Delaying the resolution of a cliffhanger can be tricky business. It risks rendering the previous chapter less enthralling, taking credit for a sometimes unexpected leap in the plot, and disappointing viewers by feinting one way then pulling back on boldness. But Justified doesn’t delay the cliffhanger from last week—Raylan admitting to Art he knows Special Agent Barkley wasn’t the man on the tarmac when Nicky Augustine was killed—it skips over the conversation and immediate fallout entirely. It’s a technique employed by many shows, Downton Abbey most frequently at the moment, suggesting a conversation without having to actually do the difficult work of writing a scene that fits. Unfortunately, this week’s episode goes to that well a few times too many.
“Kill The Messenger” advances the plot more than just about any other so far this season, but it suffers from resembling last week’s episode without all the things that made that made “Shoot It All To Hell” so damn fun and spookily tense. Art appears only briefly, though he gets one mighty fine punch to Raylan’s face. (Never interrupt a man while he’s deliberately sipping his whiskey alone.) But all the confrontations have lower stakes, or are only suggested with coming to fruition. Boyd and the Crowes team up in relatively boring and convenient fashion, delaying the inevitable war between the two sides. Raylan gets wound up but never gets to unleash his rage on anyone (which is actually a good thing for once). Just about the only thing that gets tied together in a helpful way is Alison remaining Kendall’s social worker, meaning she’s another link between Raylan and the Crowes, putting her in a vulnerable position.
The Ava-in-prison plot remains the weakest element of this season so far, and I haven’t quite put my finger on the reason why. She’s a minor character, who went from motivating Rayland to rescue action, to feeling aimless, unwanted, and jealous, to finding a kindred wounded spirit in Boyd. But after some agency while running Audrey’s, helping girls out and trying to decide if she cared about doing what was right or saving her own neck, now she’s mired in a series of events that only serve to torment Boyd. The racial divide, people pulling Ava’s hair, and the Aryan nation inmate Boyd paid to protect Ava turning on her are all predictable beats for the show to hit. And even the one mildly unexpected moment—Ava asking her bunkmate for a hidden razor—turns out to be innocent, to fix her hair. Ava isn’t getting used to prison because she doesn’t think she’ll be there as long as Boyd figures out what to do, but that means she’s a stranded thread of the plot, getting in deeper, still not confronting her circumstances even as she considers actually using her lawyer. Boyd doesn’t even show up to visit her, instead sending a note, because he’s preoccupied with other things. If Ava being in prison can’t even hold Boyd’s attention as his most pressing problem, it’s not a big leap to say it probably doesn’t interest many viewers either.
Boyd appears shell-shocked at Ava’s predicament at the beginning of the episode, and I wanted to believe that’s because he’s so despondent that she’s been transferred to the state women’s prison after he didn’t see one last double-cross coming. Instead, Boyd’s attention gets drawn in a handful of other directions. First, there’s the issue of his former Aryan Nation inmate friend Gunnar—who still has one of his three sisters on the inside at the Kentucky State Women’s Prison—taking Boyd’s money and then letting his sister jump Ava for Boyd’s crimes as a “race traitor.” The justice here is swift and calculated, but it doesn’t really go anywhere toward getting Ava out, it’s more of a there-and-back motion.
So while Boyd gets in some silver-tongued soliloquies to backstabbing skinheads about to take a beating and refund his money, it’s not nearly as rewarding as his showdown with Darryl was last week, or the impending bumpy family reunion with Johnny. Hot Rod Dunham finds a way to alert Boyd through a phone call monitored at gunpoint that the heroin deal in Mexico won’t be doing down as planned, since Johnny is still alive and gaining more control.
Meanwhile, Danny and Dewey, the Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dumber of the Crowe family at the moment, conspire to kidnap Carl, Boyd’s barman, as a way to get Boyd to pay Darryl, which would allow Dewey to get his kin to leave Kentucky. But thanks to Danny going full moron and barking at Allison after running her off the road with his car, they attract the attention of the marshals, specifically Raylan and Rachel. Their search for the source of the Crowes newfound housing situation fit to keep Kendall is one of many messy plots sprinkled with colorful dialogue tonight.
And speaking of Danny Crowe, he’s surviving by the skin of his teeth at the moment. First he kills Baptiste, and pressures Kendall into keeping quiet. Then the two of them give the least believable excuses I have ever heard to Darryl when he asks about Baptiste disappearing. It’s obvious what happened, and yet a reasonably cunning guy like Darryl can’t see what’s going on. The foundational justification works—that he cares so ardently about keeping the family together that it clouds his judgment when it comes to his brothers—but these are the first steps toward incredulous disbelief if Darryl continues to be ignorant of Danny’s moronically rash violence. Dewey’s no picnic either, spouting off on how much he’s been through since failing to cleanly kill Messer but getting the job done anyway. When Boyd finally puts Dewey in his place, it’s funny again, but for most of this hour, he’s just pathetic.
Raylan’s tight-lipped and unemotional nature is one of his most important characteristics as a classical cowboy archetype. But at times his stoicism is abrasively annoying, as in the final beat where he tells Rachel in no uncertain terms will he be talking about why Art has bruised knuckles and he has a black eye. The effect of Raylan’s silence is that it forces his fellow Deputy Marshals Rachel and Tim into corners where they have no character development. Tim got to bounce off of Boyd’s old war buddy last season, but Rachel hasn’t ever had something comparable, and here there was an opportunity wasted to make her more than just Raylan’s feisty sidekick.
“Kill The Messenger” isn’t a bad episode of Justified; it’s just an uneven one with very little cohesion. I think a lot of that comes from Raylan’s unresolved admission to Art. We know vaguely how he feels (angry enough to punch his own deputy), and that Raylan wants to make it up so badly he volunteers for inventory—even if he and Rachel blow it off to hunt down Danny Crowe. But this episode felt like an hour of pausing for window dressing after the lightning fast movement of last week. There’s a storm brewing in the Marshals office, and in the Crowder family battle for crime superiority. But Ava feels more and more lost in the mix. Wynn Duffy is a regular who turns up too infrequently to matter so far. And an ill-advised alliance between the Crowes and the Crowders only means backtracking into enmity at some point in the future. That’s too much circuitous motion following after one of the masterful, bullet-train momentum-carrying episodes in Justified’s history.
•Funniest Dewey moment of the night is definitely the failed attempt to sell the now useless aboveground pool to a buyer. Raylan keeps messing with Dewey Crowe’s life.
•The best dialogue of the episode might be the scene where Wynn and Boyd meet their heroin suppliers. It’s quick, efficient, and effervescent.
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.