After last week’s brilliant “The Hunt” had its characters tell some unexpected truths, tonight’s episode is defined by so many examples of that hallmark of Justified storytelling: the combustible partnership. This is an episode in which circumstances maneuver together the likes of Boyd and Walker, Katherine Hale and Art, and even Raylan and Avery Markham. Most remarkably, “Dark As A Dungeon” brings us right to the cusp of open warfare between Raylan and Boyd, all while chewing over the show’s deeper themes as intently and explicitly as any episode the show has ever done. The end result is a story with plenty of trademark Justified moments, but it also accomplishes something far rarer: “Dark As A Dungeon” is an in-depth examination of the show’s most elusive character, who just happens to be its protagonist. This isn’t necessarily an episode that offers the definitive explanation of just who Raylan Givens is. But what it does do better than just about any other episode is delineate precisely why Raylan is forever stuck between worlds. There isn’t necessarily a deeper truth to uncover for Raylan, but what this episode does so masterfully is help us to understand just how a closed-off character like Raylan processes his own confusion, his own turmoil.

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That last word can feel awfully strong when used to describe the likes of Raylan Givens, but “Dark As A Dungeon” suggests the term fits. This episode gets shockingly meditative for a Justified episode, bookending the usual caper action with scenes that feature Raylan reckoning with the dark legacy of his asshole of a father. It’s easy enough to understand Raylan’s burning of his father’s chests in terms of his well-documented anger and hatred toward Arlo, but consider also what Raylan says to Ava in their climactic confrontation. She tries to get under his skin by forcing him to admit that he could just as easily turned out as an outlaw instead of a lawman, and he responds with a tossed-off “Well, obviously.” He’s clear-eyed about his origins, but the fact that he might not have risen above them is immaterial in light of the fact that he actually did. As he puts it, “The past is a statement, the future is a question,” and the first half of that indicates an absolutist streak when it comes to understanding what came before. As far as Raylan is concerned, the past is a finished, unchanging mass, important in shaping what happens next but not something that requires any further interpretation on its own terms. To Raylan, the past is fixed, and it is knowable.

But then Raylan heads out to Arlo’s old shack to determine just what horrors his father got up to in there, and he finds nothing. As Arlo’s ghost suggests, Raylan may have gone in there looking for a Rosebud, some decoder ring to make sense of his father and the evil past he represents, but there’s no such pat explanation waiting for him. Raylan says he assumed that this is the place where Arlo kept all his evil, but the past is rarely so discrete. Raylan can no longer flatter himself that he’s an impartial, disinterested observer, someone who can round up the injustices of Harlan and burn them away, be they the mementos of Arlo’s destructive life or the county’s criminal elements. His quiet moment of crisis as he wonders what to do with the graves on his property underscore just how lost Raylan is. He legitimately yearns to get away from Harlan forever, but he’s not sure he can if the past is not something he can compartmentalize and leave behind.

While “Dark As A Dungeon” delves deep into Raylan’s psyche and comes away with nothing but intriguing uncertainties, the episode is able to boil down Boyd and Ava to much clearer motivations. That Raylan Givens is the one who brings them to their moment of criminal clarity only makes it all the stronger, as the marshal engineers a situation in which Boyd and Ava are incentivized to turn on Walker, yet their hefty reward looks instantly meaningless when compared with the absurd stack of money that occupies the rest of Avery Markham’s vault. The episode is clever in how it assesses the different values: The $50,000 Ava would get in witness protection is almost pitiable on its face, so why would she ever pretend to content herself with only twice that amount? There’s no sense in embarking on such a high-risk lifestyle in the first place just to cash out for such a low reward. Ava points out the recklessness of Boyd’s refusal to quit while he’s ahead, yet Boyd isn’t exactly wrong when he points out that a free $100,000 isn’t really “ahead” by the standards they have set for themselves. Given that the series is just five episodes from completion, the decision to go after Avery’s vault is likely to be Boyd’s final error, yet the mistake doesn’t really happen here. If there was a mistake, it came the day Boyd became an outlaw, and everything else has been the right decision made on the wrong course.

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“Dark As A Dungeon” provides a fitting, if futile conclusion for Garret Dillahunt’s Ty Walker, who has to clinch some kind of award for most resourceful henchman the show has ever had. (Unless you consider Wynn Duffy a particularly high-powered henchman, which I can sort of see, if only because Mikey is well-suited for life as a henchman’s henchman.) Given that he was introduced as just another interloper, a loquacious huckster with a hair-trigger temper who wasn’t nearly as smooth an operator as he fancied himself to be, and given that he brought about his situation by letting Markham manipulate him into betraying Choo-Choo, it’s damn impressive how close Walker gets to finding a way out. He shows particular savvy when he tells Ava he has already removed all the guns she would have otherwise thought to reach for, and, in putting the gun down when Boyd orders him to, he shows a combination of bravery, humility, and foolhardiness that is damn near unprecedented for a Justified villain. He gets as far as anyone in his impossible situation could ever hope to, and it says a lot that it takes an alliance between Raylan and Avery to bring him down.

That Raylan would pursue that particular path speaks to just how tangled this season’s web has become. As Ava says in her and Raylan’s confrontation, she’s confused as to what the hell he’s even playing at, and Raylan admits to some confusion himself (albeit more about what she’s up to, but still). There are several different ways one might interpret Raylan’s big-picture goals there, but then that’s the trouble with Raylan: When he muses that Boyd can’t even tell when he’s lying anymore, he could just as easily be talking about himself. All that alliance definitely does is screw over Walker, but it could theoretically help either Avery or Boyd, depending on their next moves. Yet Raylan can remain confident that this is all going to work out, because he knows neither is smart enough to leave well enough alone, that neither is going to have the patience necessary to take the deal he’s offering when even better, if more dangerous, opportunities are right there beside them. The only question remaining is whether that description applies to Raylan as well.

Stray observations:

  • Tim is in rare form tonight, even by Tim standards. Jacob Pitts has long excelled at wringing deadpan humor from his lines, but I particularly like how he more or less demands that Raylan tell him what the hell he did to his lawn. Tim’s got passion when he needs it!
  • I think we can officially say that everyone is playing a dangerous game at this point: Katherine Hale, Zachariah, Art, everyone. In terms of how this is going to end—basically, this is precisely the kind of episode that ought to prominently feature dynamite.
  • Wynn Duffy and Mikey don’t get much to do tonight, but what we do get is just peak Wynn Duffy and Mikey. Is it too late to start clamoring for a spin-off? Also, the idea that Wynn Duffy would not be passionately into the idea of playing doubles tennis with Katherine Hale goes against everything we know about Wynn Duffy, which is mostly that he’s really into women’s tennis.

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