The major criticism of Justified’s third season is that it’s included a few too many plot elements. Especially in its latter half, season three has been a nonstop cavalcade of conniving and double crossing, and as such has, at times, been too busy to truly resonate. This was especially the case in last week’s episode, which moved neatly from one plot point to another, wrapping up the story of the Bennett money. However, this week’s finale, “Slaughterhouse,” is the sort of episode that can prompt a reexamination of an entire season’s worth of themes and ideas. I’ve long suspected that Justified has been illustrating a point about the ultimate emptiness of its characters’ continual struggle against each other, but it’s also a dark and unsettling examination of our relationship with the past.
At the beginning of the season, post-Mags Harlan County is framed as a town of (criminal) opportunity. Characters fight to move in on the Bennetts’ territory, to set up an Oxy-farming operation, to bribe sheriffs, and most importantly, to unearth Dickie’s (Jeremy Davies) $3 million. But as the various criminal master plans melt away and ultimately amount to nothing, we’re left not with a void or a power vacuum, but with a number of deeply rooted cleavages that existed long before Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) returned to Kentucky.
At one point, an angry Theo Tonin (Adam Arkin) tells Quarles (Neal McDonough) that “actions have consequences.” This is clearly a message that Justified takes seriously, and in a way has been trying to prove all season long. It would be a mistake, however, to view these consequences as any form of justice, karma, retribution, or even a coherent chain of cause and effect. The action Theo is referring to, after all, is likely Quarles’s most innocuous crime all season long. It’s not in the name of justice that Boyd’s (Walton Goggins) murder of Devil returns to haunt him, but rather it’s because of Johnny’s (David Muenier) misguided anger and Limehouse’s (Mykelti Williamson) isolationist philosophy. The moral ramifications of Boyd’s murder have little to do with the consequences that haunt him; it’s instead Boyd’s last act of friendship—burying Devil’s body rather than having pigs consume it—that allows for his arrest.
Perhaps rather than “actions have consequences,” it would be more accurate to say that our future is shaped by our past. It’s impossible to predict or control most of the consequences of our actions, but they nonetheless become facts of our situation. The moment in which Limehouse spits on the bridge as he sends Boyd on his way speaks volumes as to what Limehouse has been holding back, and makes clear that Boyd and his gang’s white-supremacist roots have never been too far from his mind. Though she took control of Harlan’s prostitutes with the best of intentions, Ava (Joelle Carter) now beats Ellen May (Abby Miller) with the same brutality as did Ellen May’s previous pimp. The very nature of Ava’s actions bring about a cycle that repeats past abuses.
Mostly, however, “Slaughterhouse” is the story of fathers and sons. Three times we see father figures rejecting their “sons”: first with Theo and Quarles, followed by Limehouse and Errol (Demetrius Grosse), and finally in Arlo’s willingness to kill Raylan in order to protect Boyd. Of course, Justified always engaged with Raylan’s complicated relationship with his own past and father. But until now this story element has been largely conventional: Raylan is somehow continually drawn back to the hometown he’s wanted nothing more than to escape from. Raylan’s original retreat from Harlan coincided with an escape from an abusive father and a criminal element that Raylan now fights against. But “Slaughterhouse” doesn’t tell a story of sons attempting to escape their fathers’ influence. When Raylan states that he doesn’t care to be confused with his father, we take him at his word, and we don’t doubt that Raylan is his own man who’s broken from his father’s way of life. Furthermore, when Arlo apologizes for the abuse of Raylan’s past, he shrugs it off. His guardedness could be taken as an act, but it’s more likely that he’s simply emotionally distanced himself from that aspect of his life.
The emotional weight of Raylan’s past comes to bare as he visits Winona in the episode’s closing scene. It’s not that Raylan is distraught over Arlo’s actions, but it remains a heartbreaking scene on account of the perspective it gives on Raylan’s life. Raylan’s quiet acceptance of the situation is perhaps most devastating at all; he’s alienated from his past and disowned by Arlo, and yet his past and Arlo remain with him, shaping him into a man who’s also alienated from his future and unborn child. I never expected Raylan’s early-season preoccupation with house shopping to come back in such an emotionally resonant way. As Raylan leaves Winona’s house, he’s much like Errol and Quarles. He’s a man with no home.
• Neal McDonough deserves a lot of credit for injecting humor into this finale. Lines such as “Holy shit, it’s a piggy bank!” could have seemed entirely inappropriate if read by another actor, and it was wonderfully surreal watching him reach for his severed arm. He even manages to make threatening a child’s life funny.
• Something I noticed this season but I’m not sure what to make of: Raylan’s lack of a confirmed kill count. It’s unclear whether either Quarles or Dickie actually die during the last two episodes. The same can be said about many lesser villains Raylan faces, like Tanner, the evil nurse, or the hitman out to get Raylan back in the season premiere. I’m not sure if any of these characters will be returning, but it’s too conspicuous to be a coincidence.
• The final shot of season one was of Raylan staring into the distance at Boyd, while the second season closed with a similar shot of Raylan staring at Mags. In both cases he was looking meaningfully at a character in the midst of a transition: with Boyd the death of his father, and with Mags her own death. This season closes on Winona (Natalie Zea) offering such a look toward Raylan as he leaves. Are we to take this as a transformational moment in his life?
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