“Once you fire this bullet, it don’t go back in the barrel.” —Judge Mike “The Hammer” Reardon
I’m sad to report that the momentum kick-started by last week’s stellar episode hit some speed bumps this week.
“Starvation” isn’t a bad episode by any means, but like so many episodes this year, it is surprisingly uneven, made up of varyingly successful scenes punctuated by occasional brilliance. Sadly, this all comes at a time when we needed another powerhouse episode to set our character’s motivations in stone and give the audience a sense of clarity not only for the season finale but also as a lead in to next year’s series conclusion. Instead, we got muddy motivations and muddy moves. The stakes are higher than ever, but the focus felt all over the place. Even the editing seemed a bit off-key as I often felt as if we were cutting away in the middle of scenes.
Michael Rapaport turned out to be a high point of the week. Darryl’s new role as brute suits him well, and from his brutal dispatching of Mikey to sacrificing his sister, his actions and planning all fell in line with everything we know about the character. You would think that such a predictable character would be easier to catch, and I’ve been a bit confused all season as to why so many other characters regularly comment about what a cunning operator Darryl is (never a good sign). To the contrary, Darryl has only one real motivation: self-preservation. He can preach family values all he wants, but whether his momentary goal is money or power, it is all in the service of preserving his own skin. So it feels a little disingenuous to think that two proven game-players would think that they could trap Darryl just by dangling a carrot in front of him.
If that was where the “off” feeling character weirdness ended, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but the bulk of the episode felt that way to me. There were multiple big, consequence-filled moments for our big three this week and while I am happy to see developments, I couldn’t shake a nagging sense that some of the creative decisions were calculated to set up next season rather than genuine, organic character progression. For instance, I could make the argument that Boyd’s decision to play his one “get out of jail free” card for himself rather than to save Ava was entirely in character. After all, at the end of last season when he had a chance to potentially become legitimate and start a future with Ava, he chose instead to get into bed with Wynn Duffy and the Detroit Mafia. It goes without saying that Boyd has a strong predilection toward self-preservation. But that doesn’t mean that it always feels right. After all, this is a very different Boyd than the Boyd who partnered with Duffy, and after an entire season of unbelievable sacrifice, something about this gnaws at me especially since he was so close to success after kidnapping the lovestruck guard. The one rationale I can come up with is that Boyd does seem to harbor some level of resentment toward Ava for killing Delroy and potentially even more for getting caught. (We saw him lash out at her for the latter just a few episodes ago.)
If that is the case, then it does seem more than a little hypocritical for Boyd to judge her given the damage he deals in a given week. Perhaps, though, it is the fact that Boyd maims and kills for money and power, but never purely for emotional reasons. (The operative word there is “purely.”) Thus, he could view Ava’s indiscretion as a form of regrettable weakness. Another possibility is that Boyd has come to realize what his quest to free Ava has cost him. He has no contacts, no leverage and no army at the worst possible time with the Mexicans bearing down on him. If either of these ideas factored into his deal with Raylan, then they should have been developed more before we got to this point. Just a week ago, Boyd was still professing his love and vowing to never stop fighting to free her and continue their lives together. And don’t try and tell me that her “breaking up” with him changed anything. Boyd knows exactly what Ava is up against in there, and I don’t believe for a second that her attempt to martyr herself affected him in the least.
Things started out quite well. There’s Wynn Duffy akimbo, which is always a good thing. (Dear FX Network, find a starring vehicle for Jere Burns as soon as possible. I understand he may have some free time about a year from now.) I still don’t entirely buy the Mexicans as threatening, but I can’t wait for Raylan to finally meet them so that he can ask if there was a special on mock turtlenecks at the Gap. Erica Tazel leading the Marshal trio is awesome. The Jason Statham love is excellent. Towing the Winnebago is genius. Pretty much everything works up until Boyd walks into the Marshals office and declares himself the messiah. Well, everything except for one tiny little scene.
Raylan’s initial meeting with Ava is a bellwether of things to come. Their second meeting is even worse. I know a lot of water has gone under the bridge, but I have trouble buying that these two ever dated and genuinely cared for each other. Since they brought it up, I also have a difficult time believing that Raylan just swallowed the story about Ava shanking a guard without some suspicion. As we have been shown repeatedly, Raylan has a nearly supernatural bullshit detector, and yet he doesn’t so much as raise an eyebrow when a woman that he knows in every sense of the word (including Biblical) attacks a guard without apparent provocation less than 12 hours from her release from jail? Even more, Raylan really is circling rock bottom if he is resorting to threatening ex-girlfriends with completely unethical jailhouse justice. I know the attack on Art has made him desperate and angry, but we have never seen him unnecessarily cruel like this and, again, I’m just not sure I buy it.
The same goes for much of the remaining running time. Whether it is Raylan and Wendy Crowe, Raylan and Boyd or even Dewey and his two favorite whores, these characters not only don’t quite seem like the characters we know and love, they don’t even seem like they’ve ever met each other. The only one who seems perfectly right is Dewey. Dewey is as constant as the northern star.
My suspicion is that the actors know that the character interactions that they are currently performing don’t quite jive with the characters they’ve been playing up till now. They know that they’re wearing ill-fitting clothes. Then again, perhaps all of this is intentional on the part of the creative team. For instance, Raylan’s angry stalk away from the conference room at episode’s end is a carbon copy of his walk away from the last limo that Nicky Augustine ever got into. Both times, he had made a difficult decision guaranteed to have serious and unpredictable results but undoubtedly both were choices that Raylan felt he had to make.
I can nitpick all I want, but the creative team has to make similarly difficult choices every week, and while I may not always like those choices, after five amazing years they have more than earned the benefit of the doubt. For the sake of both the audience and the characters, I hope they’ve made the right ones.
Regardless of my feelings at any given moment, I do think that this episode will be important in hindsight. Right now, it didn’t entirely come together for me, but given the immense course changes for our main characters, it may gain an entirely different esteem looked back on in context.
With only 14 episodes left, that context isn’t very far off.
Some closing thoughts:
I only have one closing thought this week and I want to use up my entire postscript on it. I am all for the show exploring issues around all kinds of sociological issues where women are concerned but trying to shoehorn it in via a Braveheart speech and a bunk room heart to heart is a little insulting to the audience, particularly when the writing isn’t as strong as the sentiment. The exercise yard speech wouldn’t inspire Girl Scouts, let alone hardened criminals, and the bunk room conversation just before Penny’s murder was about as original and profound and an average after-school special. These are serious issues, perhaps nowhere more so than in the rural South, so it distresses me to see the show spend so much time on a storyline, finally get to a point that said storyline might really say something important, and then barely even chip away at the surface.
Everything about the prison scenes befuddles me. Beyond the simplistic treatment of women’s issues, the details just don’t make sense. I would never suggest that the show should slavishly reflect reality, but suspension of disbelief requires at least a sheen of believability and the bizarre details of every day prison life on Justified consistently undermine any attempts the show might make at social commentary. For instance, why the hell would someone in prison pick up a bloody shiv that has just been dropped in front of them? It would be dumb enough to do it in the outside world, but in prison? Please. Also, how is the entire prison not on lockdown? There was just a brutal stabbing and now another within a week’s time? Please. If you’re interested, the annual homicide rate in U.S. prisons as of 2012 was four deaths per 100,000 prisoners, less if you narrow it down to just females. The Kentucky average is almost exactly the same as the national average. From 2000 to 2002, there wasn’t a single female-on-female homicide. When you consider that the largest women’s facility in the country only has a capacity of 2,004, you start to see what a stretch multiple murders is. Again, the show doesn’t have to match reality; it just needs a sheen of believability. Looking back at the prison arc, that sheen has been missing for pretty much the entire season. That said, there is the occasional hiccup in other places. For instance, take the “NSA next level” shotgun antenna that the marshals use to listen in on Boyd’s wire. Why did we need to be told that it can pick up vibrations on glass? Why use a mic at all? Why not just use a traditional radio transmitting wire? Or hell, why not just call his phone and leave the speakerphone on? Is there some reason that is important to the story that the marshals needed to have something mounted on their car that just screamed “Government Surveillance in Progress”? My puzzlement endures.
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.