‘Justified’ Open Thread: Lion in Winter

This post contains spoilers through the April 3 episode of Justified.

There’s a lot of ridiculously fine writing going on in this episode of Justified, whether it’s Boyd telling Arlo “Arlo, I’m not saying you’re a lion in winter, but your roar ain’t what it used to be,” or Wynn asking Quarles indignantly “Are you smoking Oxycontin in my motorcoach?” But for all the wealth of language and character that’s present in this episode, it’s also proof to me of the signal failure of this season of Justified: there’s far too much plot, and not enough sense of what the emotionally richest strains of it are.

In fact, I think the show’s devoted time in inverse proportion to the strength of the characters and the themes. Quarles’ dissolution isn’t unpowerful, but he’s a monster more than he is a man, a disappointed gangster who tortures rentboys and has discovered Oxy, reducing him to snorting crushed pills in a trailer and carrying on conversations that operate at the level of “You ever seen Platoon?” “That movie with the old people who go to outer space?” It’s a fine performance, but the character’s contrived to the point of grotesque. And while there’s a marvelously operatic sense of Theo Tonen’s power—as Wynn puts it, “Does he sound like the kind of man to which would you like to say, ‘I’m sorry, but he escaped from a diseased whore factory up in inbred holler?’ But it feels wasted on a character who, I assume, is here one season, gone the next.

I feel that way particularly strongly given how rich Noble’s Holler, with its internal power struggles, its relationship to abused women, and its role as an informal financial center is as a setting. Ellstin Limehouse is a marvelous character, and if we’re not going to get a show that’s told through his eyes (which are quite sharp at assessing Harlan, as in his explanation of Boyd’s modus operandi: “Blow up something on one end of town, and when all eyes are there, hit the bank.”), I still wish he’d been the titan this season.

But the two people who have gotten the shortest shrift at the expense of the show’s core emotional development are Ava and Arlo. Ava’s emergence as a kingpin in her own right is a fascinating development, in terms of the balance of power in her relationship with Boyd, the role for a prominent criminal woman left open by Mags Bennett’s death, and what it means to have a woman running hugely vulnerable hookers in a region where sex work is easily blunted by powerful drugs. Similarly, Arlo’s decline could have been the story that bound all the character’s together. Whether it’s his and Limehouse’s history, the brokenness of his relationship with Raylan and Boyd’s decision to step in as his surrogate son, and his own titanic sense of pride in the meager field of knocking over Harlan banks, he could have been the central thread of the season. It’s easier, and richer, and ultimately more important and touching to chronicle the ravages of dementia than to invent a flamboyant, out-of-town gangster. It’s unfortunate to see Justified go for flash, instead of for the gut.