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Saturday, 17 of April of 2021

Justified – “Slaughterhouse”

“He didn’t know it was a state trooper. He just saw a man in a hat pointing a gun at Boyd.”

Justified TitlecardI fully intended to write about Justified on a week-to-week basis after I mainlined the series just before the season began. For one reason or another, I never got around to writing a post about it (though I think I started one or two). After a few stalled weeks, I simply decided to wait until the season ended and took it as  a whole.

A fair amount of digital ink has already been spilled about this season, and not just in weekly episode reviews. James Poniewozik at TIME, Todd VanDerWerff at the LA Times, and Ryan McGee have all chimed in about the quality of this season, noticeably focusing on the show’s odd qualities and the struggle to reach similar heights in season 2 linked to Margo Martindale’s Mags Bennett.

I think it’s fair to say that this episode allowed the full weight of the season’s thematic heft to land very soundly on us. Not only was the season concerned about filling vacuums and crossing lines, but it  became the paternal side of last season’s maternal emphasis: What does a father mean?

“Slaughterhouse” does lay the notion of fatherhood on a little thick, what with Quarrles’ insistence on going home, and inquiring about the whereabouts of Pete and Mitch’s dad,  but it does help see how that concern has been running through the season as a whole, even from the first episode with Raylan and Winona as a soon-to-be pair of parents, and whether or not Rayaln is ultimately prepared to be a father, let alone a partner in raising that child. It’s why the episode ends where it does, in a half-completed nursery, with Raylan somberly delivering this post’s epigraph.

But the notion is there throughout this season, and it’s one that the show won’t let anyone escape from. Even Limehouse, the patriarch of an entire community (he protects it and feeds it), is not above a more personal connection with the well-meaning but bungling Errol, an adopted son for whom he keeps making pig’s tongue even though he’s the only who eats it. It’s no surprise then, when Quarrles busts in on Limehouse with Raylan and poor Mitch in tow, that it’s perhaps the most frustrated and I’d even say sad, that we’ve seen Limehouse. He’s cast out a son of sorts in an effort to keep the holler safe, and now he is interrupted by these three other wayward sons.

And the show continues to do fascinating things with Raylan and Boyd even if they share snippets of screentime together over the course of the season. Arlo’s dementia and his loyalty to Boyd for treating him with respect that he does not receive from his own son, referring to Boyd as Raylan once or twice, and Boyd finding a supportive older male figure in his life, something he never had from his own father, drives home the connection that Raylan just as easily become Boyd had he never left Harlan.

That connection, a recurring one since the show started, helps bolster the sadness and frustration Raylan must feel by the episode’s end. His father goes to prison to protect a surrogate son while thinking, previously, that he had shot his own son. It makes Arlo’s stammered confession that he was glad to Raylan was safe all the more gut-wrenching in retrospect for both us and for Raylan.

I do feel like issues of fatherhood occasionally got lost in the double- and triple- and quadruple-crossing of this rather plot-dense season. And this, perhaps, explains the reactions to the season before it finished. Where last season had elegance and notes being struck at just the right moment, this season’s beats, like its characters’ dealings, felt very improvised and performed on the fly. And while it doesn’t reach the improvisational dizziness of Breaking Bad‘s third season, the messiness of the season, as VanDerWerff makes gestures to as he discusses the challenges of voids in narratives, reflects the messiness of the characters’ lives.

The show moves into its fourth season with this messiness of Mags’ passing behind it. Boyd and an ever-increasingly ruthless and dangerous Ava (her beating of Ellen May, something I believed would be unthinkable even when a few episodes ago, was a mix of horror and sadness topped only by Raylan’s final line) must deal with the surprisingly cunning and long-game planning Johnny as they are now free to build their criminal empire with Quarrles disarmed and dead (I do love visual poetics, and chopping off the arm of his sleeve gun is just that) and Dickie back in prison.

Then there’s Raylan who is now, more than ever, truly alone in Harlan. His co-workers (likely) can’t stand him, his boss can only cover for him so long, the mother of his child has left him, and his father is in prison. If Raylan ever had less to lose, it’s now. And that could mean that the Raylan who played Harlan Roulette with Wyn Duffy may be appearing more and more often.

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