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'Justified' recap: Just don't try the apple pie

Js2ep201_20101026_PG-0635 The best thing about “Justified” is how well-developed its rural Kentucky world feels. OK, that’s maybe not the “best” thing, not on a show with such riotously fun episodes, such a great protagonist, and such terrific dialogue. But the world of the show doesn’t just feel like a TV world. It really does feel like if you took the wrong exit somewhere around Lexington, you might drive just long enough to end up in this place and among these people. Sure, everyone’s just a bit cleverer than they would be in real life, and sure, life is probably more exciting there than it is in the REAL rural Kentucky, but, hey, all of it FEELS right. That’s one of the show’s chief strengths, and that’s one of the things that makes tonight’s premiere, “The Moonshine War,” so much fun. Tonight, we meet a whole raft of new characters, but it feels like they’ve been there from the first, and we just hadn’t gotten around to hanging out with them yet. And that’s unquestionably a good thing.

The head of this little clan is Mags Bennett (played by character actress Margo Martindale, who’s defiantly playing against type here), a backwoods-y marijuana farmer who runs a little store and serves up some of her own homemade moonshine, including a little concoction she calls Apple Pie. She knows Raylan from way back, when he was living in Kentucky and was a promising baseball star, back before he became a government man.

Now, she’s not so sure why he’s sniffing around her operation, but as he assures her, he’s got no desire to shut down her business, since as a federal marshal, marijuana production isn’t really something he’s concerned with. What he IS concerned with is the call he got on a tip line, the call that suggests a sex offender and child molester is holed up within Mags’ operation, threatening one of the barely teenage girls in the area.

It’s a great way for us to meet Mags (and her slightly more direct sons) because it lets her seem like a good old girl who, sure, skirts the law with her primary occupation but doesn’t seem like she could hurt a fly all the same. At the same time, we get to see that her sons are just slightly more threatening. When it turns out that the young girl’s father called the tip line to turn in the Bennett worker, Dickie Bennett (an impressively threatening Jeremy Davies, perhaps best known to TV fans before this for playing “Lost’s” Daniel Faraday) appreciates the dad’s apology, but, well, he’s just gonna have to stick his foot in this bear trap, all right? Mags’ other two sons, Coover and Doyle, are no better. Coover spends his time shooting rats, later hurling one at Raylan’s car and nearly hitting Rachel in the process. Doyle is a member of the local law enforcement, suggesting the Bennetts may have a finger in every pie they can possibly think of.

But the end of the episode proves the apples didn’t fall far from the tree (particularly when it comes to that Apple Pie). Mags collects the girl’s father, to apologize for the fact that one of her men took such an interest in the kid. She would have made sure he was dealt with, had the Feds not gotten to him, see? And just have a nice sip of this here Apple Pie, all warm and cinnamon-y. What she neglects to mention, of course, is that the glass she’s given him is laced with an all-natural poison, culled from plants dug up from back in the woods somewhere, meaning that he’s not long for this world. It’s an effective, chilling scene, nicely setting up the stakes for what’s to come. Raylan may have sort of a guess as to Mags’ cunning, but he’s got absolutely no idea. And the way Martindale plays the deadly smile behind all of Mags’ charm is pitch perfect. When she tells the girl’s dad that there’s no way he’ll make it, even if she had a chopper right there to take him to the hospital, but he shouldn’t worry, since she’ll take care of his little girl, well, that’s all you need to make a great bad guy right there.

Even though “The Moonshine War” spends so much time with the Bennetts, there’s still plenty of room to go and see what the other characters are up to as well. Rachel’s the one who first gets the call to look into the possible child endangerment, and she pulls in Raylan because when she goes down to Harlan – as an African American female surrounded by white people who respect her authority only so far as they absolutely have to – she doesn’t feel comfortable. Rachel and Tim, Raylan’s other occasional partner, never got the character development they probably deserved last season, so it’s nice to see this episode dealing with how Rachel’s strong, smart and capable, yes, but also strong, smart and capable enough to know that sometimes, having somebody like Raylan, who can effectively pretend to be one of the Harlan folks, is nice to have along while solving a case. And, hey, if it results in him getting to avoid filing endless paperwork, Raylan’s just happy to be along for the ride, too.

If there’s a sequence that doesn’t work as well here, it’s the pre-credits attempts to put everything from the end of last season to bed. Season one ended on a sort of cliffhanger, one that didn’t leave very much to the imagination, and I’m not sure season two needed to start immediately with cleaning up the old business. It very easily could have been dealt with in one or two lines of dialogue, and while all of these scenes are fun, they don’t work nearly as well with the rest of the hour as they might. Sure, seeing Raylan go all the way back to Miami to deal with his problems at the source was a great scene, but this whole prologue felt unnaturally hurried, especially in comparison to the material back in Harlan with the Bennetts and the search for the missing girl (which was over almost as soon as it began). It had the weird sense of cleaving the episode into two episodes, and while both of those episodes were good, I might have liked it if the whole hour had just dealt with the primary storyline. Still, it’s a small quibble in a remarkably self-assured start to season two of the series. I can’t wait to see what other evils are hiding in the back woods of Harlan.

Some other thoughts:

  • --Boyd Crowder runs off, much to the consternation of Art (who is always able, perhaps surprisingly, to find new notes in the endless stream of scenes where he’s miffed at Raylan but impressed by his results). Where does he get off to? Well, we don’t learn that until the end of the hour, but he’s headed down into the mines. No telling what this might all lead to.
  • --Raylan and Winona’s constant ability to fall into bed together at the drop of a hat should be getting annoying, but the two seem to find their mutual attraction so darn irritating that it remains funny to me. Really liked the post-coitus pillow talk in this episode.
  • --I don’t know if the new promos FX has been papering the TV landscape with are from future episodes. So far as I can tell, they’re not in the three episodes FX sent out to critics for review. But they’re great fun and a great introduction to the basic character of Raylan and the storytelling ideals of “Justified.”
  • --"Did I not tell you there would be booby traps?"
  • --"We're reefer farmers, Raylan. We don't consort with sexual deviants!"
  • --"You caught me. I'm stealing gas. I don't know why I do it! It's not like I can't afford it."
  • --"Yeah, that's what a girl wants to hear for pillow talk: Regret."

--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) may seem like a simple reefer farmer/general store owner, but there's more to her than meets the eye. (Credit: FX)

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Comments () | Archives (11)

The best thing about such an evil character like Mags, is you know it'll be great when she finally gets what's coming to her (which will probably be in the last show of the season). LOVE Justified.

Love how the Justified episode drew its new bad-guy/lady characters. First an introduction, then a small connection, only to find out all of them are connected. Fantastic writing!

I'm sitting here in Louisville, KY, a metro population of 2 million, not believing that yet again Hollywood insists on portraying our citizens as moonshine-besotted knuckdraggers.

Mr. VanDerWerff, I'm wondering how you know - for a FACT - that "all of it feels right."

If you are a fellow Kentuckian, shame on you. If not, have you actually been to the Commonwealth of Kentucky?

P.S. Meth (or Oxycontin) is the new "reefer," since no one can see it from a helicopter. I suppose this is a slice of life from the past?

s/b "knuckledraggers" but you get the drift.

@martha: I'm not from Kentucky myself, but I thought the show has always done a nice job of delineating between the "big city" feel of Lexington and the rural, more insular feel of "coal country." The writers have even included some nice asides about the miles Raylan puts on his car "on the taxpayer's dime" shuttling back-and-forth from Lexington to Harlan. And the show has never said anything about Louisville one way or the other, as far as I can remember.

Any big state has lots of local differences. In Kansas, where I grew up, Wichita was a far cry from Gove or Abilene. In Arizona, Phoenix and the towns on the north rim of the Grand Canyon are worlds apart, culturally. In California, San Francisco and Fresno and Barstow and Eureka couldn't be more different. I think the writers of Justified get that. I think most viewers get that.

Your Kentucky pride is awesome, but persoanlly, I dpn't think you have much to worry about.

I agree that that first act felt a disconnected, but really, I was just happy to have the Tommy Bucks/Cartel storyline finally put to bed. I felt that hung around way too long last season.

Otherwise, great stuff, and great to have Todd recapping this on Show Tracker. I already find Mags more intriguing than I ever found Old Man Crowder.

The scene where the father is poisoned is one of the most disturbing I've seen in a long while. I do hope Martindale gets an Emmy nod; she more than deserves it. It's going to be fun hating the scheming Mags this season, with the hopes her comeuppance will full of vengeance. Can't wait to watch how Raylan deals with her.
This show is a gem; too bad FX didn't show "Terriers" the same respect.

Martha:

I've been to rural Kentucky, but only sparingly. (I worked in Indiana in 2008, in Evansville and Vincennes, and we'd drop across the river into Kentucky every so often.) So I almost assuredly do not know that place like you.

But I grew up in rural South Dakota (in a town of about 800 people), and the show does so much to evoke the kinds of colorful characters and interesting people you'll find in a rural setting that I can't help but think it *feels* right, even if it's all a heightened version of reality.

Well in fact there really is Apple Pie! I know of and have partaken in it. It is indeed like drinking Apple Pie. It sure has a kick as the one I've had is made with Everclear 190 Proof.

I really getting into the show. Yea the first part was a bit awkward.

Do they have the series out on DVD yet? Would like to hear the directors comments regarding the whole thing and see more background about the show and actors/characters.

Came back to Pennsylvania after living in eastern Kentucky thirty years ago with a quart jar of "white lightening." Unfortunately it didn't have apple pie flavoring, just throat searing , mega proof taste. Various friends and neighbors had a sip, and it was quickly gone. My then husband worked in Clay County, Harlan and Hazard, and we lived in London. At that time the area was "dry" and you had to go north toward Lexington to buy legal liquor. Bootlegging, rather than moonshine was the best source of liquor. There were actually "drive in windows" out of bootleggers' homes."

I have to agree with Mandy in reply to Martha. Louisville is not in the same world as Harlan, nor is the closer Lexington. I am not a native of Kentucky, but did live in eastern Kentucky for some time. This was a while ago, but I think Justified captures the area pretty well. I think at the time I lived there, marijuana was being grown between the rows in cornfields to hide it from flyovers. Bootlegging was big in the dry counties; moonshining did still occur but was dying out. Once outsiders were accepted, they were treated like family..the people could be warm and great. I now am back living in my native state of Pennsylvania. It is often remarked that PA is Philly and Pittsburgh with Alabama(or the like) in between. This is pretty much true. Living in a Pittsburgh suburb/college town, I'm often bemused by the less enlightened attitudes in many who live in the middle of the state. I don''t take it to be a personal affront when an outsider remarks on it.


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