The premiere of Justified’s sixth season is proof of how the awareness of death can focus the mind. Because this is such a densely packed and intricately structured episode, all built around the idea of old ways fading and a fearsome future looming, I’m going to focus on that notion in this recap; for a more general look at the series, with some previews of characters and situations to come, you can read my season-six piece here.
After a lackluster fifth season that often seemed to be spinning its figurative wheels like a pickup in a muddy ditch, the final leg of Justified episodes begins with a chapter that moves with a purpose. Written by Michael Dinner, Fred Golan, and Chris Provenzano, and directed by Dinner (one of Justified’s filmmaking MVPs), “Fate’s Right Hand” presents every major character with a choice of moving forward or staying put. Moving forward means embracing an uncertain future; staying put is a guarantee of stagnation at best, death at worst. And as the title suggests, the story is filled with symbols and portents, none of them reassuring — and it’s amazing, and maybe grimly funny, how often the characters seem to interpret them in exactly the wrong way.
Exhibit A is the late Dewey Crowe. He gets out of jail on a bunch of narrative technicalities and tries to rebuild his life. In the episode’s second scene, Raylan kidnapped a Mexican federale and brought him back to the States, where he revealed details about the massacre in the desert near the end of season five; turns out Dewey, one of the survivors, could give details to the U.S. Marshals and the FBI that might help build a racketeering case against Boyd Crowder, a mission that seems to be the narrative endgame for the series. “We get his testimony, Boyd’s lookin’ at murder one,” Raylan tells his colleagues.
But poor Dewey is too dumb to last the whole episode — or, more accurate, he’s too bereft of larger wisdom to choose a good path in life. He lets himself be used by Boyd for the umpteenth time and gets caught while running a valuable package — actually a gym bag filled with dirty clothes — through a police roadblock as a glorified distraction for the bank robbery that leaves Boyd with a safety deposit box full of documents (that’ll surely prove important later). Dewey wouldn’t have been in that situation if he hadn’t revisited the old, now-deserted whorehouse in search of a six-dollar blow job and found a turtle-dog necklace he’d previously given to one of the twins he was sweet on. (Tina or Mina? They weren’t really twins, anyway.) In the restaurant scene between Dewey and the prostitute turned waitress, whose real name is Abigail, there’s explicit talk of “signs” and fate and how you choose a course in life or it chooses you or something; Justified being Justified, it doesn’t put too fine a point on any of this (save for, maybe, Raylan’s warning to Dewey — “You’re a card in fate’s right hand, don’t you see how it’s gonna play out?” — that gives the episode its title), but it’s absolutely on the show’s mind.
“It’s not like I thought about it too hard,” Abigail tells Dewey, speaking of how she got out of prostitution and into the non-underground economy. “It just kinda happened, like fate or something.” “Well, you saw a sign, don’t you get it?” Dewey protests, trying to explain why he’s back here with the turtle-dog necklace, trying to reconnect with her. “You lost it, I find it, and then I found you. It’s my sign.” If it is a sign, though, we can conclude that either Dewey read it wrong, or else it was a malevolent sign that was likely to lure him to his doom unless he had the intelligence or will to resist it, which, being Dewey, he didn’t.
It’s no accident that Dewey’s blood splatters the same framed photograph that Boyd used to check his appearance in the episode’s first act: a black-and-white group snapshot of miners whose ranks include Boyd’s own grandfather. Harlan County is, as we’ve seen throughout the series, losing its identity as a blue-collar, union-fueled mining community whose workforce gained upward mobility through hard labor. The mines have closed, the economy is in tatters, everyone’s out of work; there’s no way to become rich, or even comfortable, without cutting a lot of ethical and legal corners, or so it seems to Boyd and lots of other characters. Justified has always been a show obsessed with the past, or with a slightly romanticized perception of it, and it’s populated by characters who are stuck in the past emotionally or in terms of their own self-created narratives. We keep hearing about family feuds whose aftershocks still linger, old grudges that define modern alliances, grievances that are nursed for years or generations until they flower into economic or actual war.
Ugly as that reality can be, though, at least there was a structure to it; you knew how things worked and knew what you had to do to survive or get ahead. Now everything seems to be falling apart (the center cannot hold). The dialogue has taken a turn toward the mournful, with many major characters talking frankly about how the old days are gone, Harlan is dying, there’s no hope, you gotta get out and move on if you know what’s good for you.
“Good things happen for those who wait for the stupid,” Raylan tells Tim as they’re tailing Dewey. “I believe that was in the Sermon on the Mount,” Tim replies, referencing the section of the New Testament that comes closest to offering a grand summary of all Christian theology, including the necessity of moving through sin toward salvation and taking responsibility for one’s own moral state. If Justified didn’t have such a light touch, boy, oh boy, would moments like that play as heavy. Ditto the first scene involving Ty, the real-estate speculator and wandering-devil figure, who’s introduced as a faceless fist sifting a handful of dead soil: an image that evokes a line by T.S. Eliot as well as the title of an Evelyn Waugh novel: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” “All things must pass,” he tells Raylan, by way of convincing him to sell the property where his family has lived since 1903. And there’s the conversation between Raylan and the still-recuperating Art, which revolves around the religious upbringing of Raylan’s daughter, baptized Catholic by her God-fearing grandmother “who fears for her mortal soul.” Art reminds Raylan again that he doesn’t have to do things in exactly the way he’s chosen to do them, that there is another way. But Raylan’s not having any of it. “Sometimes it doesn’t go your way,” he tells Raylan, planting the startling suggestion that the hero of Justified might not make it through to the end, that the hero might go out like a gangster, in a hail of bullets, punished for his sins and for failing to seek redemption.
Dewey’s blood on the photo of Boyd’s grandfather says it all: Boyd’s re-immersion into bank robberies is his attempt at One Last Big Score, a means of raising money to get him and Ava out of Harlan and onto a tropical beach somewhere. Of course those bracketing images of the framed photo don’t offer any kind of neat, one-way-to-interpret-it metaphor, because Justified doesn’t do that. We’re left thinking about how Boyd’s lashing out at Fate via the Last Big Score isn’t necessarily a rebellion against change but an embrace of a different kind of same-old, same-old, the choice of criminality over regular work, lawlessness as a moral shortcut to wealth: the old gangster story. You could see that blood on the photo as Boyd spitting on what his grandfather’s life as a miner actually meant.
It’s fun to look back on this episode and think about how many major characters are obsessed with the idea of picking up where they left off, or starting over, or starting over by picking up where they left off; it all gives us a sense of how people frame their own lives as self-created stories that they write themselves, or that they contemplate with great frustration because they’re paralyzed by writer’s block. Raylan is basically finished as a U.S. Marshal and could conceivably just pick up and leave for Florida and be with his wife and child, but he’s sticking around to “finish the story,” as it were, by nailing Boyd. Technically you could say that his colleagues in law enforcement talked him into it, but really, this isn’t the sort of choice on which a guy like Raylan needs much convincing. His decision to stick around Harlan probably has more to do with his fear of being a father and a regular citizen and a non-Harlan resident than with a desire for justice. He’s hiding from his responsibility to be a husband and father, his obligation to move on and change.
In her way, Ava Crowder’s dealing with a version of that same struggle: She could create a new life for herself by informing on Boyd — work with the cops, get a reduced sentence, start over — but she loves Boyd and Boyd loves her, and this is the only life she knows, and what’s she going to do with herself afterward? You can feel her getting pulled back into that vortex even now: The most heartbreaking shot in the episode, besides that final shot of the living, breathing Dewey right before Boyd puts one in his brain, is that point-of-view shot of Ava looking through the lace-curtained window at Boyd painting the white railing on her porch: a vision of Norman Rockwell–ian domestic paradise that neither is likely to enjoy, except in fantasy.
And Dewey, the poor bastard: There’s nothing stopping him from going to some other state and trying to reinvent himself — there are Crowes throughout the South, if season five is to be believed — but he’s obsessed with the idea of starting over right here in Harlan, and picking up where he left off; that the supporting players in his own heroic narrative have assumed new roles in new stories doesn’t have much effect on him. (Interesting that part of the discussion that Raylan and Tim have while tailing Dewey concerns Dewey playing a role: that of a waterskiing Goofy at Disney World.)
I keep returning to that photo of the miners because it feels like the visual nexus of the whole episode. It’s got a touch of that final shot in The Shining, which revealed that Jack Torrance was always the Overlook’s inkeeper: the past repeating itself, or never changing into the future. Also, ghosts: The episode is metaphorically haunted by them, haunted by how things were, or how the characters idealistically believe they were. When Ava takes her smoke break and contemplates her impossible situation, Raylan all but materializes in the background, startling her: “You can’t sneak up on me like that,” she tells him. He replies, “I reach out again and again and I don’t hear from you” — the complaint of a spirit trying and failing to get the attention of the living, or perhaps of a living person reaching out to a ghost. Boyd and Ava specifically reference ghosts and hauntings and the living dead in their conversation after that lace-curtain shot. “If we stay in this ghost town, Ava, together or otherwise, how long you think it’s gonna be before we turn into ghosts ourselves?” “You’re saying that like we ain’t dead already,” she replies.
“I want to go back,” Dewey tells Boyd, his eyes full of tears. “Those were simple days, good days,” Boyd says. “It’s all coming to an end.”