This post contains spoilers through the third season of Justified.
“He didn’t know it was a state trooper. He just saw a man in a hat pointing a gun at Boyd.”
There’s a lot to discuss in the season finale of Justified, an outstandingly strong episode of television that significantly redeemed the overstretched season that came before it—Jere Burns Emmy-worthy performance as Wynn Duffy, the sociology of Noble’s Holler, the question of what Raylan’ll be like as a mostly-absent parent. But for me, the third season of Justified comes down to precisely this shattering question: what happens when parents and children fail to fulfill their obligations to each other and replace the unsatisfying partner with a more compelling one? It’s one that takes on bitter connotations in Harlan, but that, for an anti-hero melodrama, has surprising resonance for a country only beginning to come to terms with a rising dementia epidemic.
There’s no question that Arlo hates his son, and Raylan doesn’t have much use for his father, even if Arlo took a moment to apologize to Raylan at the moment of his transition from free man to soon-to-be convict. Even that admission comes less out of charity and repentance than Arlo’s desire to quiet his own raging mind. “Not an easy thing for me to say,” he admits to his son, before explaining the delusion that lead him to it. “But she insisted. I know she always was your favorite…But you don’t know how she can nag.” But Raylan hates his father, too, telling Limehouse after the latter man addresses him as Mr. Givens that he’s “Deputy Marshal. I’m not my father and I don’t care to be confused with him.”
Much of this episode is an illustration of how Raylan’s abrogated any duties he might have been expected to carry out as a son. Raylan hasn’t had much idea where his father is, much less that it’s Boyd Crowder keeping track of whether his father takes his medications. “I been trying,” Arlo tells Boyd fretfully when called to account for whether he’s sticking to the schedule. “But she hides ‘em where I can’t find ‘em…Thinks it’s funny watching an old man chase around his pills.” And even when it’s suggested that Arlo, in his dementia, might have let one of Boyd’s crimes slip, Boyd behaves more like a caretaker than a man bent on vengeance. “I want you to take one of these pills in front of me. Go on,” he tells Arlo, a father and a child switching places, two criminals reduced to vulnerable patient and patient caretaker.
And what Raylan ultimately doesn’t get, ruminating on the rotten apple and the barrel later (Boyd’s “Well, Raylan, I think even in a little town like Harlan, the apple barrel is obsolete,” and Raylan’s weary “But the expression ain’t, because of the truth contained therein” is one of many great poetic moments in this season, one of the few of television that could without question qualify for literary awards.) is that Arlo’s evil is ultimately less consequential than the opportunity he afforded Boyd. “I’ve connected to Arlo in ways I was never given a chance to do with my own family,” Boyd explains. Whether he’s a coot, a criminal, or simply a sick old man, Arlo afforded Boyd the opportunity for tenderness and for mercy. And Boyd could see what Raylan, who believes that “Arlo’s a criminal, never been anything else,” could not: a man who responded to care and to be treating as if he had something of value left to offer.
That Arlo responded to Boyd’s care, and that ultimately he would have killed for him, is ultimately less proof of his hatred of Raylan than of Raylan’s demotion to mere mortal status in the eyes of the man who bore him. It’s not that Arlo had a clear choice between Boyd and Raylan and chose Raylan. It’s that he chose Boyd as his son against all other men. In that moment, Raylan was indistinguishable from the mass of men. And whether you’re a deputy marshal or an ordinary person caring for an aging parent, that’s the ultimate nightmare of watching a person you love vanish into dementia.