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'Justified' recap: The origin story of Quarles

March 21, 2012 |  7:14 am

In the most recent episode of "Justified," Raylan and Quarles have a showdown in a very busy, very fun hour
I've said week after week here that this season of "Justified" -- while brilliant on an episode-by-episode level -- has been a little convoluted and messy at the level of the season-long plot.

At the same time, though, that's an easy problem to fix. If the show pulls out an all-time great season finale in a few weeks, then we'll forget about how all of the pieces didn't make as much sense together as they might have in the buildup to that finale.

In the meantime, though, watching every episode scramble to fit in Limehouse and Quarles and Boyd and the case of the week and Raylan's domestic dramas and the marshal's office has sometimes led to elements feeling shortchanged. (In particular, Tim and Rachel have had very little to do this season.) When the show would bring in another long-running plot, like, say, the strange tale of Dickie Bennett, that would lead to even more convoluted attempts to keep everything running.

All of this leads to Tuesday night's episode, which was both fantastic and so jam-packed that it would be easy to look back on it as the tipping point when things went bad if the season can't pull itself together. So much stuff happens in this one hour that the episode takes on a breathless feel, racing from event to event.

That's tons of fun to watch, honestly, and it does a good job of spelling out just why Quarles is the man he is today and filling us in on just how low he's gotten. But it also crams so much into the hour that some stuff gets shorter shrift than it might have, including the ascension of Shelby to the post of Harlan County sheriff.

Now, I liked that this story line hinged, ultimately, on the fact that Boyd Crowder was able to manipulate Harlan County into making Shelby sheriff, rather than being able to get him to triumph over Napier. He figures out a way to get Napier removed from office shortly after Napier wins reelection -- involving how Napier's sister oh-so-conveniently works in the election office. Boyd's craftiness knows no bounds, and when Quarles realized that he'd lost yet again, even after he thought he'd won, it was a great moment.

I like the rivalry Quarles has going with Raylan, of course, but I'm even more into the struggle between the mobster and the guy he so obviously mistook for a simple thug he could easily steamroll. Boyd's delight in calling Quarles a "conquistador," rather than a "carpetbagger," was fun, but I don't know if he realizes just how dangerous Quarles has become. It'll be interesting to see him figure it out.

Raylan, meanwhile, found himself beset on all sides by problems. He tried to make sure Dickie wouldn't get out of prison by taking the stand to testify against him, but he didn't work on his testimony at all (choosing instead to hook up with the comely bartender Lindsey after she saved his skin in the standoff with Quarles), and that led to him botching the whole thing.

It's possible our hero, who's so fond of his own amazingness, just didn't want to testify about how Dickie had gotten the drop on him (understandably), but you could also see the weight of everything that's happened to him catching up with him as he sat in the witness box. (Stephen Root is always a hoot as the judge, and I particularly liked him doing battle with his ex-wife on the phone.)

It was Quarles, though, who had the standout episode. Ever since Neal McDonough joined the show as the Detroit mobster, the writers have consciously headed in the exact opposite direction of Margo Martindale's Mags Bennett. Where Mags was earthy, Quarles is flashy, and where Mags was soulful, Quarles seems almost sociopathic at times.

That's been a lot of fun, but it's also showed some of the weakness inherent in inserting a character who's so obviously fictional into a world that strives for at least some level of realism. Quarles seems a little too larger-than-life at times.

That's not the case anymore, after a heart-rending monologue that doesn't make you want to forgive the man but does make you understand a bit more about where he's coming from. After learning that Quarles' father essentially forced him to be a teenage hustler, the man's anger toward the male prostitute he kept tied up in that room makes a lot more sense.

It's a larger-than-life origin story for a larger-than-life man, but it has the effect of making him seem more down to earth at the same time. This is a guy who's seen some real pain, and even if that doesn't excuse the pain he's dished out, it puts it in a new context and makes it easier for the audience to understand.

Plus, McDonough is just terrific in that scene, like he's a man who's been reduced to one raw nerve that keeps getting plucked at, a man who's just done taking everybody's guff and will do whatever it takes to get out of the corner he's stuck in. At the same time, though, we see that he's not a guy who always shoots his way out of problems. He's much craftier than that.

And that, perhaps, is why I'm so much more invested in the battle between Boyd and Quarles at this point. It seems all but inevitable that the forestalled quick-draw showdown between Raylan and Quarles will be back on at some point when Lindsey isn't there to save the day. But I already sort of know how that will turn out, or at least I think I do. The two will draw down, Quarles' sleeve gun will jam and Raylan will win the day.

I don't know just what's going to happen between Boyd and Quarles, and that makes some of the more chaotic elements of the story line involving the two all the more fun. Sure, that election story line seemed a little forced when you go back and look at it, but wasn't it worth it for Boyd's smug gloating and the terrifying smile on Quarles' face?

"Justified" has always known the journey's worth it if the ending's is good enough, and I can't imagine any ending for the feud between these two that's not explosively entertaining.

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Todd VanDerWerff
twitter.com/tvoti

Photo: Raylan (Timothy Olyphant, left) and Quarles (Neal McDonough) very nearly have a gunfight at the bar Raylan lives above. Photo credit: FX

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