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'Justified' recap: Tense as tense can be

March 24, 2011 |  9:00 am

Js2ep207_20110105_PG-0356 The latest episode of “Justified,” “Save My Love,” is an expert example of how to build tension in an hour of television. Immensely entertaining and filled with all sorts of incredible twists and turns, the episode shows off just how adroit “Justified” has become about backing its characters into corners and seeing if they can figure a way out of their predicaments. A sure sign of cracking good drama is when it seems like the writers are as much at a loss as the characters about what to do -- yet they keep piling on the problems because that’s likely what would happen if it were a real-life situation. “Justified” is heightened, yes, but in “Save My Love,” everything feels terrifyingly real, terrifyingly tense.

That $100 bill Winona took to the bank, then had taken from her at gunpoint in the last episode is still eating her up inside. She’s all but certain that the bills Raylan retrieved for her are not the one she had. No, she’s pretty sure that one had a torn corner. Raylan’s not sure this is such a big deal. If he can’t find it and it somehow pings the Secret Service’s radar and they somehow tie it to Winona, well, she might have to pay a fine, but it’s unlikely she’d ever serve jail time or have anything serious come down on her head. It would just be one of those stupid things she’d laugh about years from now. But as he’s spinning this scenario, Winona sets out to prove to him that she’d be in a whole lot more trouble than he thinks. Because, as she shows him when she zips open her gym bag, she didn’t take just the one bill. She took ALL of the money from the evidence locker, which means that she now has more than $200,000  she shouldn’t have and only a limited time frame in which to get it back to its rightful place before people start asking questions.

What’s remarkable about “Save My Love” is that it doesn’t just turn into a tense tale about Raylan and Winona having to overcome obstacles to get the money back in the right place before anyone realizes what’s happened. That’s pretty much a given once the story starts up. No, what’s remarkable about the episode is that it gains all of its action-movie plotting from bureaucracy, from an endless string of paperwork and procedure and red tape. Sure, there are bomb threats and men who plan to shoot judges once they emerge from a courthouse and Raylan doing his level best to keep things from boiling over. But there are also long scenes where Raylan and Winona are racing -- battling procedure and hoping they can somehow lose the money inside the system before the system catches up to them. It’s a chaotic, complicated plot. It’s also wonderful.

If I were going to nitpick this episode, I might say that it tries a little hard to shove the Raylan and Winona story together with the story about Boyd and his new employer, Carol (played by Rebecca Creskoff, who may be best known to many TV fans as Lenore from “Hung”). Carol is defending the mining company against a lawsuit from a family that has a YouTube video of the family patriarch getting run over by one of the mine’s bulldozers while he's making a video about the horrors of what sounds like mountaintop-removal mining. (The show doesn’t specify, but from the content of the video, that’s my best guess.) She’s concerned that someone from the family may try to take a shot at her, seemingly, so she hires Boyd as security. But as the episode goes on, Boyd’s role as her right-hand man becomes less and less clear cut. At first she’s suggesting she just needs someone of his particular background for advice and general watching of her back. And then she’s saying she needs him to disrupt the Bennett clan, because the family is getting in the way of her operations. Boyd vs. the Bennetts vs. Raylan? That’s potentially scary stuff, and I can’t wait to see how it plays out.

Anyway, as I was saying, the one nitpick here is that it’s just a bit strange that Raylan and Boyd end up in the same place at the same time, their stories more or less dovetailing but coming from completely different places. I mean, the show makes enough sense out of it that I don’t really mind, but it does require a lot of plot logistics just to get them in the same place at the same time. Once the two are both in that courtroom, though, playing out the slyly funny scenes they always share, everything is just so goofy and charming that it’s not hard to just go with it. Some of the story calculations may be a bit convoluted, but everything that results from them is a whole mess of fun.

And that’s all that matters, really. The show also brings back Stephen Root as Judge Reardon, who appeared back in Season 1. Root’s one of those actors who’s great in pretty much everything, and he brings just the right touch of sardonic humor to the judge, particularly when he’s badgering Winona about just why she needs to get her bag of “gym clothes” back to her office. Again, the fact that the threats on the judge’s life (and Carol’s life) dovetail with Winona’s situation, well, it’s all a little convenient, but strong writing and strong acting make it work anyway. (Also returning from Season 1 is Jere Burns, as the gleefully evil Wynn Duffy. What he’s going to be up to this season remains to be seen, outside of Gary’s interest in having Duffy invest in his racehorse, but just having him around is another great wild card the show can toss into the mix.)

But like I said, when this episode is cooking, you’re not really thinking about how the story takes a few contrived steps here and there. You’re worried for Raylan and Winona, wondering how they’re going to get out of this situation. You’re right there with Boyd, as the corporate world discovers it has a use for his particular brand of malevolence and as he wonders when the other shoe is going to drop. And you’re right there with Raylan and the marshals as they have to protect the judge and Carol from a bomb threat that turns out to be some justifiably angered plaintiffs wanting to take things a step too far by putting a bullet in someone’s brain. (It’s a nice touch that this episode makes one of Raylan’s jobs to protect the thoroughly odious Carol, who abuses her power to get whatever she wants.) And always, there’s that sense of Art and Rachel and Tim just a few steps behind Winona and Raylan, wondering where that money could have gotten to, finally deciding to just leave it in the FBI’s hands when the storage locker that contained the money is found empty. This twist through various government-agency hands -- the Secret Service, the marshals, the FBI -- gives Winona and Raylan enough time to get the money back in the locker, yes, but it also makes it abundantly clear how the money fell off the map in the first place.

One of the episode’s final scenes contains an absolutely perfect moment. Raylan stands outside the evidence room, waiting for Winona to finish putting the money away in a different locker than the one she found it in, something she’s taking her sweet time doing. As he stands there, holding the door, Art comes down for whatever reason and sees the two of them in the room. Winona’s done with her task. This shouldn’t seem so odd. But if he really thinks about everything he knows -- about the fact that Winona was in the bank robbery AND had access to that money -- he might be able to put two and two together. Would he? Will he? Guess that’ll just have to be another wild card.

Photo: Winona (Natalie Zea) finds herself in a giant mess in the latest "Justified." Credit: FX

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-- Todd VanDerWerff (follow me at