If you want to see just how far Justified has come, ‘Harlan Roulette’ is the episode to look at. Colorful, intriguing and at a few points unsettling, it’s the complete package.
Ellstin Limehouse is having words with Ava. He says she looks good, and she replies “better than the last time we saw each other,” which is just one heck of a loaded sentence. She wants him to meet Boyd. And so, on a bridge in the middle of the night, with plenty of glowering from various minions on both sides, the two converse. “It has come to my attention that you are in possession of something that belonged to Mags Bennett,” Boyd says, and makes reference to Dickie joining her mother in the afterlife, which would also conveniently allow the two of them to become significantly richer. Ellstin is not intrigued, and tells Boyd to give his best to Arlo Givens, who happens to be standing right there. His age is the only reason that he doesn’t get slugged in the face after that.
Arlo’s son is having a better time of it – at least at first. He and Winona are discussing houses, but then a state trooper calls and tells him that Wade Messer has been spotted. Wade (played by James LeGros, also known as the first man to be Raylan Givens, in the 1997 TV-movie adaptation of the novel Pronto) spots Raylan too and narrowly escapes after the truck he’s sitting in goes off the side of the road and rolls. His partner isn’t so lucky.
Prison guard Officer Murphy (Todd Stashwick) has some words with Dickie Bennett about his encounter with Boyd. The prison guard overheard everything that Dickie and Boyd said in solitary last week, and now he’s got his sights set on the money, too. Dickie plays dumb and tells Murphy to “hold your horses” until he’s out of prison. That’s not the answer Murphy wants to hear.
After escaping from the truck accident, Wade goes to a local pawn shop and tells his buddies what happened. Raylan is briefing everyone’s favorite state trooper Tom Bergen at the same time. Tom’s brought his kids with him because his wife’s sick, which is oddly cute. Bergen and Raylan hypothesize about what’s going on, while Wade’s driving buddy makes bail and gets forced to play “Harlan roulette” by his boss, the owner of the pawn shop. It’s an incredibly uncomfortable scene as the poor guy is so desperate for his next drug high that he risks blowing his own head off. Unfortunately for him, his boss is a sadistic bastard who shoots him anyway, and then orders Wade to get rid of the body.
Limehouse’s people are taking all of Mags’ marijuana off Boyd’s hands, which Boyd believes is a good idea because it’s not “smart business” to have it around lest the cops or someone else eventually come calling. He calls a house meeting with Arlo, Devil and Ava, declaring that “We will protect Harlan. We will control every aspect of crime within its boundaries.” Yes, Boyd has a plan and it is an ambitious one.
Speaking of ambitious, Quarles is talking about reclaiming the Oxycontin trade in Kentucky, giving a speech of his own to Wynn Duffy. He has the backing of his Detroit buddies to set up shop and start making deals with drug addicts, giving them half their pills and sending the other half back home, where he can charge much more. A phone call clues us in to the fact that he’s got a hockey-playing son at home. Let’s not talk about the person bound and gagged in the upstairs bed. That’s a random “WTF” moment if I ever saw one.
Raylan’s search for Wade has led him to the pawn shop, where our literally big bad plays dumb and insists on a search warrant before letting him into the back room. This, of course, doesn’t sit well with Raylan, who gets very suspicious. He basically tells the guy that he knows he’s moving stolen goods. The pawn shop guy calls Duffy, and Quarles suggests that Pawn Shop Guy kill Raylan, which leads Duffy to stare at him like he’s insane. Quarles points out that he doesn’t expect the guy to survive – he’s hoping Raylan takes out the pawn shop guy for them, which he inevitably will. Pawn Shop Guy gets off the phone and pawns the task off on Wade, because he’s a slacker like that.
Boyd, Arlo and Devil walk into a bar and pull out some weaponry. The bar used to belong to Boyd’s cousin Johnny, who rolls himself in, wheelchair and all. There’s a lot of posturing, but Boyd eventually takes the bar back.
Wade arrives at his place to find Raylan waiting for him, under the belief that Wade wants to turn himself in. This screws up Wade’s orders because he can’t get to his gun, which is inside the house, until he gets past Raylan. Once he does get inside, he comes back out and realizes that Raylan already confiscated his gun anyway, which makes him crack and Raylan ticked off, as anyone who’s being targeted to be killed might be.
Though Wade calls Pawn Shop Guy and claims that Raylan is no longer with us, pawn shop guy doesn’t believe it, because Wade is a really terrible liar. He drives his Midlife Crisis Red sports car to Wade’s house and finds Raylan there. Raylan doesn’t care if Pawn Shop Guy leaves handcuffed or in a body bag. Pawn Shop Guy realizes he’s screwed and tries to surrender himself, but gets shot by his stoner sidekick at the same time he shoots back. Raylan’s one-word reaction to this, which I cannot print, is perfect.
Back at the bar, Boyd and Devil are having a few drinks and reminiscing about the events of season one. “I just want to know which Boyd Crowder I’m being asked to follow,” says Devil. Boyd is not impressed by that question and selects Option C) All of the Above.
Quarles and Duffy are in Duffy’s RV, where Quarles is playing with his spiffy handgun, which he apparently acquired a part for while Christmas tree shopping. That’s got to be an interesting story, but we don’t get to hear it because Raylan shows up, armed and cranky. “Remember that conversation we weren’t gonna have?” he tells Duffy. “This is it.” Quarles is just standing there smirking like a madman. Now, normally, I would tell anyone to be afraid of any character played by Neal McDonough, but because this is Raylan Givens, I am actually not scared for him whatsoever. Raylan whips out his phone, takes a nice picture, and goes on his way, leaving Duffy mewling on the floor.
What’s neat about “Harlan Roulette” is that, if you haven’t already, now you’re starting to see the pieces of the season fall into place. We understand how Team Crowder is going to be on a collision course with Quarles and company. We grasp how Raylan figures to come into, and undo, all the stuff going on around him. In contrast, many shows are still trying to figure out their direction by the third episode of a season. This show doesn’t mess around. That’s just efficient, clear, crisp writing.
There’s one thing I quibble with, because I could honestly see it going either way: pawn shop guy is sadistic enough that he’ll make one of his henchmen play Russian roulette and then shoot him anyway, but doesn’t have the guts to try and kill Raylan himself? Or is he just figuring that he’ll use someone expendable when it comes to taking out a law enforcement official? It seems weird that he’d get his hands dirty one way but not another, but I could also see him wanting plausible deniability when it comes to a high-value target, so I’ll let that slide.
I am particularly fond of the episode’s final scene, because it’s a nice example of how much fantastic chemistry we have this season. Neal McDonough and Timothy Olyphant both bring a lot of intensity to all their performances, so to play them off one another is truly genius. It defines the phrase “worthy adversary.” It’s a completely different chemistry than Margo Martindale brought last year; Mags knew Raylan and clearly liked him, too. Things were almost nice at times. But this season, it’s going to be all-out, head-on warfare, and I love every minute of it.
That brings me back to the writing. Every season of Justified has had its own unique feel, almost as if it’s an anthology show. Obviously, every show has new stories each season, but rare is the show where it feels like the first time every time. Each season could pretty much stand on its own merits because it’s that complete. That’s something really special amongst TV shows. It’s the equivalent of making not just one blockbuster movie, but a whole trilogy and, from where I’m sitting, the possibility of many more to come, because I don’t see this show slowing down for a long time.