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'Justified' recap: The break-up

February 22, 2012 |  6:30 am

Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant)
The idea of the reckless lawman whose personal life is a mess, even as he’s incredibly good at his job, is one of the oldest cliches in the book. On “Justified,” Raylan’s relationship with Winona has always hinged on this idea, and the series often has seemed a bit hesitant to really embrace it, perhaps because it knows there’s very little new territory to explore here. As the series has evolved away from a character study of Raylan Givens and into something more like a travelogue of this rich, fictional world, many of the characters from Season 1 have gotten left behind. Winona, despite the fact that she’s the mother of Raylan’s unborn child, often seems like one of those characters, and when she leaves Raylan at the end of last week’s episode, there’s a sense that the show’s writers are trying to figure out what on earth they can do with her that they haven’t already done.

Well, the latest episode, which features more Raylan than maybe any other episode this season, gives us an answer to that question, and it’s the same one it always is: Winona didn’t want the dangerous life Raylan leads to be the life of her child (and her husband, for that matter). When Raylan was shot at the end of last season, she already was on her way out, but Art managed to find her and bring her back. She stayed because Raylan was ailing, but now that he’s better and he’s not participating in the building of their new life together like she’d like, she’s out the door. It’s the same argument it always is on this show: Winona wants Raylan to leave active duty and go train new marshals down at Glencoe, a considerably less dangerous job. Raylan will never be able to leave because Harlan’s got its talons in him.

In real life, the dissolution of long-time relationships is sometimes abrupt, sure, if one partner catches the other cheating or something. But in many cases, it’s not abrupt. It’s a series of arguments, often repeated arguments, that happen again and again, until both partners finally wear each other down and force themselves to realize that what they once had has been reduced to dust. But repeating the same beats over and over is rarely satisfying dramatically, and that’s where the Raylan and Winona arguments have run into some problematic territory in the past. All the same, I thought Raylan’s struggle to find her, even as he was trying to figure out just what happened in a horrific shooting in a trailer where Oxy is dealt, gave the episode a nice emotional heft. Both Raylan and the audience knew there wasn’t much of a chance for him to win her back, but he had to try anyway.

The scene when Raylan finally finds Winona (at her sister’s) and confronts her about whether she stole the missing evidence money (from last season’s two-parter, in which Raylan had to help Winona out of a jam after she took a giant bag of cash) is surprisingly well-done, given this show’s track record with this sort of thing. I like the way that Raylan eventually just stops fighting what’s happening, the resigned look in his eyes as he realizes that this is it. He and Winona still love each other, but there are substantial differences between them, and there’s no good way for them to raise a child together with him in his current position. The scene painted them both as reasonable adults, world-weary adults, sure, but people who find themselves at an impasse and don’t launch into an argument that destroys their whole relationship. Both of them knew this day was coming, and now it’s here.

The case of the week was very satisfying as well, particularly its resolution, which revealed that the shooting wasn’t something Quarles was behind (as suspected) but, rather, something one of Limehouse’s right-hand men was behind. The terrifying scene where Limehouse chews out his subordinate for daring to try to spark a war between Boyd and Quarles was another of the episode’s best, and I liked the way it acknowledged that as African Americans living among the white population of Harlan, Limehouse and his men need to be extra scrupulous about keeping their noses out of the most dangerous business. That’s why Limehouse has been painted as someone who knows everything but largely stays out of others’ business: He’s got to know everything, just in case something awful comes, but he’s also going to keep one step removed from the really bad stuff that’s happening. When the subordinate suggests that if a war took out both Boyd and Quarles so that Limehouse and his crew could run Harlan, Mykleti Williamson makes the most of Limehouse’s disbelieving scoff. The younger man may believe such things are possible, but Limehouse knows the real score, and it’s not tilted in his favor.

If there’s something that doesn’t really work in this episode, it’s the ending, which takes us away from the main plot (though, granted, that plot ends with a fantastic action sequence in which Raylan battles some goons in a trailer that soon starts moving) and dumps us into the happy ending of one of the show’s most minor of characters. Charlie, the guy from the evidence room, turns out to be the guy behind the theft of the money, and he makes his way into Mexico, pleased with the way this has panned out for him. There’s pretty much nothing good that can come of this story. There’s no real good reason to reopen the evidence locker money storyline, but even if this is meant to put a bow on that plot point (and not implicate Winona in the process), it’s a weird, rather clumsy way for the episode to end. I suppose there’s an argument to be made that it shows how the job never ends for Raylan. There’s always something to be done or some bad guy to be caught, and that will never make him ideal husband material to Winona. But there was probably a better way to indicate that than an old man with a mustache whooping excitedly in Mexico.

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-- Todd VanDerWerff
twitter.com/tvoti

Photo: Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) has to track down the perpetrator of a terrible shooting, but he'd rather be dealing with a personal crisis. Credit: FX

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