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'Justified' recap: The framing of Raylan Givens

March 7, 2012 |  8:00 am

Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) and Winona (Natalie Zea) on "Justified."

I think I say this every time we have an episode of “Justified” this good, but this show is at its best when it’s backing its characters into corners and seeing what happens.

Tuesday night's installment is all about Raylan Givens getting backed into two separate corners at once, then having to figure out a way out of them, with a little assist from Art, Tim and Winona. It is, in many ways, like last season’s episode in which Raylan had to replace the stolen money so Winona wouldn’t be arrested, but it’s even better, because this one grows out of everything that’s happened this season so far, and it takes things in the war with Quarles to a new and interesting place. It's nice that one of the season's best episodes hits on the same day the show was renewed for Season 4.

When the episode opens, Quarles and Wynn have brought Gary back to Kentucky from Tulsa. They drag him out of the trunk of the car and say they need him to take a message to Raylan. What’s that message? Well, it involves Quarles shooting Gary and leaving his dead body on the lawn of the home he once shared with Winona, so it’s evident nothing here can be too good for everyone’s favorite marshal.

And, indeed, it turns out that Quarles’ master plan is to use the bullet with Raylan’s fingerprints all over it — the one he got in the great “the next one will be coming faster” scene — to frame him for the murder of Gary, while simultaneously putting the FBI on Raylan’s trail with suspicions of him being dirty and under the employ of Boyd Crowder. Quarles plans for both things to happen at the same time, and it’s a lot of fun to watch it play out. It’s a sign of a good villain when you sort of want to see what happens if he succeeds, and that’s definitely the case here.

That said, I also like how the episode plays around with the show’s image of Raylan as this quick-drawing, fast-talking cool guy who always gets his man and always has the upper hand. The scene in which the two Lexington police officers are so entertained by Raylan’s story of how Quarles could have gotten a bullet with his fingerprints on it is a great little gag about how if any real people ran into this larger-than-life figure in their day-to-day lives, they’d think he was super-cool, and I also liked the scene where Tim finally got Raylan to give him a straight answer, just by letting Raylan know he knew exactly what Raylan was trying to do. Tim and Rachel often feel underserved by the show, but they’re always good when the series gives them material to play with, and I’ve liked this little arc where Tim’s been tired of Raylan taking advantage of him. Tim’s relish in describing himself to the FBI’s Barkley as an “idiot” was another highlight here.

It’s not just Raylan who’s having to work his way out of corners, though. Wynn is literally painting himself into a corner when painting over the bloodstains in that room that once contained the mysterious man Quarles presumably beat to death. (It’s a nice little visual gag, and I like Wynn saying, “You can’t go wrong with taupe” when describing which shade he chose.)

Quarles, meanwhile, sees both of his attempts to frame Raylan and remove him from the picture go down in smoke, thanks to a few lucky breaks that go Raylan’s way. (Namely, the bar owner keeps the evidence from being planted in Raylan’s car, so Winona can find it at the house, and Raylan can decide what to do with it.) At the same time, he threatens Sammy and finds himself cut off from Detroit, which leaves him in an even worse predicament. Finally, Boyd himself is framed for attempting to blow up Sheriff Napier’s squad car, something it turns out Napier had a hand in setting up himself.

Even if I’m wondering what Quarles and Boyd will do next, though, I like that this episode is so Raylan-centric, in a season where he’s occasionally felt a little incidental to the action. He’s a smart guy, so it’s always fun to see him dancing just a step or two ahead of people who would like to bring him down, but it’s particularly fun when he’s blindsided by something he just didn’t see coming. In particular, his expression when he’s accused of being in the pocket of Boyd Crowder is indescribably great, since you know that’s about the last thing he’d ever expect to be accused of. The scenes with Winona continued widening the gap between the two characters, and I’m impressed with how readily and easily the show has created this rift between them, when it really seemed at the start of the season like they were quite happy.

But it’s also a good episode for Art, who finds himself dealing with all of these crises involving the man who simultaneously might be his favorite and least favorite employee and coming through in style. I always enjoy seeing Art navigate the situations Raylan puts him in, and the relish he took when dismissing the FBI’s case against his underling as hogwash was vastly enjoyable. As I’ve said, the season’s felt like it’s lost a bit of the focus on the marshal’s office that the first two seasons had, and while there’s been a lot of good new stuff we got in the trade-off, I’ve missed watching Art reluctantly stick his neck out for Raylan. This was a nice return to that form.

Just because this was a good episode for the good guys, though, doesn’t mean that Quarles didn’t get his own great moments. Watching his slow dissolution — turning to what appears to be a pill habit after Sammy dismisses him — made it seem as if he might snap and go right after Raylan and those plaguing him, but instead, he’s got yet another backup plan, this time involving going to Limehouse for assistance (though we know Limehouse is about as likely to form an actual alliance with any one side as Switzerland). Quarles remains fascinating to me as a villain. He’s a little larger than life — look at how he can be menacing while just eating noodles — but there’s something recognizably human at his core. And in that sense, he’s like a funhouse mirror version of the show’s hero.

RELATED:

'Justified' recap: Pieces on a board

'Justified' renewed by FX for fourth season

Complete Show Tracker 'Justified' coverage

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

Photo: Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) is forced to tell Winona (Natalie Zea) that her estranged husband is dead. Credit: FX

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