This is a review. Thus, it is likely to contain spoilers. If you haven’t, as yet, found yourself at liberty to view this episode then consider yourself apprised of the potential jeopardy and proceed at your peril.
“It’s about loyalty, and I need yours.”—Avery Markham
If anyone out there has been waiting excitedly for the point in the season where several of our characters finally give in to the stress and anxiety that has been building all season and completely lose their shit, then this episode is for you. It was a terrible week to be a bad guy and a strangely serene and charming week to be a good guy.
If the stolen kiss between Raylan and Ava raised any doubts a couple of weeks ago as to who they truly loved and wanted to be with, then those doubts are resolved for both parties this week. In fact, when it comes to our mirrored male leads, “doubts” could reasonably be claimed as the theme of the week. Boyd doubts Ava’s loyalty and love (no coincidence that ‘loyalty’ is the week’s other big buzzword). Ava doubts Boyd’s intentions. Raylan doubts Winona’s reasons for traveling to Kentucky. Lastly, Winona doubts Raylan’s dedication to his family. Each doubt is valid and rooted in history, which is what the episode is really getting at; it is an examination of the shared history of these couples going all the way back to (wait for it) the first season.
Even the locations bear witness. Boyd more or less kidnaps Ava to Bulletville which, along with being the title of the first season’s final episode, also happens to be the cabin where Boyd and Raylan joined forces to save Ava. It is a scene and a moment that has had more than one callback this season but for good reason, as it was the nexus where many of our current story arcs took root. In many ways that scene marked the beginning of Ava’s transition from Raylan to Boyd. It also, with the death of his father, started Boyd on his journey to become the crime king of Harlan. Lastly, it cemented the long, slow spiraling dance that have kept the three characters in each other’s constant orbit—only now they’re approaching a final collision.
Much in the same way that Markham’s crew got the lion’s share of the screen time last week with Raylan and Boyd hanging back in support, this week the percentages are reversed with equally impressive results. It is a testament to the top to bottom casting and writing this season that there is no noticeable dip in quality, regardless of who the focus is on from week to week.
Thanks to Limehouse’s phone call last week, Boyd and Ava finally put all their cards on the table though, fittingly, it takes a gun to the head to get each of them to open up. That we knew this scene had to come eventually does nothing to detract from the impact of seeing the two lovers cut each other to the bones of their souls. While their confrontation is ostensibly about Ava’s collusion with the marshals, the couple’s issues go back much, much further. It has never been clear just how much Ava knew about the decisions and moves that Boyd made while she was in prison, particularly his repeated insistence on choosing to benefit his individual future while passing up chances to grant Ava her freedom. It always bothered me that those transgressions seemed to go largely unanswered, so it is particularly rewarding to see the creative team dig that deep and weave nearly two seasons of built up hurt into what was an already emotional scene.
In a season of good material, Joelle Carter and Walton Goggins are both gifted with some of their best material in recent memory. At this point it seems almost unnecessary to point out that they both rose to the occasion. It becomes a challenge, week after week, to keep coming up with new ways to compliment the cast. All of the regulars are so good that I’m tempted to just come up with a new spectrum of modifiers more suitable to their performances. That way I can say things like “This week was better than ‘raising their game’ but not quite at the level of ‘setting a new standard.’ I would put them squarely at ‘taking it to a new level.’
I’m not entirely sure that I’m kidding.
While I work that out, let’s get back to how good Carter and Goggins are. We’ve been waiting for Ava to come clean (or Boyd to find out) for so long now that it was mildly grating that the writers still chose to tease and repeat several times this week before they finally got down to it. Crying wolf with so many ‘will he, won’t he’ moments like Boyd’s repeated insistence that Ava stay where she is while he runs around in the woods with a hunting rifle can easily devolve into a tedious plotting exercise, if the cast doesn’t have the chops to pull it off. Luckily, in this case the writers treat the hunting trip like foreplay, with each mind game adding to the heat that continues to build until finally there is climax and relief. It is quite literally sexual for the characters and metaphorical for the audience.
The sexual overtones are given particular relevance with the realization that Boyd’s larger fear is that Ava is having an affair with Raylan. After all, he’s long suspected that her sudden release from prison might have been orchestrated by the marshals, but a betrayal of the heart was clearly something that he had never prepared himself for. As adept as Carter and Goggins are at putting on their game faces and playing it badass, they are even better when they have be vulnerable and watching Ava and Boyd exhaust their stock of weapons and tear each other to shreds is a treat. It’s precisely the type of high-powered drama that makes the show work even when no bullets are fired. I hate to fall back on hyperbole, but their final scene is probably the best that Joelle Carter and Walton Goggins have ever been on this show. It’s that good.
Equally riveting is the mirror reconciliation going on between Raylan and Winona. Apparently a sick (and very, very loud) baby was just the excuse Winona needed to get on a plane, head to Harlan, stay in Raylan’s weirdly cozily decorated crappy hotel room, and force Raylan to finally have an adult conversation about the future of their family. Two things immediately jumped out at me. One—good Lord, how long has Raylan been living in that hotel room? I can’t count it as a callback to Season One when he’s pretty much lived there since the pilot (with the occasional hiatus), but given that it was the same room where Winona shed her wedding ring, shushed Raylan’s attempt at comment, climbed into bed, and made little girl Givens, it certainly toes right up to the line. Two—I had completely forgotten that Raylan had literally never seen his child in the flesh before. I think I made up a scene in my mind where he got to hold her right after she was born but just hadn’t seen her since. Seriously, I think I’ve actually been underestimating how seriously messed up it is that Raylan has been putting off at least going to Florida for a visit. And work actually took him to Florida at least once! I know I keep talking about how it’s possible that when all is said and done, Raylan may turn out to be the bad guy on his own show, but I was mostly kidding. Now I’m tempted to just stick a ‘Hi, My Name is: Deadbeat’ sticker on him and move on. Thankfully, for both the show and myself, the wondrous Natalie Zea shows up to save the day.
Maybe it is because she’s been gone for a while, save for the occasional Skype call, but Natalie Zea seems re-energized in her role, and I was instantly struck by how comfortable she is as Winona. It’s a shame that the show never found enough for Winona to do plot-wise. It’s really apparent on re-watches that she was relegated to exposition and plot progression duty most of the time. She was more complication than character.
For a long time, I didn’t think that Winona and Raylan clicked the way that Raylan and Ava did back in Season One. But, thanks to a creative team that believes in playing the long game, over time they really managed to sell me on Boyd as Ava’s primary person and Winona as Raylan’s north star. Taylor Elmore and Keith Schreier do nice work giving Zea the right kind of wordy, screwball dialogue that she excels at, so by the end of the episode I had fallen for Winona again, right along with Raylan.
The closer we get to the finale, the less sure I am of where things are headed. At this point, I truly wouldn’t be surprised if Raylan walked away from a showdown with Boyd and chose his family instead. It would probably disappoint a lot of fans, but in many ways it would truly be the ultimate defeat.
Some closing thoughts:
It doesn’t warrant deep analysis, but Garret Dillahunt’s very enjoyable return to his No Country For Old Men roots was like its own mini movie. He doesn’t quite have the unstoppable menace of Anton Chigurh, but having Walker as a rogue agent actually makes him more interesting than he was already. And he was plenty interesting as it was.
I don’t know if Timothy Olyphant and Natalie Zea actually played that bathroom conversation scene with a screaming toddler between them, so kudos either way. If it was good editing and sound mixing, then wow. If it was real, then really wow.
We need to get a Nick Searcy/Sam Elliott series into active development. Their spinoff can be that Art and Markham put aside their differences, move to California, and open a detective agency. It’ll be just like Simon and Simon except, you know, watchable. And all the chases will involve souped up electric scooters.
I do love the subtle hint that Willa Givens may only be happy in the marshals’ office. I wonder how long it will take for that to occur to Raylan.
And now for some of the week’s best dialogue:
“Don’t tell me you’re the closer.”
“No, I’m not. That’d be cool though.”
“What a relief, she doesn’t look like you. What a relief.”
“She’s yours, I hope.”
“Look what you started, Norma Rae.”
“Magic eight ball says ask again later.”
“I know, that’s why I was condescending to you just now.”
Jack McKinney is a professional camera salesman by day and a freelance filmmaker, Paste contributor, and amateur prestidigitator by night (and occasionally weekends). You can cyber-stalk him on Twitter.