Justified isn't ordinarily the sort of show to hand you a theme on a platter, but we're deep into the final season now, and things are getting deeper and darker by the week, so it makes sense that the series would want to frame its endgame. Written by Chris Provenzano and Ingrid Escajeda and directed by Adam Arkin,the title of this one is "The Trash and the Snake," a phrase that occurs in a scene that falls right before the opening credits. Raylan and his old boss Art — who was sidelined by gunshot wounds sustained last season but has been a handy, hard-boiled wisdom dispenser, warns Raylan that his increasing fascination with weed dealer Avery Markham is causing him to lose focus on nailing Boyd. Raylan responds by saying if your mama tells you take out the trash "and you see a copperhead on the way out, you don't go back inside, say you didn't do nothin', because all she asked was to take out the trash. You take out the trash and then the snake." "Didn't your mama tell you there's always another snake?" Art replies.
This is about as close to summing up Raylan's character, and the western-styled righteous do-gooder character, as Justified has ever come. Hell, it's damn near a statement on the American character. Don't laugh, now; Justified isn't ordinarily the kind of show to do that, either, but we are coming to the end, and not only are things getting progressively more tangled and nastier, they're getting more allegorical too, spinning Biblical images (there's much emphasis on Satan and the garden of Eden; Raylan jokingly refers to himself as an archangel, and Ava describes Avery as having "the smell of sulfur about him") and tying what's happening in Harlan to what's happening in the world beyond.
Like a lot of characters on Justified, Raylan's always been obsessed with doing what a man's gotta do. But he's so troubled and violent that we always wonder (as we often do with Clint Eastwood heroes) whether the lawbreaking is the reason for his brutality or just a pretext for doing what he might've done anyway. (We're reminded over and over that he was a juvenile delinquent and could've ended up like Boyd if things had gone differently.) So this copperhead Avery has suddenly appeared in Raylan's sight line, complicating his alleged desire to get back to his family in Florida; the "just one more snake" mentality on the lawman side of the ledger feels increasingly like its criminal counterpart: "Just one more big score, then I'm out." The question is, will Raylan or Boyd or any of these characters make it out of this season alive? Or is Justified setting all of them up to die inside the Harlan county line?
Whatever the future may bring, damn, what a great bunch of characters. This show's been knocking them out of the park recently, especially characterization-wise, and this one was another fence-clearer. Justified has always been great about suggesting that these people had lives before you started watching them, but that sense was especially strong this week. I loved the details about how the female half of the recalcitrant couple murdered by a carbon-monoxide leak was a teacher who was instrumental in Raylan's development, and Katherine's resentment about living all those years in her husband's shadow only to see him murdered, and how she's sleeping with Avery and setting him up for a fall partly out of a rather obligatory sense of revenge. I love the confirmation that Avery was indeed the snitch who sold out Grady (who killed himself — or did he?), and that fleeting yet memorable bit between Boyd and Wynn where we discover that Wynn grew up in Hawaii and was a champion surfer. Everybody's trying to get back to the Garden of Eden on this show, and temptations (and straightforwardly biblical images) keep popping up in the stories margins, such as that serpent-handling temptress who slinks around the headquarters of the explosives not-so-expert known as Wiz (Jake Busey, in a bring-the-crazy cameo in the spirit of his dad, with an Elmore Leonard–worthy surprise exit).
I was grateful that this episode clarified some plot elements that had been confusing before. Avery is indeed buying up land to grow pot, at the same time that he has secured a vault to hold his projected fortune — one guarded by Ty Walker and his band of hired guns. (I love Wynn describing to Boyd "mercenaries guarding a pizza place full of dough," a witty bit of wordplay, but not so witty that he doesn't feel the need to underline it for Boyd: "See what I did there?") The much-discussed ledger includes not-so-subtle confirmation that people are being intimidated to give up their land, as in the manner of a classic Western. One of the episode's more pleasant parts is its reintroduction of characters we first met in season two: namely Dickie Bennett, sole survivor of the once-legendary Bennett clan of weed dealers, and Loretta MacReady, onetime surrogate daughter of Mags Bennett and occasional surrogate daughter to Raylan as well. (It's fun watching Loretta and Raylan interact in this episode: Whenever they do, I get a sense of who Raylan might be as a dad. Cynical and tough but loving and basically fair — in short, a far better father than Raylan seems to think he's capable of being.) The callback to the moonshine that ended lives in season two was another nice bit: I really thought we were going to have more tension over whether she'd laced that one Mason jar and nipped Avery in the bud, so to speak, by having her taste it.
That climactic scene around the table with Loretta, Raylan, Tim, Avery, and Ty in the same room was a little masterpiece of talk as action, and it brought together several strands of history and backstory. When Raylan told Avery, "I'll give you this, you've done your homework," he could be speaking on behalf of the viewer. A lot of television shows make a big deal of building a history for a place, but few follow through to the point where you feel like you could draw maps with elevation and rainfall, or write a 1,000-page history of the area. Little touches strewn through the episode confirm that Justified's writers have built Harlan into a region as rich in narrative and personal history as Elmore Leonard's South Florida or Detroit. In this episode, as in every episode of the season, we get a sense of a community decimated by crime and time. One small but significant touch is Avery's fixation on acquiring the Bennett property by any means necessary: The audience knows that land is fertile because a clan built a weed empire there. "Six generations of Bennetts grew up in Harlan County," Avery rumbles. "Now all's left is a cripple stuck in lockup."
I love how Justified continues to play around with classic Western themes and situations. Avery is indeed a modern version of the big bad rancher trying to swallow up independent homesteaders' land. And the entire season is populated, in classic Western style, by characters trying and failing to reinvent themselves or outrun some troubled past. Some stories we already knew about (such as Raylan's and Boyd's); others just disclose themselves to us. I love Wynn's backstory; it makes him more poignant somehow.
Ditto Katherine, who likens her marriage to Grady to that of Bill and Hillary Clinton ("he was the face and I got it done") and takes Ava on a wild ride that includes theft, intimidation, and a cocaine lunch. What is she up to? How much does she really know about the circumstances of Ava's release from prison? Will Ava make it out of the season alive? Will anybody?
Odds and ends
- My favorite exchange of the episode occurred in the Wiz's workshop. Wiz: "Would you guys like a Negroni?" Boyd: "I don't know what that is." Wynn: "It's Italian. It taste like grapefruit."
- It's always tough choosing the line that reminds me most of Deadwood, but I think this week I have to give it to: "If he and his co-adjutors want to seize an opportunity in the land of the Christmas tree weed, who are we to fetter progress?"