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'Justified' recap: Mags Bennett's finest hour

March 31, 2011 |  9:00 am

JUS-ep208_20110114_PG-0274 One of the things that’s so terrific about the second season of “Justified” is that it constantly pushes you to reconsider which side you should be on. That’s never more apparent than in “The Spoil,” an episode where Raylan’s assignment is to protect a woman whose main goal is to cut the top off a Kentucky mountain to get at all the coal inside, thus destroying the environment and poisoning the valley that the locals live in. Though her aims would seem destructive to probably the vast majority of this show’s audience (at least everybody who’s read Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”), she’s not the one trying to kill people.

No, if you’re a well-meaning, eco-friendly type like myself, the sort of person who opposes mountaintop-removal mining because, well, it involves removing the top of a mountain and that  can’t be good for the ol’ ecosystem, this places you in an uncomfortable position. Carol, the mining-company lackey, is a fully developed character, a woman with goals and drives and justifications for everything she does, a person who sometimes seems out of her depth with the locals. In plenty of other stories, she’d be the plucky underdog who reaffirms the company’s faith in her by heading into a difficult situation and getting a bunch of reluctant people to sign on to her company’s plan. It’s just that her plan, again, involves ruining not just the Harlan environment but also the way of life the people who live in the Holler have built up over centuries.

And this means that if you’re opposed to what Carol hopes to do, you’re pretty much stuck with Mags Bennett, who stands up at a town-hall meeting about the Black Pike Mining company’s plans and defends the Holler against what would come after the poison (which the company calls “the spoil,” a line that’s chilling when read by Margo Martindale, who plays Mags) descended into the valley. She’s going to stop Black Pike no matter what it takes, and that means sending out her boys to threaten anyone who might even think about signing on with Black Pike by using a menacing critter in a duffel bag. Mags is, weirdly, the one on our side, the side that’s all about preserving the environment and this way of life (though Mags mainly focuses on the way-of-life side of the argument in her speech), but we know that Mags is a terrifying woman who has taken a hammer to her son’s hand when he needs punishing, a wound for which he still bears the cast.

After a couple of episodes back at marshal central, where the show focused on Winona’s stupid decision to rip off a bunch of old bills she found in an evidence locker, we’re back, neck deep, in the business in Harlan (in case you couldn’t tell), and the many sharks swirling around Raylan are starting to take little nips at him. He’s got the Bennetts doing whatever they need to do to stop Carol and Boyd (who’s coming to his own conclusions about just what Mags is up to, conclusions we don’t get to hear in this episode). He’s got his certainty that Art knows just what's up with Winona down in the evidence room last week, a gnawing concern that hangs over his head throughout the episode. And he’s got the fact that Carol, not too subtly, keeps trying to get him into bed. And that’s to say nothing of his dad and Aunt Helen getting dragged into everything or the beatdown he takes from Coover at the Bennett store.

This is one of those episodes where Raylan mostly shuttles us from place to place, rarely taking charge in the way he does in the best episodes, which is why I didn’t love it quite as much as last week’s episode. (Next week’s episode, which I’ve seen, just might be the best episode the show’s ever done, however.) But this is a good way of laying out just how giant the forces arrayed against Raylan at this point have grown. There’s a great scene early in the episode where Carol is bailing Boyd out of jail, and Doyle Bennett is there, since he’s the one who made the arrest (after his officer broke Boyd’s taillight and wrote Boyd up for it), and Raylan correctly susses out that all of these people are deeply sleazy and deserve one another. Some of them just have enough money to seem above board.

“The Spoil” builds to a slightly too-chaotic gun battle that involves Raylan taking down one of the family members plotting the death of Carol last week. (This family is mentioned a couple of times in the episode, but the gun battle still seems to come out of nowhere, sadly.) It’s certainly an action-packed way to close out the hour, but the episode doesn't really need it, not with that town-hall meeting that Mags takes over so effectively (after Raylan very subtly turns the tide against Carol by pointing out all of the advantages he has in his current job that miners working for Black Pike don’t have) or with the buildup to Mags’ big “whoop-tee-doo” (coming next week) or with Boyd figuring out what’s up when no one else can. “The Spoil” is a lot of fun, but it also feels like a lot of buildup for whatever’s coming next. You won’t be disappointed.

Photo: Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) gives an impassioned speech in an attempt to stop a mining company from cutting off the top of the nearby mountain. Credit: FX

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-- Todd VanDerWerff (follow me at twitter.com/tvoti)

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