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'Justified' recap: Meaning in the chaos

In the next-to-last 'Justified' episode of the season, plot threads finally start to get tied off
"Coalition," the next-to-last episode of this season of "Justified," is a heist movie without the heist. Sure, lots of characters talk about robbing $3 million that's just sitting in a vault in a bank that's apparently easy to rob. But all of that turns out to be a bunch of setups piled on top of other setups. No banks are broken into. No money is robbed. There are the requisite double-crosses and characters stabbing each other in the back, but we don't see any insane plan to break into the safety deposit room and break open the box containing the millions.

It's still awesome, nonetheless.

"Coalition" clears out a staggering amount of plot in a season that's seemed to keep tossing new complications onto the main story, instead of winding any stories down. Which story lines have been resolved before this episode? You could make a case for the Raylan-and-Winona breakup being "resolved," but I think it's clear that's just been pushed to the back burner for now, to be dealt with either in the finale or sometime next season. Nearly everything that's come up this season is still in play (including Arlo's seeming dementia, a plot thread that seemed completely dropped), and this episode goes about tying off loose ends like a mad weaver.

The Bennett fortune? It turns out that Mags instructed Limehouse to leave it to young Loretta McCready. Raylan finds this out, but allows the girl to keep it, assuming she'll use it responsibly. (He doesn't want to see a new Lexus in her driveway or hear Van Halen played her birthday party. Loretta asks him if she looks like any kind of Van Halen fan.) In the midst of all of this, Raylan shoots Dickie, seemingly through the gut, and whether Dickie dies or is hauled back to prison, he's out of the story for now.

Errol's betrayal of Limehouse? That was a plot by Limehouse to get Boyd Crowder and Robert Quarles in the same place at the same time, that they might eliminate each other and accomplish Limehouse's ultimate goal: get everybody to leave Nobles Holler alone. Boyd, of course, is smart enough to figure all of this out before he ends up locked in a gun battle with Quarles, but it seemingly takes the question of whether Limehouse's men are loyal off the table.

Really, just removing Dickie from the story clears up a lot of loose ends. The scene in which he goes to Boyd's bar, only to have Boyd very nearly kill him (rather than being persuaded to join his bank-heist crew), is great, visceral TV, and the end, when he goes to face off with Loretta, who gave him troubles last season, is surprisingly bleak. The Bennetts were once one of the top families around, but now they're all gone. Even if Dickie is still alive, Raylan points out just how long he'll languish in prison, thanks to charges that extend to kidnapping (after he tucks Errol in his trunk). There's a tragic inevitability to all of this.

This means that we head into the season finale with Quarles and Boyd missing (after Quarles apparently absconded with Boyd in the wake of yet another car bomb going off) and Raylan off to track them down. This whole season has built so steadily to a showdown between these three men that I'd have been surprised if it ended any other way. "Justified" has been known to sometimes mess around with the stories it seems to be setting up -- as when Raylan was almost incidental to last season's finale -- but it plays to the expected here. We're going to get that showdown, it would seem, and I'll bet it's nothing less than thrilling.

If this season is dependent on its ending (simply because of how many story threads are still out there), then "Coalition" does a good job of slashing and burning, clearing out the stuff that can be cleared out so we can get down to the most important stories for the next episode. The show hasn't always been elegant about its plotting this season -- even here, in what might be the best episode of the season, we get the weird idea that Boyd would leave the valuable Quarles locked up with only a few lackeys to watch over him -– but it's gotten the character arcs mostly right.

I've particularly enjoyed watching Quarles' slow descent into the place he finds himself in this episode. Nobody terribly wants him, and Limehouse is conspiring to get him and Boyd to kill each other. Raylan, meanwhile, is dead-set on hauling him in, particularly after he kills Tom, the luckless officer who just happens to be there when Quarles makes his big getaway (after being knocked to the ground and set on fire by the explosion, no less). It's a genuinely harrowing moment, and it's well-played by Timothy Olyphant, who hasn't always had the most to do this season.

As we start to see the full sweep of this season, I find myself looking more and more at what the season is trying to say. Season 2 was such a thematically rich season, full of ideas about family and one man's journey toward the "right" thing (whatever that means), that Season 3 can't help but feel a little lacking. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if we're meant to find it all a little lacking. All of these characters have been scrambling so hard to pursue their own schemes, yet those schemes ultimately don't amount to very much. All of the death and destruction this season has wrought has resulted in no one getting exactly what they want. The person who comes out of all of this the best is a teenage girl who's only been in two episodes (and barely a footnote, at that).

The problem with all of this is that it's always difficult to dramatically depict a void opening up underneath the characters. The struggles between them are so compelling that we get sucked into them, and we only stop to think that they're not really fighting for anything once we get a chance to pull back and think about it a bit. Maybe that's why Boyd has turned into the stealth lead of the show this season. He alone seems to be fighting for something, and I suspect that's why he's the one whose life is most at stake heading into the finale.

RELATED:

"Justified" recap: Complications ensue

"Justified" recap: The origin story of Quarles

Complete Show Tracker "Justified" coverage

-- Todd VanDerWerff
twitter.com/tvoti

Photo: Raylan (Timothy Olyphant, left) gets some information about Boyd and Quarles from Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) in a scene from "Justified." Credit: FX

 
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