Justified: “Reckoning”

“This is who we are, Dickie. This is who we’ve always been.”

It’s uncommon – exceptional – for a show to create a protagonist as fully realized as Raylan Givens, but whose behavior still sometimes defies prediction. When he utters the above sentence, just barely retaining command over his rage and grief while Dickie, a much more pitiful creature than he’d ever admit to, blubbers in mortal terror – well, throughout that whole scene, I honestly had no idea whether Raylan would let Dickie live or die.

Perhaps Raylan didn’t know, either. He spends most of “Reckoning” not as a marshal but as a grieving son (and he clearly sees himself as Helen’s son in every important way, even if he’s biologically her nephew). He uses the auspices of his office to help to identify and track down Helen’s killer, but even if a murder investigation wasn’t obviously well outside the purview of the Marshal’s Office, it’d be no secret this quest is personal.

Throughout, Raylan tries to hedge. He thinks he can straddle the line between being a lawman and being a private citizen, between bringing a criminal to justice and settling the latest score in a century-old feud. And he fails at both, because his opponent is only playing one game and playing it wholeheartedly, with more experience and more cunning.

At the start of his search, Raylan (along with the local cops) suspects “the Bennetts” – but coming into this week, they no longer existed as a single entity. There was Mags, verging on retirement, and Doyle, bequeathed the future… and then there was Dickie – disowned by his mama, outgunned by Boyd, and increasingly desperate. Raylan attempts to leverage that estrangement, and Mags’s apparent complacency, by forcing her to give Dickie up.

Short-circuiting Dickie’s plan to sell out Jed and reassert his power is one thing, but outmaneuvering Mags is quite another. If there’s one thing that can reawaken her maternal bond to a fuck-up offspring, and rekindle her fire for ruling Harlan, it’s being usurped and treated as though she’s weak. Instead of outfoxing Mags, Raylan draws her back into the center of the endgame.

Not enough can be said about the acting on this show. Even in an hour like this one, with no action scenes to speak of, every moment was charged with an incredible amount of tension emanating entirely from the performances of Tim Olyphant, Margo Martindale, Jeremy Davies, Walton Goggins, and Raymond J. Barry. It’s all propelled by carefully measured conversations, among people with multiple lifetimes worth of history – much of it unspoken, all of it ugly. The threat of violence always lurks underneath, but seldom comes to fruition.

These exchanges are well written, of course, with a deep knowledge of that history and an abiding trust in the audience to understand it without cluttered exposition. But it’s superlative acting that makes these slow, steady scenes crackle. Justified is a rare drama that displays enough patience to let these sorts of scenes build and linger. Any one could end with a flurry of bullets, or the crack of a gun butt across a skull, but such payoffs are all the more bracing for their relative rarity.

Which is not to say that Justified can’t bring the heat when it wants to – far from it. And I’m expecting nothing less in next week’s season finale, ominously titled “Bloody Harlan.”

Other notes:

  • Raylan Givens Badassery of The Week: Taking Dickie out to the woods, and backing off from executing him at the last moment, after a long, silent, agonized recollection of Helen. He’s her son, not Arlo’s.
  • Bacon cured with cinnamon sounds absolutely delicious.
  • “”Didn’t have my brand.”
  • “I can still arrest people, y’idiot.”
  • “Why don’t you tell them for me that I was the best two pumps of your life.”
  • “By which I believe you mean, that’s a damn good plan you’ve got there my darling son.”
  • “You try to pat me down, I’ll kill you.” “It was rhetorical.”
  • “That’s twice you’ve disrespected her in my presence. Don’t let it happen a third.”
  • “Raylan sent you?” “Wanted me to ask you, what’s the future worth?”
  • “Don’t talk about her like you knew her. You didn’t know shit about her.”
  • “Under different circumstances, I’m sure plenty of people could’ve been happy here.”

Originally published at The Vast Wasteland, Apr. 28, 2011.

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