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Justified, Ep. 5.07: “Raw Deal” a rare mid-season misfire

Justified, Ep. 5.07: “Raw Deal” a rare mid-season misfire
Justified, Season 5, Episode 7: “Raw Deal”
Written by VJ Boyd
Directed by Bill Johnson
Airs Tuesdays at 10pm ET on FX

Why does it feel like so little happens in “Raw Deal”? A relatively major character bites the dust, Boyd’s Mexican adventure appears to be imperiled nice and early, Ava makes a play at being a state-pen kingpin in order to keep her dignity, and Raylan might very well be headed to work in a totally different Marshals office. That’s very far from nothing, but “Raw Deal” still feels curiously free of friction, a resource Justified does not usually lack for.

Part of the problem is the kinda-sorta-A-plot, a weirdly insubstantial trifle in which Raylan tracks down a hacker named T.C. (played by T.J. Linnard, who also plays C.J. on Looking — got all that?) who swindles his way into a $250K payday by passing it off as a Marshals seizure. The story has a bit of promise at first, given that it portends a whole lot of Raylan being publicly embarrassed by a nerdy kid with one leg, but the episode never capitalizes on that dynamic enough, and worse, it forces the dialogue to reference Bitcoin, wi-fi, and various other tech terms that feel totally out of place on Justified, utterly negating the series’ out-of-time feel. There are some nice touches here and there (especially concerning the fate of the man who reports the crime, who is not saved by his habit of recording important conversations on his phone), but it doesn’t serve the season’s themes at all, save to underline that Raylan doesn’t like to handle “walk-ins.”

The Boyd/Johnny conflict finally comes to a head, which should provide a significant jolt, but the whole thing just kind of deflates, mostly because we know there’s no way in hell that Justified is going to kill off Boyd, despite the episode’s half-assed attempt to make that outcome seem like a thing that is actually about to happen. In order to distract us from the fact that the outcome of Johnny’s machinations is preordained, the show needed to make the proceedings a hell of a lot more entertaining, and “Raw Deal” takes the opposite approach, with Boyd feigning resignation for most of the hour while preparing to sign Johnny’s death warrant. The Crowe boys might have livened up the dynamic somehow, but they’re strangely relegated to mute-henchman roles for most of the episode, until they wind up royally screwing the pooch and dropping a ton of bodies. (Seriously, this season’s body count must already dwarf all the other seasons’ by a comfortable margin.) Even then, this newest wrinkle feels like just another arbitrary obstacle that Boyd will easily overtake, because he’s Boyd.

The most promising storyline belongs to Ava, but even here, there\s a pronounced lack of actual forward momentum. The great Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone, True Blood) joins the cast as, essentially, the prison’s version of Season One Boyd, a God-fearing kingpin whose motivations are almost entirely practical beneath the (barely) pious exterior. The series’ writers are canny enough to know that absolutely no one who watches Justified has any interest in seeing Ava become a powerless victim of sexual assault, and having her plant drugs on a dirty prison worker in order to weasel her way into being the new runner makes sense, but the episode doesn’t quite conjure up the necessary dread to convince us that Ava is taking a big risk here.

It’s still difficult to tell if Season 5 is going to be able to wind its way into being on par with any of the series’ previous outings. The last couple of episodes built up a nice head of steam, but too much of “Raw Deal” signposts future plot movement without actually generating much excitement. If it has the gall to actually give Raylan a new posting for a little while, that might prove a worthwhile move (Florida, perhaps?), but we know that the series won’t be moving out of Kentucky on a permanent basis, so even that possibility has a big asterisk next to it. Judging from her fine showing this week, though, the season is doing one thing right: focusing in on the smart Crowe, Wendy, who is given good reason to part from her brothers this week. Alicia Witt plays very well off both Smart and Olyphant, and her lack of outright loathsomeness is refreshing. She proves, reassuringly, that Justified isn’t quite done tinkering with the formula yet.