Saturday, February 12, 2011

TV Episode Review: Justified "The Moonshine War"

Justified did a nice job of quite literally picking up where it left off last season, putting us right back in the middle of the gunfight with the drug runners Boyd and Raylan had both gotten mixed up with last season.  It was a nice move on the showrunners’ parts; being holed up in that cabin again for a moment with Raylan, Boyd, and Ava—uncomfortable friends and partners again, given their predicament—renewed the simultaneous tension and camaraderie that existed between the three of them last season.  The ensuing gunfight was also a welcome refresher and led nicely into the new material:  Boyd tracks the surviving gunrunner to the plane that’s waiting for her (after she kidnaps a trucker to get here there) and Raylan tracks Boyd, and guns are drawn once again between the two old friends.  Thankfully though, they’re pointed in the same direction—at the armed gunman on the plane who they take out easily at the expense of a gunshot wound to the girl.  All of this leads to an interesting season opening twist where Raylan, back in Miami to issue and ultimatum to the drug kingpin intent on killing him, discovers that his old position at the Miami branch of US Marshals has conveniently opened up again—convenient for his boss in Kentucky, Art, who apparently wants him out of his hair, given, you know, the rapid escalation of violent US Marshal related shootings since his arrival.

Raylan, being Raylan, confronts Art about this directly, and there’s a nice bit of acting in the early going here by Olyphant as it becomes clear that Raylan is hurt in his own understated way by this, and more to the point, he’s not ready to leave Kentucky, though you’ll never hear him say it aloud.  Art, of course, can’t get rid of Raylan so easily, and he clearly isn’t entirely broken up about it—he’s happy to break out his good whiskey to toast yet another of Raylan’s firearms being relinquished to the evidence room.  It’s a scene that other shows might have played for the joke—hey how many guns are we going to have to give you?—but here it’s a quiet scene of both injury and forgiveness as Raylan recognizes why he’s difficult to have around and both men recognize that maybe he belongs there nevertheless.  And then Officer Brooks pops her head in asking for help rounding up a sexual predator in Raylan’s old neck of the woods (good ol’ racist Harlan County) and makes him a hot commodity again.

Jimmy Earl Dean (never trust a man with three first names) doesn’t turn out to be Raylan’s big problem though.  Just like last season, this season’s big problem looks to be some very old acquaintances of Raylan’s, this time in the form of the Bennett family, who seem to run most of Harlan, or at least the police force, the marijuana growing, the rat exterminating and the general service of being the town sonuvabitches who make everyone else’s life miserable.  Raylan seems genuinely happy to see at least one of them, the matriarch Mags Bennett, who comes across as rather motherly (even to children whose father she murders to protect her own business) and southern hospitable and as mean as a rattlesnake if you get too close to her nest.  For my part, I’m happy to see this entire new crop of worthy adversaries for Raylan; their past looks like it will be an interesting one to discover as the season unfolds, and no television fan could have been less than ecstatic to see Jeremy Davies, better known as Lost’s Daniel Farraday, as one of her delinquent sons.  There looks to be a lot of menace in the whole family, but I’m especially excited to see what Davies can do with his character—it’s a wonderful casting move. Davies lacks any sense of visual menace since he’s built like a bean pole with the eyes of a puppy dog, but there’s also something slightly off in the mannerisms he lends to his characters that make them unpredictable at best, and maybe much worse than that here.

The writers (I get the impression Elmore Leonard is still involved in the creative process too, so maybe the credit is his?) seem to understand that the elemental force of Raylan’s character requires something very, very strong and visceral to batter itself against in order for the show to have real tension, so it’s a great sign for season two that he’ll have four troublemakers to keep in his cross hairs and each of them looks to be enough trouble without the help of the rest of the family.  Meanwhile Boyd still seems to be lurking somewhere just out of frame, though that verbiage is probably not quite fair after all that he and Raylan went through last season.  Nevertheless, he’s out there somewhere and it’s a wonderful credit to the power of his character that even with a full plate of new issues to absorb during “The Moonshine War” I found myself repeatedly drawn by the nagging question “Where’s Boyd?” 

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the potential of the new season, especially with the knowledge that season one was a model of exponential growth in quality from start to finish (and that’s saying something—it started off pretty damn strong).  It would be a shame though to look right past the premiere itself since it offered quite a great hour of self-contained entertainment.  It skewed a bit dark with some rather icky scenes between predator Dean and the Lolita-ish Loretta who talks a little too old for her baby face, but clearly doesn’t realize the trouble she’s getting herself into.  Raylan’s quiet persistence eventually takes him through some great dialogues with each member of the Bennett family, none so ticklish as the tense introduction of Coover who greets Raylan with a dead rat thrown at the squad car and some fairly aggressive threats to violence.  He’s a pit bull kept on a leash by his brothers, and you get the feeling that Dickie isn’t too intent on keeping that leash from going slack if Raylan pushes too hard. 

Eventually the marshals get the break they need and get the jump on Dean at a gas station with Loretta bound in the trunk of his car.  It’s a great standoff for many reasons, but mostly it’s great in that it creates a rock/hard place situation for Raylan in all sorts of ways—Dean has a gun and if he pulls on Raylan he could hit the girl in the trunk, in general it’s not best to discharge firearms in the vicinity of gas pumps, Raylan just got this new firearm and would rather it not go into evidence within a day, and you get the impression on top of all that that Raylan would sort of like Art to know that he can get the job done without fatalities, you know, if that’s what he really, really wants.  His solution is as clever as it is fun to watch.  When Dean approaches him Raylan casually douses him in gasoline and then uses his other weapons—his cunning and fast taking mouth—to convince Dean that if he fires his gun he’ll go from sexual perv to smoldering ball of fire before the bullet leaves the barrel.  Raylan’s not so sure that’s the truth, but he’s certainly cocksure enough to make Dean believe it, and so Loretta is saved without a scratch and Raylan gets a bloodless win to take back to Art.  As viewers, we get a heck of a finale to a rather unsettling situation and feel satisfied even though most of us tune in to see Raylan let loose a few rounds sooner or later.  In a sense, this episode represents the show’s continuing ability to get around that pitfall—he really can’t be sending souls back to their maker every episode or the show would devolve into a farce pretty quickly (some argued it already stretched credibility with his body count last season), so it’s great to see episodes like this one where we’re reminded that Raylan can take care of business in any number of ways and still come out without his hat out of place. 

It was nice to see Raylan’s ex-wife pay a conjugal visit as well; their rekindled romantic interests were a surprisingly compelling subplot last season (for one thing, she’s much more interesting a character than Ava and for another thing, she’s drop dead gorgeous).  The scene was played lightly and likeably and, like pretty much everything in this episode, served the secondary function of making me hungry for the rest of this season to come as soon as possible. 
Overall Rating:  9.4/10

Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you:

Love Raylan’s clarification to Boyd about the drug runner he wants to kill:  “I have no moral objection to you killing her.”  He’s similarly blunt with the drug lord:  “I tried to be reasonable.  You give me your word in 10 seconds or I shoot you in the head.”

The opening credits for this show are great—they’re derivative of True Blood’s phenomenal opening credits, but here the gritty imagery and even grittier music actually fit the tone of the show (a little less soap opera would be great, Alan Ball, if you’re reading this, which you aren’t). 

“I don’t know why they give us guns,” Raylan muses, clearly confused as to how he gets in so much trouble just for doing his job the way he feels it should be done.

“Just because I’ve shot the occasional person doesn’t make me a thief.”

“You want me to throw ‘em a pork rind or some ding dongs,” Raylan says when Brooks explains he was brought along to deal with those poor racist hicks from his home town.

I love the Mags Bennett calls her kids “tads”.  Oh Deep South, you continue to charm me with your oddities and idiosyncrasies; if only you weren’t so racist and uneducated…

Anyone else want to bet that we find out why Dickie has that odd limp before the season is out?  And that maybe Raylan knows a bit about it?

The sitdown between Loretta’s father and Mags is a great little scene, right through the horribly creepy death of Walt at the hands of some tainted moonshine (or tainted glass, to be exact):  Mags words of comfort to the man she just poisoned and her promise to raise his daughter are monstrous in their indifference to his life and pain, and Dickie calmly stroking Walt’s hair as he writhes in agony don’t help any.

Raylan pays extra for a room close enough to the freeway to hear trucks blasting their horns in the middle of the night.

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