It's fitting that the title of this week's installment of Justified is the classic joke lead-in "Guy Walks Into a Bar," because the entire episode plays out like the season's punchline. It's the point when all of Harlan County's absurdities become so extreme they begin to wrap back around on themselves, and everyone finally just throws their hands in the air and says, "Screw it." Really, the episode may as well have been titled "Forget It, Raylan, It's Harlan County."
At this point, Harlan's so-called "criminal underground" has become so pervasive it's ceased to be underground at all and has simply replaced law-abiding life as the norm. In a different setting, Ava's (Joelle Carter) willingness to take up a life of crime and become a madam might seem like a stretch, but it's entirely believable in a setting where illicit behavior has become not only accepted, but expected.
Elections aren't only fixed anymore, they're fixed two or three times, by multiple parties. Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) plays both sides, but seems to have little investment in either, while local officials unabashedly switch allegiance on a dime based solely on who's most recently paid them off. But competing bribes, staged car bombs, and planted drugs appear as the subtler attempts to influence the election after Ava's girls begin offering sexual favors in exchange for votes. On the night of the election, the closest thing to nuanced policy discussion comes when Ellen May (Abby Miller) talks about handing out copious amounts of pineapple juice in order to make the men of Harlan's semen taste better.
When Shelby (Jim Beaver) suggests that maybe he shouldn't be present during discussion of the handjobs-for-votes strategy, the others look at him askance, as if what he just said doesn't make any sense. It's not just that corruption has become ubiquitous in Harlan, it's that traditional ethical conduct has become such anathema to Harlanites that it now takes on the form of moral temptation: something that a person should be embarrassed to suggest and that's quickly suppressed by social expectations.
Yet, the big ironic joke is that for all these comically illegal maneuvers, the candidate Boyd (Walton Goggins) controls ultimately succeeds in unseating the candidate Quarles (Neal McDonough) controls by use of a bureaucratic regulation. Somehow, in context of Harlan crime, this comes across as the dirtiest trick of all, leaving Quarles smarting from such an unexpectedly low tactic as appealing to the law to win an election. Earlier in the episode, Limehouse is taken aback by the notion that Boyd would resort to harming Napier's (David Andrews) sister, and yet, in the end it's his recourse to a legal loophole that best illustrates Boyd's willingness to do whatever it takes to keep control of Harlan.
The episode's title also has a more literal meaning, in that it references the scene in which Quarles actually walks into a bar and challenges Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) to a duel. Despite that it's Boyd who openly mocks him after ousting Napier as Sheriff, Quarles's reaction is to track down Raylan, who seems genuinely disinterested in the entire election. Quarles is obsessed with control and dominance, and in this respect Boyd makes sense to him: He's a rival fighting for territory. Quarles fails to understand Raylan because he still sees him as someone under Boyd's control, and as a lawman he can't find a way to influence. After exhausting every other strategy to contol Harlan, there's little else for Quarles to do beyond giving in to his craziest inclinations, which, on top of hand puppets and murderous vows, also includes kidnapping and ostensibly raping and murdering rent boys as a way to get back at his father. Suffice it to say, Quarles in full-board insane mode only becomes more and more dangerous.
For his part, Raylan spends most of the episode trying to keep Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies) behind bars. Mags Bennett seemingly reaches beyond the grave to frighten people away from testifying against Dickie, leaving Raylan befuddled and frustrated, and with no recourse beyond testifying against Dickie himself. Between his run-in with Quarles and his own inability to give a decent public speech, an exasperated Raylan tells the court to go ahead and release Dickie because, well, again, why not? Already stuck between Boyd, Quarles, and Limehouse, Raylan decides to screw it and add Dickie to the mix too. While decidedly less malicious, his motivation isn't very different from Quarles's: Becoming increasingly unable to control the situation, there's nothing left for him to do but give in to the farce. There are no longer any pretenses. War is coming to Harlan.
- Napier not knowing the origin of the word "holler" seems an apt summary of the relationship so many of us have with our own culture.
- The scene in which an old woman requesting two milkshakes, so that she still has one to drink after dumping the first onto Raylan's lap, may be even better than Breaking Bad's Teo soiling himself in response to the DEA.
- Raylan seems genuinely offended by the suggestion that he killed all of the evil, organ harvesting nurses: "I just shot the one nurse, the woman!"
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.