When I say “Whistle Past the Graveyard” was the weakest episode of Justified’s fifth season to date, it’s important to remember that — as I said last week — we’re talking about Justified here, so it’s like saying that you’ve just eaten the least tasty piece of candy in a sampler. Still, nearly everything in this episode felt off to me, even the parts that entertained. And yet for all that, there was still plenty to chew on. We’ll get to the chewy parts at the end of this recap, after the plot housekeeping, which for clarity’s sake I’ll divide into three sections: Ava, Boyd, and Raylan/Kendal.
Ava’s still in jail, and seems more haunted, passive, and nearly broken than before, mainly because she’s incommunicado with her fiancé Boyd as he rushes around down in Mexico. She conspires with Judith, the prison matron and spiritual leader (of sorts), to smuggle heroin into the prison; this requires her to dislocate her own shoulder with help from a fellow inmate so that she can go to the infirmary and talk to the nurse that she hopes would assist her in the smuggling and who eventually agrees, on the condition that Ava get Boyd to do her a favor on the outside. (Was the dislocated shoulder thing necessary, I wonder? Couldn’t she have just gone to the infirmary complaining of migraines?) It’s been grim and sometimes fascinating to watch Ava on her own, struggling to survive in increasingly treacherous circumstances. But I miss the fire she used to show when she was on the outside, and hope she’ll get it back at some point, and that they’re not setting her up for a jailhouse shanking and a tearful farewell from Boyd (and Emmy-baiting performance by Walton Goggins).
Meanwhile, down in Mexico, Boyd and Daryl have to figure out how to dispose of all the bodies they created at the end of last week’s episode — a pile of corpses that includes Johnny Crowder, the fly in Boyd’s ointment since the beginning of this season. The body problem takes care of itself when federales abscond with the truck that contains them, after a funny exchange in which Boyd and Daryl try to convince the chief cop that they’re missionaries. Daryl knows a guy who Boyd hopes will help them get the drugs up into the states, a man with a boat in Matamoros, but Daryl’s skeptical because he and his brother once “tag-teamed” the guy’s sister. Boyd springs this on the dealer at the end of the episode, presumably to gain advantage over (or maybe outright sabotage) Daryl, but it turns out that the guy isn’t that mad and in fact makes a joke about his sister’s promiscuity (if he went after every gringo who slept with her, he’d have calluses on his gun hand). The episode presents this bit of business as evidence of what a clever man Daryl is, but I’m still not convinced that he’s a worthy adversary for Boyd, Raylan, or anybody, really. I’m not sure if this is mainly a performance problem or a writing problem (a bit of both, I guess), but the centrality of the Crowes has been a bit of drag on the season thus far, and the new Crowes aren’t sufficiently interesting to justify (ahem) crowding the original Crowe, Dewey, off to the margins of the action.
All of which brings is to the heart of the episode, Raylan and Kendal, who are connected by a plotline that revolves around a failed father who’s also a criminal. Kendal’s Uncle Jack (Kyle Bornheimer of Worst Week and Perfect Couples) shows up at Kendal’s summoning and kidnaps the boy for a visit to an Ohio amusement park that morphs into a visit to Six Flags in Texas, which in turn reveals itself as a half-assed bit of fugitive meandering by a guy who seems more like the sort of con man that Ryan O’Neal or George Segal might have played in a ‘70s movie. Jack, as it turns out, is really Kendal’s dad, and Wendy is actually his mother; Jack is on the run from a guy named Michael (William Forsyth of Boardwalk Empire and everything else), whom Jack disrespected and cheated when he was scamming money off frackers in South Dakota.
Wendy calls on Raylan to help her get her son back and protect the whole nuclear family from Michael. Her timing is terrible: Raylan, who just won money in a radio contest, is about to go on vacation with Allison to Florida and maybe visit his own wife and child while he’s there. As is so often the case, Raylan cannot resist a request to help a woman or child in need; it’s yet another example of how Raylan’s lawman impulses are projections of his own damaged childhood, which he symbolically sets right by helping other people; the nifty, related side effect of his do-gooding is that it stops Raylan from succumbing to the violent criminal impulses he inherited from his late father and that were further developed through his youthful association with criminals like Boyd. The man is the child to the father or something like that, I guess; it’s all tangled up and always has been. “It gets better,” Raylan tells Kendal at the end. “I ain’t gay,” the boy replies. Raylan clarifies, “I didn’t grow up with a whole family full of trouble, just one. But he was the asshole king of them all.”
Problem is, we’ve seen these psychological threads untangled and examined before, in plotlines that didn’t feel like rejected material from the first half of season one of Justified, when the show seemed inclined to be more like the The Rockford Files: a show driven by lightly dramatic but mostly comedic one-off stories that wrapped up by the final credits. The Raylan-Kendal parallels felt forced (at least compared to the way the show handled similar bits of surrogate parenting by Raylan in earlier seasons, two especially). The revelation that Wendy was actually the boy’s mother felt contrived, too. Not even the sting of Raylan’s getting dumped by Allison (and rightly so!) could make this material feel like TV time well-spent.
What partly saved it were the subtle (or maybe vague) intimations that all this trouble is the product of toxic masculinity and femininity. Those sound like rather academic terms to throw around in a Justified recap, but writer Chris Provenzano and director Peter Werner invite them by setting up a lot of mirrored scenes and conversations that revolve around the idea of characters having misplaced faith, or playacting faith to get something that they want or need. Ava’s skeptical that Judith is really a spiritual leader, and the show hasn’t quite pulled the trigger on that yet either; but that conversation between them near the end tiptoes around the idea that women’s love and loyalty for men is an example of misplaced faith. Judith points out that everybody in women’s prison is there because of a man, and Ava’s no exception. Ava still has faith that Boyd can save her, or that perhaps their love for each other will save them both. Perhaps by turning to a “higher power” the women can escape such predicaments in the future. In this same episode, Boyd wriggles out of a death trap with the Federales by pretending to be a missionary looking for new converts.
On the toxic masculinity front, the Crowe family’s shenanigans play like Off–Off Broadway versions of the sorts of criminal conspiracies that people like Boyd and the Detroit mob and the Dixie Mafia run on much grander scales; all these male criminals are posturers, driven as much by macho pride as by business interests. Justified makes subtle fun of them even as it revels in their one-upsmanship, and it never treats its female characters as mere projections of male vanity, pathology, and trauma, as so many dramas do (even ambitious ones like True Detective). Justified isn’t the sort of series one would normally describe as feminist, and maybe using that word gives it too much credit, but it’s definitely aware of what it’s showing us, and willing to dig a little deeper into the muck. Its intelligence and self-awareness give even off episodes like this one a resonance that more ostentatiously intellectual series lack.