There’s a great moment in the sadly maligned and little-known (at least to modern film lovers) Clint Eastwood musical (you read correctly) “Paint Your Wagon” where a town built on all of man’s vices begins to literally implode on itself due to the fact that greedy gold miners have literally gutted the ground beneath the town looking for gold. As the streets and buildings sink into this man-made pit, the inhabitants of the city sing “No Name City, your reckoning day is here!” As the church sinks a miner says to the preacher “Welcome to hell, parson.” Minus the musical number, the scene contains a lot of parallels to tonight’s excellent and troubling episode. “Reckoning” lives up to its name as pretty much everyone answers, or prepares to answer, for everything they’ve done this season. The result, as the preview for next week’s episode makes clear, is a “war com(ing) to Harlan”. Indeed, it seems that the county itself will be sinking into its own sort of self-created hell as the history of violence, corruption and crime finally comes to a head. The ground seems to open up beneath several characters tonight, and you can see the cracking fault lines under the footing of others.
The proceedings open with an extended scene of Raylan approaching Helen’s house in slow motion as the sun flares in the camera lens behind that trademark hat. It’s a solid moment for the show visually, reminding us simultaneously of Raylan’s grief and the powerful threat he poses to anyone foolish enough to get on his wrong side. Dickie has more than done so with the (apparently) unplanned killing of Helen. It makes for the worst moment of the night when Raylan finally gets him where he wants him—handcuffed in the dark of the woods with nothing between them but a handgun and the Givens-Bennett feud that’s been going on “nearly a hundred years now”. Lucky for Dickie, Raylan’s own vengeful speech about why he’s killing Dickie serves to remind him that it’s exactly what Helen would NOT have wanted—bringing a touching new meaning to her scene with Mags a couple episodes ago when she talked her into preserving the peace. Apparently Helen’s influence over the two families reaches even past the grave. Unfortunately for Raylan, the cost of the peace is the rage of a reunited Bennett clan seeking payback for his attack on Doyle and humiliation of Dickie.
Between the tearful Bennett reunion (poor Dickie is pathetic throughout tonight’s proceedings) and several other interesting interactions tonight, “Reckoning” represents a key episode in this season’s run as an examination of the blood and friendship ties which have played such important roles in everything which has unfolded in Harlan County recently. Dickie gets a couple of strong moments calling out his mother for disowning him in favor of her own plans, and she’s all too direct in making it clear to him that she’ll continue to do so if his reckless actions threaten her future plans. Ironically, she sees her plans as being key to the security of her larger family—including non-existent grandchildren and generations to come, which in her twisted world come before her own tragic son, who has clearly devoted his life to what he felt his mother wanted. Perhaps as a favor to a wronged son, or perhaps just because she sees it as the easiest method of cleanup despite its risks, Mags puts Doyle on the job of fulfilling Dickie’s plan: frame Jed for the death of Helen and kill him when he “resists arrest”. Too bad in the midst of their dialogue Dickie utters one of those ominous double-entendres people sometimes make on shows like this, telling Mags “I want what’s coming to me.” I have a bad feeling that’s more than just a horrifying moment staring down the barrel of Raylan’s gun. When Doyle arrives at Jed’s house, the scene opens with a perfectly framed shot of Jed’s little daughter in the background—framed right between Jed and the man who has clearly come to kill him, Doyle. Doyle is just reaching for his weapon to kill Jed’s stubborn wife when Raylan interrupts the proceedings, and his alternative plans for Jed play to the same themes: Take responsibility if you care about your family.
It’s a lesson Arlo clearly never learned, which Raylan believes is a big part of the reason Helen is dead. He admits to horrible parenting and “tearing strips off of each other” with Helen for the last 15 years of her life, which was the best time of his life, as he tells Raylan this evening. It doesn’t change the fact, however, that taking revenge now doesn’t make up for the fact that Arlo’s choice of lifestyle for time untold put Helen in harm’s way for so long that it’s a wonder they both lasted as long as they did. Arlo and Mags seem to deserve each other as two halves of two marriages which they would each claim forced them into the lifestyle they chose, and which each seems to have embraced with a bit more relish than seems fitting of the claims they make to have done so reluctantly. It’s hard to do anything but grin with satisfaction when Raylan lies to Arlo for information and then has him tossed in jail anyway to keep him from killing Dickie before Raylan has the chance to do it himself. It’s equally gratifying to see Raylan’s pent-up rage and grief boil over on Arlo in the jail cell as he imposes his will on his old man in order to play the trump card he holds over Mags. His violence is more than jeopardizing his job at this point; he’s flirting with going to prison himself (consider the fact that by episode’s end he stands accused of coercing a witness and forcing a false confession), but it all feels justified within the rules people play by in Harlan.
The rest of Raylan’s time tonight is spent engaged in reckonings of sorts with other relations. He and Boyd have come full circle officially now: He calls Boyd out on the “bs” he claimed a short while ago about his criminal time being behind him. He also asks for a reason not to beat him, which Boyd provides in arguably the episode’s most disheartening moment: He points out that the house is full of guns pointed at Raylan, including the rifle that Ava steps onto the porch carrying rather intimidatingly. When Raylan attempts to confront her as well, Boyd wastes no time in threatening him if he disrespects her again, pointing out that their past together doesn’t “give him license” to speak to her disrespectfully. Seeing Ava embracing Boyd and his merry band of deadbeats so completely is hard to stomach, but the resolve she seems to have in standing against Raylan here is something else entirely. She’s made nothing but poor choices across two seasons now, with brief moments of kindness as the only breaks between, which leads me to believe her reckoning may be one of the worst come the war next week. For Raylan’s part, he seems none too broken up about losing either Boyd or Ava from his life, and with Wynona close by his side come Helen’s funeral, it doesn’t seem like he has much reason to feel differently. For all he’s risked this season in his life, he seems to have made the right decisions regarding women in his life and where his loyalties should lie, so it’s nice to see an episode entitled “Reckoning” end with Wynona at his side and Boyd and Ava ignored without a second thought.
The funeral itself is handled wonderfully as a moment of hopefulness and peacefulness after an hour of darkness and portents of violence. It’s not without its ominous touches, most notably Wynona noticing that Raylan’s headstone is already inscribed and planted in the earth, awaiting only an end date and his body beneath it. Rather than a foreboding symbol of things to come (can’t we assume he’s going to survive all of this?), it felt more like one more reminder about what real family ties look like in the South: Raylan grew up in this house with Arlo and his Aunt. Once he dies, he’ll stay here with them as well—his place is awaiting him with an almost menacing permanence in the form of that headstone, and yet there’s also something reassuring and comforting about the idea that Raylan’s place will eventually be at peace beside the blood relatives he could find no peace with in life. Whether Wynona chooses to join him beneath the tree in their front yard remains to be seen, but she certainly looks to be sticking around for a while.
In a way, Helen’s isn’t the only funeral taking place at the end of the episode. In fact, scenes of Mags officially signing Harlan County over to the company that will destroy it physically and leave it “spoiled” forever after are intercut with the scenes of Helen’s service, sharing the mournful soundtrack which presides over the end of Helen’s life and whatever sense of vitality Harlan County had left in it. The scenes drive home a clear set of motivations for all sides to load their guns (except Arlo, who already has and Raylan, whose always are) in anticipation of the coming war. It’s anybody’s bet who walks away from all of it alive, but it seems unlikely that all of our key players will return next season. In lieu of my usual conclusion (where I get all smarmy and clever and engage in excessive word play), I’m going to make some fun predictions for next week: I think Doyle’s in a lot of trouble and Mags is also going to take quite a fall (possibly not with her life, but with something taken from her which she can’t abide—“the future” perhaps). Dickie seems due for a break, and it seems fitting that Doyle and Mags should be the ones who pay for putting him through the horrible time they have. I don’t like Ava’s chances either, which is not to say I care much about her fate given what a horrible decision maker she is, and how quick she is to turn back to the family which not so long ago made her life a living hell. Boyd will come through it all, if only because he’s too good a character to dismiss from the cast just as he’s amassing power again (although, redundancy is a problem if he’s to be next season’s villain, so who knows?). And then there’s poor Loretta, all but forgotten with her foster family, who seem caring but unable to completely understand where she’s come from. It certainly didn’t seem like a moment of closure tonight when she told her foster mother that she used to sell pot to her classmates at school, but it did feel just a touch like foreshadowing: Could she be the next Mags in the making? A girl forced through circumstance towards a lifestyle which feels like the best alternative among uninviting options? She’s been a feisty, resilient and ambitious little firecracker all season long, which leads me to wonder whether she might not provide the show’s biggest surprise by season’s end. But call that my “long shot” pick because the show has never made itself predictable and I’m just clutching at straws here in anticipation of what looks like a phenomenal episode next week. Of course, the biggest question of the evening would be, who is the old woman who comes to see Jed in prison and gets him to recant his statement? She knows Mags, she looks angry and capable of commanding, if not committing, horrible acts, and she certainly gets what she wants without having to do too much begging. She might be someone as simple as Jed’s mother, but I like to think her family ties are much more significant and tangled with one of the bigger players. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.
Overall Rating: 9.5/10
Great Lines, Interesting Moments, Whatnot, and Occasionally What-Have-You:
Sad that Art is keeping close enough tabs on Raylan to think to call the local sheriff and inform him explicitly that Raylan is not there as a Marshal.
I like that Boyd removes bacon from the pan with his bare hands. No big reason, just an interesting character touch.
Raylan looks extremely hurt and torn when Boyd and Ava show up at Helen’s and Boyd says they’re there with “pure intent”.
There are plenty of scenes of Raylan grabbing Tigers by the face tonight, but none so bold as when he actually lays hands on Mags while demanding the whereabouts of Dickie. She scares me. Like father like son, I guess—Arlo confronts her and downs a glass of apple pie cider with equal confidence.
Mags directness with Dickie is heartbreakingly cruel: “Your actions jeopardize my plans in any way; I will let you swing for it.”
Exchange of the night comes when Raylan suggests he’ll find a throwdown weapon if he searches Doyle:
“If you try to pat me down I’ll kill you.”
“Well, it was rhetorical.”