Snake handling, throat-slitting, paratrooping drug dealers, and copper thieves — Justified is back. “Netflix it and you can be one of the cool kids,” as Timothy Olyphant’s laconic Harlan County Marshal Raylan Givens puts it (referencing Lebowski). Spoilers ahead. Stop reading now and come back after you’ve caught up on the Tivo and the DVRs.
Season 4 premiered with a flashback allusion to a scene inspired by the famed Bluegrass Conspiracy, according to executive producer Graham Yost, who also wrote the episode. AC/DC
Hell’s Bells plays over a title of January 21, 1983. A pickup delivers a Corbin newspaper to a doorstep in a quiet suburban neighborhood, just as a parachuted figure plummets to the pavement in a bloody mess, with bricks of cocaine bursting from a duffel. What is it? “Sure as shit it ain’t Santa Claus,” the onlooking suburbanite says to his wife.
Flash forward. Thirty years later.
Raylan naps at his desk, awakening to a phone call from a bail bondswoman and former one-night-stand who’s looking for a bail skipper with an ex-wife in Lexington. She’s willing to make the recovery worth his while.
This being television, Lexington is just a hop and a skip from Harlan County, and Raylan’s quickly on surveillance detail. There’s a Mexican standoff. How does one person with a gun get another person with an equivalent or larger gun to stand down? Let’s just say: Fugitive apprehended.
Next, we return to Justified’s other dark star, and a parallel storyline. Walton Goggins’ Shakespearean Boyd Crowder has his own interrogation under way. His hostage has found Religion, and tells Boyd of Preacher Billy, and the tent of the Last Chance Holiness. “He’s the real deal, Boyd. Old school. Been healing lots of the afflicted,” in a nod to Flannery O’Connor. “Addicts. That’s why your oxy sales have dropped off,” he explains. “People getting off drugs; getting hooked on Jesus.”
Boyd quickly discerns that this is “a problem of arithemetic” rather than religious persuasion or philosophy. “You received a shipment of Oxy from us three weeks ago. Now that gives you two solid weeks of selling before you saw the light.” Hiram is ten thousand short. Boyd will be back.
Next, we meet one of Season 4’s few new characters (critics agree, Season 3 was wildly overpopulated), Patton Oswald as Constable Bob. He arrives to interrupt the teens who are hacking into Arlo’s walls in search of something, and pulling $20 dollars worth of copper wire as long as they’re there. Constable Bob doesn’t give chase, but does make a call.
Raylan picks up his call as he is transporting the fugitive, a guy who’s explaining that his crimes are all related to him just trying to see his kids. “Mean anything to you that I ain’t never had no priors?” “Nope,” Raylan says, “that ain’t none of my business,” (echoing Tommy Lee Jones’s similar response to Harrison Ford’s protestations of innocence as a fugitive in The Fugitive, “I don’t care.”) As a prospective father himself, Raylan explains that the fugitive’s problem is a lack of self-awareness, “you think trying to do right by your children excuses everything…even killing men….[it’s all] someone else’s fault. You ever hear the saying, ‘You run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. You run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.” The fugitive looks perplexed, “what?” and lands in the trunk of Raylan’s car (the location he was told he would occupy if he kept running his mouth).
The action switches to a rooster crowing in front of a trailer. Ah, dawn. And prostitute Ellen May has a gentleman caller. He’s brought a present. He’s origami’d a mystery powder inside a $1 million dollar bill.
“Not meth? I can’t do any more of that.”
“Not meth, it’s mellow.”
The million dollar bill it’s wrapped in interests her. “Is it real?” It isn’t. It’s a promotional novelty for a church. That’s all she needs to hear, and she’s quickly snorting the unidentified substance. Surprise number 2: when she closes her eyes, as directed, he returns in a bear suit (turns out, he’s a furry), whereupon she promptly shoots him.
Down the road at another crime scene, Raylan and Constable Bob survey the damages at Arlo’s house. Upon seeing the bashed-in walls of his father’s FSBO, Raylan admits, “well, I ain’t gonna cover that up with the smell of baking cookies.”
As the constable repeats his oft-told high school tale of putting a football player in a coma with a hammer, Raylan excavates the wall with a crowbar and discovers a diplomat’s duffel with a driver’s license inside for “Waldo Truth.”
As they walk to the car, Bob explains (for no other purpose than narrative exposition, since Raylan would obviously know all this) the role of constables in Kentucky, a $2400/year elected office, for which he must provide his own car, complete with light bar. But he adds a comment that will surely resonate later in the season (or it wouldn’t be Justified), “let ’em keep thinking I’m a joke. They underestimate me at their peril… Shit gets serious, you give me a call. I’ll grab my go-bag, and be ready to jump.”
Back to the fugitive in the trunk, and a view of Raylan, as spied through a pair of binoculars, that turn out to belong to the teen vandal wire strippers.
Over at the trailer, Ava is gently chiding Ellen May for shooting a customer who was only in costume (as a Furry, he usually dresses as a less threatening bunny). He’s unlikely to press charges, however, as Ava reminds her (in an accent that always sounds exactly like Sissy Spacek’s in Coal Miner’s Daughter), “he’s the judge executive, what’s he gonna do? Tell everyone he was shot in a whorehouse wearing a bear costume?”
The million dollar bill is more closely examined, revealing a promotion on the back for the aforementioned Last Holiness Church that seems to be crimping Boyd’s drug business.
Raylan heads to the hardware store where Mike, the friendly proprietor, asks about Arlo’s welfare (notwithstanding being currently incarcerated for killing Trooper Tom to save Boyd, even though he thought he might’ve been killing his own son — he just saw the hat). He’s more concerned about Arlo’s last shopping excursion into the store, where he just stood in the aisle and stared for five minutes. (Past seasons have laid all the groundwork for Arlo’s progressing dementia, much like early seasons of The Sopranos and the years leading up to Uncle Junior shooting Tony.)
And then the wire-stripping vandal girl is back, distracting Raylan and the shop owner with a flash of boob, followed by Raylan discovering his car has been stolen (another moment that Yost has said was inspired by the production’s fact-finding missions in Kentucky, though none of the show is shot here).
Over at Boyd’s bar, Ava and Boyd and Cousin Johnny discuss the possible ramifications of some “backwoods preacher” putting the squeeze on their drug business. As if it isn’t bad enough that the FDA has changed the formula for Oxy, “making it harder to get high,” not to mention the problems with the Florida pipeline. “You’ve been watching CNN,” Ava says to Johnny. “I tell you what I haven’t been doing, and that’s allowing one of my whores to shoot a customer.” Boyd mediates, suggesting Ava’s shortcomings will get their own turn, but telling Cousin Johnny, “Frankly, I am nonplussed by your lack of motivation.”
As Ava goes to the bar to fetch Boyd a Dr. Pepper he can drown his sorrows in (“no one ever said running a criminal enterprise was gonna be this hard,” he sighs, clearly not having seen The Sopranos, The Wire, or Breaking Bad), a mystery customer appears asking for Boyd. Time to meet the second recurring character for Season 4, the superb Ron Eldard as Boyd’s old Desert Storm compatriot, Colton Rhodes.
Meanwhile, Constable Bob responds to Raylan’s distress call to find the stolen car, insisting, in a moment surely inspired by Deputy Barney Fife, “pull on me.” As Raylan grumpily pretends to draw his weapon, Bob unsheaths a knife and mock-stabs the marshal repeatedly. “Beef stew,” he cackles. “I applied to the state po-Lice, next year, they’re gonna take me.” Then he gestures to the go-bag (body armor, MREs, assorted Road Warrior supplies). And then it’s off to the scrap yard, where Raylan’s car is likely to be crushed for the cost of the metal.
The car is unscathed, but the fugitive is missing from the trunk, and Crusher Man (as Constable Bob calls him) is pleading ignorance of his whereabouts, along with that of the teen vandals. Since Raylan is not there on official Marshal business, Crusher Man gets a quick punch in the face as he tries to assert his rights as to what questions he does and does not have to answer.
While Raylan is convincing the scrap man to divulge their location (“Oh, you mean this gate key…“), the Fugitive is striking his own deal with the wire-strippers. If they’re not up to shooting Raylan, they need to cut his restraints so he can do it, as he presumes he possesses the murdering wherewithal they would not. Though they cut him free, the debate is ongoing, and the flasher-girl still has the gun, just as Raylan walks in the door. He offers the junior criminals a free pass on stealing the car, they just need to turn over the gun and the fugitive. Unfortunately, Constable Bob bursts in, having managed to get himself taken hostage by Crusher Man. Chaos ensues, and now there is a second Mexican standoff between Raylan and fugitive Jody, who has now taken the girl hostage. Constable Bob, still armed, has an opportunity to redeem himself, and pulls it off by stabbing flasher girl in the foot (as everyone who’s seen Yost’s Speed remembers, always shoot the hostage).
By now, Raylan has surmised the flasher and her floppy-forelocked young friend weren’t after his car, his fugitive, or the copper wiring, they just wanted the duffel labeled Diplomat with the Waldo driver’s license. “How come?”
Constable Bob has figured out why he was pressed into service — Raylan couldn’t call the cops to retrieve his stolen car with a Tennessee bail jumper in the trunk, since bounty hunting is illegal in Kentucky — but Raylan explains he needs the moonlighting funds because he has “a kid on the way.”
Next, Boyd and Colton are sitting in a truck on a picturesque bridge, discussing baseball’s role in Colton’s discharge from the military (a recurring theme on the series). This leads to Boyd’s confession to his war buddy that he is a criminal, a criminal who could use a hand if the former MP might not mind a walk on the dark side. They agree to re-visit Hiram, the newly saved Oxy-dealer in arrears to Boyd, on a “dry run.”
Notwithstanding his hardware store statements to the contrary, Raylan does show up to visit his dad in prison. Arlo promptly complains about Raylan’s lack of real estate acumen in selling his house. Raylan cuts to the chase and shows him the duffel he presumes his father has gone to a lot of trouble to acquire, “hiring two wire stripping teenagers to get it for you.” Arlo plays dumb, “on your mother’s grave.” Raylan presses the 1979 Waldo Truth driver’s license to the glass. Arlo claims he can’t see it without his glasses. “Put that bag back in the wall and forget about it,” is Arlo’s advice. “I didn’t say it was in the wall,” Raylan responds (in a classic Billy Jack homage).
Back on the dry run, Hiram is strapped to a chair with a stick of dynamite in his lap while Boyd and Colton attempt to extract the location of Boyd’s Oxy money. Hiram, reckless sense of humor intact, gestures to one of the recurring million dollar bills, advertising the location of his Salvation. But as the fuse dwindles, he confesses the money is under the lawnmower, and Colton leaves to verify. He was saving it for The Church. Boyd quotes Asimov, “I expect death to be nothingness,” followed by Keynes, “in the long run, we’ll all be dead.” Colton returns with the money, and Boyd reminds him that it doesn’t exist (not even if Ava asks), telling his new henchman, “take care of him.” The next sound is a gunshot, and Hiram is off to meet his newly found Savior.
“What the hell did you do that for?” Boyd shouts.
“You said ‘take care of him,'” Colton shrugs.
“I meant, ‘cut him loose!'” Boyd protests.
The “oopsie” look on Eldard’s face is the best Elmore Leonard moment of the premiere, and an affirmation that Season 4 seems poised to quickly outperform Season 3 (though it will always be difficult to top the award-winning Mags arc of Season 2). The two agree that Boyd’s going to have to choose his words more carefully in the future.
Raylan returns to his room over the bar and discovers bartender Lindsey flossing in his bathroom. He stows his bounty in his underwear drawer, in what is surely an ill-placed show of trust, before seducing her into delaying her return downstairs for “effed up Friday.”
In his bar, Boyd is stowing his recovered Oxy cash in the rafters over the Bud sign, and examining the million dollar church ad.
And at last, we see the Tent in the Woods, and Preacher Billy (Joe Mazzello: his familiar face may be initially difficult to place — he’s the kid from Jurassic Park, Simon Birch, Shadowlands, and Radio Flyer, now all grown up). He takes up snakes, and congregants speak in tongues. Ellen May is in the crowd.
Back in Arlo’s cell, the Book Cart has arrived, manned by the menacing prisoner who saw Raylan come and go earlier. He asks about the bag. “Why do you want to know?” Arlo asks. And the thirty-year mystery begins to reveal. He’s heard about that bag once before. “It could be worth some money.” He’ll make a call. But first, why, Arlo believes he would like a book after all. As he brings over a spy novel, Arlo promptly slits his throat with a crude toothbrush shiv. As blood gushes from his neck, he gurgles, “why? whyyyyy?” and Arlo calmly lies down on his bunk, contemplating his blood-soaked hands.