Justified, Ep. 6.07: “The Hunt” hones in on the series’ tortured gender politics

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Justified, Season 6, Episode 7: “The Hunt”
Written by Keith Schreier and Taylor Elmore
Directed by John Dahl
Airs Tuesdays at 10pm ET on FX

The precise midpoint of the final season, “The Hunt” is a slightly odd episode of Justified, one that sends the rest of the season into a slightly different (and slightly confusing) direction from what came before. For starters, it brings the surprise return of Natalie Zea, if only for one episode, when so many of us had come to expect that she’d only pop in for, say, the series finale. That means that for the entirety of the hour, Raylan completely ducks out of doing any kind of Marshal-y business or any other kind of dangerous tomfoolery, which might be a series first. That’s doubly strange given that there’s a Marshal manhunt underway for Ty Walker. Yes, you read that right: there’s a manhunt afoot and Raylan has no role in it.

That’s because Raylan winds up utterly transfixed by his infant daughter Willa – who he gets the opportunity to hold for the first time. It’s hard not to think of Louis CK’s classic standup bit (and relevant Louie scenes) about how men benefit from the insanely low expectations society places on fathers, because Winona proves to be perhaps the most patient, understanding estranged baby mama in the history of…any visual medium, really. Sure, over the cries of a shrieking Willa (who is placed very high in the audio mix, appropriately), Winona explains that she’s tired of trying to figure out what exactly Raylan wants or is willing to contribute to their hypothetical future life together, but ultimately, she offers to settle down with him wherever he decides – even if it’s Harlan.

There’s a lot to unpack here. On one hand, the notion of Winona being unable to let Raylan go squares with the rest of the series; they have so much shared history, and such a profound bond (when they share a room, at least) that it makes sense that she’d make an offer that she more or less admits isn’t really fair to herself. Winona’s offer makes sense for Justified on a grand thematic level, but is a little frustrating on a basic character level.  The history of Justified – by which I mean its entire history, stretching back through the decades of backstory – is one of emotionally stunted men who grew up to be disappointments to themselves, and took that disappointment out on their families, usually violently. (The rare decent-ish men, like Loretta’s dad, have a habit of winding up prematurely dead.) The history of Justified is equally replete with women who, faced with this parade of indignity, opt either to buckle in and bear the abuse (either because they see no alternative or to be there to shelter their children) or turn the table on their abusers and take the reigns themselves. Raylan has done what he might call his “little best” to be a decent man, and it’s clear that he has a real desire to be a good father and husband, and he’ll never be the outright prick Arlo was, but he lacks the skill set and the emotional eloquence to be a true partner. Knowing all this, Winona goes all in anyway, and her slightly exasperated devotion echoes Raylan’s dearly departed Aunt Helen, as well as what we know of his mother, Frances. This sort of characterization may not square well with contemporary notions of “strong female characters,” and it’s true that the Justified writers’ room is overwhelmingly male, but the sad fact is that the stories of the women of this fictional Harlan – Helen, Frances, Ava (more on her in a bit), and others – are hardly the stuff of fantasy, and while it’s natural to want to see them rise above their circumstances or contrive a better future, that’s not always possible. The hardscrabble lives led by the men of Harlan have a tendency to take everyone down with them, even generations after the fact.

…All that being said, it’s difficult not to recall that the last time Winona and Raylan shared a scene in the same place (the season four finale, if you’ll recall), it was when they were blowing away baddies together while she was very pregnant, which of course was what prompted her to leave Harlan in the first place. That makes her offer a little difficult to swallow, in spite of how unconventionally touching it may be, and how satisfying it is to finally hear her say aloud that Raylan’s taciturn ways would drive any woman insane. That said, it may be churlish to complain too much about the offer itself; Raylan may just as easily kibosh the notion of settling down in Harlan the moment Markham inevitably turns up the heat.

The other, trickier main segment of the episode is spent with Boyd and Ava, “The Hunt” sets out to accomplish a lot with them, too, and, as with the Raylan/Winona scenes, it mostly accomplishes those things, albeit with an asterisk or two. It’s not for nothing that Ava spends so much of “The Hunt” retelling the story of her abuse at the hands of the late Bowman, because it’s not until this episode that we finally see the Crowder propensity for domestic violence percolate within Boyd. It’s been a source of personal frustration throughout the season that Ava didn’t just come clean to Boyd straight away so that she and Boyd could formulate a plan, and “The Hunt” does its darndest to sell us on the idea that Ava’s fear of Boyd outweighs her trust in him. It even has Ava retelling the story of what went down during her interminable prison storyline from last season, events that, to be fair, Boyd mostly wasn’t privy to. Her primal fear that she’s re-entering the hell she literally killed to escape, as with Winona’s plea to Raylan, makes sense for the character and for the show’s world. Here, it’s some small details that irk – especially the way that, of all things, Boyd seems most upset by the idea that Ava cheated on him with Raylan. That can’t help but ring totally false, despite Goggins’ impassioned performance, and it reeks of forcing series-endgame conflict between two characters who’ve barely interacted in the last couple of seasons. Moreover, it exposes a level of sadism in Boyd that we’ve never really seen before, as he openly toys with Ava’s fragile emotional state for an entire evening and morning, generally devolving into a Bowman-like state, stopping just short of actually beating her; it’s going to be tough to be invested in Boyd’s fate from here on out, despite Goggins’ reliably incredible performance.

Other things happen in “The Hunt” – Walker hilariously confronts a couple of frat-bros on their way to Orlando, and Markham has a memorable tete-a-tete with a curious Art, but the vast majority of the episode is devoted to making sure that the season’s stakes are in order, and its themes clearly and effectively delineated. The best thing about “The Hunt” is that it forcibly reasserts Justified as ultimately being a series about the power and the limits of bloodlines, and how the past has a way of reasserting itself even when drastic measures are taken. If Justified can continue to honor those ideas in the way the best moments of “The Hunt” do, it should be able to land on a conclusion worthy of its own estimable standards.

Other thoughts:

It’s surprising that Walker (barely) survives the episode, but it means more Dillahunt, so precisely no one will complain.

“…so, how’s your mother?” “Ha! That’s weird.” It is a joy to have Natalie Zea and her retorts back, even if only for one episode.

John Dahl, in his last Justified episode, gets in some remarkable shots, whether still (the lantern-lit Boyd-Ava scene) or dynamic (circling a fraught Ava in the woods).

Ava and Boyd’s showdown takes place in the woods of Bulletville, in a slightly overwrought callback to season one. As far as I can tell, that’s not a real place, unlike Lexington and Harlan County, though there is a place called Bullitsville some 235 miles north of Harlan – a four-hour drive, if you believe Google. I’ll take it!

You’d think Ava would be able to tell the difference in the weight of an unloaded vs. loaded pistol by now. (Please note that I have never held a gun and may not know what I’m talking about.)

Despite recent rumors to the contrary, I don’t actually care about babies, but that is an awfully cute onesie.

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