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'Justified' recap: Three great scenes and one great episode

April 28, 2011 |  8:30 am

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The basic unit of measurement for TV drama is the two-person scene. Almost all scenes on TV boil down to a conflict or conversation between two people, even the ones that would seem to involve more than just those two. (Example: Last night’s scene where Raylan confronts Boyd at the house. Ava’s there, but she’s not really a part of the scene, not like the two men are.) These scenes are the most basic units of TV drama because they’re economical to shoot and they allow for lots of potential within a basic framework. Depending on which two characters are in the scene together, anything can happen.

In the generally terrific episode “Reckoning,” a stellar penultimate hour for what’s been a wonderful second season of “Justified,” not a single gun goes off. Raylan sets out with a mission of revenge, but he doesn’t give in to his bloodlust. The Bennett family protects its own, but so far, no one has been killed either to protect the Black Pike deal or Dickie, who goes to jail for a time so his mother can close out the deal with the mining company; she then gets him back out of jail so the family can plot its revenge. In terms of explosive excitement, “Reckoning” offers little.

But in terms of rich scenes between characters that have been coming all season long? “Reckoning” more than delivers. I count, just off the top of my head, three all-time classic scenes of the sort that fans of this show will be talking about long after the series has left the air, scenes that are so airtight and so good that it seems like anything can happen, even as you mostly know anything can’t. One of this is the scene where Raylan goes over to Coover’s former house to find Dickie and instead finds his father and the two talk about Helen. Another is the scene where Doyle goes to kill Jed to get his brother out of a jam, then finds his plan thwarted by Jed’s wife and kid and later Raylan. And the third is that magnificent, should-clinch-Timothy-Olyphant-an-Emmy-nomination scene between Raylan and Dickie in the woods.

And, again, that’s just off the top of my head. This episode is so rich, I’m sure I’m forgetting stuff. The central question of the hour is just what will happen to Dickie, who’s confirmed to have killed Aunt Helen last week, when Raylan catches up to him. Mags has tried to wash her hands of the situation, but Dickie backs her and Doyle into a corner where they all but have to kill his accomplice. Raylan’s anger over the death scatters far and wide, even stretching far enough to include Boyd for a while. (Boyd, helpfully, offers to kill Dickie for Raylan, if Raylan will just drop him off.) And the show plays fast and loose with several story elements that have come up this season, mostly bringing them up for attentive fans to worry about. (Example: Mags offers Arlo a drink in her store, and I was certain, for a bit, that he was going to be poisoned, just as Mags poisoned Loretta’s dad way back in the season premiere, even though that would have made no sense for Mags to do. That fear of Mags’ super-secret poison has hung over the season since that premiere, and I’d be very surprised if it didn’t turn up again next week.)

As the hour goes on, there’s very much a sense that Raylan’s soul hangs in the balance. (I don’t think it’s accidental that Winona looks over to see Raylan’s tombstone on the Givens family plot, particularly given some of the conversations these two have had this season.) One of the great things about Season 2 has been that the characters behave in unpredictable ways that are yet predictable to us. When we met the Bennetts, it became clear that they all looked out for each other, and even though the events of this season have seriously strained that relationship, this episode finally ends with Mags on the warpath for what’s happened to her sons. We knew we were heading here, but the show took an interesting and exciting journey to get there.  

Or consider something else: We pretty much know that Raylan’s not going to kill Dickie. If he does, he’ll almost certainly be killed or go to jail. Yet the episode goes out of its way to make it frighteningly possible to believe that he really will lose it. We know that Raylan has a code. We know that he’s loath to violate it. But we also know that Helen meant more to him than just about anyone on Earth. If ever there were a time when he would become the kind of man his father is, it would be now.

But watch that wonderful scene where Raylan tries to tell Dickie everything he took from the world when he killed Helen. Watch the change that comes over Raylan’s face, beautifully conveyed by Olyphant. It’s the oldest motivation to avoid revenge in the history of scripted revenge stories: The person you want to get revenge for wouldn’t want you getting revenge. But here, as Raylan essentially rambles, trying to talk himself both into and out of killing Dickie, it feels fresh and raw and new. This must be what it’s really like to lose someone so important to you that you’d consider something as awful as cold-blooded murder. The show walks us right up to that line and then back again.

“Reckoning” is such a good episode that it even finds time for an entirely disconnected Loretta scene, mostly to show that the season’s major theme -- that trying to avoid your own past is difficult stuff -- applies to her too and to remind us she’s still out there, on the board. It's such a good episode that it actually pays subtle homage to one of my favorite montages of all time, from Olyphant's "Deadwood" TV series, in which a wedding is juxtaposed with important deals being signed. But here, it's a funeral interspersed with the paperwork.

Since the season began, it has seemed like the story would end up being Raylan versus the Bennetts. And now we’re there, and the long, circuitous journey has been well worth it.


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--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me at

Photo: Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies, left) finds himself pursued by Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) after killing Raylan's aunt. Credit: FX