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'Justified's' 'Alive Day' recap: Flowers for Choo-Choo

'Justified' recap: Last ride on the Choo-Choo train in 'Alive Day'

Harlan County has a history of breeding mammoth, bruising, short-on-brains antagonists for Raylan Givens.

The Bennett clan brought us Coover, the youngest and most immature of Mags Bennett’s children. Last year, we drew the short straw and had to sit through the experience of knife-wielding imbecile Danny Crowe, a character I generally try to pretend never existed.

When we first met Choo-Choo back in “Cash Game,” he seemed to be a healthy mix of the two aforementioned characters. Comic relief with a lethal haymaker. His back story seemed somewhat tragic, but given the long-held friendship he had with Sea Bass and Ty Walker, it was fair to assume he’d been just as rotten as his two war buddies long before he set foot in Afghanistan.

But “Alive Day” managed to turn the injury-induced oaf into something more, a sympathetic character whose swan song turned this episode into my favorite stanza of “Justified’s” final season.  Frankly, this one kind of hurt.

Justified has always had something of a fatalist edge to it, but as I said in my review of the season premiere, this final season seemed to be driving that point harder than before. The show has always been centered on Raylan and Boyd, two characters who are almost singularly invested in pursuits and ideals that are likely going to get them killed. In just 40 minutes, Choo-Choo went from a background character to a sad reminder of how their stories could play out.

Choo-Choo’s remark of “this is all I got” before taking a hail of gunfire in defense of Walker was something you could see Boyd uttering in a last stand against Markham or Raylan. The big man’s got heart, and while he’s no doubt a killer, maybe the injury that turned him into this mumbling monolith also softened him enough to be capable of being a decent person. Remember, we’ve only seen him kill at the behest of Walker or Sea Bass, who have an almost parent-child relationship with him.

When left to his own devices, Choo-Choo doesn’t seem to take the same pleasure in murder that Walker does. Maybe he’s just that kid who liked trains, trapped in a leg-breaker’s body. I can’t spend too much more time on a character who ultimately won’t affect the rest of the season, but au revoir Choo-Choo, you were the surprising king of Harlan’s strongmen.

The emotional weight of Choo-Choo’s last stand made it hard to focus on any other scenes in “Alive Day,” but I’d be remiss if I ignored the closing seconds. Ellstin Limehouse, information merchant extraordinaire, has for some reason decided to clue Boyd in on Ava’s little escape attempt, just as Ava is becoming less and less guarded about her informant status.

Ava’s arc continues to be well-paced, as her attempts to “earn her junior detective badge” would seem to be a natural evolution of her escape attempt. She couldn’t literally run away, but giving Raylan the necessary intel to put Boyd in jail would be the most expeditious means of escape for her now.

Unfortunately for her, Boyd is now somewhat wise to her game. Walton Goggins’ facial expression in that closing shot was the only thing he did worth noting in the episode, as the mining shaft scenes continue to drag. Boyd’s been a little bit to the side lately, as the story is waiting for him to start digging into Ava’s extracurricular activities and thus throw him in Raylan’s line of fire.

The notion that Ava’s uncle is plotting to kill him in the mines is an interesting one, but I’m a little surprised that the hyper-paranoid version of Boyd we’ve been given this year wasn’t prepared for this.

I doubt “Alive Day” will be my favorite episode of Justified’s final season when all is said and done, but for now, this was an incredibly strong offering that sets things up nicely at the halfway point.

Stray rounds:

  • Love seeing Art back in the Marshal’s office, and possibly digging into one final case. Also, did Nick Searcy lose some weight in real life, or did he actually drop some poundage to display Art’s gaunt post-surgery form?
  • The Gutterson-Raylan bi-play continues to be marvelous. Also Raylan’s quip to Markham that he hired mercs who “knew killing but didn’t know crime” tickled my ears. Sounds like Elmore Leonard is still speaking through his main character from the beyond.
  • Rachel hasn’t had much to do this season, but seeing her pick up on Art’s management style with regard to Raylan was a nice touch.

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for excerpts from the his upcoming spoken word album "Scenes From the Amtrak Station: The Life and Death of Choo-Choo Mundo," and for breaking news in the real world.

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