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'Justified' recap: Wily Boyd Crowder

January 25, 2012 |  6:30 am

One of the things that’s so great about “Justified” is that everybody on the show behaves like a real person would if confronted with their own potential death. Take Dickie Bennett, for instance. Now, Dickie’s never been the sharpest crayon in the box, but once Boyd Crowder shows up at the same prison as him, he starts scrambling to keep himself safe. What makes this fun is that Boyd is quite a bit smarter than Dickie, and at least two times wilier. That makes for scenes where Dickie gets himself locked up in solitary, clearly thinking he’ll be safer there, only for Boyd to figure out a way to get down there as well, bribe a guard, and get in to see Dickie to get the information he needs. And he does this all with a time limit hanging over his head!

“Justified” wouldn’t work if we thought any of these people were too dumb to live. Indeed, having both the good guys and the bad guys be fairly wily makes for good TV. Raylan Givens figures out that Boyd wanted to go to jail and contrives a way to get him out. Art figures out what Mr. Poe’s plan was all along, largely on the fly. And Boyd, who went into jail wanting to get his revenge on Dickie for Dickie’s shooting of Ava, completely revamps that plan when he finds out some crucial information from the still-recuperating woman: Much of the Bennett fortune is unaccounted for. That leads him into Dickie’s cell in solitary, and that gives him the name of Limehouse, a man introduced to us in the last scene of the episode, wherein he delivers a terrifying monologue about lye’s effects on the human body to a young subordinate who nodded off on the job. If the writers of “Justified” were running a seminar in building better TV characters, they might suggest starting with people who use as many of their smarts as they can muster just to stay alive.

I suspect this is what’s behind many “Justified” fans’ dislike of Winona, who’s rarely in a life-and-death situation she has to get out of herself. (Recall that last week, when Fletcher popped up at the hotel room, Raylan was there.) So much of “Justified” is taken up by watching villains scheme and watching the heroes try to figure out those schemes that watching Winona worry about whether her boyfriend will stay safe or talk about buying a house in Harlan or discuss her past relationships with just a hint of bitterness just can’t compare. I enjoyed watching Winona and Raylan snarkily discuss their tortured past at the beginning of the episode, but I’m always going to enjoy watching the crime stories more, because that’s what this show is.

To that end, let’s talk about Art. Every season gives Art an episode in which we get to see just how awesome the old guy is, and this one did not disappoint. We’ve gotten hints throughout the series that Art was just as much of a problem to his own chief as Raylan is to Art, but this was one of the first episodes that really dramatized that fact effectively. When he’s assigned to take one Mr. Poe, a former mobster-turned-government-informant, into protective custody after his friend Bill, the marshal assigned to witness protection duty, ends up dead, he quickly realizes that Mr. Poe’s story doesn’t exactly add up. Thinking on the fly (and using Poe’s navigational system to realize that he’d been present at the place Bill died, which is not how navigational systems work, but whatever), Art drags Mr. Poe back home, where he proceeds to beat him and threaten him with his imminent death, unless he tells Art which of Bill’s many charges he sold out.

This turns out to be Mary, a mother of two whose testimony stands against a big-time criminal down in New Mexico. Mr. Poe’s plan is to get back in good with his mob friends by paying them off for ratting out the boss, a fee that can only be gained by telling the New Mexicans just where the woman they want dead is. There’s some good tension in the moment where Rachel, who’s been assigned to keep Mary safe while everybody sorts Bill’s murder out, realizes that the men who want Mary dead are already at her house, but the climactic moments of the episode, with Raylan and Art storming Mary’s house while Rachel hides out in the attic and guns down one of the two gunmen sent to kill Mary, are a little abrupt and to-the-point. Then again, I never once thought anybody would be in any danger once Art figured out Mr. Poe’s plan, so maybe it was better to just get through this and move on to the Limehouse introduction.

One of the foremost ideas of modern crime fiction is that the good guys are often people who would make really great bad guys, if they’d just taken a few wrong turns along the way. (Heck, the whole idea behind Raylan Givens is that he very nearly was the greatest criminal Harlan had ever seen.) Yet there are few moments when this show has made that point as well as in the scenes between Art and Mr. Poe, in which he did whatever he felt necessary to protect the life of whomever Mr. Poe had sold out. There’s always been this tension in “Justified,” between the show wanting to be, on some level, about marshals who do what they can to keep the peace without indiscriminately gunning people down and between all crime shows eventually turning into shootouts.

Like the best crime stories, though, “Justified” uses this tension to further its characters. Sure, we want to see Mary kept safe, so that means we root on Art as he pummels Mr. Poe. And, yes, in this case, that gets results. But we’ve always gotten the sense that Art, on some level, wants to take back some of the stuff he did as a kid, even if it was fun and effective at the time. (He views Raylan, as he says in this episode, as his “penance.”) And when Rachel is filling out the paperwork after killing the gunman, she tells Raylan that when she talked to a psychiatrist after killing her first person in the line of duty, she told the psychiatrist that the killing had provoked “relief,” if only to just have it over with. It’s sometimes easy to miss just how much “Justified” is about people who constantly have to wade through the muck and keep their heads just above it. Episodes like “Cut Ties” make it clear that all of these marshals have very different ways of not getting dragged down.

(And then, of course, there's Carla Gugino as Karen Goodall, who's practically Elmore Leonard's character Karen Sisco from "Out Of Sight" and the TV series of the same name. Gugino doesn't get a lot to do here, but given how prominently she figures, one assumes she'll be back for plenty more soon enough. Can't wait.)


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Photo: Karen Goodall (Carla Gugino) arrives on the scene to make things even more prickly for Raylan (Timothy Olyphant). Credit: FX