And so, without any immediate family left in town, Raylan Givens gets drawn back to Harlan because of poor, stupid Wade Messer. He’s one of the dumber men who tried to kill Raylan, but also one of the few who nearly succeeded, conspiring with Dickie Bennett to string Raylan up in a tree for torturing. So it’s not surprising that Raylan greets news that the U.S. Attorney’s office used Messer as a Confidential Informant with contempt, both at the choice and that he wasn’t told.
Recovering Messer is a moot point, since Darryl essentially strung Dewey out with instructions to kill the man, or else. It’s a comedy of errors through to that inevitability, as Messer brings along a tiny Webelo shovel (from his Boy Scout camping days) to dig a hole, and Dewey is so frightened at killing a man that he hesitates long enough for Messer to fight back. The ensuing mountain chase is just sad, but it accomplishes three things. It brings Raylan back to Harlan, in direct conflict with the Crowes; it forever ties Dewey to his cousins, seeing as he pulled the trigger on the bullets that eventually killed Messer; and it elucidates Darryl’s philosophical emphasis on family business when it comes to crime.
But the most important things it leads to are scenes between Boyd and Raylan, which feature the best dueling dialogue that Justified has to offer. The aspect of this show that will be the most sorely missed when it ends in 2015 is the rapport between Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins, so adept are they at bantering back and forth.
Boyd has his own family problems to deal with. He invites Johnny to the prison to parlay in a safe spot through metal detectors under the guise of visiting Ava. It’s clear that Johnny hasn’t forgiven Boyd for much of anything—his list of offenses included the shotgun blast that left him crippled back in the first season, which wasn’t directly Boyd’s fault. Since that family schism can’t simply be patched, Boyd has Johnny followed, and learns his cousin is hiding under the power of Rodney “Hot Rod” Dunham in Memphis. And judging by the last shot of the episode, it looks like all the evidence of drug interception and murder that Boyd has stored away will be deployed only at the right place and time, for revenge on Hot Rod and Johnny.
But it’s the man without a family—elders now dead, his wife and daughter out of state and out of touch—who exploits the familial bond in a way that picks a fight where there previously wasn’t one. After having sex with Alison, Raylan judges her mood to be hostile, and she tells him about one of the cases she worked on recently. At first, Alison’s story of taking an 8-year-old boy out of a home—where he was abused, chained up in a garage, and made to use a pail for waste—is a glimpse into the horrifying pain that she witnesses, different from the kind of horror that Raylan sees as a marshal. But then it turns, and becomes about how the abusive, criminally negligent father fought so hard to keep his boy, because of the strength of a family bond. And that’s exactly what Raylan exploits with the Crowes. Vasquez wants to stick with the easy dots to connect and take down Boyd, the “crime boss” the dead CI was supposedly informing on, but Raylan has the instincts and the history to intuit what’s really going on. Just like Vasquez and Mullen didn’t trust Raylan with knowing about Messer sooner, Vasquez foolishly tries to disregard Raylan’s theory about a town he knows better than anyone.
If the U.S. Attorney’s office won’t look into the Crowes, Raylan knows how to pick at their resolve: family. He goes back to Audrey’s to remove Kendal, the minor serving alcohol in a “house of ill repute.” That touches a nerve with Darryl and Danny, and even though Raylan is foolish to stoke the situation to a flashpoint, Kendal diffuses it by agreeing to go with the Marshal to Child Protective Services. It’s yet another example on Justified of a young kid who has seen a lot of terrible things recognizing what to do: live to fight another day, either when the odds are better or the family’s got its backs against a wall. Still, it’s hard to shake the fact that from a search assignment to find a CI, Raylan injected himself yet again into the criminal politics of Harlan, and antagonized a crime family by nearly instigating a shootout and following through on removing the kid brother from the new Crowe’s nest.
But off in the background, Chief Mullen is digging around what happened with Nicky Augustine on the tarmac, which leads him to take a trip to Detroit. There, Will Sasso’s Canadian drug-runner has been detained, and spits up a story Sammy Tonin was telling everyone he could before he got killed: that he had a U.S. Marshal in his back pocket. Now, that’s an entirely false way of putting what transpired between Raylan and Tonin to put an end to Nicky Augustine for their mutual benefit. But the association isn’t a good one for the department, or for Raylan.
That development suggests that the Augustine incident will fester as Art digs up more evidence, decides whether to turn the information over and to whom. Honestly, it could build to the season ending with Raylan losing his badge. (Or he could lose it sooner and have to regain it by season’s end.) That looming possibility, that Raylan could finally be caught doing something far enough over the line to cost him his badge, is the most danger he’s ever been in. That symbol protects Raylan from all the people he’s ever done a bad thing to, and without it, he’s just another trigger-happy Harlan County citizen looking over his shoulder wherever he goes.
• Hey look, it’s Jonathan from Buffy (Danny Strong) as the despicable prison guard who tries to manhandle Ava. He’s a bit of a stooge, since he can’t tell that specifically one very strong female guard is protecting her. That’s a good indication of what Boyd has been doing to keep her safe, but something she won’t necessarily see.
• Sheriff Mooney shows Lee the hand Mara tattoos to look like Boyd’s, and the cover-up is secure at least for this week. But Lee still wants Ava to rot in jail.
• “Well, I have had more time on the elliptical now that I don’t have to spend my time wondering how and when you gon’ stab me in the back.”
Kevin McFarland is a Contributing Writer at The A.V. Club and in other little corners of the Internet. His Alaskan Malamute, Dynamite, loves the snow so much he might as well be a direwolf. Follow him on Twitter.