Last night’s Justified, the aptly titled “Dark As a Dungeon,” started with its hero removing every trace of his late father from the family home, then burning the old man’s Vietnam keepsakes. The emotional peak of this sequence was a low-angled shot with flames in the foreground and Raylan in the middleground; looming over Raylan’s shoulder was the family home the hero had previously told Ty Walker that he didn’t want to sell. He’s not just deciding to get over the past. He’s symbolically annihilating it. For a character that has been defined, often against his will, by his troubled childhood, his experience in the mines, and the history of Harlan County and its various feuds, this was a very big deal.
It was also a fitting start for an episode that — more so than other Justifieds, and that’s saying a lot — was about the effect of the past on the present. As written by Chris Provenzano and VJ Boyd and directed (superbly) by Gwyneth Horder-Payton, every other scene included talk of memories and obligations, plus cost-benefit analysis of moving forward versus staying put (or going back).
Sometimes the characters talked about the relative allure of the past versus the future, and got into whether we truly honor our pasts or if we just say we do. Raylan’s dad buried his wife inside “the cheapest piece of shit available,” and Raylan did the same for his old man. Would a better coffin have indicated greater respect, or is coffin one-upsmanship an undertaker’s scam? Raylan’s intense stay at the motel with Winona the day before seems to have turned his head around. Where he’d previously been resisting Winona’s entreaties to pull up stakes and start over with her and their daughter, now he’s having his parents’ remains exhumed. Provenzano and Boyd’s script makes it clear that Raylan is either seeing through the old, alluring ideas of being true to one’s roots or rejecting them outright. “The past and the future are a fight to the death,” says Ava, one of many lines that uncharacteristically turn subtext onto text. Raylan used the only object he saved from Arlo’s Vietnam trunk, a key, to let himself into the secret shed, or dungeon, where his dad used to go, and talked to the ghost of his dad (a Justified first; they’re not normally ones to go all Six Feet Under).
Of course Arlo (played by returning co-star Raymond J. Barry) isn’t really a ghost, but a projection of Raylan’s issues: Arlo and Raylan sees him as a hateful goblin hiding in darkness. This fits with the recurring notion that things are ultimately just things and only have the weight we give them. The undertaker visiting the Givens estate tells Raylan, “What you are moving is not your mother’s remains, but the idea of her remains.” The more I turn that sentence over in my mind, the more it seems like the key to Raylan’s apparent change of heart. Everything’s a ritual, everything’s a symbol: Once you accept that, you don’t feel as beholden to the idea of being true to your family, your home, your town, or your county, and you can make tough decisions that are ultimately good for your development.
Post-Winona, he’s determined to focus on just one case (Boyd Crowder) and not worry too much about all the other snakes, as Art might’ve put it. Suddenly he’s willing to sell the house that he’d wielded like a cudgel of self-righteous rootsiness in the past, and exhume his parents’ remains (he originally expected to be buried with them, and even had a tombstone picked out). And he ritualistically incinerates a box commemorating the defining event in his abusive dad Arlo’s young life: Vietnam. All these felt like indicators of major change occurring within Raylan, even as that Searchers-style shot of Raylan framed within Zachariah’s front door said, “Once a cowboy, always a cowboy.” Raylan’s mention of “Potter’s Field” is a reference to It’s a Wonderful Life, one of the great “road not taken” movies. It seems possible that Raylan was moved to leave Harlan County after contemplating his own tombstone, à la George Bailey (and Ebenezer Scrooge before him).
Although this episode resonated at a metaphorical level, plenty happened plot-wise. But here again we saw one of the great strengths of Justified: its ability to weave together what actually happens and what, in a larger sense, it means. Ty Walker showed up at Boyd and Ava’s house and tried to talk Boyd into abandoning his plan to burrow into Avery Markham’s vault through a mining tunnel and get in there by opening the combination lock. But instead, Ty got shot to death (in the back; very un-Shane!) by Raylan, who’d made a point last week of sitting out the manhunt for Ty (whom he wounded) by half-assedly pleading post-traumatic stress, so that he could visit Winona and the baby. (Interesting that Ty, a character defined by his experience in the War on Terror, is killed by the same man who opens the episode by burning his father’s box of Vietnam memorabilia.)
Boyd, meanwhile, is facing a hard choice of his own, thanks to Raylan convincing Avery to promise a $100,000 reward for information leading to his capture. That’s not a stunning amount by Boyd’s standards, but it’s enough to make Ava ask why they don’t just leave Harlan and start over without cleaning out Avery’s vault first.
The answer, of course, is that Boyd’s still in thrall to some of the same dogged code that defines other Justified characters. In crime thrillers, the One-Last-Big-Score-Before-I-Retire trope is often about the criminal’s own pride and personal issues, and not so much about the need to amass a certain amount of money before X can happen. For Boyd, the money in Avery’s vault is the fabled “one more snake” that Art cautioned Raylan about obsessing over. Raylan taking Boyd to see the vault is such an obvious trick that Boyd calls him on it right then and there, but later on, he’s stacking up empty boxes to show Ava how much money he saw there, grinning like a little kid imagining the presents he’ll get come Christmas morning.
The script even paraphrases one of the great cops-and-robbers movies, Michael Mann’s Heat, about a master criminal who can’t leave town with his lady until he’s settled all outstanding business, and a cop who’s so obsessed with nailing said criminal that he skips out on his neglected stepdaughter’s recuperation from a suicide attempt. “Let’s just say that I don’t see you pulling thrill-seeker hold-ups with a ‘Born to Lose’ tattoo on your chest,” Ty tells Boyd, quoting De Niro’s Neil McCauley. Boyd has lots of tattoos, though, and the most important one is on his brain: a dollar sign. (Money, Raylan assures us twice in this episode, is “the one thing no shit-apple redneck in the world can resist.”)
There are a lot of complex and slightly fuzzy (or obscured) agendas happening in the final stretch of this series. Why did Avery allow Raylan and Boyd to personally accompany him into the basement while he retrieved the reward money, if not to tantalize Boyd and perhaps set him up for some kind of ambush should he continue with his plans to steal the loot? (“You sure you want me to take that bait?” Boyd asks his frenemy. “’Cause this fox goes for that rabbit, it’s all over, Raylan.”) Is Katherine only sleeping with Avery to set a trap to nail the man she thinks is responsible for her late husband’s death? Or is there real affection there, and does that engagement ring mean something to her? Did Avery give her the ring as a “keep your friends close, your dead ex-partner’s wife closer”–type maneuver? Or does he mean it when he says he loves Katherine? Is he so keen on building a weed empire on Harlan’s arable land that he’ll give up everything else, including Katherine, to get it? Who was the snitch? (The show is holding that fact in reserve like a secret ace card, but I’m starting to wonder if it’s Wynn.) Every surviving major character is obsessed with something. The only obsession that doesn’t seem unhealthy and self-destructive is Ava’s. (She just wants to get out of town and start a new life, with or without Boyd.)
Even characters who think they aren’t obsessed seem obsessed. Raylan thinks he’s acquired a new clarity, but maybe he’s just focused his doggedness rather than transcended it. There’s still a chance that Raylan’s story could end in bitter irony rather than in triumph or sweet relief; he’s a mean sonofabitch, and he’s never been all that good at reading and understanding himself. “I do like happy endings,” Boyd sneers at Raylan. “Well, this is one of those classic stories where the hero gets his man, then he rides off into the sunset,” Raylan says. Boyd laughs in his face: “Well, maybe it’s like that other classic, where a guy chases a whale to the ends of the earth till he drowns for his troubles.”
For all his signs of emotional growth, is Raylan still more Captain Ahab than George Bailey? The jury’s still out. While Justified doesn’t flaunt its psychological acuity like some other TV dramas, it’s always been hip to the fact that people don’t always know why they do things — and that sometimes they think they’re doing something for one reason when something else is really driving them. You could argue that Raylan doesn’t really need to personally get Boyd — his colleagues could do that without him, in theory, anyhow — but the fact that he’s boiled all of his law-enforcement activities down to one task (get Boyd) and made everything else an adjunct of that (including nailing Avery, Katherine, Wynn, and their affiliated goons) seems like a sign of progress. He’s not acting like a man with a death wish anymore. He wants to live. A little bit, anyway. “I want to live again!” George Bailey prays on the same bridge where he’d tried to kill himself. But that Searchers shot keeps me wondering. In theory, everything Raylan is doing right now is geared toward pushing him toward a quiet life as a family man, but at the end of The Searchers, Ethan Edwards doesn’t get to go inside the house. He walks away towards the horizon (into the sunset, per Raylan’s description), and the film closes the door on him.
“I gotta admit, there’s a small part of me that’s gonna miss this when it’s over,” Raylan tells Boyd.
“Well, don’t eulogize the past till the future gets its turn,” Boyd replies.