[This is a review of Justified season 6, episode 6. There will be SPOILERS.]
Justified is roughly at the halfway point of its final season, which means that, structurally speaking, it's time for something to come around and shake things up. Generally, this kind of shake-up is to ensure that the push into the remaining episodes doesn’t feel like the show is treading water. Instead, it provides some action and resolution until the story can reach its expected climax. And because the show has a history of creating such colorful antagonistic characters season in and season out, it makes sense for the necessary agitation to be generated within the bad guys' camp.
While the lengths to which Avery Markham will go to ensure his dream of a Kentucky marijuana empire comes to fruition have been readily explained, there's been little in the way of obstacles keeping him from getting there. People have been paid off and at least one family has been killed, but those efforts have largely taken place off screen. A villain can only get so far on secondhand accounts before it seems like he's all huff and no puff.
So, when Calhoun Schreier turns up dead because Choo-Choo "Amtraked" him when he was supposed to be giving him a warning tap, the Pot King of Colorado's criminal instincts and sense of self preservation are forced to kick in, resulting in a dramatic shoot-out that will no doubt alter his plan of attack from this point forward.
There are more than the usual amount of "shut up" moments in 'Alive Day' (i.e., moments where the writers have to do a little extra work to explain a convenient coincidence), but these moments generally work out to the episode's favor. After all, the tension generated by Calhoun's death wasn't necessarily whether or not the authorities would find his body, but rather by the discord it created within Avery's tight-knit group. Besides, if the story had waited a week or two to discover the realtor had been murdered, it might've deprived Raylan the opportunity to tell Avery his men "know killin', but they don't know crime."
And that's an interesting distinction for the series to make, especially as Harlan's criminal element is swirling around Avery's fortune, and Katherine's plan for revenge is thrown for a loop when she's met with a proposal and inquiry complicating her theory that Avery snitched on her late husband.
To a certain degree, the situation is an extension of Boyd's "carpetbagger" comments directed at season 3's Big Bad, Robert Quarles. Ty, Seabass, and Choo-Choo may have a particular set of skills that make them ideal for the job on paper, but the reality is: only certain people tend to excel at criminality in his neck of the woods. It's like Harlan County willfully rejects any sort of transplant – carpetbagger or otherwise – and they wind up being shipped out in a body bag.
That's certainly what happened to Quarles, and it happens again to Choo-Choo. The difference is, Quarles was also the victim of his own insatiable appetite, whereas Choo-Choo fell victim to the conscience that prevented him from killing Calhoun's special friend, Caprice (Ashley Dulaney). In the end, neither man was fit for a life of crime in a place like Harlan, nor, as it turns out, was Choo-Choo fit for a life of crime at Avery's level. He even gets a sendoff that teeters on the verge of being poetic, but settles for a near miss with a train instead.
But that's not the only near miss 'Alive Day' has in store. Boyd's tenuous working relationship with Ava's uncle Zachariah gets turned on its ear when a fateful misstep that nearly sends him on the express elevator to the bottom of a mineshaft turns out to not be so fateful after all. And now, what seemed at first to be another cast addition to put at least one person in Ava's corner for reasons other than their own personal gain, has turned into yet another potent demonstration that bitterness and feuds in Harlan run about as deep and deadly as your average abandoned mine shaft – which is pretty much the storyline telling the characters to mind where they are stepping.
Last week's 'Sounding' ended with Ava and Raylan stepping into trouble, after a kiss between the two wasn't immediately considered a mistake. When 'Alive Day' begins, Raylan's car is still in front of Ava's house as Boyd pulls up – leading him to believe the deputy marshal had stopped by or someone was on his or her way to the airport. To its benefit, the show plays coy with what (if anything) transpired between Ava and Raylan, leaving most of the speculation to Rachel and Art, as the two contemplate what's more damaging to the case against Boyd: Raylan sleeping with Ava and them knowing it, or taking Raylan off the case altogether.
Because there's no clear indication that Raylan and Ava took things past that kiss, the episode gets a lot of mileage out of the tension generated by the hour's opening and closing scenes. And as the season moves into its second half, that tension shifts the focus from the threat of Avery's military henchmen, to a threat that hits much closer to home. As far as shaking things up, 'Alive Day' succeeds and then some.
Justified continues next Tuesday with 'The Hunt' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Prashant Gupta/FX