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'Justified' recap: Sharks in Harlan

February 1, 2012 |  7:30 am

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When “Justified” is on top of its game, as it was Tuesday night, it can have something like a half-dozen plates spinning without missing a beat. In “Harlan Roulette,” we got to see the seedy side of a pawn shop wrapped up in things that aren’t exactly legal. We watched as Boyd Crowder dealt with Limehouse, then took back the family bar. We spent a little time with Dickie Bennett in jail. We followed Quarles and Wynn Duffy as they hatched their scheme to turn Harlan into the new oxy capital of the world. We checked in on Raylan and Winona’s hunt for a house. And, finally, we watched Raylan try to connect all of these dots, catching up to the pawn shop owner just in time to have him and a subordinate kill each other.

“Justified” works best if the audience is simultaneously one step ahead of Raylan and one step behind just about everybody else. And yet we can’t get too far ahead of Raylan because he’s a smart guy, and he’ll figure out soon enough that, say, pawn shop owner Glenn Vogel is affiliated with the Dixie Mafia and using his store as a front for stolen goods. That means the show needs to make the time when we know who the criminal is while Raylan doesn’t count, because once Raylan’s on the trail, it won’t be long before he gets his man. Fortunately, the scene where we first met Glenn was a terrific one, featuring a game of roulette that seemed to go on without end. Glenn was punishing an employee who’d gotten himself arrested earlier that day, and though the gun he made the employee put to his head was without bullets, he had no problem killing the employee after the empty gun had been turned on him.

Glenn was played by the great Pruitt Taylor Vince, a character actor who tends to pop up in these sorts of seedier roles but always imbues them with a weird soulfulness. (You might remember him as farm resident Otis earlier this season on “The Walking Dead” or as “Deadwood’s” Mose Manual.) Here, Glenn is pretty repugnant, but Vince lets you see the light flickering behind his eyes, so you know that he’s just another person scraping by on a side of Harlan hollowed out by the drug trade. The portrayal of the pawn shop and the various flunkies that end up orbiting Glenn was one of the best things about the episode, and I was sad to see Glenn go, even if that was the only way for the story to end. (Raylan can’t close in on Wynn this early in the season, after all.)

It was two other criminal elements who made this episode so great, though: Quarles and Boyd Crowder. The two don’t share any scenes. Heck, Boyd doesn’t share any scenes with anybody connected to the main story (unless we assume, as I do, that Limehouse and the Bennett cash will connect to the main story line in some way). But they cut their way through the episode like sharks, causing mischief and chaos everywhere they go. We already know what Boyd’s all about, and when he finally unloads that musty weed we can sense his relief — as well as his disappointment with a score of just $5,000. It’s the scenes in the bar, however, where he reveals how thoroughly he’s outsmarted the folks who’ve taken over that are vintage Boyd Crowder. Walton Goggins struts like a self-assured rooster, and it’s fun to watch him outsmart his enemies and tell one of his sidekicks about the life he’s led.

It’s Quarles, though, who really surprises in this episode. There’s something so normal about him — as how he immediately takes that call from his kid and starts talking about hockey — that you know there’s got to be something seriously messed up with him. (Well, you’d probably know that just from realizing he’s a mobster who wants to set up clinics in Harlan that will siphon off oxy to Detroit.) And we get little hints, like when Wynn goes to use the bathroom and instead finds somebody tied to the bed in the back bedroom. (Quarles cheerfully points him to the other door.) Or the smile he gives Raylan when the marshal snaps a photo of him with his phone. This is a guy who’s hiding something and it’ll be interesting to see how it all comes pouring out when his back is to the wall. He’s the sort of person who’s all smiles  when things are going well but falls apart when cornered -- characters Neal McDonough excels at playing.

The other plots get only a check-in. We spend a moment with Limehouse, in which we get more of a sense of his vaguely homey sense of menace. We hang out with Dickie in jail long enough to find out that the guards are harassing him about the Bennett fortune. And Raylan gets called away from his discussion of houses with Winona (at a café that was so obviously in Southern California — usually, this show gets the location details so right) to go figure out what’s up with his “old buddy” Wade Messer and the boys down at the pawn shop.

We don’t spend any time down at the marshal’s office, and three of the series regulars don’t even appear. Yet I didn’t mind this episode being a little Raylan-light (even if he did save the day at the end, as always). The more that the show is able to introduce compelling figures and the more it’s able to do fascinating things with people we already know, the healthier it will be, and if “Harlan Roulette” is any indication, this show is very healthy indeed.

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

Photo: Quarles (Neal McDonough, left) explains his plans for his new oxy operation in Harlan to Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns). Credit: FX

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