Photo Courtesy of FX Network
Warning: Spoiler Alert
After a penultimate campaign panned by critics and fans alike for struggling to live up to the super-high standards of the show, Justified surprisingly electrified its fanbase at the end of Season 5 by throwing its cards down on the table at the very end: the final run would be defined by the true Raylan v Boyd mega-battle that we’ve been awaiting all along. Then, as is always the case in the offseason, casting news began hitting the Internet. Given that few – if any – prestige dramas are more adventurous in how they challenge the audience to view established names (think Margo Martindale, Will Sasso, Mike O’Malley and Patton Oswalt among others), it’s always a fun parlor game to imagine how they’re going to be deployed. One could easily imagine some interesting twists from Garret Dillahunt’s character this season and the first two episodes unsurprisingly began to confirm that notion.
But Episode 6.2’s brief tease of Sam Elliott’s new bad guy character Avery Markham portended something much bigger altogether: a menace with the gravitas to rival Boyd and bedevil Raylan. Granted, part of this aura came from spoilery hints on the Internet about him being the boss of the TigerHawk Security crew and, potentially, armies beyond that. But – a week after the episode named “Cash Game” – there was the sense of Graham Yost and Company figuratively pushing all their chips to the middle of the table. Frankly, after some of the dissatisfying twists and turns of Season 5, most observers had written off Justified in terms of being able to catch Breaking Bad and other dramas considered to be the very elite in TV history. It would take a game-changing gamble, leading to a historic final season, to sufficiently reverse this perception and it seems that Yost and his creative team are subscribing to the notion of “go big or go home.” Well, they’re going home one way or another at the end of this season, but hopefully you get the point. Interject Markham as a gargantuan villain adding layers of drama to the Raylan/Boyd endgame and you’ve got the kind of final season that we’ll be prattling on to our grandchildren about endlessly. Get it wrong by disrupting an epic mano-a-mano confrontation with the muddled chaos of a third entity too big to be ignored but insufficiently relevant to the ongoing story – well, then you’ve landed on a more disappointing tier. Not “Dexter”-level – it’s too hard to imagine this show sinking to that point – but still well short of the promise we all felt when Drew Thompson was apprehended at the end of Season 4.
So where did Episode 6.3, Noblesse Oblige, start leading us? Fortunately, down an incredibly promising path.
At the top of the cold open, in the immediate aftermath of last week’s Boyd-and-Ava celebration when she informs him about the true importance of the Pizza Portal, the two are thoroughly intoxicated. As an impatient Raylan is texting her for a meeting, Ava deflects to Boyd by saying that she’s been called into work. Instead, she returns home for an impromptu meeting with not just Raylan, but Rachel and AUSA Vasquez. They are unimpressed with her early-morning drunkenness and they warn her that she’d better start feeding them useful information about Boyd posthaste. In an episode where Ava and Boyd were displaying vintage versions of their personas, you can imagine the restraint and dignity with which “classic Ava,” who was also drunk off her ass, greeted this demand.
Rachel and Raylan end up sticking around Harlan in pursuit of the source of Boyd’s explosives. Raylan theorizes that his old coal mining associate Luther might be furnishing the goods, but some poking around reveals that Luther’s son Tyler is the real culprit – and in true “Justified World” fashion, he’s doing it in legally shady style. The old man takes the blame for his idiot criminal son, thus leaving Raylan no closer to tying the filched Emulex back to Boyd. Rachel’s ongoing frustration with the pace of Raylan’s investigation is present throughout the episode, foreshadowing that our hero’s going to have his customary “few problems back at the office” before the curtain comes down on The Mess in Kentucky.
But the true greatness of 6.3 comes from Boyd’s growing interactions with the targets of his intended larceny. Ty Walker’s initial visit to “Cousin Johnny’s Old Bar” crackles with pure energy, as the writers seemed to channel Deadwood somewhat in putting flowery prose in the mouth of Dillahunt. In what passes for a rap battle in the rural stretches of the Bluegrass State, Boyd defiantly runs his yap right back with the trademark element that he could bottle and sell as a cologne, Elegant Menace. Thwarted, Ty ups the stakes by arranging for Boyd’s abduction from the bar later on and without waiting to ascertain whether Boyd had been scared off, he deploys the third measure – a visit to Ava with the man now confirmed as his boss, Avery Markham.
Scornful of the obvious surveillance job that Ava had pulled on the Pizza Portal and its bank vault earlier, Avery drips with danger as he implies the consequences for her and Boyd. When Boyd comes walking through the door and meets Avery, the older man reminds him that they met when Boyd was a young child – and Avery and Bo were the Alpha Dog Criminals down in those parts. Brushing aside Boyd’s apology for coveting his money stash, Avery twists the knife by explicitly threatening Boyd and Ava if they visit the Portal again and he sneeringly dismisses Boyd as being the same kind of criminal wannabe that he was decades earlier when they first came face-to-face. Later, Boyd vents angrily to Katherine and Wynn about the situation that they led him into, but he still vows to rob Avery and kill him to avenge the humiliations.
At this point, it’s way too early to judge whether Justified is making the right move by interjecting what may be its greatest villain yet into the final season, with the Raylan/Boyd confrontation expected to define the campaign. But it’s going very well thus far and the action will only accelerate as Raylan’s investigation begins to overlap with the activities of Tigerhawk Security. And, frankly, Yost and the rest of the creative committee deserve credit for not playing it safe and keeping other dominant bad guys off of the canvas in the final run. Avery Markham is here and he carries with him every bit the gravitas that you’d expect from a Sam Elliott character – only as a bad guy and that makes the reverse polarity from his celebrated character archetypes that much more effective. He’s a bad, bad man and based on a thrilling start to the season, that’s a good, good thing for viewers. Maintaining a coherent narrative through the final 10 episodes of the series will be vital and could take this show to a place of top-level critical appreciation that could have seemed lost forever in the aftermath of Season 5.
As is now the custom with the Justified reviews here at NJATVS, here’s an extended version of commentary for this episode between Jason Jones and myself: an immediate post-show breakdown of the episode recorded in real time. Past webcasts for Season 6 can be found when searching the Justified category on this site. Additionally, here’s our Season 6 preview and our 10-hour Season 5 “box set” containing a season preview, review and analysis of every episode.