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'Justified' recap: Pieces on a board

February 29, 2012 |  7:10 am

Jst_307_0255A couple of weeks ago, I complained a bit that this season was pushing Raylan Givens off to the side too much. It wasn’t a big deal. This is still one of my favorite shows. But I hoped things would get slightly back to basics. But now that we’re starting to settle into an elaborate dance where Quarles, Raylan, Boyd, and Limehouse (all representing different interests) are jockeying for position and trying to get under one another’s skins, the big picture of the season is starting to become clearer, and those early episodes are starting to feel more necessary. For this season to work, we’ve got to forget how good Raylan is at everything. Heck, he’s got to forget just a little bit. Now that he’s reeling in the wake of losing Winona, the guy’s primed to seem like he’s out of it right before he has a big, inevitable comeback.

Tuesday night’s episode featured more than enough Raylan, including scenes where he fought the impression that he was a dirty marshal, bought off by Boyd; refused to deal with the fact that his father appears to be sinking into dementia; and soured his relationship with Tim by pushing his fellow marshal to get information from the FBI that landed everybody in hot water. (It was great fun to see character actor Stephen Tobolowsky turn up as the FBI agent who wants Raylan out of the bureau’s business.) But this episode also nailed down just what’s up with Quarles, the mysterious man who’s been tugging so many strings this season, for reasons not yet clear. We understand roughly what his plan with the Oxy is, and we get why he’s using Harlan as his base of operations, but we don’t yet have a motivation for what he’s doing, not like we did with Mags last season.

By and large that hasn’t mattered. The writers have gone in the opposite direction of Mags, probably because she was such a larger-than-life figure that to do anything even close to her would have had the slight whiff of copycatting. Mags was, in many ways, the bruised heart of Harlan, risen up out of the muck to defend the things she thought of as “her own,” whether her three sons or the place she loved so much. Quarles is a businessman, snappily dressed and perfectly coiffed, who arrives from out of town, mostly to turn Harlan into a money-making machine. But that’s all we’ve known about him beyond some intriguing hints dropped here and there, like that guy he kept chained up to a bed and went in to beat up every day.

“The Man Behind The Curtain” (which, interestingly enough, was also the name of the big “villain” reveal episode from the third season of “Lost”) gives us many more shades to Quarles. At one time, he was seen as the chosen one to succeed the big boss of the Detroit mob. Something went wrong, however, and now he’s forced to kowtow to the boss’ “idiot” son, who sets Quarles’ teeth on edge for many, many reasons. At the same time, we learn that Quarles has a habit of beating up male escorts, something that could point in a number of messed-up psychological directions and might hint at the identity of the guy on the bed (who’s apparently dead, if Wynn’s talk about how it’s hard to paint over blood is any indication).

We’ve known all this time that Quarles has a bit of a hair-trigger temper, and we’ve known that Raylan underestimates him a bit. This episode, shows just how dangerous Quarles could be if backed into a corner, and in this situation he’s got both Raylan and Boyd doing the backing. He doesn’t deal with Raylan just yet, though he tells his boss that the marshal can be dealt with in ways that don’t involve killing him. In the case of Boyd, however, he figures out a way to turn the county sheriff — a career man named Napier — who heads into the bar Boyd just reopened under his cousin’s name and shuts the place down for a minor fire code violation.

It’s fun to watch these guys circle one another. They’re smart, yes, but where Raylan and Quarles seem itchy to have an all-out brawl, their calm demeanors masking some need to dish out violence and pain, Boyd is more reserved and withdrawn. He takes his time and goes to Limehouse to figure out if the sheriff is in anybody’s pocket. And when he realizes that Quarles is trying to institutionalize Crowder hatred, Boyd decides that you can fight city hall if you’ve got the right guy sitting in the sheriff’s chair. Which is how he approaches the mining company manager from last season (played by the great Jim Beaver) and asks him to run for sheriff, in the wake of being laid off by the mining company. It’s a great idea, but it’s not hard to imagine how angry Quarles will be if Boyd tries to seriously mess with his master plan (which necessarily involves the sheriff turning a blind eye to the Oxy operation while still running everybody else out of town).

Quarles isn’t out, though. He’s got an “old friend” down in Tulsa, Okla., who turns out to be none other than Gary, Winona’s ex-husband, who’s now pitching snake oil in the form of booklets he’ll sell to the gullible to outline his plans for turning repossessed homes into cash. Quarles sidles up to him after the presentation and takes him to the bar, turning him into what seems like a fast friend. Then Wynn shows up, and Gary — who’s hiding out under a different name — realizes what’s up. Whatever it is can’t be good for the guy, and that’s where we cut to black.

“Curtain” is an episode that mostly exists to make sure all of the pieces are at the right place on the show’s board as the season hits its midpoint, but it’s a remarkably assured version of that sort of episode. It’s easy to make these sorts of episodes feel mechanical, like the writers are pushing the characters around, rather than letting the characters do their own walking. But “Curtain” is vivid and funny and shot through with great scenes just dripping with conflict. Something big is coming to Harlan, and I’m not sure everybody’s going to have what it takes to survive it.

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'Justified' recap: The break-up

Complete Show Tracker 'Justified' coverage

-- Todd VanDerWerff
http://twitter.com/tvoti

Photo: Quarles, portrayed by Neal McDonough, makes a special trip to Oklahoma to visit Winona's ex-husband, Gary. Credit: FX

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