What makes a good Justified villain? It would be going a touch too far to say that the show’s seasons have always lived and died on the strength of their villains—Mike O’Malley did some great work as Nicky Augustine, but the fourth season was far more about the Drew Thompson mystery than the latest chapter in the Detroit mafia wars—but the villains are what tend to give the season-long narratives their shape. The conflict between Raylan and Boyd—and, by extension, Ava—operates on a far vaster narrative scale, unfolding across all six seasons. And while “Cash Game” does take us another tiny step closer to that long-awaited final showdown between the show’s leads, the more short-term concerns revolve around the latest gang of interlopers who seek to use Harlan and its people for their own ends. That notion of interloping is crucial, because the villains tend to be far more powerful and control far greater resources than either Harlan’s greatest bank robber or its wayward marshal, so all Boyd and Raylan have going for them is the proverbial home-field advantage. Justified’s unofficial second theme song is of course “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” and while that may function as a warning to Raylan, it is definitely a promise to his adversaries.

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The villain who receives the most focus tonight is Garret Dillahunt’s Walker, who quickly reveals himself the quintessential Elmore Leonard bad guy: He’s the urbane, unflappable charmer and schemer right up to the moment the first thing goes wrong, at which he promptly loses his shit for the duration. Walker’s initial appearance at the farmhouse closely resembles his visit to Arlo’s old place in the premiere, as he laces his smooth businessman’s patter with ever more obvious threats. Given his demeanor, it’s not difficult to see why the old man would compare Walker to Satan, because why would the Prince of Darkness care about the silly, insignificant lifetime of memories this couple has built in their silly, insignificant house? (Which is almost certainly located on some very significant land, but that’s another matter.) For those brief opening minutes, Walker is terrifying—in just about the coolest possible way—because he appears so detached from any semblance of humanity. He recalls Neal McDonough’s Robert Quarles, except not quite as performatively insane.

Not at first, anyway. Walker’s reaction to being called a peacock sets the stage for how he handles himself throughout the rest of the episode. As with so many Justified villains before him, the illogic of Harlan baffles him; worse, the disrespect that its denizens show absolutely infuriates him. It’s the fast reveal of that insecurity that makes Walker so intriguing as a character. While he certainly wouldn’t be the first Justified villain to unravel under pressure, it feels unusual for that to happen in his second appearance—hell, his second scene on the show. Even Robert Quarles lasted a few episodes before revealing just how utterly nuts he was. That’s an intriguing direction for the show to take with Walker, as while he can definitely casually kill and/or discuss his plans to kill the lesser residents of Harlan, it’s much harder to believe that someone this volatile, and someone with such poor judgment in henchmen, is really going to be able to sustain a multi-episode threat to Raylan and Boyd. Maybe that’s because this season really is going to soon give way to the showdown between the core duo. Maybe it’s because, as Raylan observes, Walker is just the middleman, and he’s just setting the stage for a far more formidable foe. Or maybe he’s just the kind of guy who is willing to burn all of Harlan down around him just to show he doesn’t the town’s respect. The only thing more dangerous than Satan is someone desperate to prove that he’s Satan.

Well, either that or a clean-shaven Sam Elliott, which is just about the scariest damn thing I’ve ever seen. Beyond the disquieting visage, Elliott’s Avery Markham appears to come from a different place than the other foes introduced thus far. He’s not the first outlaw with extensive weed connections—why hello, Mags Bennett (and, uh, Hot Rod Dunham)—but he’s the first to so completely adopt the drug’s easygoing ethos. Now, make no mistake: As Avery ultimately reveals to Katherine Hale, he is more than prepared to torture someone he suspects of betrayal. But, at least for the time being, there’s no sense that he would do so to prove a point or demonstrate his own superiority; Katherine simply wants to know how he would handle a particular situation, and he laconically reveals his best practices. Whereas Walker and Katherine have already revealed the kind of insecurities that will likely undo them, Avery has yet to show such a weakness, to the point that it’s conceivable that he may not even emerge as a direct threat to Raylan or Boyd, remaining instead a criminal force on the show’s periphery.

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More likely to be his downfall is the love for Katherine that he appears intent to rekindle. While Ms. Hale is undoubtedly a far more capable mob boss than any we’ve seen in years—again, why hello, Mags Bennett (though, uh, not Hot Rod Dunham)—it’s her very awareness of what she’s up against that is likely to reveal her fatal weakness. After all, she is smart enough to know that Boyd Crowder is the best local operator for the enterprise she has in mind, but she also is smart enough to know that Boyd Crowder can’t be trusted; the only place where her intelligence fails her is that she’s foolish enough to needle Boyd about Ava instead of keeping her suspicions to herself. In isolation, each assessment and each resulting decision makes sense, but as her bedside conversation with Avery reveals, she’s left with an insoluble paradox: The only way to survive dealing with Boyd Crowder is to plan for his betrayal, which in turn makes his betrayal a virtual certainty. There’s no real way out of that catch-22 other than, you know, not being a criminal in the first place. Justified is terrific at making the ways in which its villains make terrible decisions be as cool as possible, but that doesn’t alter the inherent awfulness of those choices.

And as Avery, Katherine, and Walker—not to mention that eternal cockroach Wynn Duffy—begin to reveal themselves, Boyd and Raylan take another crucial step toward their endgame. The conclusion of last week’s premiere left little doubt that Boyd already pretty much knew the truth about Ava, and tonight’s episode takes the next logical step by having Raylan realize that Boyd can’t be fooled. Their conversation at Calhoun’s office is a masterclass of doublespeak, even by Raylan and Boyd’s heady standards; you’d need a damn diagram to chart just how many different levels of lies and obfuscations both are employing and simultaneously aware of in the other. But the upshot is clear enough: One way or another, Raylan’s time in Harlan is limited, and so too is Boyd’s. One question is which of them can more afford to outwait the other, even allowing for all the other antagonists circling just out of sight. The other question, one underlined by the subsequent conversation between Boyd and Ava, is that both men underestimate Ava at their own peril. Both are so busy staring down each other that it could be all too easy to lose sight of their pawn. The villains of Justified, like the villains of all Elmore Leonard fiction, are defined by their blind spots and idiocies, by their flaws. At long last, we might have found Boyd and Raylan’s fatal ones.

Stray observations:

  • Overall, I’m pretty at peace with this being the show’s final season, if only because it does feel like we’re reaching the organic end of the story. But dammit, why’d the show have to wait six years to give us this much awesome Raylan-Tim action?
  • After cultivating some shockingly competent henchmen last year, Boyd now employs someone who thinks it’s a good idea to keep Dewey Crowe’s alligator necklace in plain sight.
  • Hey, whatever happened to client-prostitute confidentiality in this country?

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