Justified, Ep. 6.05: “Sounding” a rollicking, troubling trip down memory lane

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Justified, Season 6, Episode 5: “Sounding”
Written by Dave Andron and Leonard Chang
Directed by John Avnet
Airs Tuesdays at 10pm ET on FX

There’s a crackerjack sequence most of the way through “Sounding” wherein Boyd Crowder, his associates, and an old frenemy by the name of Zachariah Randolph (Jeff Fahey) start the process of finding an alternate route through to the Pizza Portal vault. The process reveals fissures – significant ones – but also a seriously combustive kick. At the risk of drawing a clumsy parallel, the (brilliantly directed) sequence is a fine metaphor for the episode itself, which finds the season at its most entertaining and fast-paced yet, while simultaneously exposing a few of the season’s nagging issues – and potentially creating a significant new one.

Despite the gripes – still to come – there is a lot to like about “Sounding,” which in ways both subtle and not-so-subtle brings together the entire history (and prehistory) of Justified – over the course of only a few key interactions, decades of interpersonal drama both significant and incidental are referenced, helping to make the Harlan County of Justified feel the most beautifully realized it’s felt in quite a while. Season 5’s attempt to stitch in the history of the Crowes never really came together, but this season’s “one more job” feel has already worked wonders for reminding us of the depth and breadth of this universe. Noble’s Holler is back in play, as is Constable Bob, but while it’s great to have them back, it’s the subtler callbacks that litter the episode that really shine, from the man who seems to operate Harlan’s only hardware store, to the invocation of the death of Bowman Crowder, to the reveal of Bob’s adolescent crush on Ava. The most potent one of all comes at the end of the aforementioned explosion sequence, in which Boyd peers down the shaft and is immediately drawn back into a close facsimile of his coal-mining past. (This also ties in beautifully with the notion of Boyd conquering the legal weed trade, which he posits as the heir to the old coal fortunes.) As fun and swift and quotable as “Sounding” is, it’s the acknowledgement of the series’ true strengths that matters most.

These moments are potent enough that it’s tempting to ignore what’s not working quite so well, but here we are. Last week it seemed as though Boyd might be aware of Ava’s situation with respect to the Marshals, but it seems fairly cut-and-dry that he’s totally in the dark on that score. The show lampshades that a bit by having Raylan point out Boyd’s helpful obliviousness when it comes to Ava-related matters, but nothing can conceal the fact that the version of this storyline in which Boyd is canny enough to know what’s going on is tenser and more exciting. Hopefully, that turn is imminent. Elsewhere, the notion of bringing back Danny Strong’s weaselly (ex-)prison guard is an amusing one (Chief Rachel is unsurprised to learn that he still lives with his parents, given his predilection for stabbing himself to screw over women who won’t have sex with him), but the sequence peaks early with the reveal of Wynn’s cattle prod. The payoff, in which he takes a few strong jolts at the Marshals’ amused behest, is a bit meager for the time investment.

Of course, the big takeaway this week is Ava planting a big one on Raylan. Now this is tricky. On one hand, it makes perfect, canny sense for Ava to play the old-flame card right now, given that she is rapidly running out of trustworthy allies. The other nice aspect of the scene is that it throws a serious wrench into the notion of Raylan Givens, Contented Family Man, a role that we’ve had to accept as a given (pun not intended) for some time now. The problem: we’ve been spending so little time with Raylan of late (he’s in very little of this episode, for instance) that it’s tough to get any kind of bead on how he’s been approaching his looming parenthood. Moreover, the way the scene is blocked and scored, it’s clear that we’re meant to accept a lingering, potent chemistry between them – a chemistry that has not been even remotely hinted at in roughly five seasons. Admittedly, the world of Justified moves quickly – the whole series to date has spanned maybe three chronological plot years? – but that’s still a hell of a gap to close all of a sudden. It’s the sort of high-stakes character move that the (very capable) writers of Justified are going to have to handle very carefully – to make work, especially given that dramatizing the whims of Ava’s heart has never been among their strong suits. It wouldn’t take much to give the scene the context it needs to work, but if they can’t make that case stick, the season may have just found its first serious roadblock, which would be a damn shame.

Other thoughts:

Another reason it’s tough to accept the Ava/Raylan scene and Ava’s behavior in general is that it’s very clear that Ava’s betrayal wouldn’t cause Boyd to kill her. Raylan’s right to say that she’s likely safest at his side, a fact not even changed by his cold-blooded murder of Dewey Crowe in the premiere.

This week in Wynn: he hates and fears children, and the feeling is mutual.

Mary Steenburgen only gets one small scene in, but in it she certainly makes a convincing bid for TV’s Scariest Grandma. Also, Jeff Fahey is fantastic in what will likely be one of the very last new recurring roles on the series. He looks and acts very much like a direct kin of Daniel Plainview, and his love for the rotten, dangerous particulars of mining (and combustibility in general) is infectious.

Patton Oswalt’s Constable Bob doesn’t get anywhere near the showcase he got in the series’ single best episode, “Decoy,” but his abrupt showdown with the much bigger Errol more than suffices.

This week sees the return of Mundo, aka Choo-Choo, who disapproves of the skimming barmaid in hilariously unsubtle fashion, and kills Brad Leland with a single “Amtrak” punch.

Markham is now after both Boyd and Raylan, while Ava is about to become an enemy of Limehouse. So the good news is that the macro elements are shaking out in a totally delightful fashion.

The best part of the final sequence isn’t the kiss, but Joelle Carter’s delivery of a truly killer line: “There’s gotta be a place in hell for a man who breaks a promise to a woman.” Amen.

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