(SPOILERS) Maybe it was the Breaking Bad effect, but for some reason I’d thought Season Five of Justified was intended to be the last. Perhaps it was at one point, but the currently airing Six is now positively the underrated show’s swansong. I hope it proves to be rallying departure because, while in many respects Five keeps up the high standards of the series hitherto, it’s also its weakest entry. There’s a feeling throughout as if the Elmore Leonard-inspired crime series is stalling for the main event. This, along with several misconceived subplots and additional characters, prevents it from achieving greatness.
As series tend to since Buffy, Justified wouldn’t be complete without its seasonal Big Bad. This one bears a familiar surname. Darryl Crowe, Jr (Michael Rapaport), cousin of imbecilic semi-regular Dewey (Damon Herriman), arrives from Florida looking for fresh pastures to plunder, with his family entourage in tow. We know Darryl means serious trouble when he has one of his kin (Jason Gray-Stafford’s Dilly) put down in the first episode.
The role is a godsend to Rapaport, who has never quite been able to shrug off the indelible memory of Christian Slater’s endearingly dumb best pal in True Romance. The actor still has the features of an unwashed potato, but imbues Darryl with brawny menace where once there was unaffected affability. He’s very much not the idiot that his rough around the edges exterior suggests, and, particularly in the later episodes, presents Raylan with deviousness the deputy marshal likely underestimated. Darryl doesn’t have the weight of a serious master planner that previous Raylan combatants have possessed, though, and he only moves into the deputy marshal’s crosshairs as the main menace relatively late in the season. He’s a small-timer, a quality that adds to the sense of a season biding its time a little, breaking out familiar faces every so often to keep it chugging along.
The rest of his family include a master turn from A J Buckley as brother Danny. Danny’s a force of hair trigger aggression, able only to show affection for his beloved dog Chelsea. This quick-to-anger quality, and his obsession with the 21-foot rule (the distance at which a shooter should be able to draw and dispatch a knife-wielding attacker), make him highly memorable. Danny’s killing of Jean Baptiste (Edi Gathegi) in only the fifth episode comes as a shock, but it really shouldn’t as we’ve already seen Danny kill Dilly under his brother’s instruction.
There is a whiff of déjà vu with the youngest member of the Crowe clan, Jacob Lofland’s Kendal. Particularly as Loretta McCready (Kaitlin Dever), another junior from a previously featured troubled family, also appears this season. Lofland rises to the challenge of performing opposite consummate peers, but many of the subplots he initiates (most notably Raylan’s season love interest) are less than first rate. The twist involving Kendal taking the rap for Daryl shooting Art (Nick Searcy) is an effective one, however, and allows Raylan strong moral high ground. It’s also to the series’ benefit that, while Raylan often takes down his man, as frequently the the viewer is denied easy catharsis; someone else gets in there first, as happens with Daryl.
Indeed, a number of times in the later season, almost in response to Art’s disdain for Raylan’s having crossed the line, Raylan barely draws his gun (“I swear to God, I didn’t see it either” he offers Danny when the latter has fallen down a pit and impaled himself). Kendal’s confession also leads to an excellent scene in the finale where Raylan matter of factly (is he ever any other way?) confides his own rough upbringing, in which Arlo made him shoot a pig, and then beat him for throwing up afterwards.
The highlight of the Crowe clan is it’s one female member (whom we learn is Kendal’s mother, conceived with a loser cousin we meet in episode eight, Kill the Messenger, most memorable for how under-used William Forsythe is). I may be biased, as I’ve always found Alicia Witt captivating, but she steals scenes with ease away from her co-stars. Indeed, Wendy Crowe is the only one in the family with common sense (she may not have a law degree, but she clearly knows how to work the system), and the only female character who is a match for Raylan.
Typically of Justified’s quasi-Shakespearian designs on tragic families, she ends up as the wielder of death for Daryl. Wendy’s is the closest the season comes to providing an arc; the mother who admits herself to her son and reclaims him from the bad father brother. Witt’s presence also serves to underline the amount of time wasted on Raylan’s certified love interest.
Amy Smart’s Allison is a tiresome non-character; Loretta’s social worker, who hitches up with Raylan and serves very little memorable purpose. It might be argued her presence is justified by emphasising how Raylan himself is not facing his responsibilities; his avoidance of visiting Winona (Natalie Zea) and seeing his child. But the way this is serviced is blundering at best; the end of the last episode, where Raylan agrees to stay to help bring down Boyd (“Well, why didn’t you just say so?”) may as well be announcing “We’ve got one more season before we confine our hero to domestic servitude for the rest of his days”. It’s also a reminder that the writers have manoeuvred him into a position where he is required to be a bit of a prick (“Daddy’s coming home so momma can finally have a nap”).
Raylan: My general rule is, you keep talking I put you in the trunk.
Raylan doing what Raylan does is as entertaining as ever, of course. Timothy Olyphant’s cool delivery allows a wealth of glorious lines to linger in the memory (“Are you the type of fella who walks under a flock of birds and then acts surprised when he gets shit on his face?”), even when they’re on the perfunctory side (he places Forsythe under arrest “for being a dick”). The seventh episode, Raw Deal, where a computer fraudster continually outsmarts Raylan, is a particular pleasure, as Raylan can only respond with wry puzzlement every time his cards are cancelled or he is given a misleading tip.
In episode 10, Weight, we get the welcome return of Jeremy Davies as Dickie Bennett, who manages to claim exactly nothing in terms of prisoner privileges while Raylan extracts exactly what he needs (“So all that remains for me to do is say thank you for your help, as unwitting as it may have been”). Then there’s his uber-righteous reprimand to a dying Daryl; “Didn’t I tell you, you were going to wish I killed you? Well, don’t cha?”
But throughout, there is a feeling that Raylan, as unflustered as he is, is reaching the end of his rope. Central to this is his admission to Art concerning his involvement in the death of Nicky Augustine. Art sends him to Coventry for the rest of the season, and, while we were on board with Raylan’s actions at the end of Season Four, other acts are less laudable. In particular, his treatment of Ava (Joelle Carter) rankles, attempting to use her to get to Boyd in episode 12, Starvation, and then insincerely reassuring her in the season’s final scene that “Everything’s going to be fine”.
Ava’s betrayal of Boyd to get out of the slammer is about the only solid result of probably the season’s weakest subplot. Her incarceration is derivative filler material, artificially extended when Danny Strong pretends she attacked him, to give Carter a meaty storyline. Justified’s really better than this, and there’s nothing in these scenes of shivs, and gangs, and drug dealing, and crooked guards that engages.
Boyd: I’ve been accused of being a lot of things. Inarticulate ain’t one of them.
It does serve to highlight the fractures in the relationship between Ava and Boyd, however (one that, for all its problems, still involves a sincerity that Rayland is incapable of in intimacy terms). Boyd’s been put on a back foot this season, and Walter Goggins, with his miraculously regrown hair (that’s some Benjamin Button shit he’s got going on atop his head) is as entirely marvellous as always. It’s no wonder Tarantino’s such a big fan. The writers’ can write Raylan and Boyd in their sleep by this point, so there’s no big need for major confrontations when their rivalry can just simmer nicely. They don’t even meet for the first quarter of the run.
While Boyd tends to end up about even due to his sheer perseverance and ingenuity, Season Five is particularly mired in winging it and desperate choices. His solid relationship with Wynn Duffy (the magnificent Jere Burns, a shoe-in for Dick Dastardly should a live-action Whacky Races ever get made) is tested thanks to the alliances Boyd makes (with duplicitous Daryl) for an ill-advised Mexican excursion. During the early passages of the season, Boyd’s on a mission for Ava, failing to elicit deals and then settling scores. There’s Sam Anderson’s elitist Lee Paxton, who couldn’t be more different from his Bernard in Lost, whom Boyd fails to kill once but doesn’t make the same mistake twice. One of the series’ strengths is that, no matter how many great characters are killed off, there are always strong new ones showing up.
I mentioned Wendy Crowe, but the other best drawn female character in the season exits fairly early on; Karolina Wydra, memorable in the otherwise sloppy final stages of True Blood, appears as trophy wife Mara Paxton, but the writers seem to run out of ideas for her and have Boyd banish her from Harlan. Another such character is William Gregory Lee’s Sheriff Mooney, who has been around for four seasons but is unceremoniously axed (well, shot in an eatery) in the fifth episode (Shot All to Hell). I guess this is the series’ way of saying he never really was a contender, a character the scribes never quite had a handle on (emphasised by the manner in which he twists and turns during his final appearances), but it seems like a bit of an at-a-loss exit.
The departure of James Le Gros’ Wade Messer is especially a shame, even more so since he’s given a Rasputin-esque unlikely series of extreme survivals during his last appearance (in episode four, Over the Mountain). Dewey is clearly the gormless favourite of the writers (“You’re a little touched ain’t you child?”; his pinnacle of dumbness is unhitching a car on a hill in Weight), but Le Gros’ performance is a marvellously nuanced mass of irresistible foolishness.
Rachel: Good guys don’t need to shoot people with their hands cuffed, Crowder.
John Kapelos, another indelible presence as Mr Picker, at least gets the season’s best exit, on the receiving end of Boyd’s exploding cigarettes (making a terrible mess of the hotel furnishings). Kapelos is a pleasure to watch, and any scene, be it with Olyphant or Goggins, and especially with Burns, is improved by his involvement.
Other exits include the demise of Johnny (David Meunier, off to co-star with Duchovny in Aquarius), which seems to be a case of setting things up for the final run, given how significant he was in previous years and how little screen time he gets here. Still, his execution by Boyd, laughing at the Mexican mess, is a great send-off (and that ending, “Good luck getting that shit out of Mexico”, might be the best cliffhanger of the season). The thirteenth episode doesn’t let up on the deaths, with long-stayer Jimmy (Jesse Luken), Boyd’s most trusted accomplice, killed by Mexicans (one of the failings of the season is that the Mexicans never become significant presences; they’re standard-issue heavies).
Raylan: Miller, would you call this a heard, a gaggle, or a flock of assholes?
Miller: I’d call it a United Nations of assholes.
Mary Steenburgen arrives memorably in Weight, but she’s more of a scene-setter for the final season by the looks of things. Xander Berkley is underused in two episodes. In contrast, Steve Harris and Wood Harris (Avon Barksdale) hare delivered highly memorable characters as loquacious enforcers for Hot Rod (ZZ Top-alike Mickey Jones; another exit, well written).
Their best episode is also my favourite of the season, the ninth (Wrong Roads) in which Raylan teams up with a fantastic Eric Roberts, as DEA agent Miller, when he visits Memphis to speak to Hot Rod. Roberts, who appears in more shit than Nic Cage, John Cusack and Bruce Willis combined (which is reallysaying something) absolutely deserves an encore in the Season Six. The scene between Roberts and Jones, giving him his last drink of hooch, is perfection, and then he’s involved in a marvellous three-way standoff between the enforcers, the cops and Crowder’s crew.
Alan Tudyk also has a one episode shot (Shot All to Hell), and he makes for a wonderfully psychotic hit man. The scene in the café, where Art encourages him to leave, and then he returns, is a master class in tension. If Art is well-catered for, here, with his spat with Raylan, and in his heroic wounding, there’s very little for Tim (Jacob Pitts) and Rachel (Erika Brooks) to do, although the latter at least gets appointed acting Chief Deputy Marshal. Rick Gomez continues to make much of his bit role as Assistant DA Vasquez; it’s easy to see why it’s not inflated, since he brings a knowing humour reminiscent of Raylan. Too much of that would unbalance the ship, but his scene with Steenburgen is a lovely little vignette.
Overall then, there’s much to enjoy in Season Five, but it doesn’t have the heft of the last two, and trails way behind the indisputable champ that is Season Two. It’s seriously hampered by poor subplots involving Ava and Raylan’s season squeeze, but lifted by some wonderful guest turns and great one-season regulars Rapaport and Witt. Season Six has Gareth Dillahunt, always a great psycho (see Burn Notice), more Steenburgen. And Sam Elliot. Without his magnificent ‘tache. Let’s hope it breaks general TV show trends and turns out to be a send-off that doesJustified proud.