Here’s just about all you need to know about “The Trash And The Snake”: Boyd and Wynn Duffy’s story tonight features their meeting up with Lewis Mago, a drug-addled break-in expert known as the Wizard who spends his time hanging with his short-shorts- and snake-clad girlfriend and who happens to be played by Jake “Not As Crazy as Gary (But Then Who Is?)” Busey. They then watch in dumbfounded horror as the space-out idiot blows himself to smithereens because he messed up his cellphone instructions. And that’s the throwaway subplot. All that happens and then is summarily forgotten without further comment.
Other shows might devote an entire episode to cleaning up the literal mess created by the Wizard’s shocking demise. Most shows would at least take a moment to let their two main characters register some kind of response to the frankly incomprehensible horror they have just witnessed. But Justified doesn’t have time for any of that shit. It’s got much more important business to attend to elsewhere, so instead the Wizard storyline becomes just about the purest, darkest distillation of this show’s Elmore Leonard-infused, shaggy-dog storytelling. The story is close to pointless, and it’s cartoonish as all hell, and it’s easy to argue that it illustrates everything wrong or everything perfect about Justified, depending on your particular tastes. Either way, the Wizard blowing himself up is treated as just another item to be lost in the shuffle, and that requires guts. (Pretty sure the Wizard is done with his, so that’s fine.)
It also requires an episode that has so much else on its mind that such a big moment has to be relegated to mere sideshow, and “The Trash And The Snake” has plenty of other things on its mind. It’s fitting, given Justified’s longstanding invocations of the western genre, that Raylan would talk of homesteaders when discussing Avery Markham’s land grabs. Previous threats have sought to corrupt Harlan, at least to the extent that a place like Harlan can be further corrupted, but Avery presents a more fundamental threat, one that eclipses even Mags Bennett’s plan to sell off to a mining conglomerate. Boyd says it best at the end, when he explains to Ava how much of the local infrastructure Avery needs to control to make his soon-to-be-legal fortune with Kentucky-grown weed. Avery plans to systematically destroy Harlan, rebuild it as his own personal criminal empire, and then make the whole damn thing legitimate in the eyes of the law.
The fact that so much of “The Trash And The Snake” turns on the legality of the weed business creates an opening for social or political commentary, but the episode doesn’t really pursue that route. Again, we’re talking about homesteaders here, which means this is a conflict with far deeper and far more primal motivations than some transient national conversation about marijuana legalization. Avery got into the weed business likely for much the same sorts of reasons that Mags Bennett and Hot Rod Dunham were in it: because it was a low-risk, high-profit business, and it attained both those qualities because it represented a respectable kind of criminality. Under those circumstances, it only takes a tiny push to move into legitimate territory, but the episode doesn’t let us forget that anything as valuable as land—and that’s really what this is about, whether it’s the 19th century or the 21st—is going to attract those willing to go to anything lengths to acquire it; indeed, they are the likeliest to succeed, almost by definition.
What all of this does do is expand the scope of Justified’s final season into something that transcends the more intimate struggles between Raylan, Boyd, and Ava. I don’t mean to keep picking on the fifth season—I quite liked it, I swear!—but it did suffer from a certain insularity, as the Crowes were not compelling enough to carry their share of the narrative load and so the show had little choice but to stare ever more closely at its main characters. That isn’t a bad thing in and of itself—hell, that really ought to be a good thing—but that sort of deep examination of the show’s core elements requires a larger context in which to operate. The coming of legal weed and the latter-day land wars provide a worthy stage, and Avery Markham is fast shaping up to be a larger foe on par with any Justified has previously given us.
Mags Bennett’s legacy is allowed to loom large over this episode—Avery is well aware that Loretta might be pulling Mags’ old trick with the apple pie—and Sam Elliott does not wilt at the comparison. Indeed, given how many other foes have been done in by their ignorance of Harlan’s history, Avery really establishes the full scope of the threat he represents when he recalls the very first threat we ever saw Raylan make. The show’s past is no longer something that exists purely to haunt the characters, because the likes of Avery and Katherine Hale know how to fashion it into most deadly weaponry.
Katherine Hale, for her part, is about as honest here as we have yet seen her, even if her precise designs on Ava remain elusive. She is like a queen in exile, still accorded respect but denied the power she once so proudly wielded, but the extra humiliation is that she hasn’t actually gone anywhere to live out her exile. As she points out, the jeweler she steals from is the same one who once met her at the door with champagne. What’s funny is that, even long after her—and it was definitely her—crime empire has crumbled, she still holds complete sway over the others in that room; Ava is her coked-up puppet, and the jeweler still grants her liberties he clearly wouldn’t with other would-be customers.
But that’s because Katherine knows exactly how much power she can presume to have before the jeweler would actually challenge her; she still has respect, maybe, but she isn’t feared in the way she once was, because she no longer has the kind of absolute power that would allow her to strike fear. Katherine’s motivations—at least the ones she will admit to—remain slightly jumbled, as she longingly asks Ava about what it felt like to kill Bowman while still explaining why she must have vengeance on Avery—the best lover she has ever had—for betraying her own terrible, useless husband. She recognizes the illogic of all this, as she acknowledges Avery’s money isn’t going to feel as good as he does. But Katherine is driven by an anger that even Raylan could respect, and her expert ability to manipulate those around her makes her apparent willingness to burn the damn world down all the more frightening.
After three episodes of strong setup, “The Trash And The Snake” feels like the thesis statement for this final season. In Avery Markham and Katherine Hale, Justified has two potentially all-time great villains to work with; their divergent motivations yet convergent paths offer a suitably epic backdrop for the main characters’ own final battle, and there’s a real chance that Avery and Katherine’s presence could take us far from any expected destination for Raylan and company. Boyd’s own decision to steal Avery’s plan and go after the soul of Harlan adds renewed urgency to Raylan’s efforts to take down his old rival, and Ava continues to balance herself on about five different knife’s edges as she navigates her path as a confidential informant.
And, throughout it all, there is that opening conversation between Raylan and Art. In a cleverly self-aware moment for the show, Art steps outside of the standard-issue quip exchange to explain to Raylan in exacting terms precisely why he’s so damn ornery. It’s a quick humanizing moment, not to mention an important reminder that Justified, for all its willingness to blow up Jake Busey when the moment is right, is still a show that aspires to deeper emotional realities. Then there’s the titular metaphor of the trash and the snake. It’s a rich thematic statement, and I won’t pretend to be able to unpack all the myriad ways it applies to Raylan. But it’s striking how much Raylan appears to sincerely believe in his lawman’s duty; yes, a certain stubborn refusal to get out of his own damn way is in play here, and perhaps a certain hesitance to commit to his life as a father, but this still feels like a more driven, focused Raylan than the lost soul he threatened to become in recent years. More than that, as this episode illustrates, there’s only the flimsiest of differences between the trash and the snake, at least when it comes to Harlan’s criminal elements. After all, when Boyd is what passes for the small fry in this metaphor, there are no small fries. And Raylan is liable to get bit no matter what he does.
- Oh, right: Dickie Bennett is back! Much like the exploding Jake Busey, Dickie’s return, welcome and glorious as it is, ends up being a vanishingly small part of the overall story. If anything, Dickie ends up being more pivotal to this episode as a symbol of the fall of the Bennett clan, rather than as a character on his own terms. That said, Jeremy Davies is so much fun as deranged, semi-coherent Dickie, and it’s endless joy trying to work out where the game-playing asshole ends and the outright nutcase begins.
- I can totally see Wynn Duffy as a young surfer dude. They do make the best sociopaths, if Point Break is to be believed. (And it’s never steered me wrong before.)
- Yeah, in whatever corner of oblivion Arlo Givens is holed up in, I’m betting he winced when Avery said he had never heard of him. That’s some cold shit right there.