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Justified: “Noblesse Oblige”

Illustration for article titled iJustified/i: “Noblesse Oblige”
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Respect takes odd forms in Harlan County. Boyd twice pays the highest possible respect to Sam Elliott’s Avery Markham. The first instance comes when Avery and his lackey Mr. Walker have come to the Crowder homestead. While Ava is defiant in the face of Avery’s coded threats and bland small talk about his dislike of bourbon, Boyd gets straight to the point. He apologizes completely and unreservedly for the offense he has committed against the powerful crime boss, displaying a degree of honest fear that is so rare to see from Boyd. The reaction is well-earned, given Avery’s longstanding reputation—it feels like Bo Crowder got killed off a million years ago, but any mention of him still serves as a reminder of an old criminal order that must still be reckoned with—but it’s what happens next that really speaks to the kind of high regard in which Boyd holds Avery. After all, Boyd goes straight to Wynn Duffy’s hotel, demands a meeting and a room, and he demands that Katherine Hale reveal exactly what she has planned. After all, there has to be a double-cross here somewhere in her plans, either of Avery or of Boyd.

Now, there doesn’t appear to be much percentage in her ripping off Boyd, not when it’s Avery who has the still unclear riches locked away in his pizzeria safe, and there’s even less percentage in her telling Boyd that she plans to screw him over, even if that is what she intends. So, whatever her real long-term goal, she tells Boyd that the plan is to steal from Avery and escape to a retirement of easy living. But, as Boyd points out, Avery isn’t the kind of man who is going to tolerate someone living large off his money. Unlike Katherine, and perhaps unlike Wynn Duffy—I’ve long since given up guessing what’s going on in Wynn Duffy’s head, preferring instead to enjoy the mostly naked shots of him in the tanning bed—Boyd respects Avery enough to recognize this fact. His criminal superiors assume this means that Boyd intends to walk away, but that isn’t the only way to cut through this particular Gordian knot. Boyd can still do the job: He’s just got to kill Avery before the job is done. On Justified, respect is shown not by letting someone live—as Avery himself intimates in his conversation with Ava, you only let those live whom you have use of or whom you don’t consider a threat—but by recognizing that any treachery against them would create a kill-or-be-killed situation. Hell, Avery even returns the favor, paying Boyd the respect of being up front about the fact that he will kill Boyd or Ava the next time he sees them in his pizza place.


The thing is, of course, that Boyd is in just the right spot to pay characters such respect. Narratively speaking, people like Katherine Hale and Avery Markham are already on top; all they really have left to do from a storytelling perspective is contend with challenges from the authorities and from ambitious underlings and betray each other. The former options are hard to sustain because those are essentially passive moves, defining the characters only in reaction to what others do. It works just fine when Avery and Katherine aren’t the protagonists—and when Raylan and Boyd are just the authorities and ambitious underlings to take shots at them—but they are so inherently powerful that the only story you can really tell about them is their downfall. Boyd, on the other hand, occupies a far more interesting middle position, which gives him the added benefit of being able to understand not only his own perspective but that of those whose power he must respect; he enjoys a wisdom that Avery and Katherine can’t access, and that makes him a far wilier opponent than those lazing around seedy hotel rooms, plotting endless wars. (If Boyd were here, I’m sure he’d point out that I’m more or less describing Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, but whatever. Far more important is his willingness to use exploding cigarettes when cornered, a fact that Wynn Duffy is sure to remember.)

I say Boyd is in the middle, and tonight’s “Noblesse Oblige” offers a useful reminder of just how much further one can sink down the Harlan criminal hierarchy. What’s so hilariously sad is how few links in the chain there are between Boyd, a man who can work himself out of damn near any trap, and Earl, a henchman who twice has his machinations immediately foiled by Raylan and Rachel. (I mean, in theory Earl works directly for Boyd, but I think it’s probably more accurate to say Earl is interning for his big brother Carl, who remains maybe the most competent henchman in Justified history.) Earl is completely defined by his impotence—anyone whose first instinct is to threaten Raylan Givens is someone who has already ceded all control of the situation—yet even he has found his own dog to kick in the form of the delinquent Tyler Kent. Earl’s half-assed manipulation of Tyler is weapons-grade bullshit even by Justified’s heady standards, as he argues that the best way to keep Tyler’s dad safe during the robbery is to go in brandishing guns. It all feels like foreshadowing for somebody’s tragic deaths—maybe Luther Kent’s, maybe his son’s, probably not Earl’s, just because that wouldn’t be all that tragic—but these are characters who weren’t able to get out more than a line or two of dialogue before the marshals showed up. These are characters stuck in a strictly comedic subplot, and so they can’t get close to committing an actual crime, at least not one that might end up with someone dead.

But Justified’s line between funny and serious is more razor-thin this season than ever before, a fact underscored by Dewey Crowe’s murder in the first episode. Earl and Tyler might represent a silly little non-threat of the week for Raylan and Rachel to deal with, but these are still a member of Boyd’s crew and the wayward son of a man who could nail Boyd with the explosives he used in the bank job. If Luther would flip, then Raylan’s story this week would move sharply from the comic to the dramatic, as Raylan would be one step closer to declaring open war against Boyd, but instead the final scene takes a turn for the personally tragic. The Kents’ story must remain self-contained, because to do otherwise would mean Luther risking the wrath of Boyd, and Boyd remains not so much the king of Harlan County as its vengeful god.

There again is that issue of respect, laid out in its most primal and most twisted form. Luther is prepared to throw his life away, even though Raylan assures him that it won’t actually help Tyler. And sure, some of that is paternal duty—something that Raylan claims to be able to appreciate, but if he really can at this stage is anyone’s guess—but it’s just as much down to the fact that Luther can’t imagine a world in which he could betray Boyd Crowder and live. This is fully internalized fear, the kind that Raylan was always too ornery and too angry to really get; he’s his father’s son, after all, much as all involved would hate to admit it. That’s one reason, much as Raylan may have dug coal with the likes of Boyd and Luther and so can understand them in a way the other marshals can’t, he still remains an outsider. His essential identity as a wise-ass is part of what makes him such a perfect lead, but it’s also why he can only do so much when faced with Harlan’s more intractable customs. And respect for the Crowders is damn high on that particular list.


Stray observations:

  • In another life, Luther Kent actor Brent Briscoe is J.J. of Parks And Recreation’s J.J.’s Diner. Considering that’s my other Tuesday night reviewing gig, I could have sworn I knew him from somewhere, but it still took me forever to work it out.
  • I’ll be sure to put the focus back on Ava for next week’s episode. Her drunken dismissal of Rachel and Vazquez’s hectoring in the cold open is a treat, as is her steely reaction to Avery’s treatment of her. Ava is not to be messed with this season, and I’m less sure by the minute that she’s not an equal match for even Boyd.
  • Seriously, that tanning bed might be my new favorite Wynn Duffy moment. Nah, nothing is topping his love of women’s tennis or the show pony line. But this was damn close.
  • Can we get a full-on loquacious-off between Walker and Boyd before show’s end? I really need to see those two go at each other, flowery reference for flowery reference.

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