Justified Recap: ‘I Can Change’

Photo: Prashant Gupta/FX
Episode Title
Fugitive Number One
Editor’s Rating

Justified continued its winning streak with “Fugitive Number One,” a wrenching hour that killed off major characters and seemed to set the remaining major players on rails leading to some horrendous final showdown (though you never know with this series; it sometimes builds to a fever pitch and then feints to deliver a mournful or grimly funny ramp-down). The peak of the hour — maybe the season — was the showdown inside Wynn Duffy’s mobile home, pitting Katherine Hale against Wynn’s henchman Mikey. But I’ll save that for the end of this piece because its sheer magnificence deserves special consideration.

The tally of corpses includes Boyd’s henchman Carl, Katherine Hale, Wynn Duffy’s henchman Mikey, and Grubes, the previously unseen character who could theoretically have gotten Ty Walker out of Harlan and might’ve done the same for Ava and the loot. (Ava and Zachariah found him on the floor of his cabin, looking like the Crypt Keeper after a bender.) Raylan seemed almost genuinely regretful as he informed Avery that his beloved Katherine was dead — and I love Sam Elliott’s tilted-head close-ups during that scene, as the news wiped the Grinchy smile off his face. I bet I’m not along in being unexpectedly touched by Earl’s furious sadness over Boyd’s murder of Carl. “He was my only brother,” Earl says.

Before her own death, Katherine seemed to feel the full weight of her husband Grady’s demise 15 years earlier, the culmination of a series of misfortunes set in motion by Wynn’s snitching. Mary Steenburgen is mainly known these days as a comedic actress — she’s perfected the art of the sparkly voiced putdown. But she can also play melancholy and haunted with the best of them, and we saw that demonstrated twice here, first in the hotel room scene with Avery where she said she preferred to kill Wynn herself rather than accept his head as an engagement present from her husband-to-be, then later in the Wynn-ebago, where an uncharacteristically closed-off Katherine moved with a chilling sense of purpose, asking Mikey for his pistol (he removed the clip first) and then retrieving her own (loaded) from her purse. (Nice detail in the earlier hotel room scene: Avery noticing that Katherine had already bought a new purse to replace the one that got punctured when she shot Seabass to death.)

There was a lot of blood, pain, and grief in this episode, even though it was not without laugh lines and Deadwood-esque locutions, including Boon’s, “I come to rely solely on my own wherewithal at a tender age, not unlike yourself," and Raylan’s, "I didn't realize that disappointment was a domain exclusive unto Boyd Crowder." The latter line was uttered near the start of the episode, as Raylan visited a bitter Boyd in the hospital room and Boyd gave Raylan a clue as to the fugitive Ava’s whereabouts (he told him to try her uncle Zachariah, whose body was never found after that mine explosion in “Burned.” Boyd was recuperating from one of those magic TV bullet wounds that has no serious long-term ramifications, but causes the viewer to exclaim, “Oh, shit!” (“Slug splintered on your collarbone ... We got in there, tied things up," the doc explained.)

Boyd had ended up on a gurney after last week’s episode, which climaxed with Ava unexpectedly plugging Boyd on a moonlit road. They’d met there to run away with $10 million Boyd wrested from Avery by kidnapping his fiancée Katherine. By the end of this week’s episode, Boyd had escaped police custody, thanks to a botched assassination attempt by the soon-to-be-late henchman Carl. Carl had been sent by Avery to (1) find out where the money was and then kill Boyd, (2) kill Boyd, or (3) kill Boyd, bring him back to life through voodoo, then kill him again. (Although Avery didn’t actually say that last part, you know he was thinking it.) But Carl let himself be dissuaded from the deed by Boyd, who could talk the sun into giving up its shine. After Carl roughed up the cop guarding Boyd, he let Boyd convince him to hand over the unconscious man’s uniform and the gun so that his boss could escape incognito; then it was blam! and adios. Now Boyd’s on the run again with a sense of purpose (get the $10 million, maybe get revenge against Ava) plus all the cockiness we’ve all come to admire. I can’t decide which bit of Walt Goggins actorly business I like better: Boyd flipping that trooper’s hat before donning it, or Boyd kicking open the stairwell door with his foot. If Boyd dies at the end of this thing, maybe it’ll be at the hands of Ava, who already killed one abusive, controlling Crowder and has spent much of this season being fed anti-Crowder propaganda by her uncle Zachariah (who tried to trap and kill Boyd in the mine).

The show’s fascination with the past’s effect on the present was all over “Fugitive Number One,” an hour written by Taylor Elmore and Keith Schreir and directed by Jon Avnet. En route to the waystation between a high-altitude mine and base camp, Zachariah and Ava talked about Ava’s dad, who died during a cave-in. The waystation they were headed toward was built years later, Zachariah told her, as a response to the disaster, to get rescue supplies up there faster; like a lot of corrective measures shown or discussed on this series, it proved to be too little, too late. Avery’s psychotic right-hand man Boon was always defined by his fantasies about 19th century outlaw mythology. “This is my favorite part,” he says, in a near-showdown with Raylan lit The Outlaw Josey Wales-style, in dusky blue near silhouettes.

But in this episode, we learn he’s also defined by his personal experiences in a series of foster homes (Avery is his latest big bad daddy, and surely the richest). The scurvy trio of Avery, Katherine, and Wynn are bound together by events that happened 15 years earlier in another state. We also learn that Mikey’s decision to turn on Wynn was motivated not just by his hatred of snitches, but by his lingering resentment that he always felt as though Wynn was a father figure to him, yet Wynn never recognized this, and instead treated him like a mere servant. (Interesting parallel between the Boon-Avery and Mikey-Wynn relationships: fatherless boys and childless fathers bonding by intimidating others.)

Raylan’s obsession with catching (or killing) Boyd is the culmination of a relationship that’s defined him more sharply than any save the one he had with his late dad and stepmom. Raylan’s past misdeeds at work define his precarious status there, too. Because he’s always skirted the edge of illegal or unethical behavior and mingled too comfortably with criminals, Raylan’s now suspected of being an uncommon thief who wants to bag the $10 million for himself, with or without Ava. As Vasquez points out, “He was banging her in the past, he's almost certainly banging her now. His banging her in the past wrecked a criminal case back then, and then here we are again now — history repeating itself!” Even Raylan’s shoot-first-ask-questions-later reputation is coming back to haunt him. Vasquez wants to know why a cop with a reputation as a hair-trigger gunslinger would holster his weapon after Ava shot Boyd right in front of him, and let her drive off unscathed.

Both Tim and Art urge Raylan to go back to Lexington rather than search the hills for the fugitive Ava, but Raylan refuses, because Ava might lead him to Boyd. As per a classic conversation in “Dark As a Dungeon,” he really is turning into a cornpone Captain Ahab, with Boyd as his pearly toothed whale. Can Raylan change? Can anyone? That’s a question dogging every remaining Justified character, and their positive assertions often sound like wishful thinking. Though it’s a much lighter series overall, Justified is as obsessed with the rigidity or mutability of the human personality as The Sopranos and Mad Men.  “I can change,” the terrified Wynn tells the surrogate son that he never realized was a surrogate son until Mikey knocked him out and cuffed him to the table. The poor bastard had no idea he was a father figure, much less a poor one. Now he’s being called to account for sins both major (breaking the criminal code by snitching) and minor (he never asked Mikey to choose the music on the radio, so he never knew Mikey liked classical).

Which brings us to that Winnebago showdown. Like Boyd’s near death in the mines this season, this goes on my short list of the series’ greatest action sequences. It was unrelenting not just for its physical brutality (Katherine shot Mikey six times, and by the end the room was drenched in blood), but for the emotional violence the mayhem expressed. Avnet’s staging evoked the gruesome close-quarters fights in True Romance (both the James Gandolfini-Patricia Arquette motel scene and Gary Oldman’s death sprang to mind). But the whole thing had the feeling of a horrified lament, thanks mainly to the insistent soundtrack of “Pachelbel’s Canon in D,” a cue associated in film buffs’ minds with Ordinary People, a film about dysfunctional families and the weight of grief. The series is always brushing against three-hanky melodrama but rarely crossing over, maybe because its founding spirit Elmore Leonard shied away from that kind of thing. It crossed over here, and the effect was genuinely operatic, blood spattering the walls Jackson Pollock style and dripping through a bullet hole in the table.

Katherine was there out of obligation, to symbolically settle a past debt so that she could move on with her life. “You protect your partner, and you avenge them against somebody who would do them wrong,” she told Wynn. “That is something I strongly believe in.” But she died there instead. Her death prevents her lover, Avery, who has adored her for years, from marrying her and beginning again himself and “setting down roots with my lady friend” and “[owning] this county.” There is a hint that Wynn, even in his shock and grief, realizes what the confrontation cost Katherine and Avery: the close-up of the dead Katherine’s left hand with the engagement ring and diamond bracelet. Mikey never got the approval he sought from Wynn because Wynn never realized he wanted or needed approval. He couldn’t see what was right in front of him: not a henchman, but a son. “I don’t like what Duffy did, but he’s my boss,” Mikey says, stepping between them, “and I’d have to avenge him anybody did him wrong.” Wynn keeps screaming “Mikey!” With his dying breath, the son that never was uncuffs the father that never was and lets him go. “Mikey,” Wynn says, cradling him. “Mikey.” Mikey’s last words are, “Will you hold me?” “It’s okay,” Wynn says twice, cradling Mikey’s head and shushing him like a baby. 

Correction: A previous version of this piece misattributed one of Mikey's lines to Wynn.