As this final season moves into its last laps, we finally have the episode we’ve been waiting for: one that centers on the internal demons of one Raylan Givens, the putative protagonist of Justified, and the past he has to confront if he wants to have something resembling a “normal” life. At the end of this last episode, we’re not at all sure that’s what he wants.
It’s odd at the very least that we have had to wait this long for Raylan to take center stage in this final season. Until now, he has done nothing but throw off a few snide remarks as he moves the plot forward, trying to maneuver Boyd and Ava (Boyd’s lover, Raylan’s snitch) into position to finally bring Boyd to justice. Boyd is Raylan’s alter ego: the person he could have become if he didn’t go into law enforcement, where his rage and violence and rage were channeled into catching and killing bad guys. Raylan has been a blank page thus far this year; the drama rested on the love and betrayal between Boyd and Ava.
Frankly, Episode 7, “The Hunt” (which, if it used a titling system like Friends used to, would be called “The One with the Crying Baby”) was so sloppy and annoying that I could not bring myself to write about it. As I watched, I could only think, “Will someone please comfort that poor child!” as the little one screamed first in its mother’s arms, then in Raylan’s. I was too distracted about how they must have kept that poor kid screaming through several takes for each scene, and what a nightmare that must have been for all involved, not least the baby, to care about what Winona’s appearance with their daughter meant for the plot.
However, we did get twin confessions, of love: Winona admitted that she would love Raylan wherever he was, and if he wanted to stay in Kentucky, that would be just fine with her; and Ava confessed to Boyd that yes, she was Raylan’s snitch, but she still loved him.
Aside for the tense scenes between Boyd and Ava, as he finally confronts her and demands the truth — at a cabin in the middle of nowhere — everything else felt dumb and poorly paced. Ty Walker, the most wanted man in Kentucky, calls 911 for paramedics, and the bus responds down a lonely country road to find him — without backup? Really? Even though one guy was getting ready to shoot him full of tranquilizers? Walker’s killing of the two paramedics seemed gratuitous, just something to fill minutes and move the plot along.
But Episode 8, “Dark as a Dungeon,” is all about Raylan and the dark place he keeps running from. Winona’s arrival and his apparent impending membership of a loving nuclear family — his own kin are all dead, buried in front of his parents’ house — seems to have pushed a rack of buttons. He’s not doing too well with it.
The episode starts with Raylan rifling through closets as he takes hard tugs on a good whiskey bottle. It seems he’s packing up his own stuff to move in with Winona. But when he pulls out army gear, including the box filled with mementoes from Vietnam — pictures, letters from Raylan’s mother, dog tags — we know it all belongs to his dad, Arlo. Raylan is not one for sentimentality, and after retrieving a picture of his mother from the pile and the dog tags, he sets it all on fire in the yard, lit up with good whiskey.
Raylan was always running from Arlo’s shadow, never quite shaking the notion that he was more like Arlo than he could admit — Arlo the hard-drinking bully and crafty small-time criminal. Arlo never did make peace with Raylan, and in fact, treated Boyd as the son he never had.
Before Raylan tosses the dog tags back in the fire, he retrieves a key from the chain. At episode’s end, holding that key, flashlight aloft, he walks through a darkened, overgrown yard to a shed out back somewhere, and after a moment’s hesitation opens it. With his single flashlight shining a beam that mimics a mine lamp, Raylan explores to find: nothing.
It turns out Arlo kept this place locked away, and Raylan always had nightmares about it and its contents, thinking it held “every evil thing” in Arlo. Arlo’s — and Raylan’s — heart of darkness. Arlo looms over his shoulder as Raylan explores the empty rooms, trying to tell him that he always assumed the worst of his old man. (But it was good to see Arlo, one last time.)
Those empty unlit rooms — “dark as a dungeon” — lit by the single flashlight beam, appeared much like the mine shaft that Boyd et al. are digging through, and serving the same function: dark places from the past each of the characters must confront. There’s even a dusty mine lamp in there, in case you missed the connection. And somehow, there’s potted green tropical plants in one room in that windowless shack: the dream of Miami and a family with Winona and the baby?
I was willing to forgive that much of the dialogue this episode seemed so on the nose — from Ava to Raylan: “the past and the future are a fight to the death,” Raylan is wishing he “is better than where he come from,” and “just admit … you could just as easily have been an outlaw as a lawman” — if only because I was happy to see the show giving us a glimpse of the conflict at the center of Raylan; that tension fueled much that was so intelligent in the show’s early seasons.
As for Ava and Boyd, they’re starting fresh — or are they? Ava’s intentions, other than survival, are still unclear. Boyd, however, has been drawn into Raylan’s trap, as Raylan works Boyd’s fatal flaw: his inability to walk away from a pile of money locked away in a bank vault. Raylan gives Boyd a glimpse of the millions stored in that old vault. Raylan seems to be one step ahead … or is he?
Not only does Raylan seem to be pulling Boyd closer into his trap, but Boyd’s trusted crony Carl throws Boyd some questioning looks as Boyd takes in the news that henchman Pig is dead, down a mineshaft. Boyd does not seem overly concerned about his death, and his cavalier attitude rubs Carl the wrong way. How far will Carl stick his neck out for Boyd next time around? (And is Pig really dead? We were told that Ava’s father might have survived for days after a “fall” in the mine.)
Walker dies after Raylan shoots him in the back as he tries to flee. This death too, seemed rushed and pointless. As he dies, he says he didn’t do it “only” for the money. What does that mean? I wish we had a better sense of him as a three-dimensional character (some of his back story in Iraq, for example); Garrett Dillahunt is a great actor, and it would have been fun to watch.
Is there going to be a happy ending to this story? As Raylan and Boyd banter, Raylan tells him the story between the two will be the classic one “where the hero gets his man, and then he rides off into the sunset.” Boyd counters that it could be like “the classic where a guy chases a whale until the ends of the earth, only to drown for his troubles.”
As we watch Raylan and Boyd eye the money in that vault side by side, how many of us wondered if Raylan wasn’t thinking about lighting out with a piece of it? The two share a quick look, perhaps wondering the same thing.
Meanwhile, underneath the vault, Carl and Zachariah are trying to blow their way to it through the old mine shaft. “Fire in the hole!” Zachariah yells as he sets off another detonation. We are reminded that the name of the Elmore Leonard story upon which this series is based is “Fire in the Hole,” and also the title of this series’ first episode. Raylan is “sick of the past” he says, but here we are, all the way back around.
Raylan digs up the gravestone with his own name on it in the front yard. “Where do you want it located?” the man in charge of the digging asks.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Raylan says.
Is there a happy ending in sight here?
Could Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe ever have a “normal” life?
Use of the word “pussy,” Episode 7: 0.
Use of the word “pussy,” Episode 8: 0. Wow, we’re on a roll.