[This is a review of Justified season 6, episode 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
Last week, Justified answered the question of how the series was planning to respond to some of the criticism thrown its way in the wake of season 5. The answer: to come out swinging with strong character moments for Raylan, Boyd, and Ava. In fact, 'Fate's Right Hand' did one better by establishing the stakes of season with Boyd's impromptu execution of Dewey Crowe – which he explained by telling Carl, "I think I couldn't trust him anymore."
It was a strong showing, one that made it feel as though the series was indeed on the right path to ending its run on a creative high note. But there were questions; the kinds of questions that went well beyond the issue of the season getting off on the right foot. Once that matter was settled, however, concern over who Garret Dillahunt's bearded character was and what he wanted with Arlo's place soon became much more pressing.
Moreover, while Boyd's daring mid-day bank robbery was impressive, the lack of cash – a serious concern for Carl – and indeterminate nature of the documents contained within the safety deposit boxes were perplexing, to say the least. As such, the season's second episode, 'Cash Game,' works to illuminate those questions by introducing many more players, and establishing their relationship with the denizens of Harlan County.
One of the most attractive aspects of Justified has always been the way its writers have managed to emulate the tone of an Elmore Leonard novel on a consistent basis. This results in a world where everyone – regardless of his or her status or perceived level of intellect – has a voice. And that voice generally results in the kind of buoyant banter that can lift a scene to a place beyond simple exposition, and into a whole other territory.
The remarkable aspect of 'Cash Game,' then, is the manner in which it takes those Leonard-ian sensibilities and magnifies them, creating a host of new and immediately memorable characters that fit perfectly within the preexisting Justified universe – itself a microcosm of the macro Elmore Leonard universe.
Take for instance the scene between Raylan and this season's slow-witted brute, Choo-Choo (Duke Davis Roberts)."Do you want to ride the Choo-Choo?" he asks Raylan, which is something he apparently asks of everyone before punching their lights out. It's the only sensible thing to come out of goon's mouth, as his conversation with Raylan quickly devolves into a short-lived comedy routine that is itself a question as to whether or not Choo-Choo actually understands the conversation he's in.
And as is the Justified way, instead of hopping the train to Punchville, Raylan just politely appropriates Choo-Choo's car, knowing someone so dim isn't going to make a fuss, and he'll be plenty happy to spill his guts to Deputy Gutterson. The only thing Raylan didn't count on was that Choo-Choo would offer Gutterson a beer while he was doing it.
The introduction of Choo-Choo is a perfect example of how quickly and how well the show can establish who its characters are through their dialogue and the stakes of their interactions with those around them. The episode is full of them; there's not a single scene that's wasted. Ty Walker (Dillahunt) has managed to become more intriguing by the second, as the Nighthawk Security real estate scam he's running with a fellow named Seabass (Scott Grimes) and the aforementioned Choo-Choo is fleshed out a little bit more.
But the episode even makes interesting choices when it comes to how it's going to handle straight exposition. Case in point: the writers could have let in-over-his-head realtor Calhoon (Brad Leland, aka Buddy Garrity from Friday Night Lights) explain his circumstances to Raylan, but it's just so much funnier when it comes from a pro named Caprice (Ashley Dulaney), who has more common sense than her John – which makes her position in the grand scheme of things all the more intriguing.
There is a lot going on, and 'Cash Grab' threatens to become as incoherently busy as last season, but it never quite spins out of control. Even the introduction of Avery Markham (Sam Elliott) and his relationship with Katherine Hale (Mary Steenburgen) teeters on the brink of being too much information thrust the audience's way at once.
But the casual manner by which writers Dave Andron and VJ Boyd establish Avery's history and the way he runs things – he's a man who values loyalty as much as sending a powerful (potentially foreshadowing) message to those who betray him – acts more like a step toward something greater than a mere discursive movement from point to point.
In fact, there's so much going on that Raylan's interaction with Boyd, and the nonchalance with which he derails the crook's plan to extort Calhoon for his ledger, almost goes by without notice. Almost.
The two enjoy a typically garrulous exchange that touches on some of the questions and themes that are likely to pop up on again throughout the season. Boyd tells the deputy marshal, "I've learned to think without arguing with myself," before the conversation switches over to Raylan's newfound status as a father when he's asked, "Does it change you? Having a child?"
The idea of these two men overcoming aspects of their personality in order to bring about personal change is an interesting one that certainly fine-tunes both arcs so that they can better conform to the expectations of a final season. And hopefully they will be addressed again in a manner that doesn't make the mere mention of Raylan's daughter (not some "random Internet baby" ) sound like the show has ominous intentions for its protagonist.
Justified continues next Tuesday with 'Noblesse Oblige' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Michael Becker/FX