Justified, Ep. 3.10: “Guy Walks Into a Bar” shows off Neal McDonough at his most gloriously unhinged

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Justified, Season 3, Episode 10: “Guy Walks Into a Bar”
Written by VJ Boyd
Directed by Tony Goldwyn
Airs Tuesdays at 10pm ET on FX

In what was easily the best episode of the totally serialized portion of Justified‘s third season, we finally get to see just how freaky Robert Quarles can be. Now he’s not just a nervy, Oxy-sniffing killer with a predilection for inflicting sadomasochistic torture on young men, he’s also completely lost control over his plan to take over Harlan – which makes him an even bigger threat to Raylan than before. Winona oughta be glad she skipped town.

As great as Neal McDonough is this week (and he really is), there’s a whole lot of greatness going on this week that had nothing to do with him, so let’s put him aside for a moment. First up: Jim Beaver finally gets a little more to do, starting with a great scene wherein he scares off two of Napier’s lackeys while they try to plant Oxy in his car. Turns out he’s just as great a bullshitter as nearly everyone in his entourage. He loses the election, but Boyd has the ingenious notion to insinuate the sheriff’s sister into a payroll position through a clerk, rendering Napier technically ineligible for office. It’s nice to get a reminder that Boyd is just as canny at playing the angles as anyone else – including Limehouse, who continues to be the season’s least interesting cog.

We also get Raylan shacking up, though probably not on any kind of permanent basis, with the owner of the bar beneath his apartment, Lindsey (Jenn Lyon, who you may or may not recognize as F. Murray Abraham’s wife on the second-season finale of Louie), who’s a nice addition, though there’s no guarantee she’ll play much of a role from here on out. However long she sticks around, it’s always nice to have another woman around who’s good with a gun and can match Raylan for quippiness. Of course, Raylan gets his ass handed to him in an entirely new way this week when he attempts to face down a seemingly harmless old woman who can only communicate through pointing at letters and images (shades of the Tio scenes on Breaking Bad) in what may be the single funniest moment in Justified history.

Despite the levity (also including but not limited to: Dickie’s amazing hair at the hearing, Ellen May’s blowjob recipe, Jere Burns’s escalating exasperation), there’s a hell of a lot of tension and darkness in the air throughout “Guy Walks Into a Bar” as well, and nearly all of it is Quarles-related. First up is the showdown between Quarles and a friend of one of the young hustlers Quarles killed; that features a long anecdote which goes a long way towards explaining what makes him tick. It shouldn’t work, but McDonough’s intensity and self-sustaining sense of confidence (not to mention the cutaways to a horrified Duffy) help to wallpaper the pop psychology somewhat. Better is the standoff between Quarles and Raylan at Lindsey’s bar, in which her shotgun-toting presence is all that keeps Raylan from learning just how fast Quarles’s draw can be. (It also features the season’s hundredth-or-so great line reading from Olyphant: “I’m just gonna file that under, ‘who gives a shit?'”) It’s one of the most staunchly traditional standoffs the show’s ever pulled off, but it’s also one of the most effective.

…And then there’s that closing scene, in which we get to see a bit of Quarles “at work,” so to speak, his thinning hair visible in the mirror just before he strips naked (!). Which begs the question we don’t actually want answered quite yet: where is this all headed? Boyd’s got his man in the sheriff’s office (for the time being, anyway) and is eager to take over, Dickie’s out and everyone wants the Bennett stash, Quarles is bloodthirsty and insane – but there’s no real inkling as to how these competing interests will intersect and/or collide, or who’ll come out on top. (Though betting against Boyd would probably be ill-advised.) That’s the good kind of uncertainty, wherein we have the sense that the show’s writing staff is a dozen steps ahead of us, rather than just making it up as they go along. There are now only three episodes to go, and if they’re half as packed with incident as “Guy Walks Into a Bar,” then Yost and company really have topped themselves this time around.

Simon Howell