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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Justified: “Kill The Messenger”

Illustration for article titled Justified: “Kill The Messenger”

“It wasn’t Barkley. And I can tell you that for a fact.”

When Raylan said those words to Art at the end of last week’s “Shot All To Hell,” it sure seemed as though the episode was ending on a cliffhanger, with tonight’s episode dealing with the fallout of the conversation that would inevitably follow such a statement. But that isn’t what happens. “Kill The Messenger” picks up the story sometime later—long enough for both men to change clothes, at the very least—with a furious Art punching Raylan in the eye.  As Art silently walks away, Raylan nods, as though this all worked out just the way he wanted it to. Because the matter is never directly discussed throughout the rest of the episode, we can only speculate here about Raylan’s thinking. The most likely guess is that Raylan realized back in the office that Picker gave Vazquez the wrong name so as to retain the option of blackmailing Raylan later on. Such a scenario could only end with Raylan murdering Picker, turning himself in, or becoming a dirty cop; in all eventualities, his life would be destroyed.

Instead, Raylan chooses the precise combination of words so that he tells Art the truth without technically incriminating himself. If justice is to be served here, Art has to be the one to initiate the investigation. Raylan has forced his boss into a situation in which he must decide whether or not to destroy his department on the night of his career-making triumph. What was once the personal corruption of a single deputy marshal has now been institutionalized; indeed, making Art complicit in this whole mess might be the most despicable thing Raylan has yet done. But I can only draw such a conclusion based on the subtext of “Kill The Messenger,” because the whole point of the episode is that the characters can no longer discuss the Nicky Augustine situation. That refusal to engage directly with Raylan’s mess could feel like an act of cowardice on the part of Justified, especially when Raylan spends tonight’s episode chasing after the Crowes as though nothing has changed. The lack of follow-up on last week’s final scene might constitute a worrying sign that the show itself isn’t willing to face the consequences of its characters’ actions, at least not in the sixth episode of a 13-episode season.

I don’t think that’s the case, although tonight’s storytelling decision does put considerably more pressure on Justified to deliver the goods when that shit storm of biblical proportions finally hits. The reason I’m willing to go along with this is that, by delaying the narrative fallout of Raylan’s choices, “Kill The Messenger” is able instead to explore the thematic and character-focused implications. And that isn’t just to do with Raylan: Indeed, Ingrid Escajeda’s script uses this opportunity to reveal a fundamental difference between the show’s two most underused characters. Neither Tim nor Rachel is fooled by Art’s lame excuse for his hand injury, but the former approaches the matter without a hint of subtlety. He refuses to let the matter go unaddressed at the department meeting, barely even bothering to insinuate that Art and Raylan are full of crap. The look Tim gives as everyone else walks away from the issue suggests he isn’t inclined to let the matter lie. It’s a small moment, admittedly, but it’s enough for me to declare him the very early favorite to somehow trigger the inevitable investigation.

Rachel, on the other hand, is more willing to rely on the working relationship she has forged with Raylan over the past five seasons. From the outset, Raylan is on his guard, pointedly allowing her to be the one who says what he intends to do to Danny Crowe; the man is getting a little too good at avoiding incriminating statements. Their final conversation while coming back from Harlan illustrates one benefit of Raylan refusing to discuss his business, as he’s now willing to open up about anything else instead. He’s suspicious enough to think that Rachel accompanied him in order to catch him doing something wrong—a logical enough assumption after how Tim responded to his and Art’s bruises—but he later admits that he thinks the world of her. That admission is primarily setup for his refusal to say anything about the matter at hand, but it also works as a character moment, an acknowledgment that these characters mean something to each other, even when the show’s Harlan-centric plotting pushes Raylan’s colleagues to the periphery. It’s early days yet, but the episode suggests that, when the shit storm does come, Tim and Rachel won’t be forgotten, and that can only be a good thing.

While Raylan deals with his own assortment of damaged partnerships, Boyd is forced to confront the tenuousness of his many criminal alliances. Once again, Boyd is compromised by decisions he made way back in the first season, as Gunner and Gretchen Swift’s issues with him trace back to his brief period as a preacher. This is the great danger of Boyd’s constant, opportunistic reinvention. Gunner and Cousin Johnny bought into messages that Boyd no longer believes in—perhaps never believed in—and both are now desperate to hurt him for his betrayals.


Compounding the problem, Boyd must now enlist allies he has not had time to get to know. A big reason why Boyd has always succeeded against superior competition is his innate understanding of Harlan County, but none of his current partners in crime—Wynn Duffy, Mr. Picker, the Mexican cartel, and now the Crowes—are from Harlan. Daryl Crowe Jr. and Mr. Yoon appear to share Boyd’s pragmatic approach to criminality, but both have far more volatile elements standing behind them. The threat of the Mexican cartel’s retribution is a particularly effective bit of plotting, as it clarifies the narrative stakes for Cousin Johnny’s takeover of Hot Rod Dunham’s operation. If Boyd and Johnny get their big showdown while trying to conduct the heroin deal, all hell is going to break loose about five times over.

Boyd and the Crowes’ takedown of Gunner and his skinheads plays as a triumphant moment for Boyd, punctuated by his parting order: “Now, Carl, get my goddamn money.” But that sense of victory is fleeting, as the story shifts back to the state prison to remind us why Boyd was working with Neo-Nazis in the first place. Sitting there on her bunk, Ava can’t know that Boyd has now neutralized Gretchen, and it doesn’t really matter either way. The rage of vengeful skinheads is something worth fearing, to be sure, but her vulnerability runs deeper than any single threat. Lockup was bad enough, but at least Boyd was willing to put in an appearance. Ava’s decision to chop off her hair is a relatively calm, measured response to the hell that she now faces, but it’s still an admission of defeat, of hopelessness. It almost would have been better if Ava had used the razor to go after Gretchen. Sure, it would have been pointless, given Boyd’s intervention, and it probably would have ensured that Ava would never get out of prison. But at least that would have been proof that Ava still had some fight left in her. It’s understandable why it’s happening, but the Ava we once knew is starting to slip away, perhaps forever.


I mentioned earlier that “Kill The Messenger” uses Art and Raylan’s uneasy silence to explore the show’s thematic elements. To that end, the last scene between Raylan and Alison is just about the most on-the-nose examination of Raylan in the show’s history. It’s a scene that wins no awards for subtlety, with Alison openly musing on whether or not Raylan is a hero, but Justified has earned the right, after five seasons, to the occasional bout of obviousness. For his part, Raylan remains unmoved by these deep, probing questions, with Timothy Olyphant’s inflections suggesting indifference tinged with just a hint of self-loathing. Raylan is no more given to introspection now than he was before Art punched him in the eye, but his opinion of himself does seem to have changed for the negative. At last, Alison articulates what we’ve known about Raylan all along: “I can tell you’re a man who would run into a burning building without batting the eye. Thing is, I think you’re the one setting the fire.” That’s enough to make Raylan a hero, no question. But it also means he isn’t just a hero; he’s something else as well. The task for Justified as it enters the second half of this season is to figure out just what that something else is.

Stray observations:

  • “You know I’ll follow you anywhere, Boyd, but it seems to me it won’t pay to go directly at them when they’re casting a shadow this much bigger than ours.” Credit where it’s due: Boyd has significantly upped the quality of his henchmen in terms of both loyalty and intelligence. Jimmy shows nice, consistent competence throughout the episode—I realize the line I quote isn’t that interesting, but I’m just pleasantly surprised by the intelligence of the sentiment—but Carl is the real star, handling himself well in a fight with both Danny and Dewey and then later coming up with the perfect excuse for the apparent hostage situation. Boyd has coming a long way since when he had to rely on the likes of Devil. Or Dewey Crowe, for that matter.
  • “We grab him, put a gun to his head, tell him to hand over the money or he’s a dead man.” “You’re a goddamn genius, you know that?” Speaking of our favorite Neo-Nazi dumbass, Dewey Crowe has apparently decided to embrace the Crowe way. Of course, because he’s still Dewey Crowe, his ransom plans fall to shit when he can’t get any reception for his cellphone. I can’t get enough of Dewey Crowe’s comedic criminal enterprises.
  • “Your brother’s a world-class dumbass, so I hesitate to analyze what goes on in his head.” Wendy may think Raylan is a judgmental asshole, but she still smiled when Raylan said that about Danny. Everyone thinks Danny is the worst.
  • “Got yourself a dark, twisted mind, don’t you, Raylan?” I don’t know what the current consensus is on Michael Rapoport’s accent, but I’ll say this: I’m pretty sure it isn’t remotely accurate, but it’s perfectly suited for his performance as Daryl, Jr. The man presents himself as a larger-than-life master criminal, and his off-kilter enunciations add some memorable flair to his coded threats and sly entreaties. I’m still trying to work out whether either Daryl or Wendy is even half as smart as they think they are, though.