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'Justified' recap: No one knows how much trouble they're in until it's too late

March 10, 2011 |  7:00 am

JUSs2ep204_20101201_PG-0074 The last shot of "Cottonmouth" -– the best episode of this young "Justified" season yet and one of the best the show has ever done -– frames a single young girl at its center. She’s young Loretta McCready, the teenager who set this season’s events in motion after her father complained to the federal marshals about the "pervert" who was coming on to her and earned himself an early grave for the call. Now, she’s making her way within the Bennett family, quickly learning that if she can be the reliable right hand to Mags -– running the store, selling a little "herbal relief" -– then she'll be fine. But at episode’s end, Raylan comes to give her a cellphone. He's kicked up a "hornet’s nest," he says, and when the time comes, she just might need him to come and help her. And if she calls him on that phone, he'll come and help her, no matter what else he's up to.

Now, surely enough, this promise is going to come back and bite Raylan right when he needs to be doing something else, but that's just who the guy is. What I’m more interested in is the look on Loretta's face as she confronts the possibility that she’d ever need his assistance. It’s been possible to see that worry that maybe what Mags said happened to her father wasn’t REALLY what happened behind everything Loretta’s done, but she’s mostly behaved like a 14-year-old girl rolling with the punches life hands her, not like someone overwhelmed with concern for her future. Still, the camera holds on Loretta for a long, long time, her face gradually getting more and more concerned, before abruptly cutting to black. Raylan’s actions will almost certainly mean even more trouble for her to navigate. We’ve seen how good she can be at making her way through these situations, but can she really figure a way out of a predicament involving one of Harlan’s pre-eminent crime families? Even she doesn’t know.

That gradual sense of just how bad things have gotten settles over a lot of characters in "Cottonmouth" (named after the snake that only lets you know how dangerous it is until it’s almost too late to escape its strike). Boyd gets dragged into a scheme that could mean the end of his life, but he figures out a way to turn it back on those who would hurt him, meaning they’re the ones who end up dead and he’s the one who ends up with the cash. Raylan begins pursuing a few leads in relation to Loretta’s dead father and finds himself confronting the fact that the Bennetts are just as bad as he feared they might be, if not worse. And Art, well, Art never gets too deep into any of this trouble, but he’s at least wondering just why Raylan’s always spending time on these sorts of extracurricular activities. (I doubt he’ll get too upset about it.)

The best thing about this episode and the thing I’m sure "Justified" fans will be buzzing about all season is that it reveals which side Boyd’s playing on. And that side is neither wholly good nor bad. He saves the man who works at the mine -– played by "Deadwood" and "Supernatural" veteran Jim Beaver -– and he foils Kyle’s plot using some pretty smart maneuvering. (In particular, I was impressed by how he used his cellphone as a bug to find out that Kyle and company didn’t want Boyd sharing in the spoils at the end of the day and by how he turned over one of the most important points of his plot to making sure that Ava -– whom he doesn’t yet know if he can trust in a situation like this -– called just the right number at just the right time.) Those are both "good" things, ultimately. But he also doesn’t turn the plotters over to Raylan when he has the chance and he makes off with all of that cash the plotters were planning to rip off anyway. Boyd’s ultimate goal here seems to involve continuing to play the criminal game and enjoy the spoils but also do it within something like a "moral" sense. The man he was would have shot the mine worker with no questions asked; the man he is lets him live.

There’s just so much fun stuff going on with Boyd that the episode probably could have gotten away with making it entirely about him. Heck, there’s that moment when the viewer realizes just how Boyd ultimately plans to make his escape -– via putting the explosives the plotters have brought to the mine in the wrong bag -– a split second before Kyle and his goons push the big red button and bring about their own destructions. Boyd’s set up a simple moral choice for the plotters, leaving them in a situation where if they kill one of their own (namely, Boyd), they actually kill themselves, and if they don’t, they escape. It’s a bit unbelievable that these guys turn so much control over to Boyd, I suppose, and don’t keep a closer eye on him when he’s tipping things in his favor, but it’s so much fun to watch Walton Goggins tip those scales that I doubt many viewers are going to complain.

Yet the episode isn’t entirely about Boyd. There’s lots more going on in nearly every other storyline. Even Raylan’s dad stops by for a bit! In particular, this episode reveals how desperate the Bennetts are starting to feel, something that’s just a lot of fun to watch, since it leaves the Bennett boys stewing and forced to confront their mother in her full fury. That scene where she lays out for her son just how much he’s disappointed her by being so obvious about cashing old man McCreary’s benefit checks -– thus tipping off the authorities to the fact that he’s probably not "down South" as Mags insists he is -– is a whopper, and that’s before she breaks out the hammer and starts whacking away at his hand. The show plays Mags as someone who feigns friendliness until she’s really and truly disappointed (and in the company of just her sons), but when those moments arise, she’s the series’ true cottonmouth, someone who can unleash a deadly amount of anger and vengeance in a very short amount of time. And if she’ll do this to her own son, imagine what she’ll do when Raylan’s finally poked her particular hornet’s nest enough.

Some other thoughts:

  • This episode even makes time for some grandly enjoyable comedy, what with the scene in which  Raylan and the signature forging man get in that fight over the Taser and Raylan Tases the guy in the junk. Maybe a little crude, but very, very funny.
  • If I have one complaint about "Justified" at this point in its run, it’s that it doesn’t make very good use of its entire cast in any given episode. For example, both Natalie Zea and Erica Tazel sit this episode out, and although there’s not really a good reason for them to show up, the show’s world feels more consistent when the episodes figure out a way to incorporate these people. Then again, this episode was so stuffed full of incident that it might have felt too busy with those two crammed in there as well. It’s a tough balancing act, no doubt.
  • How much you want to bet Mags has something to do with Dickie’s limp?
  • The scene with Arlo is mostly just there to move that particular part of the storyline ahead, but there’s even less love lost between him and Raylan than there was last season. His son even tosses him in the clink. 
  • "You're like the hillbilly whisperer!"

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

Photo: Loretta McCready (Kaitlyn Devers) finds herself in an even bigger predicament.

Credit: FX

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