Justified’s fifth season reaches the midpoint by firing a round of narrative buckshot [Recap: season 5, episode 7]

As Boyd and Johnny Crowder sit outside of a Mexican cartel house south of the border, hands zip-tied behind their backs, Boyd’s “silver tongue” doesn’t talk his way out of the predicament he set up, but he does offer some sage advice about the criminal life he and his cousin have chosen. He says he made peace with the idea that his lifestyle wouldn’t allow for him to have a peaceful death at the end of a long natural life. That’s the risk entailed in attempting to make a better life through ill-gotten gains instead of working in the coalmines.

It’s a moment that on the surface is supposed to play as a self-aware reckoning. But Boyd’s ploy is transparent, and he’s got a history of regaining the upper hand on Johnny, so it’s as though he’s prematurely castigating Johnny for the foolish belief that any Crowder could ever top Boyd’s ingenuity and guile. It’s always fun to watch Boyd wriggle his way out of a seemingly impossible trap while spouting easily quotable lines, but Justified is rarely so predictable in how the escape will go down. “Raw Deal” is a cacophonous mess of an episode, essentially an explosion of buckshot comprised of elements that have worked in the past, jumbled together and thrown in every direction. That scattershot approach yields and episode that reaches for just below the tension of “Shot All To Hell” but falls well short for the first somewhat disappointing episode of the season.

With this hour, Justified crosses the halfway point of its fifth season. In previous years, there was some kind of inclination of where the story was headed, from the progress in tracking down the mysterious Drew Thompson to the Bennetts’ plans to confront a coal mining company. But so far this year, there’s not much to tie the whole season together. Dewey Crowe’s family have certainly thrown a wrench into small plans around Harlan County, from Raylan’s social worker quasi-girlfriend Alison getting suspended, to trying to muscle the money for Audrey’s out of Boyd, to Danny’s idea to kidnap and kill Raylan to keep him from prying (thankfully shot down by Darryl almost immediately). But there’s no larger significance for the Crowes. They’re mercenaries out to carve a place for themselves, but without any kind of discernable purpose. Like the invasive species of the swamp, they keep moving and infiltrating aspects of Raylan’s life in Kentucky.

Other episodes have focused on the family interplay between the Crowes, but this time around they’re just soldiers looking to make the biggest score they can. Boyd has nowhere else to turn—and the plot with Paxton’s widow has vanished into thin air without a full resolution—so he can just trot off to Mexico with his men and the Crowes for a showdown with Johnny. Once the heroin deal is complete, and Johnny appears triumphant, it’s only a matter of time before the Crowes emerge to turn the tables. I do have to credit Justified with one necessary feint: at first it appears that Boyd will let Johnny’s men off the hook to hightail it back to Hot Rod Dunham, and take Johnny alive to be disposed back in Harlan, or just disgraced. But once the gunfire starts and Hot Rod’s men are dead, Boyd’s anger boils over and he shoots his cousin in the chest.

Maybe Danny’s just bloodthirsty, or the Crowes’ plan is to get Boyd in such deep trouble that they can take advantage at some point down the line. But for the time being it’s just another complicating eruption of violence from Danny, a criminal who mixes the predilection for violence shown by the Tonin family’s hitmen with Dewey’s absence of forethought and foresight. So now Boyd Crowder has another thing in common with Darryl Crowe: they’ve both had a hand in killing a close family member. And another violent mess has been created because of Danny Crowe, who just can’t keep his itchy trigger finger in check. Now, with nobody to drive the drugs across the border, and a pile of bodies on the wrong side, Boyd is at the mercy of Yoon and the cartel. (Not to mention the preview for next week, which wastes no time in establishing the stereotypically base corruption for Mexican police.)

Meanwhile in the Kentucky State Women’s Prison, Ava needs to find herself some protection. Justified isn’t so much interested in the way that a prison’s social hierarchy functions, or in telling the story of marginalized women with this plot detour. I want to believe it’s about testing Ava’s resolve, and putting her through hell to get to a point where she can take care of herself, defend herself. She could come out the other side of this prison stint recognizing that her decision to be with Boyd set her down this path. But instead of giving Ava an arc that leads to independent thought, action, and redemption apart from the men she’s attached herself to, Justified takes the long route to show that Ava can craftily remain in a class above other women, and rely on a man to protect her status.

By aligning herself with Penny—the girl who scampered off before Ava got jumped last week—and Judith, the ardent prisoner preacher who’s actually helping to smuggle heroin into the prison for the addicts, Ava winds up facing the prospect of prostituting herself and getting entangled in more crimes after she should’ve been released. Ava is justifiably suspicious of the bottom rung on the ladder in the loose drug smuggling organization, which is confirmed when she show’s up to meet the guy who brings in the drugs (a plumber who hides the heroin inside a metal plunger) and learns that Penny has sex with a guard every time drugs come in to get him to look the other way. Ava, having eluded the leering advances of a prison guard earlier in the season, isn’t so keen to willingly provide her body for the operation. Instead, flying in the face of Penny’s warnings about men who start to make excuses for not visiting, Ava doubles down on Boyd by purposefully planting the drugs back in the plumber’s equipment. When a furiously suspicious Judith shows up to confront her later, Ava says she can provide dope—out of the shipment that Boyd still has to smuggle across the border. It’s a bold play, and one that would fit nicely with the way this season’s plot has gone. But nothing has gone right in Ava or Boyd’s plans so far this season, slipping further and further away from that picturesque suburban existence they had mapped out for themselves.

Raylan’s plot is the least significant initially, since it looks like it springs from pervious plot developments instead of advancing them. After his meeting with a few weeks back, Raylan’s on walk-in duty, which puts him on the episodic rail removed from the overarching elements of the plot outside the Lexington Marshals office. This week, it’s a website scam that cheats an online backgammon player out of a quarter million dollars. The guy tries to make Raylan feel utterly inferior for not reading enough to know a famous backgammon player, but the marshal identifies that the website has a fake Marshal takedown notice—a misspelled “Marshall” the key detail, which stings the faux-intellectual walk-in. Armed with the information that some random asshole, and not a division of law enforcement, has his money, the guy books it, leaving Raylan to track down the information with Tim and Rachel’s help, except they always get to take the more exciting lead, per the chief.

Justified has always handled these kinds of quick episodic stories with aplomb, and “Raw Deal” is no exception, twisting the case in unexpected directions. First the backgammon player, who hires some muscle to squeeze his money out of the tech whiz who rigged the website, gets himself shot when the hitman hears how much money is really at stake. Then the programmer turns out to have one leg—a fact used to mock Raylan when he lets the guy evade capture. A few drained bank accounts, a phone call routed through a fake location, and one pissed off girlfriend later, and Raylan is driving a gifted programmer, cancer survivor, and small-time criminal into federal custody. It’s a lot of misdirection and witty banter back and forth between Raylan and TC, the programmer, but is has the effect of making Raylan exhausted at chasing down bad cases that turn out so messy.

That leads to the one point where this random assortment of events actually turns out in Justified’s favor. Art attempts to freeze Raylan out of any meaningful Marshal work, and wants nothing to do with him in any meetings. He’s furious, planning to keep Raylan on shit work until his retirement. But though Raylan is the cool cowboy who watches a guy with a prosthetic leg scamper off because he knows he’ll eventually track the guy down, he doesn’t want to work off scraps for longer than necessary. He lays out two options: a road to forgiveness, or a transfer anywhere else so he doesn’t have to deal with the mess he knows the Crowes are going to cause. It’s a way of forcing Art’s hand: either he can grapple with what Raylan did to take care of Nicky Augustine with the least amount of trouble in his office’s jurisdiction, or move him somewhere else and deal with the next wave of trouble heading toward Harlan.

So Raylan takes vacation leave, expecting an answer from Art when he gets back. But he doesn’t go visit his kid and ex-wife down in Florida—Natalie Zea was busy with The Following and other pilot commitments, presumably—ending up at a bar with Wendy Crowe. She’s clearly trying to push the marshal into doing something untoward, and perhaps betraying a few romantic feelings of her own from the way she stirred up jealousy talking to Alison and making moves on Raylan. But she’s “not his type,” and Raylan makes a generous offer. Wendy’s been toiling at a third-tier law school for most of the 21st century because Darryl keeps hauling her in to fix his messes, and at some point it’s time to cut family ties—just like Darryl did with Dilly in order to open a path to Kentucky. Raylan manages to turn a moment at the bar that looks like an overt honeypot play and drop a sensible idea into Wendy’s head. He may be officially on vacation and away from the case, but he’s still working to get the Crowes out of Harlan any way he knows how. Here’s hoping that means a more cohesive back half of the season, where Art realizes how integral Raylan’s always questionably ethical tactics are to keeping the major criminal players in check.

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