If I had to make a list of the most consistently satisfying Justified episodes, “Noblesse Oblige” would be on it. It’s got everything fans want from the series, except for a certain quotient of fisticuffs or gunplay, but we don’t really miss that because the threat of violence is so intense that by the end, you feel just as exhausted. Written by Taylor Elmore and Benjamin Cavell and directed by Peter Weller (who also had a heavy behind-the-scenes presence in Sons of Anarchy, which he occasionally acted in), this chapter gives nearly every major recurring character one or more moments to shine, and it ratchets the tension up and down from moment to moment so precisely that you can almost see a sadist’s hand turning the dial.
The episode starts with one of the very best Ava-Boyd scenes: the two of them drunk, flirtatiously lying atop Boyd’s bar. “What I wouldn’t give to be a stripe on that cheerleader’s skirt,” Boyd says after Ava reminiscences about her stint on the high-school pep squad. The alcohol leads Ava to make a bit of an ass of herself later, when Raylan summons her at dawn for a come-to-Jesus-and-start-getting-us-information meeting with her CI handlers. But Boyd will later refer to this as one of the most enjoyable nights he’s experienced in quite some time.
It pays off at the tail end of the episode, when Boyd returns home after his confrontation with Wynn and Katherine. Ava answers Boyd’s worried complaint that he feels like he doesn’t know her anymore by slipping back the bedsheet to reveal her naked body and telling him, “Come on over here and I’ll remind you.” Is she sleeping with Boyd again to allay his suspicions about her motives and prevent him from discovering that she’s turned into a criminal informant? (Serving as his spy and visiting Avery’s pizza joint/secret weed-money storage vault wasn’t enough, it seems.) Is she still in love with him, and drifting back into the criminal fold? Their interactions here have that old-time Bonnie-and-Clyde energy, with Ava urging him to just get out of town and Boyd saying they need one last big score before they can go. As always on Justified, I don’t think it’s all one thing or the other. These characters are complicated, and that’s a big part of what makes them so enjoyable.
“Noblesse Oblige” is held together by a set of cat-and-mouse stories and intertwined investigations. Raylan tries to get to the bottom of Boyd’s bank robbery and learns that his men have been stealing explosives from an old mining colleague, Luthur, via his son Tyler, a pal of one of Boyd’s men. Boyd discovers that he wasn’t actually robbing the real-estate agent Calhoun’s cash in the operation that nabbed the deeds; it was actually about stealing money held by the weed dealer Avery Markham, employer of Ty Walker and other scary ex-mercenaries.
Absolute confirmation comes in the form of Avery and Ty’s visit to Casa de Crowder. The men intimidate both Ava and Boyd and push Boyd into a poker-faced apology that disguises just how mad he is that Avery, who’s known him a long time, has just called him a wannabe badass who’s still a little kid at heart. (“Grown, you’re still just playin’ pre-tend,” Avery says on his way out; the way Elliott emphasizes that first syllable in pretend somehow makes it sting even more.) Avery and Ty are two of the scariest Justified villains in the show’s entire run, and the intimations of supernatural evil swimming around at the margins of the script make them creeper still; there’s a hint of sulfur to Ty’s unexpected appearances as well as his William Blake-ian locutions, and Avery insists on being invited into people’s homes like Dracula. (“No way the invitation-at-the-door bit was accidental,” my friend Jack noted last night.)
On top of all this, “Noblesse Oblige” served up so many great lines that it’s impossible to quote them all here. A short list will have to suffice.
- “Next time you want a slice, order in.” —Avery
- “Talking while I’m in here can lead to unevenness in my facial tone.” —a Speedo-clad Wynn Duffy, speaking to an associate from inside a tanning bed
- “Y’all be good now.” —Rachel Brooks, channeling Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop
- “I like trains.” —Choo-Choo, of course
- Luther to Raylan, reminiscing about their stint working together a couple of decades earlier and how Raylan used to drink everyone else under the table: “You was a skinny little minnie. I never sussed how you managed that.” Raylan: “Poured most of it in the plants when you boys weren’t looking.”
- “I come with no more lofty aim than to apprise you of the situation in which you find yourself.” —Ty, attempting to intimidate Boyd in his own bar, and sounding rather like Deadwood’s Francis Wolcott; “You came here and said what you needed to say, and interrupted my repast in the process.” —Boyd, who’s not to be out-Milched.
- Raylan to a visibly intoxicated Ava: “There’s something about you this morning. It’s hard to put my finger on it.” Ava: “Well, I’m shitfaced, so there’s that.”
- Wynn, providing a reality check on all the prairie-rat eloquence: “Let’s just set aside all this poetic, down-home-hillbilly bullshit.”
What a great show.