“The Hunt” ends with a maybe-reconciliation between Raylan and Winona, and the possibility that Boyd might murder his beloved Ava after deviously getting confirmation that she was ratting him out to the U.S. Marshals. These are both huge developments, but the episode takes its sweet time setting them up. It’s a slow-building hour, but so confident and patient that the slowness creates a different kind of tension than we’re used to seeing on TV.
Words and emotions become nearly as excruciating here as torture scenes and bullet wounds in other episodes (though this episode had a bit of the latter). The long conversation between Raylan and Winona in the motel room with the baby crying and crying and crying and crying and crying is one of the more nerve-racking scenes I’ve watched on TV in a while. It captures the blank, hard reality of being a parent without any fuss: With a newborn around, sometimes you have to scream to talk to your mate, and the infant won’t stop crying until she’s ready, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it, you just have to wait it out. “This is my life,” Winona tells him. “This is what it looks like now.”
That scene and others give you a sense of what Raylan is secretly terrified of failing at, even though the evidence suggests that he’s a more easygoing and attentive dad than he gives himself credit for being. (This has always been the case; Raylan never seems more tender and less belligerently macho than when advising wayward youth.) He plays with his daughter on the motel bed, takes her out in the car to give Winona a break: little gestures, granted, but meaningful; the kinds of things a father should do for a mother. Still, he fears he’s not father material, that he’ll be a shitheel like his dad. Is he wrong? Who can say?
This is a troubled relationship, to put it mildly. Winona ends by flat-out telling Raylan that she loves him enough to accept him for what he is: “You can be with me and still be you, if that’s something you want.” She even encourages him to take a phone call from Rachel that he was inclined to ignore (to show how focused on parenting he is, not because he actually wants to refuse the call). But how realistic is that? She’s carrying around a heavy load of justifiable resentment, and it spills out of her in the early scenes between her and Raylan, and he initially behaves like a man who isn’t trying terribly hard to come across as a good mate and father.
He inquires about her mother, a perfectly nice if obligatory gesture that he proceeds to undo. “She would love to know that you’re interested,” Winona tells him. “She might at least appreciate that I pretended to be interested,” he follows up, dickishly. She casually drops that her mom tried to set her up on a date, then moves on to discuss details of a possible shared-custody arrangement, if that’s what Raylan wants (and you can tell by her tone as she phrases the question that she doesn’t really believe Raylan wants it).
I love how the episode’s director, John Dahl (Rounders), flips a key cinematic image of toxic masculinity: Diane Keaton’s Kay getting a door slammed in her face by the men of The Godfather. This time it’s Raylan who gets the Kay treatment, at the end of the crying-infant scene.
Boyd and Ava’s scenes play out a dark shadow version of Ava and Raylan’s — they, too, are ultimately arguing about trust and commitment — but they’re much more alarming because in the last episode, Boyd learned from Limehouse that Ava had turned snitch. We assume from the start of the episode that he’s pressing her to go to the cabin so that he can have a quiet place to interrogate and murder her. The capper scene suggested that Ava was a goner: Boyd convinced Ava to wipe the slate clean and work against the Marshals and his rivals, then replaced what was probably an empty pistol clip with a full one (he’d previously handed her the gun as a gesture of trust).
Would they kill off Ava with just six episodes to go? That seems doubtful to me. But we’ll see.
The lead-up to this maybe murder, maybe fake-out was one of the greatest pieces of writing in the show’s history: a series of scenes between Boyd and Ava that cut to the heart of male-female mistrust and got at the legacy of male domination and violence that defines not just Harlan County but the world.
It’s all very complicated and messy, and the script doesn’t shy away from that. Boyd truly loves Ava, and Ava truly loves Boyd. But she’s been selling him down the river for weeks now (with excellent reason, as she explains during that final scene; he was not supportive of her when she went to jail for him). And he’s always had a cold, controlling, abusive side that contrasts with his genuine sweetness and romantic spirit.
Boyd pressures her to go to the cabin, pressures her to drink with him, pressures her to hunt with him, and never takes no for an answer — and Ava calls him on it. “Why drink to the future?” she demands, resisting his entreaty to drink with him. “I’ve been waiting on this moment damn near 20 years, Ava,” he says. “You will have a drink with me.” Boyd doesn’t really care about consent when refusal to grant it would thwart his needs or wants. This is a pattern with him. It was reestablished last week, in the scene in the kitchen between Ava, Raylan, and Boyd, in which Boyd treated her like a racehorse, pawing at her bare leg, smelling her hair, establishing possession in front of Raylan, the former lover he feared might take her away from him. “I do think we ought to talk about commitment, trust, loyalty,” he tells Ava across the table in the cabin. “Those are important words.” But they’re only important to Boyd; he rarely shows them to others unless there’s a percentage in it for him.
Ava needles Boyd by suggesting that he’s not as different from his father and brother, both wife-abusers, as he would like her to think: “You forced me to come up here. You made me drink when I don’t want to. You gonna take this bottle, crack it over my head next? Like Bowman would do?” I sympathize with Ava completely here: Boyd did neglect her when she did time for him in season five; he was never as attentive to her needs as he should have been, considering the magnitude of her sacrifice on his behalf. But I still hope they work this out, and that Boyd isn’t quite as ruthless and vindictive as I fear he is.
“The Hunt” is one of my favorite episodes of Justified because it’s so uncharacteristically stripped-down and intimate. Written by Taylor Elmore and Keith Schreier and directed by John Dahl (The Last Seduction, Rounders), it consists mainly of duets (Raylan and Winona, Boyd and Ava, Avery and Seabass, followed by Avery and Art), interspersed with scenes of Ty Walker wandering around the countryside after being wounded in a gunfight. The Ty scenes involve other characters as well (such as Avery, who talks to Ty on the phone, and those two frat boys outside the gas station men’s room where Ty digs a slug from his arm), but they’re so intensely focused on the former mercenary’s desperation and determination that you could nearly call them monologues — or solos, anyway.
The scene between Avery and Art was a gem, showing how tough guys try to intimidate each other through sarcasm and phony jocularity. Avery asks if Art is the “closer”—the title character on that cop series is a woman—then suggests he’s losing his potency along with his hair, and asks if he can still hook a fish with his fishing pole. Art’s response is hilarious and perfect: “You know, I’ve been married for 28 years, I don’t get the pole out as much as I used to.” Then he gracefully pivots to interrogating Avery about his relationship with Katherine (“…but I hear you do. I hear you pulled Katherine Hale into your boat”) and insinuating that he informed on Katherine’s husband and his former partner, Grady, back in the day. This is a brilliantly written and acted scene, and the direction is subtly perfect as well: If you watch it again, notice how Dahl always positions the two characters so that they’re exactly the same size in the frame, mirroring and sometimes overlapping each other, confirming that they are in every way equals, in forcefulness if not morality.
A lot of the scenes are self-contained and quite long: The first scene between Boyd and Ava at Boyd’s parents’ cabin clocks in at five and a half minutes, an eternity by TV’s standards. The only really graphic violence is Ty shooting the two EMTs who arrive in the ambulance (he just wanted to steal their drugs and would have, until one of them insisted on calling in a chopper to investigate this “hiking accident”). Ava slaps Boyd and Boyd chokes Ava, but this feels less like a self-contained act of mayhem than the logical outgrowth of fearsomely intense emotions that have been boiling up between them over the course of seven episodes. For long stretches, this episode feels like a very cinematic adaptation of a stage play, and I mean that as praise. At certain points it reminded me of “Soprano Home Movies,” the lake-house-set season-six installment of The Sopranos that a friend calls Who’s Afraid of Virginia Mook? It’s just extraordinary: if not the best episode in this already great season, then certainly the most original.