Justified, Ep. 5.01: “A Murder of Crowes” a bloody, ambitious, and portentous opening salvo

Justified, Season 5, Episode 1: “A Murder of Crowes”
Written by Fred Golan and Graham Yost
Directed by Michael Dinner
Airs Tuesdays at 10pm ET on FX
When we last saw Raylan Givens, he was kicking back – sort of. Having just brushed Nicky Augustine off his shoulder by serving him up to his Detroit mafia peers, He was free to enjoy his suspension, complete with a sunny view of the Givens family plot and the knowledge that his ex-wife and soon-to-be newborn wouldn’t be sticking around given that remaining in his direct orbit is hazardous to their health. His response to all this? Cracking open a beer and putting his feet up. Raylan Givens is not one to vocalize his discomfort.

That’s going to make Season 5 interesting, as Raylan will be facing threats of an entirely new nature. Oh, sure, there’s a new theoretical Big Bad, of sorts, in the form of the extended Crowe clan (especially Michael Rapaport’s Daryl Jr. and Alicia Witt’s whip-smart Wendy). But the more intriguing considerations are closer to home. In “A Murder of Crowes,” Winona and the kid (a girl, thank God) are revealed as living in Florida (Zea’s only appearance in the episode is over a Skype call, likely owing to her long-term commitments on, ugh, The Following), and the only father figure Raylan has left, his perpetually annoyed but still generally supportive boss Art, is angling to find out how Augustine came to fall out of Detroit’s good graces – which bodes ill for Raylan. Personally and professionally, it would seem that the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost, which may be a scarier prospect than any external criminal element.

That’s a good thing, because those external threats are a little on the amorphous side at the moment. Boyd Crowder, the series’ de facto second protagonist / kinda antagonist (it\s complicated) is beset on all sides this season, even moreso than Raylan: his beloved fiancée Ava is on the hook for murder (please, please let this lead to some women’s-prison shenanigans later in the season, Justified writers’ room) and there doesn’t seem to be a feasible way to get her out; meanwhile, his criminal enterprise, which has seen him partner up in a permanent way with Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns finally gets the well-deserved promotion to series regular this time around), is potentially threatened thanks to the power vacuum in Detroit – which, let’s remember, Raylan Givens is responsible for. Keep that in mind when you see Nicky Augustine’s old right-hand man, Picker, blow out the brains of Sammy Tonin and “the chainsaw guy.” On Justified, as in reality, times is hard in Detroit.
That’s as good a segue as any to the observation that this is an exceptionally dark and violent premiere for a series beloved by many (myself included) for its uncanny balance of light and dark, funny and deadly serious. There’s some humor to be found – more of Raylan harassing Dewey Crowe, who has netted 300 grand thanks to his past abuses at Raylan\s hands (more chickens), and of course the broadly joke-y but amusing casting of Dave Foley and Will Sasso as Canadian gangsters – but not much in the way of quotable dialogue. More to the point, there’s an overwhelming cloud of gloom, perhaps helped along by the chaotically shifting power dynamics and the high body count. (I’ve also seen the second episode, which didn’t help to shake that feeling much.)

Then there’s the small matter of the series’ latest troublemaking clan, the Crowes. Credit where it’s due: Graham Yost and his team have managed to spin out an entire set of characters from dialogue none of us gave a second thought to. Where did this dialogue occur, you ask? In “Fire In The Hole,” the series’ very first episode. That, my friends, is some impressive backstory excavation. Yost and co. have an impeccable track record for antagonists so far, so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for the most part, but it’s hard to shake the fact that the Crowes feel similar to the Bennetts in terms of their “smart Crowes vs. dumb Crowes” dynamic, and that they’re going to need to maneuver themselves onto an extremely fortuitous footing if they’re going to be a credible threat for Raylan. No qualms with the casting, though: Rapaport gets to exploit his considerable physical presence to an unusual degree, and Witt hits on a nice balance of intelligence and exasperation.

The episode’s final moments underlines the ties between Boyd and Raylan without beating you over the head with it. Raylan deliberately opts out of spending time with his newborn daughter, while Boyd gets himself into a brand new shitheap of trouble whilst trying to find a way to bust Ava out. If anything, Boyd has proven himself a more devoted family man than Raylan, but even he won’t take the option offered by Lee Paxton (a returning Sam Anderson) to take the rap on himself. Instead, he beats Lee nearly to death. The biggest question of Season 5 is just how much the writers will be willing to compromise viewers’ potential sympathy or identification levels with Raylan and Boyd while taking stock of their respective ill-gotten gains. If it can flesh out its latest rogue’s gallery while servicing these bone-deep concerns in a truly satisfying fashion, it’ll be worth a slight downtick in chuckles. Whatever my initial misgivings – and it’s worth remembering that Justified‘s seasons rarely hit their full stride until the third or fourth episode – the series’ track record so far speaks for itself.

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