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For all Raylan and Boyd’s well-documented willingness to kill their way out of a crisis—albeit with slightly different levels of, well, justification—this is a show that has long hesitated to kill off anyone even vaguely close to an important character. Sure, season-defining villains like Bo Crowder, Mags Bennett, and Nicky Augustine died at the natural conclusions of their arcs (though I’m pretty sure showrunner Graham Yost still won’t confirm that Robert Quarles is dead, and Limehouse cut his damn arm off). But in terms of multi-season characters, the biggest casualty is still probably Arlo Givens, with only the recently offed Dewey Crowe giving him much of a run for his money. Fans spent the better part of five seasons assuming that Art’s status as Raylan’s benevolent father figure and all his talk of imminent retirement marked him for a heartbreaking demise; as it turns out, the show came up with the non-lethal equivalent of that, though I guess there’s still time. I love Justified, but this is a show that took its sweet time to kill off a barely tertiary character like Cousin Johnny. Hell, this show wouldn’t kill off Eric Roberts, because you never know when you might need Eric Roberts. (That last sentence started sarcastic but turned completely serious.)

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As a result, Justified has suffered through some periods of character bloat—the purge of the Detroit mafia in the first half of season five was a particularly drastic, clumsily executed solution to that very problem—but there’s a lot of fun to be had here in the home stretch, as the show gets to mix and match the most improbable combinations of returning characters. And there’s no less likely pairing than that of Limehouse’s chief enforcer Errol and Patton Oswalt’s Constable Bob, whose newfound, expertly sculpted stubble suggests a hero worship surpassed only by Adam Pally in Iron Man 3. It feels churlish to complain that Oswalt’s character is really only on hand as comic relief—not to mention a nostalgic wink back to the generally excellent season four—but it’s a tribute to what the actor and the show were able to do to develop his character in his original run that he comes across as a little flat here. Then again, Bob’s appearance prominently involves him practicing his monologue in front of a confused hardware store owner, trying to pass off a doodle as a search warrant, and tazing the crap out of Errol. Honestly, given how well season four addressed Bob’s issues, it’s kind of sweet to know that he’s doing so well, even if I can’t imagine that conversation Raylan left him to have with Errol is going to go at all well.

Limehouse is a rather more complicated case, but then that sentiment has defined his entire run on the show. After all, he’s the apparent big bad, the swaggering villain with the meat cleaver and the lye, who revealed himself to be … well, noble might be pushing it, even allowing for the name of his holler. Let’s just say “not completely consumed by greed to the point of near-suicidal stupidity,” mixed in with some desire to help those in trouble. Ava’s desperate flight reveals just how little patience Limehouse has left for those he feel have abused his kindness, though by the peculiar standards of Harlan’s criminal underworld, it’s hard to call his demands unreasonable. What’s more interesting is the sense of impending doom that hangs over the proceedings: There’s no damn way that Ava is ever going to escape Boyd and Raylan, particularly when the only slim chance she has to do so would involve pissing off Limehouse. The very fact that she prefaces her request by swearing this is the last time she will ask anything of him emphasizes just how small Harlan has become, and how limited the characters’ options have become. Limehouse represents only an illusory hope for salvation, mostly because Ava has already tried this so many times that Raylan anticipates precisely where she’s going to go. All Limehouse can do is add one more deadly complication, except Raylan doesn’t want him involved in the endgame, so he and his henchman Errol are summarily dismissed.

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There’s something similar going on with Jeff Fahey as Ava’s previously unseen uncle Zachariah. The Justified universe is collapsing toward the singularity of the Raylan-Boyd-Ava showdown, so it might be odd, even counterproductive, to introduce a potentially important character with just nine episodes to go; after all, the show is already juggling Avery Markham and Katherine Hale, plus Ty Walker and his merry band of morons. But apart from that latest band of interlopers, just about every new character this season has brought us back to digging coal, the single most important detail of Boyd and Raylan’s shared pre-show history. Luther Kent in “Noblesse Oblige” worked in the mines alongside our two protagonists, and surprisingly handsome, clean-cut henchman shoots up in Boyd’s estimations tonight when he mentions he too once dug coal. Hell, the last thing that poor Dewey Crowe ever saw was that photo of the miners, tired and haggard yet looking toward what they hoped would be a brighter future. Zachariah then isn’t a random addition, as he represents the convergence of Boyd’s two pasts, the criminal and the coal digger. Plus, the fact that he’s a Randolph means we have to keep coming back to Ava shooting Bowman, and how that set into motion that confrontation at the kitchen table way back in the pilot.

In its handling of Ava and Raylan, “Sounding” suggests we are indeed coming full circle, albeit after taking a most circuitous path back to where the show began. Honestly, it’s hard to remember that Raylan and Ava were the show’s original couple, even if a sizable contingent of fans did spend the ensuing seasons pointing out how much better Ava was than Winona. (I mean, I wouldn’t even say this is an incorrect assessment; it’s just that this position became so defined by Raylan and Winona’s problems that the fact that Raylan and Ava ever were a couple kind of became beside the point.) Ava’s embrace of Raylan might well be born more of fear and desperation than anything more substantial. After all, Raylan is now the only human on the planet Ava can be honest with, and the man she’s supposed to be engaged to is liable to kill her once he recognizes the truth—not once he learns the truth, mind, because he probably already knows, but Raylan is right when he says Boyd would kill half his posse before acknowledging the horrible truth staring him in the face.

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As for Raylan’s motivations, all we still only really have his stated desire to finish the job he started. The question is just when he did begin. Was it on the bridge at the end of last season, when he made Ava’s position as a confidential informant official? Was it at the dinner table back in the series premiere, when he shot Boyd, who only survived because the showrunners knew better than to throw away Walton Goggins? Or was it still earlier than that, buried in the mists of his time digging coal with Boyd, or found still earlier in the intergenerational saga of Harlan County? I suspect the answer is to be found at neither extreme, because the former is too small for the show’s concluding arc and the latter is too vast for Raylan, who always likes to keep things as simple as his anger and bullheadedness will allow. Justified has always been interested in making larger points about the community in which it’s set, but its foremost priority has been the more intimate, more human stories. As such, it isn’t exactly surprising that we’re coming back to Raylan and Ava’s long-forgotten spark, even if it’s liable to blow up in their faces. Well, even more so than every other damn thing already was.

Stray observations:

  • Now that’s the Wynn Duffy I remember. His cattle prod-assisted torture of Albert Fekus is vintage Wynn Duffy, mixing clinical professionalism with a total willingness to do what is necessary to find out what he needs to know. He’s sadistic, but only in the name of efficiency; I mean, he probably had a blast going to work on Albert, but he’s courteous enough to not be performative about it. Also, Wynn Duffy is totally screwed now, right? Like, legally speaking? Then again, I’m guessing Wynn Duffy would flip in an instant if he felt it would save his (and Mikey’s) skin.
  • Incidentally, were we all aware that Jere Burns—and, presumably, Wynn Duffy—is 60? Because I was not aware of this, and it makes his thong-clad appearance in the tanning bed all the more impressive.
  • The sudden death of the real estate agent at the fists of Choo-Choo is a terrific twist on the usual theatrical torture scene. (It instantly made me think of the Terriers episode “Fustercluck,” and anything that makes me think of Terriers is all right in my book.) That’s one hilariously effective way to deal with character bloat, I guess.
  • Sam Elliott gets precious little to do this week, but his refusal to let Walker speak freely says plenty about where his head is at. He’s a cold, calculating kind of adversary, and one who clearly likes working with military-trained types, but he also assumes he knows all there is to know. And if six seasons has taught us anything, it’s that there is always more to learn about Harlan, and it’s almost never good.

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