I’m worried that Ava Crowder isn’t going to survive through the end of Justified. That seems a likely outcome for almost any of the major characters by this point, but the fear is especially acute in her case, because she’s being squeezed from every direction, which has forced her to fall back on what pulp novelists of an earlier era would call “feminine wiles.” In this week’s case, that means forcibly reigniting her chemistry with Raylan, which has lain dormant since season one. The killer final scene of “Sounding,” written by Dave Andron and Leonard Chang and directed by Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes), ends with Ava, who’d fled at the start of the hour, returning to the home she’ll reluctantly share again with Boyd — her fiancé and the man on whom she’s been informing — as well as hammering on her escort Raylan’s chivalrous affectations and internalized guilt about exploiting her. “There’s gotta be a special place in Hell for a man who breaks a promise to a woman,” she says, as they move closer to each other in preparation for a tantalizing kiss.
This is not an unexpected development, of course; Ava has a long history of doing what she has to do to survive, and Raylan has an equally long track record of getting involved with women he’s supposed to be protecting, or using, or both. But it’s certainly a welcome one, since it raises the stakes of Justified’s final stretch, which seem to be building inexorably toward a showdown between Raylan and Boyd, men whose shared history includes our jeopardized criminal informant.
This is the fifth episode in a row that stacks among Justified’s best, and I’d say that even if it weren’t such a marvelous trip down Harlan’s memory lane, fully stocked with plot callbacks and character cameos. Danny Strong returns as Albert Fekus, the prison guard who menaced Ava in season five and wounded himself with a shiv that was planted to frame Ava, and nearly got revenge-killed by Boyd until he admitted he mutilated himself out of unrequited love and was let go. The episode’s most sadistic moment finds Albert getting tortured in a motel room by Wynn Duffy and his Scrabble-challenged henchman; their weapon of choice is a cattle prod, which Wynn tells us is a better torture weapon than a Taser because its use can’t be traced back to whoever is wielding it. (When it comes to practical information on felonies, this show is a regular Encyclopedia Britannica.) Ava’s impulsive flight from Boyd brings her back into the orbit of Ellstin Limehouse (Mikelti Williamson), the laid-back, hog-butchering overlord of a self-segregated holler, and then into a car alongside Limehouse’s right-hand man Erroll (Demetrius Gross). Erroll is supposed to help Ava dig up buried loot, but he ends up getting Tased by Deputy Bob (Patton Oswalt), whom Raylan had enlisted to keep tabs on Ava and then separate her from her minder.
“Weed used to grow so big here they called it Christmas tree dope!” Boyd exclaims to Ava in the episode’s ominous nighttime opening, Although last week they’d talked about starting a new life outside of Harlan, now they’re talking about living there after making one of those fabled Big Scores. Boyd seals his commitment to Ava with a ring he’s been carrying around forever, but Ava takes off. She’s really not thinking any of this through, and if her aborted misadventure hadn’t been so entertaining, and if it didn’t end in a lip-lock with Raylan, I might’ve worried that it was an example of Justified running out the clock until it can figure out its next big plot move for her (she basically ends up back where she started). The narrative ball did get moved forward, though: Calhoun is dead, “Amtrakked” by Choo-Choo during a torture-and-interrogation session that was supposed to disclose whoever gave away the details of Avery’s land-grab plan. (More torture here, by war veterans schooled in the post-9/11 theater of pain; this season has an unmistakable “The War Comes Home” thing happening.)
Boyd assembles a not-so-crack team that includes Ava’s uncle Zachariah (Jeff Fahey), an explosives expert who has to be wooed with whiskey into putting his shotgun down and allowing Boyd’s men into his confidence. I love the back-and-forth about Zachariah’s hatred of Boyd and Boyd’s entire clan because it ties back into one of Justified’s favorite recurring themes: how personal and local history is never really in the past. “What say we let the past fade off into the rear-view and start anew?” Boyd offers, verbally echoing the opening scene with him and Ava, which includes many shots of Boyd’s eyes reflected in a rear-view mirror. Boyd entices Zachariah because he’s the master of Black Gas, a powerful explosive alternative that Boyd hopes will be their pyrotechnic route into Avery’s money pile. “Imagine all the air being sucked out of your lungs,” Boyd says, drawing us a mental picture. This is the second time in two weeks that we’ve seen a blackly comedic, accidental explosion. Does this feel like foreshadowing to anyone else? Maybe this’ll be how Boyd buys it, if he buys it; I hope he doesn’t, because a Boyd Crowder spinoff might be fun.
It’s also worth noting that pretty much every bit of plot action this season draws connections between Harlan’s future-in-progress, whatever that turns out to be, and its past, which is built around a very limited kind of agriculture (the Christmas tree weed) and coal mining. The opening episode, if you’ll recall, was organized around two close-ups of a historical photo showing Boyd’s grandfather as a coal miner. Boyd and Raylan used to work together in the mines, as we’re repeatedly reminded. Maybe they’ll both buy it down there, or instead, figure out a way to live.
- I like Choo-Choo’s fixation on the till-skimming waitress, and his not-as-subtle-as-he-thinks way of letting her know that he knows what she’s up to: “Skim milk.” I also think this is not just a bit of comic business: On Justified, when a character stridently insists that a particular detail is not important, it often turns out to be crucial.
- Not that Justified is often terribly concerned with real-world criminal justice consequences, but you’d think the death of Calhoun would create all sorts of problems for the supposedly respectable businessman Avery. So far all this weed-bank vault-land grab stuff has been happening underground, literally or figuratively, but Calhoun seems like he was a fairly prominent person in the community.
- Great to see Patton Oswalt back on the series, and even though the script leaned a little too hard on his “ultimate Star Wars fan” cred, the lines were funny. And I love how casually Raylan invests Bob with an extraordinary degree of trust (earned in season four). “You got a badge and a set of balls,” Raylan says, egging him on. “Hell, yeah, I got a badge, and balls like Death Stars.” But this triumphant note is a setup for something more troubling. That final table of Bob standing in the hardware store over Errol’s unconscious body has an unsettling real-world resonance.
- I’m not sure we have a clear-cut winner in our weekly “Most Deadwood Line of the Night” sweepstakes, but I sure did like hearing Boyd say the word ameliorate.