Things continue to fall apart on “The Toll.” The body count rises higher. Old arrangements get reconfigured.
As written by Benjamin Cavell and directed by John Avnet, the hour opens with a bang, bang, bang. Art goes to help Raylan’s ex-girlfriend Alison Brander pack so that she can be taken into police protection. An unseen shooter plugs him in the gut and puts him in a coma, in what a doctor later describes as “extremely critical” condition.
That phrase could describe Justified during season five. I’m still enjoying the series. But this is the first year I’ve been watching in which I felt like I had to cut it a ton of slack from one scene to the next and reassure myself that a particular plot twist or character moment wasn’t bad, exactly, just not up to the show’s usual standards.
Consider “The Toll,” one of the season’s stronger episodes but still not anywhere near cracking the Justified best-of pantheon. It takes a whole hour (minus commercials) to reveal that Daryl Crowe was the shooter, and that he did the deed as revenge for Raylan supposedly killing his brother Danny (in actuality, Danny fell into a hole while playing the knife-vs-gun game with Raylan). I’m not convinced that this is a more interesting approach than showing Daryl’s face during the gunfight and then following him as he tried to evade capture and figure out his next move; the strategic withholding of details that later seemed self-evident struck me as another example of this season’s tendency to try to be clever or coy when directness might have resulted in a more satisfying hour.
The revelation that Darryl shot Art comes only after Daryl arrives at the police station with Kendal in tow, ending a brief manhunt by turning himself in. Kendal confesses to shooting. We suspect Daryl coached the boy to take the rap for him before Raylan confronts him with the truth. The very idea of this skinny little kid engaging in a ferocious close-quarters firefight with a trained U.S. marshal is absurd, and one would hope that everyone in the police station conference room with Kendal would know it’s absurd, since they’re all adults and seemingly competent at their jobs; but the confession is still treated (by the cops and the series) as something that could actually hold up in court, and as further evidence of Daryl’s low cunning — which I guess only Raylan, the black sheep in the marshals’ office and therefore not credible, can see? Whatever, Justified.
Maybe next week we’ll find out that somebody else shot Art, and somehow make it believable, and make me eat my words, which I’ll gladly do with barbecue sauce and a side of curly fries. I really do hope that’s what happens. Otherwise this season of Justified will go down as the only one that has repeatedly and unconvincingly tried to hard-sell me on a lead character that was not worth buying, often by making other characters do and say things that, based on previous seasons, we have no reason to believe they’d actually say or do. I never believed that Daryl Crowe could beat Boyd Crowder at a game of rock-paper-scissors, let alone pull the wool over his eyes in criminal enterprise, and by the same token, I don’t believe that Kendal’s confession (if indeed Daryl orchestrated it, and at this point we have no reason to think he didn’t) could satisfy everyone in the department except our cowboy-hatted hero. The sooner Raylan or somebody else removes this disappointingly second-tier villain from our field of vision, the better. Season three’s Robert Quarles, essentially a mass of kinks and grimaces, is Noah Cross compared to this yutz.
What else happened? Wynn Duffy's ex and fluent criminal advisor Katherine Hale (Mary Steenburgen) haggles with transplanted Detroit mob goon Picker over the whereabouts of the drug shipment (that again!) that got halved a couple of episodes ago, when Dewey Crowe bolted during the trip home from Mexico, allowing the feds to confiscate the load. Picker is killed by a bomb hidden in a pack of cigarettes, violently ending the association between him and Wynn. “I may not know a lot about a lot of things, but I do know how to blow shit up,” Boyd declares, “and my offer still stands: half of my half.” Picker’s death puts a period at the end of what now looks like a whole lot of wasted motion: His informant relationship with the federal marshals was kaput anyway, thanks to Theo Tonin fingering him as the gunman that put Art in a coma.
Behind bars, Ava Crowder fears retaliation for her murder of the feared prison ringleader Judith, but an unexpected ice cream tribute at lunchtime suggests that Justified has instead taken a page from The Golden Bough, making the old chief’s killer the de facto new chief. I’m not at all sure where they’re going with the Ava storyline. Now that she’s broken up with Boyd, she’s formally divorced from the main plots of the series; I fear this foretells a classic Western movie-style gunfighter ending for Ava. Maybe in the finale she’ll get killed by her little helper, and the whole season will end with a closeup of more ice cream cups being laid atop a cafeteria table in tribute to a character we’ve just met and will never see again.
As much as I dislike Daryl as a character, along with most of the drug-smuggling and intimidation stuff he’s been involved in, I do like where he and some of his associates have ended up. It’s tangled and fascinating. Raylan would usually deal with a guy like Daryl by getting in a confrontation with him, then either taking him out in a justified shooting or watching him destroy himself (like Mags Bennett) or get destroyed by somebody else (see Quarles, Robert). If he wants to even the scales this time, he’ll have to outsmart Daryl. Fortunately, the evidence suggests that this won’t be terribly hard.
Pity Wendy Crowe and her brother/son Kendal. Her breakdown during Kendal’s confession was one of the season’s more affecting moments, and it does introduce a quietly tragic dimension to the series as the season draws to a close. As I’ve written elsewhere, Raylan has a Galahad complex thanks to his own violent upbringing in the company of criminals. By instinctively trying to save endangered women and children, he’s in some sense trying to rescue the part of himself that was damaged, perhaps irreparably, as a child.
The circular nature of abuse — the way that psychic trauma and emotional disfigurement get handed down over the generations — is encoded, quite messily, in the relationship between Art, Raylan, Kendal, Wendy and Daryl. Daryl is a brother who’s also an abusive father figure to Kendal, trying to raise him not to be a “fag” or a “pussy.” There are times when the dialogue or lighting will highlight his faint resemblance to Raylan’s father (as he might have looked when Raylan was about Kendal’s age). Art often carries himself as a sort of brother-father to Raylan, laying down the law when necessary, and there’s a scene in this episode in which Raylan and Art’s temporary replacement describe Raylan as the office’s “problem child,” a term he first heard Art use when he was on assignment in Atlanta to “babysit” another department. Ironically, of course, this week Kendal confessed to a shooting that might not have been carried out successfully by his bad father-figure Daryl had Raylan been there by Art’s side when the bullets started flying. The only reason he wasn’t there is because of the bad blood between him and Art, which is the direct result of Raylan’s “problem child” behavior.
So when we look at Raylan at this moment, we’re seeing a grown-up problem child who blames himself for the shooting of a good father whom he’d petulantly treated like a bad father (an obstacle, an enemy). The legal impact of the shooting has been absorbed by another “problem child,” Kendal, whom Raylan has been trying to rescue from a criminal family for several episodes now, and failing. This is the stuff of tragedy. It's so complicated, involving so many ultimately blameless victims doing stupid, violent things due to pathology and conditioning, that it’s hard to hate any of the participants. All you can do is sit there and watch things get worse and worse.
I don't know about the rest of y'all, but I find it more fascinating to watch, and live with, than the internal feuding of the Crowes, or the stuff about Detroit and Boyd's foray into the drug business. There's a beating human heart in there somewhere, and Justified has been too preoccupied with criminal plots and counterplots to really show it to us.
Odds and ends
- I have a sinking feeling that Justified is preparing us for the exit of Nick Searcy, via Art’s death, transfer or forced retirement. I know they've been hinting that he'd retire soon, and I realize his relationship with Raylan is a lot less pleasant than it used to be (believably so). Still, I hope he's not just being given the heave-ho because he's been an asshole on Twitter. I can't imagine myself enduring even five minutes in a political discussion with Nick Searcy, but the man sure can act.
- That said, if Erika Tazel's Rachel Brooks takes Art's place, it'll soften the blow of losing Art. Her character never took any crap from Raylan, either, and I like her straight-ahead.