Sunday 5 February 2012

'Harlan Roulette' (Justified, Season 3, Episode 3)

Three weeks in may be too early to judge Justified's third season, but I think we can already say the show feels vastly different than it did last year. In Season Two, everything came back to the Bennetts: Mags had a finger in every pie, and none of the central conflicts could be solved without unravelling her empire. By contrast, the new season lacks that central antagonist so far. It's multipolar and complex, and therein lie both its strengths and weaknesses.

'Harlan Roulette' sees Raylan attempt to catch fugitive Wade Messer (James LeGros), but in the process he comes upon Messer's employer, pawnshop owner Glen Fogle (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who pays addicts in oxycontin. Fogle murders J.T. (Mike Foy) in a tense and harrowing scene, inducing the man to play 'Harlan Roulette' in return for a bottle of pills. Fogle is eventually told to kill Raylan Givens by kingpin Quarles (Neal McDonough), leading to one of the Mexican stand-offs Justified continues to do well.

In the B-plot, Boyd Crowder's attempt to split Mags Bennett's money with Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) is frustrated by Limehouse's intransigence. To combat grumblings among his men, who haven't been paid, Boyd decides to take back a bar lost by his cousin Johnny (David Meunier).

So we've got four principal actors - Boyd, Limehouse, Quarles, Raylan - trying to control Harlan, each with their respective associates; and there's still Dickie Bennett, who may yet be able to reclaim a part of Mags's empire. 'Harlan Roulette' is another episode in a war of position, as Limehouse rebuffs Boyd's advances, the latter gains an asset, and Quarles and Raylan meet for the first time. Justified is still re-arranging the pieces, and it isn't boring by any means

But I think the stakes need to be raised. Let's be frank: the show should kill off a character. Right now the obvious candidate is Dickie: although Jeremy Davies's performance is terrific, the character's arc seems complete (unlike the still enigmatic Limehouse and Quarles). Moreover, his death would put Limehouse and Boyd at each other's throats, leaving Raylan to deal with an escalating struggle over territory and assets. I'm willing to see what the writers have in store for us, though.

If the current complexity of the show is a problem, that's in no small part because so many characters now share screentime. Winona makes a token appearance in this episode; Rachel, Tim and Art are entirely absent after being relatively prominent the previous week. Instead of fixing flaws like ill-defined supporting characters, the writers seem instead to have chosen to forget about them. I hope that'll be reversed.

Even though 'Harlan Roulette' leaves me a little uncertain, the episode has its share of terrific lines (Limehouse: 'You see, Wynn, that's why it's called organised crime!'). Although Raylan has been a little prickly of late, 'Harlan Roulette' is another great episode for an increasingly ruthless Boyd. The enigma of the character (white supremacist, born-again Christian, traitor against his father...) is brought out in a late scene when Devil (Kevin Rankin) wonders 'which Boyd Crowder I'm being asked to follow'. I'm not sure of the answer, but Walton Goggins's performance keeps me fascinated by the character.

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