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'Justified' recap: Going home

April 11, 2012 |  6:00 am

'Justified'

For all of its labyrinthine plotting, clever dialogue and vivid characters, the thing that makes “Justified” work is its belief in family. It’s a theme the show has turned to many times throughout its three seasons, and it’s a theme the series will almost certainly turn to again. For all of the times these characters attempt to stand on their own, they’re inevitably drawn back to those who raised them or took them in. Yet that’s often where they’d least like to be.

Throughout the run of the show, “Justified” has been giving Raylan and Boyd the fathers they might have wished to have had as children. The marshal has Art, while the criminal has Arlo, Raylan’s father. It’s a texture always present in the show but rarely commented on that Boyd and Arlo are now closer than Raylan and Arlo, yet it’s that relationship that gives “Slaughterhouse,” the Season 3 finale, the emotional gut-punch it delivers.

If Season 3 has been a little uneven, I’d almost recommend to those who will catch up someday on DVD that they stick it out, simply because the finale makes it all worth it. “Slaughterhouse” can’t redeem everything leading up to it, but it does its best to try, and it’s helped immeasurably by the way that last week’s episode cleared out a bunch of plot to give it some breathing room.

The episode weaves in and out of any number of families, both literal and figurative, spending almost as much time with a mother and her two sons (whom we meet for the first time here) as it does with, say, the ad hoc workplace family down at the marshals’ office. Quarles spends the whole episode longing to go “home,” as if that’s a place he can ever return to after the events of the season, yet everyone in the episode is longing for that same thing. And who most obviously finds it? Boyd and Ava, who end the episode together and happy, as we hoped they might.

Raylan began the season looking like he might finally have found the home he seemed to be spurning throughout those first two seasons. He and Winona were going to get a little place together, somewhere they could raise their child. (The killer who turned up in his hotel room in the season premiere only seemed to drive this point home all the more thoroughly.) Yet the show almost always works best when Raylan’s a lone wolf, someone who does the right thing, yes, but seems like he might start doing the wrong thing at any moment.

And so the season has methodically stripped him of the things that kept him tethered. Winona’s left him, taking their unborn child with her. He’s seemed more and more isolated from his co-workers (probably because they’ve barely appeared). And now, his own father elects to shoot at a man he thought could very likely be Raylan to protect Boyd. The ending of this episode is incredibly sad, and Timothy Olyphant, who sometimes felt lost in all the plotting, earns those emotions.

The end of Robert Quarles is appropriately operatic. Having come to understand that the only way he’ll get back in the Detroit mob’s good graces is if he delivers $500,000 to Theo Tonan, he realizes the only place in Harlan to get that kind of money is at Limehouse’s operation. Limehouse has, perhaps, felt a little too ancillary to the action this season, but I’ve liked the way these final episodes have brought his scheming to the foreground. He very nearly rids himself of all of his problems (and sends Errol packing for good measure), but then Quarles comes calling — Raylan and young boy in tow — and it all comes crashing around him.

Fortunately, Errol figures out something is up when he passes Raylan driving a van on his way into Nobles Holler (a van he’s driving because Quarles has him at gunpoint), and he arrives to fire at the Detroit mobster. It all ends with Limehouse chopping off Quarles’ arm before he can use that famous gun tucked up his sleeve, and then the villain bleeds out on the floor. It’s a giant end for a larger-than-life figure, and even if the character didn’t always work, Neal McDonough’s performance will be missed.

Even when the season-long plot doesn’t work, any given episode of “Justified” is packed full of great scenes and moments, and “Slaughterhouse” is positively brimming with them. The return of Harlan Roulette in Wynn Duffy’s trailer is just one, and I particularly loved Wynn’s shocked little yips as he realized that, yeah, Raylan was really going to go through with this. There’s also Ava’s angry inquisition of the prostitute she believes sold out Boyd to Limehouse, giving Limehouse the information he needed to get the authorities to haul Boyd off on murder charges. It’s an electrifying scene, and it shows just how thoroughly Ava has become Boyd’s right-hand woman in his operations. And finally, there’s that wonderful moment when Arlo confesses to the murder of Devil, letting Boyd off the hook in favor of a feeble old man who’s losing his mind. It’s both operatic and tragic, the two modes “Justified” works best in.

Yeah, there’s plenty of room left for the plot to twist in next season. For one thing, Limehouse is still out there and is a fascinating character the show has only very briefly explored. (The reveal that he was keeping his cash in a literal piggy bank was another great moment.) For another, we’ve discovered that Johnny’s still working at cross-purposes with Boyd, even if he claims to not be. And, finally, we’ve got the big, open wound that is whatever Raylan and Winona used to have, a relationship that seems to be in tatters now.

But the finale does more than just remind us of what the plot is. It gives the rest of the season the thematic heft it was missing. All of these people have been searching for a home to return to. All were willing to do anything it took to find it. Yet very few of them have been able to gain what they wanted, and it forever slips just past their fingers as they grasp for it. That’s just the nature of where they went looking for that home: Harlan County, a place where the ground is soaked with blood.

Maybe, in the end, Limehouse had the right idea: Find a safe spot, hunker down, and make sure everybody leaves you alone. Yet Harlan has a way of always bringing the bloodshed right back to your doorstep.

RELATED:

'Justified' recap: Meaning in the chaos

'Justified' recap: Complications ensue

Complete Show Tracker 'Justified' coverage

Todd VanDerWerff
http://twitter.com/tvoti

Photo: Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) finds himself very alone at the end of the third season finale. Photo credit: FX

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