By Cheryl Collins
Can we admit that after this once fun and slyly intelligent series dove so steeply into the crapper last season, we were doubtful we’d be back for the sixth and final season? Gentle readers: I confess.
I found myself watching this time around, but it was not until the third episode that the show finally found its stride and hooked me again, showing its old potential and high standards. So after letting a few episodes pass, here I am.
It was clear from the set-up of the last episode of Season 5 — which that entire season was used as brain-dead filler to reach — that we were heading back to the core dynamic among the dramatis personae of Season 1: Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), the smart-mouthed and handsome trigger-happy son of a wily crook who escaped the narrow confines of Harlan County, Kentucky, to become a U.S. Marshall; his frenemy Boyd Crowder, the shrewd, hyper-articulate former white supremacist and bank robber who once worked side by side with Raylan in the mines; and Ava, the woman who has over the span of the series loved them both.
The series opener is set four weeks after last. Raylan is preparing to finally reunite with his baby daughter and her mother in Florida. He’s barely seen the kid since she was born, but he has been pulled back from finally forging his nuclear family — and having a “normal” life — to complete one final task: nailing Boyd for the Feds.
This is what I wrote at the end of last season:
We already see that the outlines of the final season will echo much of Season 1. Boyd will go back to his crazy-ass bank-robbing ways, this time with nothing to lose, and Raylan will confront further who he really is as he spends more time in Harlan. Ava will be stuck in between, back in the country house where she and Raylan once spent leisurely afternoons before she was Boyd’s moll. Perhaps Raylan will move into his daddy Arlo’s house to bring it all full circle. Rachel — as Ava calls her, “the pretty black woman” — will be the new Art and try to keep Raylan on a short leash.
And Boyd and Raylan will play three-dimensional chess in the hills of Harlan.
And that indeed is where we find ourselves.
Ava is now literally stuck between Boyd — technically her fee-ahn-SAY — and Raylan. She is back in the house where she used to live with her husband, whom she blasted with a shotgun while he was eating the dinner she served him. She’s also back at the hair salon, doing perms. We know this will not endure. (We are very happy that she is out of prison and away from that pale riff on Orange Is the New Black.)
Raylan allowed Ava out of prison on the condition that she report on Boyd and his doings. She is not handling the stress well: nothing says “alcoholic” like cheap vodka in the morning.
Boyd has tried his hand at all sorts of businesses since we first met him — revival preacher, bar owner, brothel proprietor, heroin dealer — but none seemed to make his eyes gleam like bank robbing. After years of toiling in the muck, he has nothing but his grotty bar to show for it. He wants to get something for his efforts before leaving the downward spiral that is Harlan. But can he trust Ava? She spurned him at the end of the last season, but she’s all he has left.
I wrote then that Ava’s predicament was set to echo The Americans, that intelligent, sexy, and intricately plotted show that also happens to be produced by Graham Yost. Nadia is a Soviet embassy employee who has been blackmailed into helping the U.S. by her FBI handler, with whom she has an affair. They fall in love … or do they? Her loyalties and intentions, beyond pure survival, are never clear. She is a pawn in the match between the much larger forces of the Cold War.
Ava is similarly confined and conflicted, pressed in on all sides by the men around her.
And Raylan? Thus far this season, he has been curiously emotionally absent. His role seems to be about moving the pieces of the plot forward, and as yet we don’t care what’s going on with him. We have not seen his life outside of work: alone in a tacky bachelor’s apartment, tempted by some smart-talking woman, or reflected in a glass at a neon-lit bar. He’s boring.
The writers seemed to have taken pains to create an opener that was 360 degrees different than last season’s, set in Miami, with its explosions, car chases, screeching tires, and lame plot lines. This time, all was pared down to Harlan. The closest we got to a car chase was Raylan and Tim tailing Dewey in a tow-truck with a blown-out tire on a winding country highway — not exactly exciting, and it seemed a sly rebuttal of last season’s unsuccessful effort.
I liked the way Boyd was wordlessly (re)introduced at the top of the opener as he wakes from sleeping on his office couch in his wife-beater: we get a good look at the swastika tattoo he is now branded with, and quick shots of an old photo of coal miners, the prison tats on his fingers, the gun he sticks in his belt. You can almost read the thought bubble: “How did I end up here?”
Ava seems to be waking to the same thought. Boyd is outside, making a racket as he tries to do some work on Ava’s house, but she is resistant. Does she want to make a home with him or not, seems the unsubtle question. She’s not sure either. After Ava left prison she told Boyd their relationship was over, but now she has to cozy up to him at Raylan’s insistence. Or does she still love him? Her intentions and plans are hard to decipher. She’s winging it, while hitting the bottle, hard. We never know what she really feels. (And this is exactly true of Nadia on The Americans, as well.)
Dewey exits prison ready to find a “six-dollar blowjob” and, after discovering a childhood trinket in the burnt-out remains of the brothel he briefly owned — his nirvana — he finds his favorite whore now working as a waitress and dating a large black man. For that dim white supremacist, this is the ultimate indignity. Dewey begs Boyd for a return to things “like they used to be.” Alas, Dewey, there’s no going home again. Boyd, unsure he can be trusted, dispatches him with a bullet to the head, finally putting him out of his misery. It’s a reminder of what he’ll do to Ava if he suspects her. And he does.
Raylan has indeed gone back to Arlo’s and is using it as a “base of operations” while they set up the case against Boyd. (Hey, are you guys reading this blog?) He’s confronted by a mysterious lumbersexual in an expensive car named Ty Walker who offers to buy out his property for a lot of money. Arlo’s gravestone looms in the background. Is Raylan ready to become another deracinated American, shorn of his heritage while living among the palm trees? Raylan sends him on his way.
Casting Garrett Dillahunt as Walker was particularly deft and meta: he played not one but two different characters on the late-lamented Deadwood with Olyphant (Jack McCall, the nobody who killed Wild Bill Hickok, and Francis Wolcott, a well-dressed Eastern geologist). Walker is just a hyper-verbal as Boyd is.
But it’s not until Episode 3 that we finally glimpse the full thicket of possible crosses, double crosses, and triple crosses that might lie ahead.
We meet Walker’s boss, Avery Markham, an old local badass, played so well by Sam Elliot, in neat white shirt and bolo tie. (Just to drive the point home, all the baddies are Harlan based this last season.) He’s trying to go straight in real estate. In fact, he looks a bit like Boyd might if he lived another 30 years. What’s he want with all that land in Harlan, which everyone notes is emptying out and devoid of future?
Markham finds Ava alone, to not only warn her and Boyd off of stealing from him, but to offer some fatherly advice.
“I know for a woman to survive in this line of work she’s got to be harder than the men, ready to do the things they want. I know women who have that in them. My question is, are you that kind of woman, Ava. Because if you ain’t, you’ll never be more than a token, who can be threatened, or hurt, just to keep your man in line.”
This is the question that will overshadow this season, it seems. For Ava, facing bone-crushing pressure from the Feds, and Boyd, and now Markham, the message must have resonance. Can she somehow take control of this nightmarish scenario she has found herself in?
Markham, in paternal tones, demands obeisance from Boyd, who submits, making sure to address him as “sir.” For good measure, Markham rubs his nose in his humiliation, reminding Boyd he’s nothing but a boy “playing pretend.” Boyd does not take well to it. He resolves to steal from as well as kill Markham.
It turns out that “the kind of woman” Markham knows who has “that in them” is Katherine Hale, who Boyd is nominally working for. She is not only sleeping with Markham but trying to steal from him via Boyd.
This is The Americans in coal country. The parallels are unmistakable.
At episode’s end, Ava seems to decide she must take fate in her hands and be “harder than the men, ready to give them what they want.” How? The answer has three letters.
There’s more to say about issues of race, which I’ll touch on more next time, hopefully. In this last episode we finally hear the word that’s been at the corner of so many characters’ mouths but left unsaid: “colored.” It’s from an old guy, whose generation just used that word as a matter of course, and it’s in front of Rachel, who just lets it roll away. But for a show that seems to have played so oddly with issues racial, it’s worth noting. Besides Rachel, I don’t recall seeing any people of color this season. Everyone in Harlan is white now, apparently. More on this later.
And yes, this season has been a schlong fest. It suspect there’s an algorithm at work where a required number of words for male genitalia must be inserted into each episode to reach the appropriate coveted male demographic: it’s all blowjobs, boners, balls, pricks, dicks, and cojones. And just when I thought they had eradicated it, we got hit with the word “pussy” twice in Episode 3. Sigh.
Will I be watching next week? Hell yeah.
Use of the word “pussy”:
Episode 1: 0
Episode 2: 0
Episode 3: 2