By Blake Baxter
It’s kind of ironic that after nearly four and a half seasons of chasing, outsmarting, and gunning down all sorts of shady characters, Raylan Givens’ comeuppance came from the fate of one that he technically didn’t even kill. But as anyone moderately well versed in government knows, there’s a big difference between following the letter of the law and following the spirit of it. When Raylan turned his back on the execution of murderous mafia thug Nicky Augustine at the end of Justified’s stellar fourth season, he stepped over a line that no respectable lawman can cross under any circumstances – even if the end result is “justified”.
Raylan’s has had no qualms bending the rules in the past, but he’s always stayed on the right side in the end. Last season, his lawless, former coal-digging frenemy Boyd Crowder asserted that the only difference between Raylan and himself was that Raylan had a badge. The finale suggested that the morally bankrupt, though remarkably articulate criminal had a point. But Raylan, as flawed as he is – and he is extremely flawed – is still more hero than anti-hero. As the weeks pass, both onscreen and off, an unshakable guilt simmers inside of our protagonist. And at the end of a long a day in which his superior had his finest hour, Raylan couldn’t bear to look at him in the eye anymore without telling him the truth.
That was the conclusion of last week’s bloody, messy and tension-filled episode. This week, Raylan’s off-screen confession gave us the most earned punch in the face since Breaking Bad. However, whereas Hank’s was a mix of anger, betrayal and just plain old hurt, Art’s was mostly out of frustration. Hank was more defiant, an animal unhinged, pinning Walt against the garage door. Art was like a worn-down patriarch, who’s just had enough of Raylan’s destructive – and apparently unethical – transgressions. Unlike Hank, he immediately shows his age after he connects with his target’s hard head.
But that’s the only confrontation we get between theses two proud men, at least for now. If Raylan’s shiner is the only consequence for his actions, then he’s getting off relatively easy, but that’s highly unlikely. We still have a half a season to see what else Art, who is on the verge of retirement, will do about it. Although as satisfying as it would have been to see the writers fully dive into the implications of Raylan’s revelation, it was still nice of them to whet our appetites by getting the ball rolling. A lesser show – ahem, I’m pointing at you, Sons of Anarchy – would have dragged the storyline throughout the whole season, without a single direct confrontation. Graham Yost and Co. confronted the situation and punched it in the face.
That wasn’t the only face-punching taking place in Harlan, though. That would be referring to the murderous Crowe clan, now in employ of the suddenly indomitable Boyd Crowder. Last season covered a lot of ground, both narratively and thematically. The overarching storyline was about the mystery, and eventually, the pursuit of criminal mastermind Drew Thompson. But both Raylan’s and Boyd’s personal story had to do with trying to run away from their pasts and establishing, as well as leaving, a legacy far removed from that of their bloodlines. Raylan’s struggle concerned identity and morality. Boyd’s, perhaps more interestingly, dealt with the trappings of class as he fought for respectability against the discriminating movers and shakers of the Harlan community. But just as it looked like our witty outlaw was going to settle down with Raylan’s feisty former flame, Ava Crowder, everything fell apart. Ava was arrested for the murder of the cowardly, prostitute-beating Delroy. And so, a man on a hard fought winning streak was abruptly handed his most devastating loss. All of which explains the position Boyd, played as electrifyingly as ever by Walton Goggins, is in now. He’s been on a warpath, ruthlessly wiping out anyone unwise enough to cross him, partnering with sadistic, though undeniably pragmatic mafia men like Wynn Duffy and vicious brutes like Daryl Crowe and his bulldog of a brother, Danny. He’ll stop at nothing to get his fiancé out of prison, but it hasn’t proven to be an easy task.
On the inside, Ava has had her hands full with, first, a creepy, over-compensating prison guard, and most recently, a gang of neo-Nazi fellow inmates. She’s had her body threatened, her pride stomped upon and her hair chopped. It’s been tough to watch a once-effervescent personality reduced to a shell of its former self, yet interesting at the same time. Her story has largely taken a back seat to those of Raylan, Boyd and the Crowes this season. The former two have been as busy, quick-witted and entertaining as viewers of Justified have come to expect. Boyd’s newfound taste for vengeance as he attempts to ascend higher in the crime world than ever has made for excellent television. And so has Timothy Olyphant’s balancing act between Raylan’s animated gun slinging and his gradually seeping in quiet remorse.
The Crowes have really been the only consistently questionable component to this season. Until the most recent episode, they’ve mainly existed for tense moments in which Raylan threatens to pull his gun, which is fine, except they’ve managed to take up a lot of screen time in the process. Michael Rappaport’s casting as the eldest Crowe, as well as his thick Florida accent, has drawn criticism by some. However, Rappaport’s chemistry with Goggins has been a strong point. And now that the Crowe clan has come into the fold for an upcoming – and long awaited – collision with cousin Johnny, more fun is sure to ensue.
Another minor quibble that some fans have had has been the minimal screen time given to Raylan’s wise and wisecracking fellow marshals, Rachel Brooks, and especially, Tim Gutterson. Rest assured, though, Yost has promised that Rachel and Tim will get to play a prominent part in Justified’s final season. In reality, considering how much they were around last season, the fans really can’t complain.
Besides, let’s not rush ahead to the final season just yet. Let’s savor what we have left of this one. Season five looks to be on track to clock in somewhere close to season four, which would make it arguably the second best season of the show’s thrilling five-year run. (Neither season touches nor will touch Justified’s immortal second season, and that’s okay.) Regardless of what happens with the Crowes, the second half promises mesmerizing confrontations between our principle characters in a season that has been notable for its bloodiness and its dirtiness; its twisting, its turning and its double-crossing. In Justified, there is always one too many pieces jockeying to slide into its place, one too many things being thrown in the air. Who will get shoved off the playing board this season? Who won’t land safely? Boyd, Ava, Johnny, the Crowes and even our man, Raylan Givens, will be in play in the remainder of Justified’s exhilarating penultimate season.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com, as well as the Chicago Bulls for Yahoo Sports, and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.