a series regular. The Wynn Duffy experience is about to enter a whole other level. 
  • This episode is practically bursting to the seams with returning guest stars. Beyond the long-awaited return of Damon Herriman as Dewey Crowe, there’s Stephen Root as Judge Reardon, Matt Craven as Marshal Dan Grant in Miami, and James LeGros as Wade. Speaking of which…
  • “Wow, hey… Raylan.” “Wade.” “Can I get you a blowjob or something?” And they say service is dead in this country.
  • I’ll be taking over the Justified beat for the fifth season. I can’t imagine a tougher pair of acts to follow than my predecessors, Scott Tobias and Noel Murray, but I’ll be doing everything I can to live up to the lofty standards they have set for these reviews.