A lot of talk regarding season three of Justified has centered around whether the show could successfully replace Mags Bennett. The writers have cleverly embraced the gap Mags left behind; instead of trying to replace her directly, they've used her absence to create the sense of a town on the precipice of a crime war. Many different players are eager to fill the role of Harlan's chief villain. This week's episode, however, reminds us that Mags was never truly the chief villain of Justified to begin with.
As great and as powerful a character as Mags was, the role of primary bad guy has been filled, from the beginning, by Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). This is easy to forget, because Boyd is incredibly likable. (Surely he must be the most beloved neo-Nazi skinhead on TV.) It's a testament to Goggins and the writers that they've managed to craft a character with Boyd's background of crime, hatred, and violence, yet who still manages to be as morally ambiguous and strangely sympathetic as he is.
But when he exacts his revenge for being double-crossed by Devil (Kevin Rankin), it becomes clear that Boyd remains an incredibly troubled, deeply violent man. When Mags consoles the dying man she's just poisoned at the beginning of season two, it's truly chilling. Yet at the same time, we were just getting to know Mags. The depth of violence her character was capable of was of no surprise to us because she was yet to be defined. Boyd is a different story; as he eases Devil into death after shooting him in the chest, the scene clearly refers back to Mags's poisoning of Loretta's father, but in a way it's even more horrifying because we're seeing it from a character we've come to know. This is Boyd's "come to Jesus moment" (in Devil's words), or perhaps his version of a Tony Soprano moment—that one when we realize that this character, who we cheer for and like, and who we hope can reform, reveals himself to be something of a madman. It's another notch on the long progression of Boyd's left turns, but one that will be more difficult to return from.
The title of the episode refers, of course, to Devil himself, and serves as a send off for a character who, though secondary, has been around since the pilot. But the title also refers to Boyd, who among new characters like Quarles (Neal McDonough) and Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson), might have been forgotten in the new landscape of Harlan crime. But now Boyd's capabilities have come to the fore, and it's clear that the "devil we know" may prove just as dangerous as the newer villains we've been introduced to.
Boyd's killing of Devil also reminds us of the many unsavory things in Boyd's past, which have been boiling under the surface as the series has developed. It's not dissimilar to the manner in which the issue of race has been boiling beneath the surface and now seems about to take center stage. Despite its skinhead characters and Confederate flags, Justified has, in the past, mostly avoided immersing itself in the race relations of rural Kentucky. Now, with the arrival of Limehouse and Noble's Holler, that's changing in a big way. But it would be wrong to suggest that the issue's been simply forgotten about until now. There's actually something quite intuitive to this thematic progression in a largely segregated population. It wouldn't be difficult for the racists of Harlan County to more or less avoid the objects of their hatred—or, as this episode would suggest, their fear—until something happens that makes them impossible to ignore.
Quarles is shrewd enough to recognize the role racism plays in Harlan. In recruiting Devil, he plays on Devil's racism by referencing Boyd's attempt to work with people David would rather "see swinging." Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) also attempts to provoke Devil's racism later in the episode.
Raylan, trying to track down the recently escaped Dickie (Jeremy Davies), does as he often does and turns to Boyd for help. Their conversation is as layered and multifaceted as always, centered around Raylan recounting the story of his first meeting with Limehouse. His mother had fled to Noble's Holler for protection from her abusive husband, Arlo (Raymond Barry), and Arlo, fearless, went to get her back. The result was Limehouse badly beating Arlo in front of his young son Raylan on the bridge that leads into the holler.
In one respect, this meeting is indicative of the strange yet enduring friendship between Raylan and Boyd. As usual, Raylan is surprisingly open about his personal life and past with Boyd, in a matter we don't see much when he interacts with any other character. At the same time, Raylan's letting Boyd know that he's on to him, and his plan to steal the Bennett money out of Nobel's Holler. It's also a warning to Boyd of the trouble he might be finding himself in by dealing with Limehouse. Finally, contrary to any displays of friendship, Raylan is trying to provoke Boyd and his gang. When Raylan comments that Limehouse has no recollection of their first meeting, he suggests, "Maybe he's kicked so many white boys' asses he just ain't keeping track no more," and then turns to Devil to ask, "What do you think?" The question is obviously meant to poke at Devil's racist sentiments, the second time that happens in this episode.
We know, however, that it isn't the case that Limehouse forgot his encounter with Arlo on the bridge. Limehouse not only remembers Arlo, but in last week's episode he even addresses the very incident burned into Raylan's memory. Limehouse tells Boyd: "Give my regards to Arlo Givens; I believe the last time I saw him was on this very bridge." We understand now that this was a threat, a reminder to Boyd and his crew of just the sort of man they're dealing with, and what he's capable of.
The question is: Why did he pretend not to remember Arlo when talking to Raylan? When Raylan suggests that Limehouse forgot their meeting, Boyd counters that he may simply find it more interesting to have that appear to be the case. But maybe it's something simpler than that. Maybe Limehouse just doesn't want to drag up old altercations with a man he, for the most part, has no quarrel with.
Harlan is a place where the scars of the past, whether they be the civil war, abusive husbands and fathers, or a man's own history of hatred, are easy to ignore so long as they're not being directly confronted. Past wounds are always either being covered over or expressed violently. Limehouse is a perfectly friendly, charismatic man; his dealings with Raylan are stripped of the menace we've seen from him in past episodes. But we know this is something that can turn around quickly. Limehouse remembers the past well, and as we saw on the bridge last week, he doesn't hesitate to draw on it in the presence of a threat. The same could be said of Boyd, whose violence has been hidden from us by circumstance for some time, and becomes all the more troubling to us because of that. Perhaps this is most true of Raylan himself, who's at most times either perfectly calm and cool, or shooting a man in the heart.
- With this season's already-crowded stable of villains, it's hard to imagine much room left over for Lance (Clayne Crawford), the crooked prison medic who seems to have plans for poor Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) that are straight out of Dexter's notebook. I'm not sure I'm particularly interested in this thread, but it will likely be quickly subsumed into the overall arc of the season.
- If only for a brief scene, it was good to see Loretta (Kaitlyn Dever) again. She even proves to be helpful, putting Raylan on to Noble's Holler. Is she keeping any more secrets about her time as Mags Bennett's chosen child?
- At this point one can only assume that Quarles is quite honest about his love for all things Kentucky. Now it's bourbon!
Luke De Smet is a freelance writer based out of San Diego who spent way too much time obsessing about movies and television while growing up in rural northern Alberta, Canada. He's currently attempting to avoid movies and television long enough to take up surfing, but is failing miserably. You can follow him on Twitter.