If there were an Olympics for burning through plot, Justified would be a front-runner for the gold. At the end of "Raw Deal" — written by V.J. Boyd and directed by Bill Johnson — everything seems to have been re-oriented yet again.
By the end of the episode, Boyd Crowder's treacherous cousin Johnny lies dead on rocky Mexican terrain, along with the henchmen he presumably poached from his onetime ally Rodney "Hot Rod" Dunham. (A marvelous, predictive exchange earlier finds Johnny asking Boyd to tell him how Hot Rod tipped him off. "Some questions don't get answered till the afterlife," Boyd drawls. "The good news is, you'll find out soon enough.") Boyd had gone to Mexico to retrieve his 25 kilos of heroin — he's living the life of a freelancer these days. The hothead Danny Crowe jump-started the massacre when he mistakenly thought one of Johnny's goons was going for a piece. This is but the latest evidence of Danny's instability and un-trustworthiness, and even at his smartest, Daryl never comes across as an improvement. Boyd's decision to use the Crowes as muscle is looking worse by the week. Now Boyd has to dispose of a whole mess of corpses on Mexican soil, after overhearing that the one thing you definitely don't do when in business with the Mexican-Korean distributors is kill Americans while in Mexico.
Raylan, meanwhile, is looking more isolated from the rest of humanity than when he started the season. "I find your blatant abuse of government privilege incredibly sexy," says Wendy Crowe, who's trying to sleep with Raylan after getting his girlfriend, Alison, the pot-smoking social-services investigator, suspended from her job. Wendy's loyalty to her dumb-as-rocks clan is admirable, in a twisted way, and her crusade against Alison (and by extension, Raylan) — built around a supposedly pretty through dossier of Alison's misbehavior — is motivated by a desire to keep her minor cousin Kendal from being taken from the family. But Raylan correctly susses out that Wendy's loyalties might not be as solid as she wants everybody to think. "Help me get Daryl," Raylan asks her, after deducing (correctly, judging from her reactions) that she might have finished her legal education by now if she didn't have to keep putting it on hold to get the various Crowe boys out of trouble.
If only she could keep Raylan out of trouble. His least flattering moment is the scene where he demands that his boss, Art, stop assigning him to shit details (including "walk-ins," which led to him getting tangled up with a one-legged hacker who cheated a gambler out of a quarter-million dollars, and who subsequently nullified the marshal's credit card and otherwise messed with him). After all the shenanigans Raylan has pulled, he's in no position to demand anything. That he'd pressure Art to let bygones be bygones or transfer him drives home what an arrogant and entitled sonofabitch Raylan is. If he weren't handsome and funny (and a good shot), it's hard to imagine his supervisor, or even his co-workers, tolerating his modern-day-cowboy shenanigans for long. The best move for a guy in his predicament would be to stay in the doghouse as long as it took, and maybe poke his head out to ask for a bowl of water now and then. But he acts like he's the star of a damn TV show or something.
Behind bars, Ava has no idea that Boyd's nearly incommunicado because of his workplace drama (which includes being abducted during that bit of payroll one-upsmanship with Johnny in Mexico). She lets another inmate prey on her insecurity and make her think Boyd is drifting away. This influences Ava to seek protection from another prison power-broker, Judith (played by Dale Dickey, a superb character actress best known as the meth-head mom in the classic Breaking Bad episode "Peekaboo"). Judith is the "Heavenly Mother" in charge of a behind-bars religious cult that's secretly funneling drugs into the prison with help from employees on the inside.
Ava intentionally botches her first smuggling assignment when it becomes clear that she's expected to have sex with the janitor who's helping to bring the drugs into the prison; she instead sets him up to get caught. This earns her the instant suspicion, maybe enmity, of Judith, whom she'd hoped would be her guardian angel against the white supremacists who want to brutalize her as revenge against her former white supremacist turned "race traitor" fiance, Boyd.
Maybe a third of the episode is taken up by Raylan's frustration with the hacker (described by deputy marshal Tim Gutterson as "the one-legged, evaporating computer nerd"), the gambler he stiffed, and the muscle the gambler hired to get his money back, a shambling hulk who killed the gambler and kidnapped the hacker's girlfriend. I suppose Justified needs to take a break from long-form drug-drama plots at some point and give us a little one-off story (rather like in the first half of season one, when it seemed like the show might turn out to be less serialized and more individual-case-driven, like The Rockford Files, which it kept threatening to turn into). But this installment just felt weak to me.
The whole season's feeling a bit weak, honestly. The Crowes just aren't interesting enough to serve as anchors, and all Boyd's scrambling about, while fitfully exciting and amusing, has no emotional weight. The only parts that really resonate are the scenes of Raylan continuing to dig himself deeper into a career hole (I love that the show's taking this very seriously) and Boyd's attempts to get Ava out of prison and Ava's attempts to survive there (though the stuff involving Boyd and the drug shipments has proven a pretty major, sustained distraction from all this). Bear in mind that I would never claim that Justified has become a bad show, or that this season is anything less than pleasurable to watch. Every time hear that opening credits theme, I think something along the lines of, "Oh boy, here we go, time to eat some candy!" And a quote from the critic James Agee about the substandard Marx Bros. film A Night in Casablanca seems apropos here: "The worst they might ever make would be better worth seeing than most other things I can think of."
Still, though: We're halfway through the season and it still feels like they're getting warmed up. I hope the back half is a stunner, otherwise this is going to feel like a placeholder between the magnificence of last season and whatever the sixth and final season has in store.