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Justified, Ep. 5.04: “Over the Mountain” struggles to establish compelling stakes

Justified, Ep. 5.04: “Over the Mountain” struggles to establish compelling stakes
Justified, Season 5, Episode 4: “Over the Mountain”
Written by Taylor Elmore
Directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton
Airs Tuesdays at 10pm ET on FX

In case the theme of Season 5 of Justified wasn’t already abundantly clear, “Over the Mountain,” the latest in a too-long string of set-up episodes, underlines it in felt-tip. If the series subtitled its seasons, Spartacus-style, this one would obviously be “Kin.” Every single plot thread either explicitly revolves around or slyly evokes the meaning of family, and more specifically what the series’ characters should and should not put up with from their family, be they literal or adopted.

We’ve already had Raylan shucking his most basic parental duties by not making a stop in Florida to see his newborn daughter, as well as bailing out his surrogate daughter Loretta. We’ve had Art, the closest thing to a father Raylan has left (even doling out “fatherly” advice at one point in Season 3), unknowingly investigating Raylan for his part in bringing down Nicky Augustine. We’ve had the interstate antics of the Crowes and more specifically the challenges faced by the ever-beleaguered halfwit Dewey. We’ve had Boyd and Ava trying (and apparently failing) to make it work despite being separated by prison bars and threatened by an interloping third party. Hell, even Raylan’s sex pal (my new, official term for the non-Winona ladies Raylan consorts with), Allison, is a social worker with a penchant for (allegedly!) breaking the law in order to keep kids out of unsafe home environments.

Now we can add Boyd’s treatment of Cousin Johnny to that list of familial conflicts. Following up on last week’s capper reveal that Johnny was responsible for the deadly assault on Boyd’s drug shipment, “Over the Mountain” finds Ava, Johnny and Boyd getting together for a sit-down that encapsulates the problems with keeping Johnny around as a principal player: Johnny is just not all that interesting on his own. He made sense as a shifty member of Boyd’s ensemble, always looking for the next opportunity to pounce, but as a solo threat to Boyd, even allied with the formidable Hot Rod, he’s not terribly compelling. The sum total of that meeting amounts to the conveyance of information we already know: Johnny fancies Ava and resents Boyd, in equal measure. Oh, and Boyd and Ava aren’t on good terms at the moment. None of this is news, really.

Equally problematic is the decision to prioritize the adventures of Dewey Crowe. Perhaps it’s because he was absent for the entirety of Season 4, but Graham Yost and co. seem to have decided that this will be Dewey’s year to shine. Unfortunately, I think they already created the ultimate Dewey storyline back in Season 3, with the tiny arc that featured one of the series’ best episodes, the macabre and hilarious “Thick As Mud.” That episode recognized that Dewey is an incredible resource for physical gags and gallows humor. The determination to give him some kind of capital-a Arc this season, if that’s the plan, feels a bit misguided. In the same sense that Wynn Duffy is best situated as a sidekick or lackey so that Jere Burns can shift the parameters of his performance to suit his current surroundings, Dewey is perhaps best left as a rarely-called-upon jolt of comic relief as a way to inject levity into an otherwise dark episode or plotline. Time may prove me wrong. (Also: while Wade Messer, rest his soul, was an interesting enough bit character, and it was always fun to have the only other actor to ever play Raylan Givens as part of the ensemble, his death didn’t quite have the oomph I gather it was meant to.)

There are signs of life elsewhere. In a typically, and wonderfully, unexpected bit of casting, Danny Strong joins the fray as a guard who’s got his eye on Ava; had a fellow guard in Boyd’s pocket not intervened, our collective memories of his Buffy character Jonathan might have been forever altered. (There’s still time!) Meanwhile, Art catches wind that a “Kentucky lawman” is responsible for putting down Nicky Augustine, making it seem as though he’ll be inviting Raylan for a tough chat in the office sooner rather than later.

Still, it’s tough to shake the sense that the stakes aren’t quite there yet. Raylan taking the littlest Crowe away from the flock feeds into the season’s theme nicely (if in a somewhat on-the-nose fashion), but I’ve yet to be convinced that the Crowes are a worthy season-long concern. It remains to be seen if that changes when Alicia Witt’s Wendy inevitably makes her way down to Kentucky to shake up the dynamic a bit. Hopefully it won’t be long before the season finds a core conflict worthy of the series’ impressive run to date.