'Justified' recap: Protect your apricot
On the most recent episode of my sporadically updating podcast, I talked with AOL TV Squad critic Maureen Ryan and my co-host Libby Hill about “Justified” and about just what makes it so great. We all danced around saying it for a while, since this word is sometimes supposed to be said under one’s breath, with a tone of deep shame, when a critic is saying it, but what we all agreed on finally was that “Justified,” at its best, is just darn entertaining. What the show wants to do more than anything is just tell a fun, fascinating story, one that twists and turns and features interesting characters in exciting situations, speaking floridly witty dialogue.
Good TV is supposed to be a chore. It’s not supposed to be fun (unless it’s a half-hour comedy, and then, it’s only fun if you can trace back every single joke to some other sort of reference somewhere). You’re supposed to leave it thinking about the world today and the struggles of everyday human life. It should be edifying, but not necessarily entertaining.
Now, I like a good many shows like that – “Breaking Bad,” anyone? – but “Justified” is making a good case for the idea that a good show, a show filled with deep themes and interesting ideas, can also be a show that tells wildly improbable yarns. Tonight’s episode deals with two crooks who abscond with a pregnant convict from a medical clinic and Raylan and Tim’s race against time to save her, once they realize what’s up. It’s not exactly a laugh riot or anything, but it’s packed with great lines, intriguing twists, and action-packed sequences, culminating in one of those great shootouts that isn’t actually a shootout. Were some of these twists a little predictable? Sure. I had guessed pretty early on that the father of the pregnant convict’s baby wasn’t her husband, as she suggested, but, rather, someone who worked at the prison. But that didn’t take away from the fun of watching Raylan and Tim puzzle out how to find the girl before something very bad happened to her, or the scene where Raylan and Tim go to see the prison guard and are forced to reveal that he’s been sleeping with the prisoners in his care right in front of his wife. These are great, twisty little scenes, scenes where nothing is quite as it seems and the only thing we know for sure is that Raylan is going to figure it out sooner or later.
When I try to get people interested in watching “Justified,” I frequently describe it as “rural noir.” Now, it’s not technically noir, if you come right down to it, since a noir (which is, for those of you unaware, a dark crime story, usually a film, featuring tough guys and femme fatales and so on and so forth – see also: “The Maltese Falcon,” “Double Indemnity” and “Chinatown”) wouldn’t be quite this peppy. But the show does play along with many of the tropes of the form. (Winona, with all of the temptation she represents, is just one of the show’s twists on the femme fatale, for instance.) And in this episode, there’s a heavy sense of that sort of storyline hanging over everything. Desperate men are willing to do just about anything to keep their darkest secrets hidden, and that means they’ll resort to hiring criminals to get rid of the evidence.
If we look at it, the guard’s plot is actually pretty smart. The major problem with it – the fact that Raylan was the man transporting the convict, rather than some other, less cunning marshal – is entirely outside of his control. He hires the gunmen to make the appointment at the clinic, so they don’t immediately ping the radar of even Raylan (who seems suspicious but lets the strange guy in the waiting room slide, to his detriment). From there, he’ll keep the paramedic hired to cut the baby out of his lover (which, ew) in the dark, all the better to make sure that when the time comes, the girl is dead and can’t point a finger back at him, ruining his job and marriage. And he might even make a tidy profit from selling the baby on the black market. It’s a hideous, terrifying plan, but it’s one that makes a sort of sense. When I say seeing this unfold is “fun,” I don’t mean that it’s a good time to watch this kind of dark depravity; I mean that it’s fun to watch things get this deep, then have Raylan slowly figure them out.
Because Raylan DOES figure it all out, with some able assists from Tim, even if it takes him a while. It’s almost as if Raylan, once he’s outsmarted at the clinic, grows even more resolved to keep from getting outsmarted again. Once he and Tim are on the trail of the crooks, the episode doesn’t let up, until that climactic shootout, when Raylan asks the one surviving criminal (who’s shot the paramedic by this point) if he’s heard of that spot known as the apricot, the one spot in the brain where a bullet will take you out before you can so much as think about squeezing the trigger in retaliation. And before things can get too much worse, Tim just drops the guy, straight through the apricot. Another noir touch: It’s always easier to dispense with the bad guys before things get too hairy, even if it results in more paperwork.
The rest of the episode centers on questions of the overriding plot of the series, including the question of Loretta living with Mags for the time being. (Mags comes up with a story about what happened to Loretta’s dad – whose corpse is dissolving in quicklime at the bottom of a pit – that mostly seems to placate the girl, but she seems doubt-ridden, and I wouldn’t expect Mags can keep this up for long.) Mags gets less to do this week than she did last week, but she’s still a great, blood-chilling villain, even when she just gets a scene or two. Even better were the scenes with Raylan and Winona, who are fully back into trying to resist each other and horribly, horribly failing. Whatever draws these two together is back in full force, even if Winona’s husband reminds Raylan that he stole her from him once before and can, presumably, do it again. And maybe that’s so. But I wouldn’t count out our hero in the least. He doesn’t like being outsmarted.
Some other thoughts:
- --Those final shots of Raylan running his hand over Winona’s stomach: Do you think she’s pregnant? That’s what my wife took away from the moments, but I’m not sure it’s so crystal-clear.
- --One of the things I wasn’t so sure about with standalone episodes like this one last season was that the bad guys in them seemed of varying intrigue. Fortunately, the bad guys here are low-rent types, but they have a certain bad guy code they’ll abide by, and it’s that code that eventually puts them at odds.
- --Oh, yeah! Boyd’s coming up out of the mine to discover Raylan just waiting for him. I still don’t know how all of this is going to play out, but I agree with Raylan that a free Boyd Crowder who claims to have his worst days behind him should alarm us all.
- --"Should have taken another shower."
- --"I don't remember much from health class, but I do remember that and what untreated venereal disease looks like."
- --"Nice touch making the appointment."
- --"Now shut ... up, or Tim's gonna hit you in the face."
--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)
Photo: Winona (Natalie Zea) is torn between her husband and her ex-husband. (Credit: FX)