Justified, Ep. 4.11: “Decoy” a riveting Western-in-miniature

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Justified

Justified, Season 4, Episode 11: “Decoy”
Written by Graham Yost and Chris Provenzano
Directed by Michael Watkins
Airs Tuesdays at 10pm ET on FX

Some of you multiplex-frequenters might have checked out Kim Jee-woon’s The Last Stand this past January, in which a seemingly unstoppable cartel badass has to make his way through a sleepy border town guarded by Deputy Sheriff Arnold Schwarzenegger in order to escape safely to Mexico. Despite having about one thirtieth the budget and half the runtime of that sorry effort, “Decoy” manages to take a classic Western template – the armed standoff – and pack it in with far more thrills, tense setpieces, incredible performances, and winning dialogue. This is one for the books.

TV is a medium defined by its limitations. 22 or 44 minutes to tell a story. Minimal budget. Contracts to honor. Content restrictions. Episode orders. Fan service. “Decoy” is Justified‘s version of going “all out,” complete with a bona fide, big-ass practical explosion, but if you’re watching closely, you’ll notice that it’s still keeping things talky and (relatively) low on gunplay. When the hour is over, you have the distinct impression you’ve just watched an action-packed hour, but that’s not strictly true; it’s just that Justified has honed its scenes of dialogue to an almost obscene level of virtuosity, wherein every line has impact and meaning, and every performer is at the very top of his or her game, with the new additions going toe-to-toe with established favorites and doing more than fine. It uses its restrictions as a spring from which to play out some truly inspired drama.

Three in particular need mention. Adam Arkin was never going to be a part of the season thanks to his commitments behind the scenes on The Americans, so giving him a trusted crony in Mike O’Malley’s Nicky Augustine was a smart move. But more than that, O’Malley has absolutely killed it throughout and especially this week, bringing the ideal balance of smarm, levity and dread to a man who could charitably be described as simply an asshole. Then there’s Ron Eldard, whose Colt has had some dull patches here and there this season, but “Decoy” finally, firmly establishes just why Boyd wanted him around in the first place, not to mention flashing a memorable bit of self-awareness when he claims to want to be played in a movie by a “young Gérard Dépardieu.” But of course the greatest praise must be reserved for Patton Oswalt, whose work throughout the season has been stellar, but never moreso than the central torture/beating sequence – possibly the most violent scene in Justified history – in which he grows ever-more delirious and scared but still doggedly guards the truth of Drew Thompson’s whereabouts. It’s a stunning extended piece of physical acting.

That’s not to slight the regulars. Marshal Tim gets his greatest showcase yet, actually serving as a glimpse of Bizarro Justified where we have a PTSD-stricken vet as our hero instead of a wisecracking gunslinger. Joelle Carter gets to almost light Nicky on fire and elicit a declaration of love out of Johnny. And then there’s Raylan himself, whose verbal parries with Drew/Shelby throughout the episode are a delight. (Note that Raylan’s namechecking of The Hardy Boys foreshadows Constable Bob’s delirious mention of Nancy Drew.)

If there’s a downside to an episode as swiftly paced and rollicking as “Decoy,” it’s that the remaining two episodes are unlikely to even try to match it for intensity and scope. In the long run, though, that’s probably a good thing. Taken on its own terms, “Decoy” is a remarkably entertaining hour of TV, but there’s still a lot of important character beats that need to come this season, and those are best served by episodes not taken up with explosions and marathon beatings. It’s difficult to say where Season 4 will land quality-wise in the Justified pantheon, but if Yost and company stick the landing – and at this point there is absolutely no reason to think they won’t – it’ll be in contention right along with the last two for best-of-series honors. Now, where’s that renewal notice, FX?

Simon Howell

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