Without a doubt, the theme of tonight’s episode of Justified was about accepting who you are and who you will always be. Mags realizes there never was an easy future in the suburbs for her. Boyd comes full circle back to the outlaw life he could never quite quit. Ava, in the subtext of her condolences to Arlo, embraces her role as Bonnie to Boyd’s Clyde. Loretta admits she’s just a girl who used to sell weed to her classmates, yet is still worthy of a better life. Most importantly of all, Raylan Givens accepts that he is the man his Aunt Helen raised; a man who could never gun down a cuffed criminal in cold blood, no matter the measure of satisfaction it might bring him. The notion that there are no second acts in American lives has never been truer than in the hollers of Harlan County, Kentucky. None of these people can escape their pasts and the weight of their shared history.
The central conceit of Justified is that Raylan was the one that managed to get away, yet against all odds has wound up back in Harlan. I’m not sure that’s true though. Raylan never left Harlan- or rather, he may have left physically for a time, but Harlan came with him. Growing up a Givens, working a deep mine, feuding with the Crowders and Bennetts; all of these things informed on the kind of lawman that Raylan became. In turn, being that kind of lawman (you make him draw, he puts you down) is what led to the career troubles that drove him right back to county he left as a young man.
We find out tonight it was this leaving of Raylan’s that was the great kindness Aunt Helen had done him all those years ago. She gave him the money and the support to break the cycle in a way that no Givens ever had. This finally clarifies the mixed emotions that Helen has shown towards Raylan over the past two seasons. On one hand, she was glad to see the man that she had raised as if he was her own son. On the other hand, Raylan was back in the snake pit she had fought so hard to get him out of; and let’s face it, Helen’s concerns seem largely (ahem) justified. In the two seasons we’ve been with Raylan, we’ve seen him go from being a respected (if unorthodox) Marshal with a strict code of ethics, to someone that repeatedly walks up to the line of right and wrong and sticks his toe across, as various people he cares about get snared in the same old Harlan County troubles. This erosion of Raylan’s code (or is it less of an erosion and more of a stripping away of the facade he’s built, revealing the person he never had any chance other than to be?) is exactly what Helen sought to prevent by sending him away.
Just some phenomenal acting all around last night, starting with Timothy Olyphant. He played Raylan as a man unaccustomed to feeling emotional, struggling to hang on to the detached aloofness we’re used to seeing, and the few times he broke (particularly the scene when Jed confesses to having been there when Helen was killed and for an instant rage, sadness, frustration, regret and the like briefly flash across Raylan’s face) were quite powerful. The climax of Raylan explaining to a cuffed and blubbering Dickie what exactly Aunt Helen meant to him was as good as this series gets. Margo Martindale continued to excel as Mags, and I particularly liked the change in her body language when she went to sign the Black Pike papers (eager, subservient, almost girlish) compared to her icy resolve both when she tells Dickie she’ll see him hang if he screws up the land deal, and then again after she bails Dickie out and re-assumes her position as apex predator of Harlan County.
Only one episode left in this excellent season of what’s become one of the best dramas on television. Mags will be looking to bring her empire back under her control and standing between her and that goal are both Boyd Crowder and a Raylan Givens whose (as he so bluntly reminds his father) guns are always loaded. Like as not, things are going to end bloody for more than a few of these characters.