Friday, March 11, 2011

TV Episode Review: Justified "Cottonmouth"

Well, I suppose “ask and ye shall receive” is a fitting epitaph for my reaction in the aftermath tonight’s episode.  I’ve been grumbling good naturedly about wanting more Bennett-centric episodes for a few weeks now, and I was even fool enough to justify (no pun intended) my desires by pointing out how fascinating the dynamics of the Bennett Clan are both as an extension of the show’s motif of blood ties and just for their plain old peculiarity.  So I guess I deserve the sudden and unexpected darkness of the show’s final moments this evening, which showed us more about the true nature of the Bennetts—especially Coover and Mags—than anything preceding it, and at the same time robbed them of much of their southern, easygoing charm and likability.  Which, in a way, is too bad, because I thought they played really well as characters whose few redeeming values lay in their close-knit devotion to family, however inept some of the members might be.  However, after tonight’s metamorphosis of Mags into Kathy Bates in “Misery” and Coover into a grown up, semi-obese version of the simple minded banjo kid from “Deliverance”, it’s awful hard to find anything humorous in the goings on under the Bennett roof from here on out.  I wonder, honestly, whether the serpentine reference of tonight’s title doesn’t refer darkly to the suddenness with which the show runners decided to strike at the audience with such a disturbingly dark scene.

Setting aside those gruesome final moments for a few paragraphs, the rest of “Cottonmouth” was probably one of the most satisfying episodes of the season even though it offers very little in the way of closure to any of the storylines it introduces or expands.  In place of closure, it offered something nearly as appealing:  Wonderfully hard earned character moments and some truly inspired comeuppance for evildoers throughout Harlan County (I don’t count Coover amongst their numbers though; his mother’s retribution is something too grotesque and his punishment is mostly uncalled for in any form).  Raylan’s no-nonsense confrontation with Winston, whose dual enterprise known as “The Church of The Two-Stroke Jesus” (“Praise God and Ride Hard”) is funded mainly by him taking care of dirty paper, most recently by turning the deceased Walt McCready’s draw checks into cold hard cash for the Bennetts, is one of the season’s best Raylan moments, which is saying something considering that he has to finish the visit after shaking off a good firm tasing.  Meanwhile, Boyd, even as his brief stint as a clean living individual seems to draw to a reluctant close, manages to blow the boots off of some rather weasely scuzzballs before the police come for him (or perhaps in at least Kyle’s case, it’s more accurate to say the man was blown off of the boots—the image of a smoking boot with a tree stump of a leg sticking out of it was a fun return from commercial tonight).

In both cases, survival depended on Boyd and Raylan resorting to their natural talents—Boyd’s being his natural cunning and ability to out-criminal the best of criminals, and Raylan’s being, um, that he’s really really hard to kill.  I couldn’t begin to pick a favorite moment out of all that goes on, but since Raylan is the first to have his life put in jeopardy, let’s start there.  Acting on a tip from poor Dewey, he goes to see a man named Winston.  His visit is yet another foray into the oddities of small town, backwoods life where things like a bit of illegal check cashing seem like they could go unnoticed forever.  If it weren’t for that meddling Marshal, anyway.  As always, Raylan is civil but cool with Winston, but when he shows his cards—he has checks with Winston’s handwriting on a signature line not intended for him—he gets a bit too relaxed about things and Winston goes for his “reading glasses” which he seems to have mixed up with his police grade taser.  It’s not often that anyone gets a jump on Raylan, which makes the scene vaguely satisfying in some sense.  The constant danger of a central figure like Raylan is that he can very quietly become a narrowly drawn comic book hero if he’s made to seem too untouchable or so far ahead of the criminal element that his wisdom borders on omniscience.  Scenes like this help to diminish that sense of his character just enough to keep him grounded in reality—in this case twitching helplessly on the ground of reality. 

The ensuing struggle leads to him firing a round that barely misses Winston’s foot and then getting hold of the taser buried in his stomach (bulletproof vest playing a role here?  Does he usually wear one?) and stuffing it into Winston’s crotch.  Raylan recovers first and his interrogation is somewhat funny, though a bit uncomfortably on the wrong side of torture laws, if we still respect those at all in this country.  He observes calmly that the taser is recovered to about 50% power and then gives Winston a quick shot with it when he isn’t cooperative (“Now it’s down to about 30,” he says).  His next statement is clearly one he has no intention of following through on; he asks Winston if he’s ever been tased in the mouth, which, the less you picture it the better you’ll sleep tonight.  Winston either calls Raylan’s bluff, or he actually fears the wrath of the Bennett family much more than he fears finding out what lightning tastes like (maybe he’s seen how Mags disciplines her kids).  In any case, it’s not exactly a victory for Raylan, but it’s certainly an invigorating few moments of TV—the kind this show has become uniquely good at providing week-to-week without falling into any of the clichés of police/procedural dramas.

Boyd’s punishment of thievery is more of an inside job, as he finds himself caught up in a plot to knock off the mine he works at, which he seemed up for last week when Kyle sold it with the promise of him “looking like a hero”, which it turns out really involves pulling his dead bossy, Shelby, from the rubble they bury him under.  Boyd, it’s nice to see, has no intentions of taking human life again, which leads to him hatching one of the best schemes in the show’s history in order to avoid his own death and save Shelby in the process.  At first he thinks he can just back out, but he knows better than to take that on assumption, so he calls Ava’s phone from his cell and uses the cell phone to spy on their conversation from the kitchen (I’ve seen the fake call trick on plenty of shows before, but this would be the first time I can think of where the open receiver of the calling phone is used as the improvised equivalent of bugging a room—sharp writing).  He doesn’t overhear anything we didn’t figure he would, but it puts his wonderful brain in motion to save his and Shelby’s skin without necessarily losing the take (which he apparently wants for Ava’s sake—though the favor he asks in return is left for next week’s episode). 

The true extent of Boyd’s cunning though is in his ability to rethink Kyle’s fairly foolproof heist and tweak it in just enough places to give him the upper hand.  It leaves a lot to chance, but that’s beside the point.  What makes the proceedings so intriguing is what we learn about Boyd:  he’s come to trust Ava enough to believe that she’ll unquestioningly (and unknowingly) carry out the key to the whole thing by calling an unrecognized number with the explicit and suspicious instructions “don’t tell anyone”.  The rest is all about improvisation and trust in his own wits—he counts on inept and inexperienced criminals to make the mistakes he knows not to make, and when they do he exploits them and predicts their next play perfectly.  The other sad, key element in his success is his disinterest in his own person.  We’ve listened to his hollow, empty voice for the entire season, and I doubt I’m alone in having wondered whether this represented depression or resignation or something else.  As it turns out, Boyd has simply given up on being a good person, an admission which is tragically painful to him and to viewers.  As he explains to Ava while handing her the spoils of his successful heist of a heist, “because that’s what I do.  It’s who I am Ava, as much as I’ve tried to pretend otherwise.  It seems everyone else knows that but me.”  It’s the most painful moment of the season by far, and even though he asks Ava for a favor, it seems doubtful that he even possesses the mental will anymore to attempt to correct his life path or change who he believes he is somewhere very deep inside.

Besides wondering whether Boyd has a final bit of vitality left behind his husk of a spirit, the show sets the table for a few other interesting developments in its final quarter.  Raylan pays Coover a visit and slyly tells him he’s looking for Walt regarding some loose ends, knowing quite well that Walt is most likely dead at this point.  Coover has no idea how to take it, especially since Raylan throws in the bit about the pederast who Walt had working for him.  Just to cover his bases, he goes to visit Loretta as she’s casually dealing pot to the local youngsters, and her near-complete dismissal of him as a law enforcement official is more sad than funny; after the first episode I wrote that she seemed wise beyond her years in a way that didn’t quite play right.  It seems that now they’ve found the right measure of premature adulthood in her, and there’s certainly more believable reason for it now that she seems to realize daddy ain’t coming back, and the new fam is nothing to offer the Good Lord too much thanks over.  Raylan grins ruefully at her brazen attitude, but doesn’t have to say much to put cracks in her tough-girl façade.  Mostly he just hands her a spare cell phone and tells her quite tonelessly that he will drop anything he’s doing if she should need him—all she has to do is call.  It’s equal parts warning of the danger she’s in and promise to help pull her out of it. 

Despite so much going for it, I can’t help feeling the episode suffered a major setback in the disturbing scene I mentioned up top—Mags’ punishment of Coover (and Dickie, though he doesn’t have to face any bodily harm since he’s already a cripple) with the use of a rather large hammer is both disgusting and disturbing, which I fully understand it’s meant to be.  However, I think they may have overplayed the disturbing angle of the family dynamics here in a way that may be tough to recover from.  For me, ultimately, it’s not the act of violence meted out by a mother who is simultaneously defending her family and an enormous criminal operation (presumably justifying her actions in the belief that he could have put her whole family’s freedom in jeopardy through his foolishness), but the very disturbing manner in which Coover accepts the punishment.  Up to this point I have presumed his character to be the family equivalent of the village idiot, but his reaction to his mother’s anger borders on a portrayal of a mentally impaired individual, which makes the moment in question even less stomachable than it already is, and generally speaking it makes me wonder what Raylan is really dealing with in Coover.  If he’s meant to be a truly mentally impaired character, it feels rather icky to have laughed at him all these past weeks as he’s bumbled his way from one mess to the next, trying at every step of the way to show himself deserving of a role in the family business (not to mention how pathetic his observation to Loretta becomes early in the episode—that he’s hurt that she gets to watch the store and he was never allowed to).  The whole thing just didn’t sit right with me and cast a rather discomforting pall over what, up to those final moments, was shaping up to be my favorite episode out of the last four.  Hopefully something in the coming weeks reframes what we witnessed tonight, but I’d be lying if I told you I could think of any possible circumstance that could offer an alternative explanation for what we witnessed tonight from Coover (perhaps it’s merely a misstep by the actor, but ultimately we have to treat the resulting portrayal as the story we know, so it remains a disturbing element that taints whatever comes next).

Overall Rating:  8.7/10

Great Lines, Interesting Moments, Whatnot, and Occasionally What-have-you:

Poor Dewey gets snowed with the TB quarantine joke, "All the masks and shit I thought it was some kind of monkey virus like in that movie.”  It's also great that he gets the "little man playing the violin" routine from Raylan in terms of sympathy.

Raylan to Dewey:  “Give yourself a shave I’ll bet you could pass for 16.”  

Arlo doesn’t want to let Raylan go and says the Bennett stuff is “beyond the purview of what I like to call your job.

Pruitt tells raylan to mind his own business and he says “Well that wouldn’t be like me."

Raylan referring to the Bennett's dogs as "hillbilly doorbells" might be my favorite colloquialism yet.

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