There are few shows that know how to tell an audience right off the bat they will not be messing around on a given night better than Justified. In the first four episodes of this season, Lee Paxton would have wondered about Boyd’s death, stewed about it for 10 minutes of screen time while other schemes commenced, leading up to a final turn that reveals Boyd is still alive—before kicking the narrative can down the road to another episode for the fireworks. But not this week; Boyd has decided to embrace the ego that says he’s still Boyd Crowder, the rightful criminal ruler of Harlan County, hangers-on and high-class pushers be damned. He’s ready for action, so when Lee Paxton pulls that lamp chain, there’s Boyd, sitting in a bedroom chair, a deadly snake with a venomous snake ready to deliver unto Paxton an impassioned final monologue:
"A small town never forgets. Now, word's gon’ burn through these hills and hollers like a wildfire. People of Harlan County, rich and poor, will marvel at your debasement and venality. They will spit venom when they speak your name. And they will take your suicide as the last act of a coward. Now your reputation is ruined, your good word worthless, but death will not be the end of your suffering. For generations your children, and your children's children will have a mark against their name, and that will be your legacy."
That right there is some Pulp Fiction-level murder preamble that the spirit of Elmore Leonard can be proud of. All it needs is something about the “inequities of selfishness and the tyranny of evil men.” And, truth be told, Tarantino and Avery definitely ripped a page from Leonard’s book with all of that style—which is evident in Tarantino adapting Rum Punch into Jackie Brown. The cold open is a benediction. “Shot All To Hell” is the first episode of this season to achieve Justified’s greatest potential.
Many masterful episodes in the series have focused on Raylan Givens as the center of a wheel while other plots orbit around him. But “Shot All To Hell” is different, since Raylan gets pushed to the fringe fairly quickly, just another ensemble member in a freewheeling episode that moves from showdown to showdown in each scene. The risk in putting a classical western gunslinger confrontation—with or without guns, as Justified is often about sparring with words before resorting to guns—in almost every scene, is that the effect could wear off. When everyone pulls a gun at some point, the tension dips and it becomes a matter of waiting for the moment a gun appears instead of wondering whether that moment will come.
But the corrective move to defend against that malaise is to move quickly and efficiently through different sets of characters, bringing all the major conflicts of the season so far to a head, and even adding in new ones. The first scene after the credits features Will Sasso’s Canadian stoolpigeon stopped by none other than Alan Tudyk, playing Elias Marcos, Theo Tonin’s consigliore and deadliest hitman. He’s the new darkness, dressed in all black and on a deadly mission to settle all vengeance for his boss. That brings the tally to two deadly showdowns in the first two scenes.
Then there’s a pause for Amy Smart’s weekly appearance, as Raylan and Wendy Crowe argue over the marshal removing young Kendall Crowe from Darryl’s charge. The tactic won’t stick—and Allison doesn’t approve of using the child to stir up trouble—but this is just the palate cleanser between violent showdowns, and it still features a confrontation.
Art, fresh off his trip to Detroit, knows to look out for Wynn Duffy and Picker, and sports Marcos staking out the same diner, intercepting him for a verbal sparring as they feel each other out. Art seemingly comes out on top, earning a chance to snag Picker and talk to him before the elder Tonin can exact justice by proxy for his son’s murder. But again, Justified pushes the gas instead of the brake, as Marcos comes back to the diner and raises the stakes. This is a prime example of the show relentlessly tightening screws. That’s how this episode gets away with practically every scene building this way. It has a cumulative pressure-cooker effect. This hour is yet another episode that honors Elmore Leonard’s pulp heritage, crafting a rollercoaster of pure adrenaline that allows no full reprieve. Just when a moment of calm arrives, another face-off or emotional gut-punch strikes to drive the momentum back up again.
Sadly, for Marcos’ entire spooky bully act, he turns out to be just another thug believing the biggest gun will always win the fight. The bigger threat, at least to Raylan, is having Picker in the marshal’s office, sitting on the information that Raylan was present during the hit on Nicky Augustine—and in a way orchestrated the whole thing. That threat looms over Raylan’s part of the episode, as he barrels into the interrogation and tags along with Art to a location where Marcos could be hiding, which instigates a shootout against a massive automatic rifle. Plus, the surprise discovery of Theo Tonin, dying from a heart condition, comprises the biggest coup of Art’s entire career.
Back in Boyd’s series of power moves, he settles his debt to the sheriff, gets a face-to-face with Darryl Crowe in his own bar, and sits down with Hot Rod Dunham to settle the dispute with his cousin Johnny. And each time, Boyd makes the big move: he hires a coal miner with black lung to shoot the sheriff in the middle of a diner, and flatly refused to pay Mara; he pulls a gun and shouts at Darryl to make a show of dominance; and he offers Dunham a share of heroin profits in exchange for Johnny. The first two parts seem to work out fine for the time being, but Johnny is still a Crowder. When Dunham attempts to turn his men on Johnny, he finds that the other Crowder has already thought one move ahead, and hired the hitmen to turn on Dunham. It’s a deft reversal—and one that underlines just how miraculous it is that Wynn Duffy of all people has always survived by flying high enough to get connected to deals, but low enough to stay under the execution radar.
The only thing that sticks out as an afterthought is Ava Crowder. The scenes of her in prison have been brief, but after a series like Orange Is The New Black has unearthed a nuanced drama within prison walls, it all seems a bit tossed-off. Justified has never had the firmest grip on how to approach female characters in the same insightful way it draws conclusions about men. Jonathan from Buffy takes his revenge on Ava by conspiring with her cellmate to make it appear as though Ava stabbed him several times, and just like that, her hopes of an easy release disappear. Boyd crumbles in response, the one final element of his plan taken from his control, just like his dreams of living with Ava in that nice new house at the end of last season.
And I guess the Crowe subplot has mostly disappointed so far, in the sense that they haven’t been differentiated from the progression of the Bennetts back in season two. Darryl already dispatched Coover stand-in Dilly back in Florida, and now Danny pulls a very Dickie Bennett move by rashly shooting the Haitian with a shotgun after an argument. Danny’s way of doing business is liable to get the entire family killed, and him flying off the handle and out of control only makes the Crowes just like other potentially villainous families. They’re from Florida, but the odd man out is Dewey, who’s so introspective about what happened to Messer. Unlike the more prominent conflicts elsewhere in the episode, Dewey is at war with himself, and comes to an epiphany moment where he sheds all of his Floridian possessions.
But the climactic celebration is a bookend to Boyd’s surprise visit to Paxton’s bedroom, proving once again that Raylan and Boyd share Harlan roots. Right after toasting Art’s finest haul as Louisville Chief Deputy, close to an impending but unofficial retirement date, the issue of Nicky Augustine’s death finally re-emerges. Picker had information, but pinned the federal agent rumor on missing FBI agent Jeremy Barkley (Stephen Tobolowsky), a man Augustine killed far before the tarmac incident.
Raylan could let it go, and have the tension continue to tease out over more time, a stall tactic that keeps the story from taking big turns and coming up with more. But as this is still bold pulp crime, Raylan turns and walks back into Art’s office and says he knows for a fact Barkley wasn’t on the tarmac. So what comes next? Does Raylan come clean about everything, or just create a more elaborate lie? Whatever it is, the drama between the chief and his deputy is the most compelling thread here, certainly over the messy rise of the Crowe family or Ava being transferred to the state penitentiary, where Boyd can’t protect her. In a way this episode flips the usual tactics for Boyd and Raylan, with the former adopting the straightforward and blunt offensive moves favored by Raylan, and the marshal attempting to be covert like his hometown buddy, the lifetime criminal. Ultimately, just like always, they reflect each other’s actions, and come to the same conclusion: act now, and watch the sparks fly until the next move presents itself. For Boyd, his master plan ends in tragic disappointment just as reunion at long-last seemed guaranteed. For Raylan, it could end up costing him everything he has left.
• Dr. Aaron Shutt himself, Adam Arkin, directed this episode, which explains his return for a brief cameo as Theo Tonin. A deft way to end that bit of the plot, which had been trudging on for a while—though Dave Foley’s Canadian criminal is still out there somewhere.
• “I’ve been accused of being a lot of things. Inarticulate ain’t one of them.”
• “I’m a dick, but you’re a kiss ass.”
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.