[This is a review of Justified season 6, episode 9. There will be SPOILERS.]
There is a palpable sense of urgency coursing through the hour of television that is 'Burned.' It's the kind of urgency that has been building all season long, as Justified makes its way to the finish line. But it's more than just watching as the show marches the stories of its individual characters (and that of the overall series) toward one grand conclusion. It is the culmination of plot points that then wind up invariably being set on divergent courses thanks to some unlikely obstacles that help keep the audience guessing as to what will happen next.
And that, so far, has been one of the biggest and most welcome surprises during these past nine episodes. The unexpected turns that have led to early confrontations between Raylan and the season's baddies, like Choo-choo and Ty Walker, not to mention the deputy marshal's dealings with Avery Markham – in an effort to catch Boyd with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar – have all kept the series feeling more organic and spontaneous.
But there's a deeper layer to this week's storyline that works in conjunction with the overall sense of finality. It is the feeling that things in Harlan County are changing rapidly, and while everyone scrambles to adjust, various forces are at play, vying for a piece of the action that will inevitably see them all come to a head at some point in the very near future. And as far as 'Burned' is concerned, the audience might as well get a taste of that confluence of interests during the little community shindig Avery Markham throws at the Pizza Portal.
This attempt by the "Pot King of Colorado" to ingratiate himself with the fine folks of Harlan – after he sent mercenaries out to negotiate with them, and, when that didn't work, kill them – was destined to go up in smoke from the get go. But what makes the effort so memorable is the element that has been working for nearly every episode so far this season: the plotting and the dialogue are so tight, and so focused, and the setting is so simple and well-defined, that it feels like this hour of television could easily be a production of some epic work about the personal and public lives of residents trying to make ends meet in a beat-up Kentucky coal mining town.
To a certain extent, that's the objective of 'Burned': to paint a picture of Harlan by using the people who live there to define the edges, while the center is filled in with the likes of the major players like Raylan, Boyd, Ava, and now Avery and Loretta. What's interesting, then, is how well the episode succeeds in making a single, sleepy pizza restaurant become the representation of a much larger place like Harlan County, and how, because of the numerous wants of the various individuals floating around in this one locale, the whole enterprise feels gloriously claustrophobic and oddly massive at the same time.
Perhaps that's due to the episode's many goings-on, and how, despite being an extremely busy entry in an already busy season, the story manages to stay focused and concise. For example, things start out with Raylan and Art coaxing a confession out of a thong-wearing Wynn Duffy that he was indeed the rat who got Katherine's husband thrown in prison and subsequently killed. While the leap from not knowing to knowing the identity of the rat happens somewhat abruptly, the expedience of it all pays off with Duffy's involvement in the attempt to steal Avery's money.
But the story doesn’t just move on rails focusing on Boyd's desire and nothing else. For example, Boyd's failed attempt to rob the Pizza Portal vault comes after he is roped into Loretta's community pot-farming scheme, when she deliberately turns his pledge of protection against Avery's new henchman, Boone (Jonathan Tucker with an amazing wig/mustache combo that is one for the ages) into a declaration of partnership.
Naturally, Boyd's problems worsen when Zachariah plays his hand and leaves the would-be vault robber at the mercy of a few sticks of dynamite that do little more than fill Avery's basement with smoke (unless that was just Avery), and make for a very cranky, slightly scorched Boyd Crowder.
While Boyd's near miss – with the money and with death – helps set up the next leg of Justified, 'Burned' also manages to make Ava's already precarious situation even riskier, by her and Raylan arriving on the same page about her cover as his CI being blown. Raylan's so eager to catch Boyd in the act, he calmly downs a whiskey (the expensive kind) and tells Ava she better get to it. At this point, Raylan's using so many different avenues to get his man, it's no wonder Rachel seems exasperated when he tells her the next plan is to grab Boyd when he goes after Avery's money as it's being transported to a new location.
There is a calm efficiency running through the episode, as it takes care of things in a precise manner without ever feeling perfunctory. Even though Katherine dispatches Seabass in the sort of cold, efficient way that suits her personality, there's still and undercurrent of appreciation and admiration between her and Avery that gives the moment a sense of character-building.
And that notion gets carried through the various other interactions as well, and it's why the believability of the gathering at the Pizza Portal was so important. By understanding where it is the characters come from, their actions – when motivated at least partially by how they identify with their history – become all the more fascinating.
And when Loretta points out how blatantly someone like Katherine sticks out amongst the venerable denizens of Harlan, that sense of identity becomes a powerful part of why this final season of Justified has resonated as much with its understanding of who its characters are, as it has with what is driving them to that proverbial finish line.
Justified continues next Tuesday with 'Trust' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Prashant Gupta/FX