If Justified feels plot heavy of late, it’s out of necessity given the premise of the third season: A disparate bunch of criminals, lawmen, and mobsters fight it out for control of Harlan County crime following the death of Mags Bennett. As countless characters play their own angles and hatch their own plans, the season has been, at points, a tad bloated. Thematically, though, this makes sense, as the mess of plot elements is conspicuously juxtaposed against the whole lot of nothing it ultimately amounts to. The show’s making a pertinent point about the destabilizing force of power struggles. However, as this week’s episode, ’’Coalition,’’ rushes to bring most of the plot threads to a close, I wonder if this point is worth all of the excess clutter.
It’s a difficult trick to portray an underlying emptiness through an excess of plot elements, and what’s even more difficult is making the audience care about the story when those elements are so often empty and are quickly discarded. ’’Coalition’’ is the culmination of a season arc that builds steadily toward a robbery that simply doesn’t happen. Everyone sees through everyone else’s double crosses and no one manages to establish much of an advantage. Even when it’s intentional, a lack of forward momentum can be frustrating to experience.
Perhaps season three’s saving grace is that at no point does Justified take an expected turn. In fact, much of the season seems specifically structured to confound expectations. This is especially true of “Coalition,” in which Quarles’s (Neal McDonough) captivity lasts for all of five minutes and everything else is resolved by the end of the episode. The biggest reversal of expectations comes with Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) seems primed to receive his comeuppance but instead has reasserted his power in Harlan.
At the beginning of the season, Raylan was off of his game; he was making bad decisions, moved into an apartment above a bar, took to drinking heavily after Winona left him, and Quarles assumed he was on Boyd’s (Walton Goggins) payroll. The plot was effective, but too familiar in an era of television dominated by antiheros: Raylan was falling apart at the seams as Quarles, the devious and brilliant outsider, took control.
But then something strange and unexpected happened: Quarles, not Raylan, lost control. In fact, Quarles’s decline into powerlessness and Oxy-fueled madness has been so dramatic it was, for a time, unclear how he would continue as an effective villain. Meanwhile, by the end of ’’Coalition,’’ Raylan has surprisingly resolved most of the issues confronting him. He guns down Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies), ends the war for the Bennett cash, procures a powerful new ally in Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson), and even offers some sound parenting to Loretta (Kaitlyn Dever).
Raylan’s emergence from his personal mess would be easier to make sense of if he were the sort of broken antihero who lost his soul while getting the job done. Instead, he’s genuinely interested in justice, not only in playing the role of hero. After the season premiere, I wrote that Raylan personifies the sort of sanctioned violence that the rule of law ultimately depends on, and as the season approaches its end, we’re learning just how powerful that violence is. Quarles, who sees the world only in terms of who controls whom, assumes that Raylan is corrupt after Raylan plays into Boyd’s plan. One could argue that Raylan simply doesn’t mind doing the bidding of others if it serves the goal of law and order. Under this reading, Raylan would be above the sorts of power games and ego trips that put so many others at war against each other. This ultimately doesn’t hold up, though, because it’s hard to imagine Raylan trusting Boyd or even Limehouse to act in the interests of law and order.
More accurately, Raylan never gives up control. He understands how these things work, and how they tend to take care of themselves. That’s why he asks the court to release Dickie; he can sense that, whether he appeals to the court or not, Dickie will eventually find his way out of prison, so instead he sets into motion a chain of events that culminates in Raylan gunning Dickie down himself. At the time, Raylan didn’t know how, specifically, this would happen, he simply knew that it was an inevitability given the chaotic, disordered violence that has gripped Harlan. Anyone who wishes to maintain long-term power needs the sort of stabilizing force that Raylan represents, because the chaos of a man like Quarles leads only to mutual destruction.
Limehouse establishes this idea early in the season in his speech about training dogs: Beating them is only effective if it establishes rules that are mutually understood. Violence on its own produces only a vicious, uncontrollable dog; order is required to establish control. Characters like Boyd and Limehouse reach out to Raylan specifically because he isn’t dirty. His actions are predictable because they follow a preset order, and therefore even potential adversaries are willing to provide Raylan the opportunity to assert his power. Because of this, Raylan is able to goad Dickie into lifting his weapon with ruthless efficiency, because he has created a situation in which there’s no alternative. We saw Raylan use this trick with the gun thug in the pilot, and here he does it again: He kills without being guilty of murder.
After all the unexpected alliances and devious criminal plots have come to nothing, only one plot thread remains outstanding: Quarles. The man who, as recently as an episode ago was left without money, resources, backup, or even the clothes on his back, is the only thing that stands between Raylan and a return to equilibrium in Harlan. At this point, Quarles isn’t going to control anyone, or be anyone’s boss, as he so desperately wants to be. For as obsessed with dominance as he is, Quarles doesn’t know how to control anyone. He can gain power over others, but his is a game that can lead only to destruction, as exemplified by the rentboys he seeks to control but succeeds only in murdering. He’s purely an existential threat.
Season three has been the program’s most ambitious to date, and for that reason it’s easy to forgive its imperfections. But there’s a price to pay for being too ambitious, which we see in an episode like ’’Coalition,’’ which, though exciting, is too busy to provide us with the sort of quiet, well-paced, and compelling scenes we became accustomed to.
• Loretta’s conversation with Raylan is the episode’s most emotionally resonant scene, which is problematic considering it’s mostly built off of emotions left over from last season. The exchange about Van Halen is fantastic though.
• It seems this season is a mere introduction to Limehouse. While it’s possible he may meet his end in the season finale, I expect his true arc will emerge next season.
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