Justified Recap: The War Comes Home

"Alive Day," Justified. Photo: Prashant Gupta/FX
Episode Title
Alive Day
Editor’s Rating

Alas, poor Choo-Choo, we hardly knew ye, and then ye rode the train. 

I'm going to miss the towering, slow-witted henchman with the literally killer punch. He died this week in the ironically titled "Alive Day," which also happens to be the name of James Gandolfini's 2008 documentary about physically and emotionally wounded soldiers trying to adjust to life after combat. As I've said in other recaps here, this sixth and final season of Justified has nurtured a fruitful secondary theme about the war coming home, in one sense or another. "This ain't the Army anymore, top," Seabass tells Ty Walker, boss of the Tiger Hawk security men working for weed dealer Avery Markham. "You hired a bunch of mercs because they looked the shit in jungle fatigues," Raylan taunts Markham, right after dropping the news that somebody (very likely somebody he knows) killed his real-estate agent and tried to dump the body in the woods. "Turns out they know killing, but they don't know crime." On the evidence of this episode, they don't always know killing, either, though they're aces at torture and intimidation, particularly of people who can't fight back.

The war truly came home this week when Choo-Choo, like many a movie and TV killer before him, finally decided he'd had enough of bloodshed. After telling his colleagues, "This here's my screw-up, I figured it's my duty to set it right," he agreed to snuff the prostitute who'd been keeping company with his one-punch victim, the late real-estate magnate Calhoun Schrier. Then he suffered an attack of conscience, decided not to do the deed, caught a bullet or two in a shoot-out in the woods between the U.S. Marshals and Avery Markham's black-ops goons, and tried to kill himself on some train tracks. But the freight train stopped on a dime, and it didn't matter anyway: The big guy was already dead.  

"You ever wish that things would not be the way they are?" Choo-Choo asked his captive during the drive up to the woods. "You know, like, if you close your eyes, open them, things'll be different?" The really sad part is, Choo-Choo died just as he was making a sincere attempt to change his life and be a better person. He died, like so many fictional criminals, on the cusp of evolution. And again, you might wonder: How many Justified characters will go out this way? 

And will Raylan be among them? He's been given so many chances to get the hell out of Dodge, as it were, and start a new life as a quasi-retired, quasi-respectable husband and father, but he's still futzing around in Harlan, always looking for one more snake to kill. Every week there's another reference (usually by Boyd, who's also been given multiple chances to leave) to the fact that Raylan really should have left for Florida by now. What's keeping him around? A death wish, maybe. 

As written by Benjamin Cavell and Jennifer Kennedy and directed by Peter Werner, this was another slow-burning episode full of little milestones and possible setups for bloody payoffs. Avery proposed to Katherine in what felt like a "keep your friends close but your enemies closer" maneuver. And as Wynn noted, it all felt like a convoluted attempt to throw suspicion off Avery for ratting out Katherine's husband Grady back in the day. "You gotta hand it to the guy, he sure did a number on you," Wynn said. (The identity of the snitch is this season's big mystery.) Ava's uncle Zachariah was revealed as actively plotting to kill Boyd; he nearly succeeded when Boyd fell through a tactically loosened section of wood floor while he and his crew continued trying to dig their way into Avery's vault. Zachariah probably won't last the season, but he's a great addition to the cast, and all his scenes — particularly the one in this episode, sitting on the front porch with Ava — have been beautifully on point, connecting the present with the past. (Ava got a number of verbal time-traveling bits in this episode, the best of which was the bit about how she used to obsessively check her uncle's lamp batteries as a newly orphaned girl.)

The Ava-Boyd-Raylan triangle heated up with a tense meeting around the kitchen table (things took a turn for the bloody the last time they met here). The scene showcased both Boyd and Raylan at their possessive-male ugliest, sneering at each other while the camera framed Ava's face out of the shot, objectifying her in the most basic way. The shot of Boyd caressing Ava's leg and the shot of him embracing her from behind while staring at Raylan made it seem as though two long legs and a womb were at stake rather than an entire woman. "You see, I want to ensure Harlan has a future, for us and whoever else we might bring into this old world," Boyd says. I liked the button at the end of the scene: Ava throwing suspicion off herself by referring to Raylan as a "dinner guest" "who barged in without invitation," when in fact she enticed him and then kissed him, unbeknownst to Boyd. (Raylan's knowing smirk at this line was perfection.)

I question the wisdom of killing Choo-Choo halfway through this season in a fairly spectacular gunfight with U.S. Marshals and sending Ty Walker on the run; it would seem to put Avery in a purely defensive position and set the stage for more bloody mayhem, when cat-and-mouse maneuvering is nearly always more interesting. Still, I trust Justified. They haven't stepped wrong so far this season, so I'm guessing they're going to wrap things up nicely.