“You will not die in that hole, Kyle. You have my word on that.”
And as we discover with “Cottonmouth”—the best episode of Justified this season and possibly the strongest ever—Boyd Crowder is a man of his word, though he abides by the letter of that statement more than the spirit. For the back half of last season and all of this one, Boyd has been in something of a holding pattern—or at least our sympathies toward him have been a bit uncertain. When he broke hard toward a more righteous path at the end of last season, there was the sense that Boyd was running a different kind of scam and not necessarily trying to line a different kind of life. That has continued into season two, with Boyd living peaceably with the woman who killed his brother and heading back to legitimate work at the mines. Again, the show was playing coy about his motives—for one, his expertise in detonation made his newfound access to explosives highly suspect—but lately, we’ve gotten more of a sense that Boyd’s thirst for personal reform is real. All of which makes his inevitable fall from grace unexpectedly affecting, because he genuinely wanted to resist his nature.
What Boyd discovers definitively in “Cottonmouth” is that he’s a thief—one with more intelligence and a more refined sense of honor than the common hoodlum, but a crook nonetheless. Perhaps we’re witnessing the Omar-ification of Boyd, a thief who lives by a code and steals from other thieves if pressed. (Though not by habit. Boyd likely goes along with Kyle’s plan if he doesn’t know they have other plans for him.) The writers have been patient in revealing Boyd’s purpose in season two, but now that they’ve tipped their hand, he’s a richer character than ever, a criminal mastermind with a complicated sense of self. There’s a reason Raylan views his old friend with a mix of suspicion and empathy; Boyd isn’t like his dad or his brother Bowman but a much slipperier creature, because he operates with a set of values.
The pattern of season two to this point has been similar to season one: Set the table in the first episode, parse out information more slowly in case-of-the-week episodes two through four, and finally start paying off the overarching storylines in episode five (and beyond). Though I’ve been a little more conservative in praising the show this year than last, I think the basic components of season two—particularly the emergence of the Bennett family, and a more complex iteration of the Boyd character—are much stronger, and “Cottonmouth” bears that out. The focus on Boyd gives it a gripping through-line, but really, nearly every scene packs a punch, from Raylan’s interrogation of Dewey in the opening to the horrific family justice meted out by Momma Bennett.
The main plot finds Boyd roped into Kyle’s heist operation, which requires his genius for blowing shit up, but doesn’t require him to live. Kyle and his buddies want to raid the mine operation for cash and make it look like somebody else’s inside job. Boyd isn’t the sort to let amateurs like Kyle get the drop on him, so he gleans some information on their plans for him (via a clandestine cell phone) and calmly sets about ensuring his safety while making them pay for their treachery. Boyd’s plotting is ingenious for putting the fate of his co-conspirators in their hands: If they don’t try to collapse the mine on Boyd’s head, they’re doing the honorable thing; if they do, they’re dead. He also tests the limits of Ava’s feelings for him by trusting her with his life; when she delivers for him, Boyd rewards her with the most honest and revealing words we’ve ever heard him speak.
Meanwhile, the noose is tightening on the Bennett clan. Despite entreaties from Art and from his family to leave the Bennetts alone, Raylan keeps coming back to reefer country to stir up trouble. When it’s discovered that Walt McCready’s state benefits checks have been forged and cashed in his absence, Raylan comes to the conclusion that either the Bennetts are funneling money to Walt down south or, much more likely, they’ve killed him off. Knowing it’s the latter puts Raylan in a delicate spot: The consequences of kicking this particular hornet’s nest is that the Bennetts are dangerous and currently the guardians of Walt’s 14-year-old daughter Loretta, whose life hangs in the balance. And that’s to say nothing of the conflict brewing within the Bennett clan itself, which has two of its three sons, Dickie and Coover, brazenly defying their mother’s wishes. Or the dreaded Dixie Mafia.
There’s so much electrifying stuff in “Cottonmouth” it’s hard to know where to start: the tender scene between Raylan and Loretta, where he quietly offers her protection from a danger he can see coming; Boyd’s “Always Be Cool” demeanor and his delicious counterplotting in the mine heist; Raylan’s Taser fight with the reverend (and ATV operator) of the Church of the Two-Stroke Jesus; the staggering scene where Mags punishes Coover for getting out of line and the big man is reduced to a helpless, sniveling 6-year-old, pleading for his mother’s mercy. And that’s to say nothing of the colorful Elmore Leonard-esque vernacular that the show’s writers imitate so skillfully. Justified has finally hit full stride this season, and it’s a wonderful thing.
- The reliably ignorant Dewey on TB: “I thought it was some sort of monkey virus, like that movie.” (That movie would be Outbreak, which it pains me to say came out 16 years ago.)
- We’ve been talking a lot this season about Raylan’s ability to talk to the locals being a major asset. Now Art weighs in: “You’re like the Hillbilly Whisperer.”
- Family has been the predominant theme this season, with the Bennetts and the newly reconstituted Crowders (Ava and Boyd). It’s ironic that Raylan is at the greatest distance from his own clan, including Arlo, whom he jails for not coughing up anywhere near the $20,000 he lifted. And not before pressing him for information on where to find a man who deals in illegal papers. (“I don’t know. Harlan County. Petty bullshit. You. Call it a hunch.”)
- A Raising Arizona moment with Shelby the security guard: Kyle: “Hands up, it’s a robbery.” Shelby: “Well, shit son, I can see that.”
- What’s Mags’ next move?