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Justified, Ep. 6.08: “Dark as a Dungeon” marred by heavy-handed writing

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Justified, Season 6, Episode 8: “Dark as a Dungeon”
Written by Chris Provenzano and VJ Boyd
Directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton
Airs Tuesdays at 10pm ET on FX

Mind what you wish for. One of the weaknesses of the last season and a half of Justified has been its lack of focus on its ostensible hero: Raylan Givens. Sure, Timothy Olyphant has received no shortage of chances to crack wise and gun down baddies, but since the end of the fourth season, which saw him literally kick back near the freshly interred corpse of his asshole father Arlo, we’ve spent next to no time alone with Raylan, and the lack of Winona has meant that there’s been no one left on the series who knows how to cut through his taciturn ways – or even care enough to try.

So it’s encouraging when “Dark as a Dungeon” opens with Raylan, alone, digging through his belongings. He flushes a stash of pills (Pain meds? Anti-depressants? Vitamin D?), he bags up some old clothes, and most importantly, he takes out what remains of Arlo’s belongings. This scene contains some fascinating minutiae for longtime viewers, including the only image we’ve ever seen of who we can assume to be Frances, Raylan’s mother. Then Raylan proceeds to do the most Raylan thing possible, and burn the whole mess on his front lawn in a whiskey-soaked fit of loathing. That sequence really works, both because it feels sequentially appropriate for the season and because it communicates Raylan’s disgust and his desire to obliterate his past wordlessly and economically. Unfortunately, “Dark as a Dungeon” just can’t leave it there. The final sequence, in which Raylan raids the abandoned storage space/shack Arlo used to do use to get away from it all, really should work, especially since hearing Raymond J. Barry’s voice pipe in elicits a real charge, but the dialogue is painfully on-the-nose, and the scene as a whole belabors the point already made in the opening: the past holds nothing for Raylan. We get it!

That lack of subtlety hurts a lot of “Dark as a Dungeon,” the least distinguished episode of the season so far. Nearly every scene touches on the uselessness of the past, the urgency of the present, and the uncertainty of the future, to the point where a climactic Ava/Raylan scene seems to have been written whilst listening to vintage Des’Ree. Justified isn’t always the most nuanced series on the planet, but it can at least generally be relied upon to communicate its themes with a generous heaping of wit and finesse. That sense of fleet-footedness is strangely hard to come by this week, perhaps a natural casualty of the writers feeling as though they need to hammer certain narrative and thematic beats home with brute force.

Speaking of the narrative, it’s beginning to feel very much as though season six just doesn’t have quite enough story to merit a full 13 episodes. Case in point: Ty Walker. It seemed odd last week when he managed to survive, and it’s even odder this week when he re-emerges only to be shot in the back by Raylan, muttering (in strangely haunting fashion) about how his efforts weren’t only about money. Sure, yes, his status as a pawn enables Raylan to get Boyd a peek into Markham’s vault, which…makes him more motivated to execute the heist he was already planning? And how exactly was rooting out Walker supposed to help Raylan nail Boyd in the first place? The whole Raylan/Boyd/Markham situation is, as Markham puts it, clear as mud, and it’s not meant to be.

There are a few bright spots. Art once again gets one of the best scenes of the week, even if it’s a blatantly expository one, as he meets up with Katherine Hale to mull over who might have ratted out her late husband (and/or shotgunned the fed in charge). It’s hard not to love the little detail of Katherine unzipping just within Art’s eyeshot. While the execution is less than graceful, it is refreshing to hear Raylan say aloud that Harlan no longer holds any mystique for him, and the image of a bulldozer rending apart the Givens family plot – including his own gravestone, a detail that has left an indelible mark on the entire series up until now – is certainly a potent one. Beyond that, “Dark as a Dungeon” mostly feels like thematically portentous table-setting, a series of explanatory gestures that confuse as much as they underline. It’ll be up to the final five episodes to crystallize the season’s themes and plot threads into a coherent whole if the series’ final act is going to make a real impact.

Other thoughts:

Sam Elliott wins the “line reading of the week” award for his reaction to Boyd getting the reward money: “It’s not unimportant.”

Goodbye to Garrett Dillahunt. Walker wasn’t the most compelling minor baddie the show’s ever had, but at least he got a chance to peacock.

Apparently, Boyd and Ava are fresh out of leftover chicken.

The pacing and blocking of the seemingly inconsequential Raylan/Zachariah mini-brawl feel strange, though it’s nice to see Raylan get in a bit of a proper scrap.

Can we have Natalie Zea back again?


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