I was thinking about the future of Justified yesterday — where it had been and where it might be going — when word came down that the show’s sixth season would be its last. I’d been thinking maybe the show should quit while it was ahead — way ahead; it’s a great show — by letting what seemed to be the natural order of things play out. I suspect the natural order on Justified is like the natural order displayed in the finale of The Wire, and in life, which finds the elders dying of age, sickness, or attrition and the young easing into their vacated slots. Whether the replacements are enthusiastic about their new roles or resigned and bitter, it’s what they have to do, and what life requires, so they do it.
Which is why I think Graham Yost’s series has to end, one way or another, with Raylan becoming the stable, good guy and father figure (biological and symbolic) that so many people need him to be, and Boyd becoming the stable (big) bad guy, the equivalent of a Mags Bennett or Ellstin Limehouse, or perhaps a rough-around-the-edges, new-money figurehead for whoever replaces the Clover Hillers. Or they could both get killed by some ambitious up-and-comers, or kill each other, or get lost in the woods and eaten alive by wild boars, or Art’s investigation into the murder of Nicky Augustine on the airport tarmac last season could end Raylan’s career in law enforcement. My record at plot-guessing is not, to put it mildly, the greatest.
But let’s stick with the meet-the-new-boss thing for a little while longer, because “The Kids Aren’t All Right,” well, justifies it. The organizing unit on this show is the tribe or the clan: big extended families whose individual members are bonded not just by blood but by shared purpose. These units have to be run by somebody, otherwise it’s anarchy, and anarchy is pretty much what we’ve got in Harlan County in season five. There’s less laid-back, Elmore Leonard–ian talking and scheming in these first two episodes than we’re used to. It seems like there’s a violent act every few minutes, sometimes a bloody murder. It’s like the chaos-fueled power vacuum of season three (the aftermath of Mags’s death), but somehow bigger and nastier.
Boyd went to Detroit to get the drugs he was nearly cheated out of and saw a clan war unfolding right in front of him: the Canadians vs. the Detroit Mafia. The guy who only recently replaced the missing head of the Detroit Mob got shot by one of his lieutenants right in front of Boyd. Back in Kentucky, Dewey Crowe (of all people) had become new money by virtue of his $300,000 settlement with the U.S. government and taken over Boyd and Ava’s whorehouse and commenced carrying on like the redneck midget son of Hugh Hefner. (“Two Ladies” from Cabaret could be his theme music.) Then Boyd’s cousin Daryl — who’s got a bit of a meathead Michael Corleone thing happening in his own clan — shows up in this episode to usurp Dewey’s largely illusory power and hammer out a new scheme for supplying the Florida Crowes with drugs. (He already had one Fredo executed in Florida, and now here he is needling another Fredo; Dewey would be wise to avoid rowboats.)
I’m enjoying watching Boyd dance as fast as he can. Everything he does he’s ultimately doing for Ava, but he can’t win for losing. It was bad enough that he killed Lee Paxton in a fit of rage. Now he learns that Lee Paxton isn’t dead after all, but in a coma, and that Paxton’s wife, Mara, wants $300,000 (interesting that everyone seems to need the same amount of money that Dewey got from the government) otherwise she’ll bow to Sheriff Mooney’s pressure and corroborate that it was Boyd who put her husband in a coma. On top of all that, he’s got to play politician and cartel head, assuring all his criminal associates that the drugs they require to keep their cash flow going will arrive in two days.
We also see Raylan, who’s still estranged from his wife and child, reluctantly acting as a father figure to teenager Loretta MacCready, who has lost not one but two sets of parental units: first her biological father, murdered by Mags Bennett, and then Mags herself, who took her own life at the end of season two. The scenes between Raylan and Loretta were lovely, as always. They also subtly reinforced the notion of certain behavioral patterns repeating themselves over time in a different context (Raylan lets Loretta stew in jail for selling weed to a cop’s son after telling her about how his own dad did something similar to him when he was a kid).
The surrounding drug deal-gone-bad plot felt too much like narrative wheel-spinning, although it gave real-life brothers Wood Harris (of The Wire) and Steve Harris (The Practice) a chance to play brothers onscreen for the first time (their characters, Jay and Roscoe, are enforcers for a racially mixed local drug cartel headed by hillbillies), and paid off with a nifty confirmation that Loretta is turning into someone crafty enough to play the supposedly unplayable Raylan like a banjo.
The one-thing-after-another plotting of this season might be a function of the timeline of Ava’s trial, which we’ve been reminded will happen in ten days. That seems like a natural place to wrap up whatever story they’re going to spin out over the next two-plus months. But where’s it all headed?
ODDS AND ENDS
* Great character turn by Xander Berkeley — of 24, The Mentalist, and maybe a zillion other projects — as the rich racist slimebag whose house and car Raylan confiscates. He gets the casual entitlement just right, never overselling it; if anything, he undersells it to the point where it becomes grimly funny. The blasé way that his maid and his not-maid just sit there as he rants is funny, too, because it gets at the idea that on Justified, there’s almost no offense so grave that it can’t be overlooked if somebody puts money in your pocket.
* The great nineties indie-film casting raid continues with Amy Smart, who’s very appealing as Loretta’s social worker Alison Brander, even though the setup for a romance between her and Raylan feels obvious no matter how playfully they banter.