“Weight” was the best episode of Justified’s fifth season, partly because Taylor Elmore and Keith Schreier’s script resolved so many lingering subplots in dramatically perfect ways, but also because it was directed by John Dahl (The Last Seduction, Rounders). Dahl, one of the great, largely unsung heroes of American indie film, has always directed the way Elmore Leonard writes: eloquently but cleanly, finding pathos in hard, dark places and lighting it just enough that you can appreciate it but not so much that melodrama shades over into kitsch. Scenes that might otherwise have been merely functional had a snap, even a grimy beauty, thanks to Dahl’s keen eye for arranging characters within the proscenium of the 16x9 frame. The compositions, the lighting, the energy of certain scenes lent already powerful moments a cry-in-your beer grandeur.
Let’s start with the fate of poor Chelsea the pit bull. The episode starts with Kendal, who is plotting to escape his miserable home life after uncle Daryl’s theft of the money Raylan gave him. He watches in panic as his brutish Uncle Danny’s pooch smells a cat, runs away to chase it so fast that the boy can’t stop him, then gets squashed by a hit-and-run driver.
This mundane tragedy dominated all of the Crowe family’ plot lines by virtue of having been omitted and covered up. That the dog’s death was an absent presence throughout “Weight” tied it to Danny’s impulsive murder, just a few episodes back, of Crowe family associate Jean Baptiste. By the end of the episode, both buried secrets were revealed. Just as Danny, who had returned home after being double-crossed and run over by his nitwit brother Dewey (like a dog, no less), learned of his beloved pet’s death and flipped out. At that same moment, Kendal, the dog’s caretaker while his uncle was away, tried to insulate himself against Danny’s rage by revealing that Danny had murdered Jean Baptiste and made the boy agree to keep it a secret.
All this would have been nearly overwhelming, but the episode pushed it to the next level by doing what too many crime thrillers don’t think to do: letting its characters behave like real-life human beings. From the beginning of season five, Danny has been depicted as a garden-variety thug, and uninteresting because of that limitation, but the show paused long enough to let him grieve cathartically over the death of that blood-thirsty dog. Danny’s devastation was so complete that he forgot to be a tough guy. By framing the moment mostly in medium and long shots, Dahl diminished him Danny in the frame, making him seem as helpless as a child. This sorry spectacle touched even Raylan, who offered Danny a chance to turn himself in and spare his sister Wendy and his nephew Kendal by giving them time to escape. But of course, Danny’s macho pride reasserted itself. He challenged Raylan to a version of the same duel that offed Jean Baptiste: knife versus gun. Danny’s death was a perfect Elmore Leonard death: shocking , humiliating and dramatically right. He died skewered through the throat and mouth like a fish on a hook, gasping his last in the dog’s freshly dug grave. (Showrunner Graham Yost told EW that the moment was inspired by the death of White Boy Bob in Leonard’s novel Out of Sight.)
This was not the only highlight, or more accurately, lowlight in this episode. “Weight” contains so many awkwardly disclosed secrets, stupid miscalculations, and clumsy, horrifying beatings and deaths that one could imagine the Coen brothers watching it and snickering with glee. It’s a comedy of bloody errors.
Danny’s murderous rage at Kendal set off a chain reaction that led to a physical confrontation between Daryl, who’d appointed himself the patriarch of the family, and Wendy, who’d been holding the sorry contraption together from the get-go. Daryl is another Justified character who wears masculine “hardness” as a mask, one that would disfigure him beyond recognition if he ever tried to remove it. As he beat a much smaller woman (as weak and stupid men often do when they can’t win an argument on its merits), we got a sense of Daryl not just as a hateful, small-minded man but as a product of his upbringing and his culture: spiritual kin to Boyd and Raylan, both of whom have spent their entire adult lives coping with a family history of violence.
Dewey, never a criminal mastermind, tried to steal a car off the back of a tow truck to smuggle his purloined heroin back to the United States, and ended up chasing the car down the road after absentmindedly leaving it in neutral (“Just trying to imagine what my Einstein’s going to do with a carload of Mexican brown,” Raylan said at the crime scene). “I’m sitting high on the fabled catbird seat,” Dewey bragged to Boyd Crowder on the phone a few scenes later, channeling one of my favorite John Goodman lines from Raising Arizona and hoping to score the $250,000 that he had overpaid for Boyd’s house of ill repute. (Dewey is so used to being a whipping boy, though, that he can’t keep his swagger up for long. “I’ll be waiting on your call, “ Dewey told Boyd, then nervously concluded, ‘Thank you.”)
We also got unexpected cameos from two marvelous character actors, one new to the show, the other familiar. Wynn Duffy, ever deeper in cahoots with Detroit and looking increasingly askance at Boyd’s overreaching, sought the council of a criminal attorney, Catherine, who is also his ex-lover. Catherine was played by Mary Steenburgen, who is turning into America’s poster woman for over-50 sexiness. “You always had a way of cultivating clarity, “ Wynn tells her. There is more comfortable heat in that one conversation between Catherine and Wynn than in all of Raylan’s and Allison’s flirtations and copulations this season. Coming hard on the heels of this scene was a cameo by Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies), who hasn’t been seen since season three. Dewey, in a rare burst of resourcefulness, visited Dickie in prison under an assumed name, seeking a contact to unload his Mexican brown. In retrospect, I’m not convinced that Dewey absolutely had to visit Dickey in person, or that Raylan needed to visit Dickey in person a few scenes later, but who cares? The real purpose of both scenes was to let Davies stretch out two-syllable words into five-syllable words and wave his long fingers in the air like an orchestra conductor. Justified is never more enjoyable than when it is pausing the narrative to let a couple of confident actors dig into each other and get comfortable in a moment. I love the way Raylan slouched on that tabletop with his chin on his hands beneath that shaft of light, making him look like a cowboy Jesus.
Poor, poor Ava. Of all the characters to suffer rotten strokes of luck, she is the one I feel for the most. After this episode, I can’t imagine how she will last beyond the end of the season. Repeatedly threatened with violence behind bars, drawn into a religious cult, sexually harassed by a prison guard, manipulated into becoming a drug smuggler, and ensnared in a murder for hire plot: Johnny Cash could have gotten a double album out of her. My heart sank when Ava broke up with her beloved Boyd; it was an admission that his knight in shining armor routine had been for naught, and that she had been unable to do much to truly protect herself. Every defensive move she made this season only seemed to worsen her predicament. “You done everything you can do to bring about an end to this, but there ain’t no end to bring about,” Ava said, with the hardcase resignation we more often associate with Boyd. Boyd’s anguished cries as she walked away from him were chillingly sad. He’s not used to being told that what’s done is done.
Ava claimed the episode’s most brilliantly staged violent confrontation: her face-to-face in the prison chapel with Judith. Ava was supposed to kill Judith, taking advantage of a rare invisible space not covered by surveillance cameras. For a second, thought, it seemed as if this scene might end with diplomacy instead of bloodshed, with Judith and Ava working out their differences. But it ended in death anyway, in a realistically frenzied brawl complete with chairs used as WWF-style clubs. From start to finish, Dahl’s gift for imbuing functional scenes with menacing atmosphere was thrillingly apparent. The light coming through the windows faded slowly in and out, making it seem as though the entire chapel interior were lit by a single dying ember.
This was a great episode, well worth muddling through several not-so-great episodes to get to.