Season finale time! Wasn't it just yesterday that Raylan and Winona were goofily talking baby names and Not Karen Sisco seemed like she was going to be a much bigger recurring character?
I guess the occasion of a finale is the David Simon–approved time to talk about the season's success as a whole. No point in beating around the bush: It's been tough for Justified to live up to last season's standard. Certainly this season's crop of villains — a baker's dozen of swirling allegiances who ended up policing each other as much as Raylan policed them — hasn't quite been able to add up to one Mags Bennett. That's not exactly the harshest of criticisms. A TV show is lucky to even get one Mags in its lifetime, and just off the top of my head I can rattle off several episodes that I'd put among the series' best (Dewey Crowe's kidney search; Raylan framed for Gary's murder; that triple-shootout with Pruit Taylor Vince).
But there's no denying that parts of this season have felt meandering, that Raylan has been a secondary character for more than a few episodes, and that the idea of an outsider like Quarles descending upon Harlan and upsetting its delicate criminal balance seemed to wax and wane in favor of the more consistent “Damn That Quarles Is Cray-Cray” story line. These aren't giant problems and they weren't a barrier to enjoying the season for what it was — thirteen episodes of smartly written cops-and-criminals stuff. I guess the question after "Slaughterhouse" becomes: Can a loosey-goosey season like this be redeemed (for lack of a better word) by one righteously severed limb? Well … not quite. But it comes damn close.
So in the wake of last week's shootout/car bomb, Quarles is on the run, Tom the Cop is dead, and Raylan's really pretty pissed about all of it. Quarles ends up kidnapping a nice, clean-cut family from a camping area and taking them hostage while he figures out his next move. The fact that it's a mother and two teen-ish boys adds a layer of menace that's unspoken but always nagging at you. So he calls Detroit and negotiates the terms of his return to the fold. Theo Tonin pretty clearly despises everything about this guy and tells him so, before setting the condition of his return ("return" in this case meaning "you're out of the family, but we'll stop trying to kill you”) at $500,000. Which is clearly, as this season has established it, Limehouse kind of money.
Limehouse really presents himself as the alpha and omega of everything that happens this week. Since his plan to have Boyd and Quarles eliminate each other managed to fail in, like, three wholly distinct ways, he's left to try more direct action. Like using some of that information he hoards so greedily to blow the whistle on Boyd for having killed and buried Devil all those weeks ago. The paranoia over who leaked that information snakes its way through Boyd, Ava, Johnny, and Arlo, and while it's assumed that the increasingly addled Arlo babbled it to Ellen May during one of their dalliances (gross), it turns out that it was JOHNNY who snitched. A secret deal between Limehouse and Johnny to get Boyd out of the way was probably the one combination of criminals in Harlan that we hadn't yet seen this season, and it presents all sorts of possibilities for season four. In fact, so much gets set up for next season here — Limehouse/Johnny; Ava moving into a more actively brutal stage of her criminal development (via a scene of her beating on Ellen May for her perceived transgressions); Wynn Duffy having now made connections to both Boyd and Limehouse — that I wonder if we're looking at a two-season arc instead of just one.
So Limehouse informs on Boyd to the authorities and they haul him to jail. This works out nicely for the Marshals, since it seemingly puts to rest any notions of Raylan and Boyd being in criminal cahoots. It IS kind of funny, Boyd getting caught for killing Devil. Kind of like nailing Capone for tax evasion, right? It's just Devil! Misdemeanor max, right?
From there, the manhunt for Quarles gets serious. After arranging to meet Quarles at a secluded location, alone, Raylan finds Quarles in bad shape: burned from the fire; in oxy withdrawal like WHOA; and holding the youngest of the two boys, Mitch, at gunpoint. Raylan's forced to surrender his weapon ( ... yes, also the one in his waistband) and it's off to Noble's Holler. It's a rare thing to see Limehouse actually taken by surprise, but he's actually quite unsettled to see Quarles stomp into his slaughterhouse with both a U.S. Marshal and a teenage white boy as hostages. This is shit Limehouse don't need. He's also not thrilled about handing $500,000 to Quarles just to get him to leave town. "A half-million ain't getting out your hair money," he says. "That's fightin' money." Too true. He's also not all that moved by the plight of poor young Mitch, nor Raylan for that matter: "No offense, but not my people, not my problem." Raylan, of course, brings up Limehouse's stated desire to keep Noble's Holler left to its own devices. And while I'd question how sincere that desire is, what with this secret deal with Johnny certainly drawing him out into the greater Harlan crime scene, Limehouse ultimately agrees that getting rid of a wild card like Quarles is worth it. So he ... cuts open a pig and bags of money just tumble out. Quarles find this UNSPEAKABLY funny, and not without good reason ("Oh shit, it's a piggy bank!").
But before Quarles can take his money and run, Raylan mentions him killing Tom the Cop. "You think I killed the trooper?" Quarles asks, before Errol steps out from behind a beam and shoots at Quarles. Quarles shoots back at Errol, and a lot more accurately (I'd be surprised if he makes it to next season; particularly since Limehouse had already excommunicated him from the Holler for past transgressions), then slingshots out his tiny little sleeve-gun to deal with Raylan. Raylan manages to grab Quarles's arm in time and that's when the episode's centerpiece happens: Limehouse takes that omnipresent cleaver of his and with one powerful swing chops Quarles's arm clean off, just above the elbow. It is, frankly, AWESOME and a really nice payoff to the Chekhovian foreshadowing all season. But as he bleeds out, he passes one more bit of damning information to Raylan: Who killed Tom the Cop? "Your old man."
So Arlo. It's not that it's un-poetic, what happens with Arlo in the last ten minutes of the episode. He's arrested for the murder of Tom the Cop and brought in to Lexington, where be proceeds to confess — he did it to protect Boyd, and the father-son dynamic of their relationship is underlined by Boyd's conversation with Raylan from his cell. And it's not like it doesn't make sense that Boyd and Arlo would have that kind of bond, but I'm not sure how much of that we actually saw this season. In fact, what little we'd seen of Arlo (mostly jockeying for position with Ava and muttering crazily to visions of Helen) makes the fact that he was used as the bow to tie up the whole season feel not quite as satisfying as it might have. Sure, there are three seasons (and decades of backstory) between Raylan and Arlo, which makes anything that happens between them take on some significance. But they were barely in each other's presence this year. So when we see Arlo make a surprise confession to Devil's murder, falling on a grenade for his surrogate son Boyd, it feels more like a plot resolution than a strongly thematic one.
At the beginning of the episode, Arlo comes to see Raylan, saying, "I heard a cop in a hat was shot. Guess it wasn't you," and by the end of the episode that gets twisted around in a rather poetic way. Raylan makes a surprise visit to Winona at her sister's place, and he explains that Arlo shooting Tom had a more ominous overtone than simply cop killing: "He just saw a man in a hat, pointing a gun at Boyd." It's heavy and it's sad, but it doesn't feel like the culmination of a season's worth of momentum. I guess maybe it speaks to ideas about fatherhood, as Raylan begins to grapple with how he and Winona are going to raise their impending child. But I think the show was going for something a little loftier than what it was able to deliver, emotionally. Again, not the greatest sin. And if it ends up squaring Arlo away and clearing the deck for a whopper of a season four, so much the better.
Raylan Givens Hat Update: It's been a lean year for hat-related drama, but Raylan's Stetson stepped back into focus in a majorly poetic way. Just a man in a hat.
Film Society of Greater Harlan County: Unfortunately, we don't get any scenes with Ava's whores mangling movie plots. But as a consolation prize, we got a manhunt for Quarles that involved a search of the local henhouses. We can only assume they also investigated every warehouse, farmhouse, outhouse, and doghouse (they'd have had better luck checking the slaughterhouse).
The Virtue in Public Service Award: Despite being the beneficiary of one of the more crooked elections in recent Kentucky history (one would assume that's saying something), Shelby informs Boyd that they're square after his phone call tipping Boyd off to his impending arrest, and he's now going to operate his office on the up-and-up. Score one for corruption!
Raylan Givens Moment to Get Us Through the Lean Months Ahead: Wynn Duffy is such a gift to this show. Whenever it feels like Raylan isn't exerting as much control over his environment as he'd like, he can just pay Wynn a visit and scare the shit out of him with his badassery. And certainly, Raylan playing a round of Harlan Roulette with Wynn, brazenly pulling the trigger while Wynn freaks out, will absolutely keep the home fires burning until Justified comes back.