There’s a clear sorting mechanism to the Justified universe. This is a show that revels in the idiocy of its lesser outlaws, in revealing how their greed and shortsightedness inevitably renders their lives nasty, brutish, and short. But once a character attains a certain level of status on this show, there are rules that must be followed as to whom he or she can kill or how his or her life can end. Most fundamentally, if either Raylan or Boyd is going to die, one’s death won’t come at the hands of anybody but the other. Such privileged status extends beyond just the core characters: Justified spent five years heavily implying that Art would die before retirement, but part of the reason Daryl Crowe ended up only wounding the chief is that, really, was Daryl freaking Crowe going to be the man to kill Art? Justified loves happenstance and chaos for its minor characters, but it’s all about the poetic justice for its major ones.
You can see the transition between the two camps in the fates of Avery Markham’s henchmen. Choo-Choo, simultaneously the most human and the most ineffectual of the three, at east earns a bullet wound at the hands of Raylan, but his death ends up being one of stupid irony, as he comes up just short of realizing his pathetic final wish of being hit by a train. Walker, easily the most terrifying of the trio, manages to evade capture far longer than anyone should, but he finds himself shot in the back by Raylan, a final reminder that his character matters, but that other characters matter far, far more. And Seabass, the last of the henchmen to meet his fate, splits the difference between his confederates. Despite getting the temporary drop on Markham and Katherine Hale, the former never bothers to even feign concern while Seabass is still alive, and Katherine shows only disdain after killing him, reacting to his viscera as though it’s a spilled glass of wine. Indeed, Seabass is just about important enough for a character of Katherine Hale’s stature to kill him, but she dispatches him with a transparent ruse that no worthwhile character would have ever fell for. After all, just compare his falling for the old snub-nosed revolver in the handbag routine with Boyd immediately realizing that all is not well with Wynn Duffy.
Oh, poor Wynn Duffy. I’ve already paid many a tribute to the genius of Justified’s most charismatic cockroach, and this episode makes it still clearer why he has emerged as a narrative immortal. More than any other character, he knows to stay in his lane—whichever lane his RV is in, naturally—and the fact that he works hard at nothing more than saving his own skin leaves him no natural exit, particularly on a show that largely eschews the sudden, shocking death for characters whose actors haven’t specifically asked to be written out of the show. Duffy is far too smart and smooth an operator to fall prey to the kind of screw-ups that would lead to some pointless, random end. Yet he also lacks the fatal ambition that has undone all of Harlan’s other interlopers and figures to do in both Markham and Boyd by season’s end. That leaves him in storytelling limbo, with no death obviously appropriate to his character, so it’s almost inevitable that he be given the fate worse than death: Wynn Duffy is a rat.
Except, of course, this isn’t a fate worse than death to Wynn, because he’s precisely the kind of person who firmly believes that death is the worst fate. Again returning to narrative, being a rat is the worst thing imaginable because it destroys the core of what is already a corrupted, corroded essence; as Mikey so eloquently puts it, what would he be without a code, without some sense of honor to underpin all the otherwise unconscionable crimes he commits? Wynn is different because he doesn’t need to labor under the delusion of a dupe like Mikey, who honestly believes that there is a criminal fraternity to which he owes some allegiance, nor does Wynn kid himself into thinking he can simultaneously take on Boyd, Katherine, and Markham and hope to outsmart them all. The only thing he can hope to do is outlive them all, and his track record on that score has been pretty damn strong thus far.
Even so, it was only a matter of time before he, to paraphrase the immortal Coleman Francis, got caught in the wheels of narrative progress. At some point, for Wynn Duffy to serve any greater purpose beyond looking just shockingly good in that speed—seriously, folks, Jere Burns is 60 years old—then he would have to be drawn more directly into the season’s larger plot, thus revealing his fundamentally subsidiary role in the proceedings. Thrust out from the sidelines, he has no chance of outsmarting either Raylan or Boyd, and he struggles just to maintain the loyalty, if not the respect, of Mikey. (For the record, it’s almost touching that he so immediately confides his dangerous secret to his longtime henchman, though I suppose I should have already known that those two have no secrets.) We’re fast approaching the point where Wynn Duffy will have to make his big play to escape the clutches of outlaws and marshals both, and that figures to be one hell of a moment.
In the meantime, “Burned” features Zachariah making his final, most explosive attempt on Boyd’s life. Once again, there’s no real chance in hell that some nobody we hadn’t met before this season—even when said nobody is played by Jeff Fahey—is going to be the one to take down Boyd Crowder, and he sure as hell isn’t going to do it with four episodes still left to air. The challenge then is for the episode to wring the greatest possible suspense from Boyd’s predicament, and director Don Kurt turns in one of the tensest sequences in Justified’s history, the dark, frantic camerawork perfectly matching Walton Goggins’ terrified performance. Logically speaking, we know that Boyd isn’t going to die here, but the moment still works because the episode makes it clear that Boyd doesn’t know that, and the episode is strong enough to get us to share that sense of peril. There’s some sharp writing to undergird that moment, too: It’s sneakily smart for Zachariah’s entire motivation to consist of really nothing more than his old-fashioned hatred of Boyd and all things Crowder, rather than some more convoluted money-related reason. Plus, “Burned” uses Zachariah’s murder attempt to drive a further wedge between Boyd and Ava; it’s entirely possible that the trip to Bulletville irreparably destroyed the trust between them, even if neither is quite yet willing to admit it.
“Burned” is another fantastic episode of Justified, and I still haven’t mentioned the figure most crucial to its success: Kaitlyn Dever as Loretta McCready, a character who has only appeared five times total since the Mags Bennett season yet is instantly able to command respect as an equal of Raylan and Boyd, let alone of Markham and Hale. The episode pays her character the ultimate respect at Avery’s pizza party, cueing up Boyd for another of his trademark soliloquies of mass destruction before Loretta grabs the spotlight. There’s a crucial difference between the newfound partners’ rhetorical approaches: Boyd is about to list Avery’s Coloradoan carnage because all Boyd can really offer Harlan is the familiar discomfort of the devil they already know, whereas Loretta is prepared to be more aspirational, to talk about what she can turn Harlan into with the help of its people. In a show so consumed by the burdens of the past, Loretta has long represented the hope of the future, albeit one already long since compromised by what has come before. She’s a reminder that things can get better in the next generation, but only to a point.
And, through sheer strength of narrative will, Loretta manages to hoist herself to the very top of Justified’s narrative pecking order. She is, if not quite the equal of Boyd and Raylan, then something shockingly close to it, proving more than a match for the likes of Markham, who somehow grows both more dangerous and more pathetic with each new loss he takes. After an enjoyable first half of the season and a pair of absolutely brilliant episodes that forced the characters to confront the truth of themselves, Justified uses tonight’s episode to clarify the pecking order of its characters. It’s time for the likes of Zachariah and Seabass to make their exits. Wynn Duffy is finally on the board, and he’s probably right about where he always knew he was, even if it’s lower than he might have hoped. Avery Markham remains formidable, but he now recognizes that his entire presence is just a pretext for the endgame of Boyd and Raylan’s war. And as for Ava and Loretta … well, your guess is as good as mine. None of this figures to end well. But that isn’t exactly news.