I need to step back for a moment and talk about Raylan Givens. Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that Rachel had gone ahead and recalled Raylan to Lexington to account for his and Ava’s recent movements. Let’s further say, and I realize that this is pushing it, that Raylan was completely honest in his answers. Imagine that he explained that, no, he and Ava aren’t sleeping together—although yeah, that’s totally a thing they did the last time he was working a case that directly involved her—but she did kiss him after he made her return to her house, and he at least signaled some interest in rekindling whatever it is they once had. I can practically hear Art—who I’m assuming is lounging on the office couch in this scenario—sigh in exasperation at such answers, and maybe the conflicts of interest and petty procedural bullshit involved would be enough to get Raylan removed, but these would be such achingly minor things for Raylan to lose the case over, especially when Art and Rachel assume he’s up to so much worse.
And this is where we start to unravel the genius of Raylan Givens: It’s not that he’s corrupt as much as he exists in the negative space of forthright and upstanding. He’s the Schrödinger’s cat of law enforcement malfeasance, existing in both the good and bad states just as long as he isn’t observed. That’s why Art knows better than to look closely at what he’s doing, and why Rachel ultimately agrees. But it’s worth noting that both Rachel and Art assume they’re covering up for Raylan quite a bit more than they actually are. They aren’t engaging in the kind of semantic gymnastics I am to define Raylan as something other than unscrupulous, although I suppose we’re really negotiating matters of degrees here. Raylan does enough to offset his crap that he can remain the hero in the audience’s eyes, who are given the luxury of observing the totality of what he gets up.
But it makes sense that Art and Rachel would feel differently, given what they know—or what they studiously work not to know—about Raylan’s one great transgression, his role in the murder of Nicky Augustine. That was one hell of a bold narrative decision for Justified, so much so that its implications proved too tricky for the show to deal with, which is why so much of season five was spent unringing that bell. But since those conciliatory measures were mostly to move Raylan back from the edge in the audience’s eyes, not Art’s and Rachel’s we’re then left with a misalignment between what Raylan’s bosses think of him and who he actually is—or, at least, who we are led to believe he is.
This is where the slipperiness of Raylan’s motivations become so important. In the Justified universe, criminals tend to have simple motivations, even if they take the form of grandiose ambitions. Boyd wants to be the king of Harlan County, as does Avery Markham; really, Avery wants to be king of damn near everything. Ava wants to get out of this mess alive. Katherine Hale wants revenge. Wynn Duffy wants … well, it’s a more foolish man than I who claims to know the inner workings of Wynn Duffy’s mind. But Raylan? He sure as hell isn’t acting like a man who is desperate to get down to Florida to be with Winona and the baby. He talks about finishing the job and ridding Harlan of its snakes, but that might all be talk. Raylan has been quick to point to the badge as justification for his actions this season, but he could be hiding behind it.
After all, part of the reason that criminals’ motivations appear so straightforward is that, by virtue of their chosen profession, they frequently find themselves in life-or-death situations, where they are guided by their foremost desires. Raylan, on the other hand, can more or less always make the plausible claim that he’s just doing this job, which obscures the fact that he may well have picked the job just because its requirements so perfectly line up with his being an ornery bastard out to piss off his father and all like him. Most of the time, this is a distinction without a difference: It makes sense for Raylan to strategically harass Boyd and Markham irrespective of whether it’s out of a deep sense of duty or an even deeper-seated hatred of Arlo.
This in fact is where the Nicky Augustine affair becomes so crucial, as it’s one of the primary examples—others being his decision to let Boyd go at the end of season one and his helping Winona beat the rap in that money-thieving subplot that I literally only just remembered—of Raylan stepping outside his role as a lawman to do what he felt he had to. These were all unjustifiable, at least in the sense that he couldn’t plausibly hope to point to his badge and his results and rely on the understanding of anyone other than his eternally long-suffering superiors. In all those cases, Raylan acted out of a need to protect his own. What “his own” means can be fluid: Hell, for that one brief moment at the end of season one, it included Boyd. They did dig coal, after all.
We’re still a ways off from the show forcing Raylan to reveal once and for all where he stands. He remains free to be a smartass to Harlan’s criminal elements, sitting back and watching as he sows seeds of distrust among Markham’s motley band of assholes. He’s still at a point where he can walk away from his destiny, at least temporarily, as he reminds Boyd in the opening of the last time the two of them and Ava shared that dinner table, deciding it’s not the right time to play out that scenario again. But the reminders of where the journey began grow ever more frequent and more pointed, and tonight’s shootout with Walker and Choo-Choo winnows down the list of villains dumb enough to make the first move against Raylan. He has been successful all these years because he knows Harlan, its corruption and its twisted logic, and he is able to project the sense that he is of Harlan without ever quite getting truly dirty. The likes of Boyd and Avery might finally be formidable enough to force him to cross that line, and only then will we really know what’s inside Raylan Givens.
Bringing this all back to “Alive Day,” we find an episode that is fascinated with the true motivations of all its characters, and still more specifically how dangerous it can be to not know what others actually want. Avery Markham may want Katherine Hale’s hand in marriage, or he might be trying to flush out a rat, or—as the ever sharp, ever paranoid Wynn Duffy quite plausibly speculates—he might be trying to throw Katherine off his own scent. The sheer complexity of this season’s plot, in which every criminal is double- or triple-crossing every other one, makes all these possibilities realistic; Avery almost certainly signs a death warrant when he unveils that massive diamond, but it remains anyone’s guess who is the executioner and who is the condemned. Everything we know so far about Avery Markham indicates that he’s a shockingly ruthless operator—that’s never more clear than when he callously manipulates Walker into killing Choo-Choo with some bullshit about being a wartime leader—and so it’s easy enough to think that the ring is his warning shot at the woman he knows intends to betray him. Honestly, the more frightening possibility is that he’s completely genuine in his intentions, if only because a villain is all the scarier when he can’t be neatly categorized.
Nor does it pay to underestimate one’s workers, as Boyd—and the more classically handsome of Boyd’s current henchmen, with rather more fatal results—learns from Zachariah Randolph. We don’t yet know for sure why Zachariah is out to kill Boyd: The simplest explanation is that he’s exacting revenge against the Crowders, as he alluded to in his discussion with Ava, though things sometimes have a way of not being simple in Harlan. Either way though, Zachariah’s actions reveal the folly of Boyd’s belief that he can work with a man without actually working with him, because all that invites is a recklessness disregard for proper scrutiny. Boyd is fool enough to believe a man who was pointing a shotgun at him just last week would be willing to go work with him just like that.
It’s a naive proposition, but it’s a natural byproduct of the criminal lifestyle. Boyd has that one goal he’s chasing, and the allure of his prize means he has to make some high-stakes alliances with people he probably ought not to trust but can’t afford to do otherwise. Putting such easy and, as it turns out, misplaced faith in Zachariah is one way of doing business, and it might honestly beat the alternative of trying to account for every last variable, as Markham and Walker attempt to. The latter’s attempt to maintain military discipline at a murder scene is equal parts sad and ridiculous, and it’s painfully obvious that Choo-Choo’s promise to take care of the prostitute isn’t going to end well. But Walker is forced to go that route because he’s trying to control the other sociopath under his command, and that’s where things start spiraling out of control. Every fresh attempt to bring order to the chaos just adds complexity to the system, leading to the inevitable mess in which Walker has to flee a shootout and Choo-Choo can’t even manage to be hit by a train. And it’s all just to further Avery Markham’s dreams of empire, and now the Kentucky kingpin must proceed without the trusted lieutenants that shielded him from the worst suspicions.
Hell, when you look at the losses both Boyd and Avery suffer in their ranks in this episode, it becomes easier to understand why Raylan is the one character who isn’t driven by that one clear, non-negotiable goal. After all, maybe he’s just the only one smart enough to realize that, in the Justified universe, wanting something is the first step toward ruin.