How confident a show is Justified? So confident that it starts its fifth season by dropping us into the middle of two legal wrangles inspired by events in season four, without a syllable of exposition. Are we moving too fast for you? it says. Run, then.
Squirrelly nitwit Dewey Crowe is suing the United States government — well, Raylan mostly — for assorted flavors of police brutality, including making him think he’d had a kidney removed and battering him on “not less than a dozen” occasions. (Raylan’s protestation — “You might wanna note for the record he thought he had four kidneys” — is a classic example of Elmore Leonard funny asshole-ism.) Dewey’s objection to the revised settlement offer — he thinks he’s getting $300 when it’s really $300,000 — reminds me of The Jerk’s Navin Johnson proudly announcing that he’s about to deposit a check for 250 big ones. Love the slo-mo of Dewey sinking into his chair as he realizes his life just changed. As my granddad used to say, if that boy had an idea it’d be represented by a birthday candle.
Meanwhile, Boyd’s visiting Ava and her lawyer in prison. Ava was arrested in the season-four finale while trying to dispose of the body of Audrey’s pimp Delroy Baker; Boyd promises he’ll do whatever it takes to spring her, but the judge in the case is being a hard-ass. Right off the bat, Justified reestablishes one of the qualities that makes the murderous gangster Boyd so appealing: He’s a hopeless romantic, and will do whatever it takes to win his fiancee’s freedom. “He’s as honest as they come,” he tells Ava, describing the judge. “I might have to threaten his family.” Ain’t no mountain high enough.
“Sitting in your house in the country, I feel like I’m in my own jail,” he tells her. “But I know that this” — cut to closeup of Ava’s ring on a chain — “will be back on your finger soon enough.”
And it’s here that Justified shifts into high gear, four minutes into the season premiere. Boyd and his men nearly get jacked in a drug deal gone bad, by guys affiliated with the Detroit mob. They were supposed to deliver drugs to Boyd in exchange for $1 million in cash, but they’re just here to steal the cash. Boyd gets the upper hand, as Boyd tends to do, but only after sustaining two wounds: to his ear and his pride.
From here on out, for the sake of clarity, let’s separate the two main strands of this episode — Raylan traveling to Florida to investigate a corrupt Coast Guard agent’s murder by a member of the Crowe family, and Boyd going to Detroit to get drugs he’s owed — even though they’ll surely converge at some point, probably through the Mexican connection promised in the Detroit scenes.
I suspect that being out of one’s element will prove central to season five. In the past, Justified has tended to concentrate the bulk of its action in and near Kentucky, but this season, right out of the gate, it’s sending two of its main characters to faraway states. A show this smart doesn’t make a change that big just for the scenery (which is probably faked in L.A, anyway). More about this once we get the plot out of the way.
When Boyd goes to an abandoned apartment building in Detroit to get the drugs he’s owed, he learns that the bridge robbery was set up by Picker. But this bit of information isn’t freely volunteered because it’s part of a mob power struggle. Picker is the right hand of Detroit mob boss Sammy Tonin. Sammy took over the family at the end of season four after the murder of plotter Nicky Augustine; his dad, Theo Tonin, is presumably still in Tunisia, which has no extradition treaty with the U.S. The Detroit mob is currently embroiled in a spat with the Canadian mob, which we’re told is not as polite as some Canadians.
At first Picker lies to Boyd (who’s brought along the Detroit mob’s “man West of the Mississippi,” Wynn Duffy), telling him that the would-be robbers acted on their own. “You’d think in a city with 17 percent unemployment we could get better help.” Mere moments later, Patrick executes Sammy, along with a chainsaw-wielding goon who’s cutting up a Canadian in an unseen room, and demands that Boyd and Wynn turn over the briefcase full of money. Boyd gets the upper hand again — it’s what he does — and extracts the truth from Picker at gunpoint. “Sammy owed the Canadians almost a million dollars. I cut a deal with the Canadians: I’d give them the money and I’d kill Sammy, and in exchange, they wouldn’t kill me.”
There’s something a bit off about this whole scene, as amusingly badass as Boyd and Duffy are in it, because it leaves out a piece of potentially useful plot information: Why did Picker wait until that exact moment to kill Sammy? Was he intending kill Boyd and Wynn, too, and pin the crime on them? But we accept it because this is Justified, which takes place in a Hobbesian universe in which any major character could die violently at any moment.
No matter: Now Boyd’s concerned that his Canadian drug supply has dried up. He has to look somewhere else, and the obvious candidate is Mexico. “I know lots of people in Mexico,” Picker promises Boyd, who looks as though he’d rather drink lye than partner with him, but doesn’t have a choice at this point.
Boyd’s story ties off with his visit to Paxton, one of the Clover Hillers, Harlan County’s elite group of old rich white power brokers (we met Paxton last year at Tillman Napier’s swinger party). Boyd wants to pay $300,000 that he doesn’t have yet to Paxton so that Paxton can try to influence Judge Bishop to get Ava out of prison (turns out that perversely romantic line of Boyd’s was no idle wish). Bishop says he’ll do it if Boyd begs, then adds a more ominous condition: He wants Boyd to swear before Sherriff Mooney and Judge Bishop that he killed Delroy “and forced Ava to move the remains. Now if you can do that, I’ll make the case against her disappear right away.”
Then he sneers that it won’t happen “because we both know you don’t love your white-trash fiancée that much.” Between that and Paxton triggering Boyd’s class resentment by lording his money and power over him, it’s too much. Boyd snaps and pistol whips and shoots the old man.
This final scene is the highlight of the episode, and further proof — if anybody needed any — that Justified gets Elmore Leonard and the spirit of Elmore Leonard better than almost any adaptation of the master’s work. Boyd doesn’t just kill Paxton because it’s a crime series in which a certain number of people die each season; he kills Paxton because Paxton pushed his buttons, and by this point we know Boyd so well that we aren’t surprised by his eruption of rage. Boyd’s pride is the trigger for his temper — it’s one of the qualities he has in common with his frenemy Raylan — and now he’s got another body to hide, which is ironic considering he came to Paxton’s home to free a woman imprisoned for the crime of hiding a murder victim’s corpse.
Speaking of Raylan: Justified is a show about ancient tribal resentments persisting into the 21st century, a phenomenon that has defined a number of Raylan’s choices in seasons one through four. The hero’s trip to Florida, like Boyd’s trip to Detroit, is a reminder that those tribal bonds extend across state and national lines. The Detroit mob and the Canadians are two significant tribes introduced in this episode; on top of that, we’ve got the swampland wing of the Crowe clan.
The Florida wing is run by Darryl (played by nineties indie-crime-film stalwart Michael Rappaport) with help, if you can call it that, from his legal secretary sister Wendy (Alicia Witt) and his screwup brother Dilley (Jason Gray-Stanford). Dilley is blustering dolt with a gambling problem (and a stutter, a rare instance of Justified leaning on cliche). He gambled away half of a $100,000 payment that was supposed to go to a corrupt Coast Guard officer who’s named Simon Lee but nicknamed “Choo-Choo.” Presumably Choo-Choo helped the Crowes smuggle drugs from the Cuban-based Machado family into Florida. Dilley impulsively kills Choo-Choo for making fun of him (an intriguing echo of Boyd’s murder of Paxton) and is ultimately killed in turn by one of his brother’s own associates. (Give big brother Darryl credit: he’s not a sentimentalist.)
Raylan has no idea at this point that Dilley was the triggerman in the Coast Guard officer’s murder; he goes to Florida to apprehend Dilley’s associate “Elvis” Manuel Machado, who’s initially suspected of Choo-Choo’s murder, and to visit his wife and son, who’ve settled down there, and ends up killing Elvis as he tries to escape back to Cuba. Nice supporting work by David Koechner as Raylan’s Florida partner; he’s best known for his exuberant clowning in slapstick comedies like the Anchorman films, but he’s got a pleasing Hank Schrader–esque vibe here, underselling the fatherly devotion that Raylan must feel, too, even though he’s geographically and emotionally separated from his family.
There’s so much plot connected to the Florida Crowes that I’d rather not fall down the rabbit hole of summarizing it; suffice to say that Darryl is feeling that Michael Corleone–style pressure to save the family business, and it’s bound to bring him to Kentucky, where his cousin Dewey has unexpectedly become a three-hundred-thousandaire and bought himself Boyd and Ava’s old whorehouse to use as a nitwit bachelor pad.
Is there too much plot in this premiere? Maybe. I’ve barely scratched the surface. But the episode is still vintage Justified, full of mayhem and brittle humor (and moments that combine the two, such as Raylan confronting the naked Dewey in the backyard behind his new house, then blasting holes in his pool on the way out). What comes through most strongly is a sense of regret and intense loneliness, exhibited at various points by Boyd, Raylan and (surprisingly) Darryl, who’s burdened by so many responsibilities that he looks as though he hasn’t smiled in at least a year.
Odds and ends
- The music Boyd asks the lawyer to crank up could be Boyd’s unofficial theme song: Z.Z. Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.”
- Paxton: “Do you need a casket, Mr. Crowder?” Boyd: “Won’t we all, eventually?” My favorite exchange in this episode, probably.
- I was sorry to see Sammy Tonin go, mainly because I’m a huge fan of Max Perlich, one of those character actors who would have been in ten movies a year if he’d been born in the twenties instead of the sixties. He was Whistler in the two-part “Becoming” episode of Buffy, Ponyboy Harris on The Shield, Kevin Dulli in Blow, and Walker in 1991’s Rush (most of these are crime or drug thrillers). But I’ll always have special affection for his performance as David in Gus van Sant’s masterful debut Drugstore Cowboy — a character who was the coward Robert Ford to Matt Dillon’s doped-up Jesse James. (“TV baby,” the hero re-christens him. I won’t say why in the event that you haven’t seen Drugstore Cowboy.)
- I promise not to do this every week — turn the Odds and Ends section into mash notes to character actors — but Alicia Witt is a great addition to Justified. It’s been said that a good actor can fake anything except intelligence, and Witt has never had to try to fake that, because she’s very sharp; but she can also play all the fine gradations of intelligence, as well as that tricky mid-scale area where a character thinks she’s really sharp (and maybe is, compared to some; that car-accident-on-purpose was nicely played) but isn’t nearly as smart as she thinks. This self-overestimation seems a defining characteristic of all Crowes, from Dewey (who’s dumb as a bag of rocks) all the way up to the brains of the clan, Darryl, who’s no Rhodes scholar, either.
- Speaking of Darryl, I don’t remember the last time I saw Michael Rappaport, but I feel fairly certain he wasn’t trying to do a Florida accent. He’s not appreciably worse than some of the regulars when it comes to attempting a regional cadence that’s not his own, but viewers of a certain age (and certain tastes) probably so used to hearing him as a Northeasterner (often of a rather mookish sort) that it’s still a bit of a shock hearing him drawl. His emotional instincts are impeccable, though. There’s a soul-weariness to Rappaport when he’s playing Darryl, and the matter-of-fact way he plays so many of Darryl’s icier moments only adds to the chill factor.