No one ever means what they say on Justified. For most of the characters, that’s a natural side effect of positions in the criminal fraternity. To say anything of substance is to risk self-incrimination, so entire paragraphs of crucial meaning must be housed in metaphors and inflections. Language can never be just workmanlike on this show, not when everything from basic exposition to deadly threats must be kept hidden yet remain unmistakably present in the constant stream of one-liners. It’s no surprise then that the dialogue has always been such a highlight of the viewing experience (and the Elmore Leonard experience more broadly). And it’s not just the criminals who engage in this carefully coded doublespeak: Raylan has long employed on-the-nose hypotheticals and strategically unfinished sentences to threaten suspects without ever quite doing so explicitly, and Art gets in the fun tonight with his interrogation of Avery Markham. The transcript of that exchange might well read like a friendly conversation, yet the inflections—and, yeah, the fact that it happens on an episode of Justified—leave zero doubt of how dangerous this particular topic is for both parties.

“The Hunt” is a masterclass for these elliptical conversations, but what elevates this episode to the top tier of Justified entries is that it also has moments of utter, terrifying honesty. Walton Goggins is, as ever, first among equals here. Of all the strengths he brings to the role of Boyd Crowder, perhaps none is more impressive than the layering he is able to bring to every line. As I detailed above, it isn’t remarkable in and of itself that Boyd always couches his true intent in idle, if loquacious, small talk. No, what really sets Boyd apart is Goggins’ ability to impart every level of his dialogue with the same genuine belief in what he’s talking about. When he muses to Ava about why Devil and Cousin Johnny never thought to just come to him if they were so unhappy with their roles in the outfit, he isn’t just saying these things to signal to Ava that he knows of her own attempt to flee to Limehouse. Boyd conveys a genuine curiosity about the failings of his former confederates and of the world in which both they and he must toil. He betrays his blind spots, as he so hides his own culpability that even Ava has to remind herself that Devil and Johnny’s fears of reprisal from Boyd didn’t stay hypothetical for very long.

But this is what sets Boyd apart from Avery Markham. When Avery completes the call with Walker and quizzes Seabass as to where his loyalties really lie, there is no question of what he genuinely cares about. Even as Avery tries to adopt the no-bullshit pose of confronting Seabass with the grim truth of Walker’s situation, he still maintains the illusion that he is selling his henchman on real freedom when, really, he’s just bribing him to go away for a while. And sure, maybe that’s just a difference of terminology, but intent matters here: Avery is a salesman, whereas Boyd is a philosopher. As such, it’s not exactly a surprise that one is a hell of a lot more straightforward in his goals than the other. Avery has gotten this far because he’s disciplined and he’s charismatic—he’s still an idiot to the extent that all Elmore Leonard criminals are fundamentally idiots, but he’s less of one than any Justified character this side of Mags Bennett—but he only expends the bare minimum of effort in hiding his own selfish, corrupt intentions, be it from a henchman like Seabass or a cop like Art. The truth of Avery is hidden just below the surface, because there really isn’t very much to that surface.

Boyd, on the other hand, is so twisted and so tangled by his own schemes and aspirations—not to mention his own undeniable genius—that he defies easy categorization as a Justified villain. There’s a reason he’s an outlaw and not a criminal, after all. All that isn’t new to “The Hunt,” but what is just about unprecedented his how he acts in that final scene, in which Ava admits that she has been Raylan’s confidential informant. In that scene, Walton Goggins strips away all the layers of obfuscation that have defined Boyd for the last six seasons, as he desperately tries to convince not just Ava but himself that their love is still salvageable.

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Maybe this isn’t a completely earnest and honest Boyd Crowder, but if that’s true then that’s only because such a Boyd Crowder doesn’t even exist. And indeed, that final bit of business with the gun suggests that whatever terrified clarity Boyd showed in that exchange with Ava is gone again, replaced once more with ambiguity. But for those few brief minutes, Boyd and Ava speak honestly in a way that their chosen lives so rarely allow them to. Maybe their love is ultimately toxic, and maybe Ava is right when she suggests Boyd is going to prove himself to be Bowman’s brother sooner or later. Maybe their love is just the one grand delusion that lets them rationalize all the terrible crimes they commit in its name. But for those brief moments, they are willing to jettison every other bit of bullshit to protect their love, and whether that means it’s real or just the biggest bullshit of them all is a question best left for the remaining six episodes.

“The Hunt” contrasts Boyd and Ava’s tense confrontation with the reunion between Raylan, Winona, and their daughter whose name I really ought to look up. (Fine, one sec. It’s Willa.) After the last couple episodes have flirted with a rekindling of Raylan and Ava’s romance, it’s telling that Justified would devote an entire episode to reestablishing Raylan’s status—or, at least, potential status—as a family man. And honestly, given the logistical constraints—it’s fairly obvious that Natalie Zea’s schedule meant she only had time to film scenes in that one hotel room—this subplot does an impressive job selling life with Winona and Willa as a goal that Raylan would want to work toward. Some of that is the timing of the episode, as family life was incompatible with Raylan Givens the protagonist of an ongoing series but works just fine for a Raylan Givens nearing the end of the televised portion of his existence.

But a lot of the credit has to go to Timothy Olyphant and Natalie Zea, who fast rediscover the connection that made their characters’ relationship work, often in spite of itself. Winona has long been a problematic character—it’s hard to blame Zea for wanting to move on to projects that would make better use of her talents, even if that hasn’t really worked out—but at her best she’s a fundamentally normal character who can handle herself in the heightened, deadly world of Justified but functions better when outside of it. Keeping her in a hotel room the whole episode ends up making perfect sense: It’s an island of, well, definitely not tranquility, but of normality, of a life in which both the joys and the rewards aren’t quite so intimately connected with who is pointing a gun at whom. “The Hunt” suggests that Raylan can come live in that world too, or at least it will be possible for him to commute there.

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That’s because he and Winona have finally reached a point where his deeply ingrained tendency to bullshit—as when he instinctually lies that he took Willa to the park and not to the office—is no longer an impediment to understanding between them. In isolation, maybe that’s letting Raylan off the hook a little easy. But if that’s so, it’s only because he’s earned those moments of grace from all the time he’s spent on the right side of the law. Whatever else, Boyd and Ava are unlikely to receive similar charity from the Justified universe.

Stray observations:

  • Garret Dillahunt is in fine form as fugitive Walker, and he too gets a moment of striking, terrifying honesty when he threatens to kill that frat boy. Then again, he immediately says he’s joking, because he isn’t really the type for prolonged honesty. The fact that he managed to go an entire episode evading capture—even killing two paramedics in cold blood along the way—suggests he’s still plenty formidable, even wounded and exposed.
  • I appreciate random extra marshal asking if he can hold Raylan’s baby. How the hell did he think that was going to play out?
  • Honestly, the entire episode could have been Raylan’s impromptu bring-your-kid-to-work day, and I would have been just peachy.

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