Justified 'Cash Game' recap: Two ends against the middle

Justified 'Cash Game' recap: Two ends against the middle
Ava (Joelle Carter) keeps playing a dangerous game between Boyd and Raylan in "Cash Game." (FX)

For a town supposedly on its death bed, Harlan County sure has a bunch of people interested in its future.

After a premiere that seemed interested in laying the track for the Raylan-Boyd confrontation that appears destined to mark the end of "Justified," Tuesday night's "Cash Game" takes a minute to introduce us to faux-property baron Ty Walker and his band of ex-military goons, a crew who could easily put Raylan or Boyd in the ground long before they can finish their own rivalry.

"Cash Game" is a perfectly adequate episode of "Justified," but it really stands out to me for repairing two of Season 5's largest flaws. The fleshed-out introductions to Walker, his child-brained leg breaker "Choo Choo," and Sam Elliot's crime boss character do plenty to erase the stain left by the Crowe clowns from last year, while Ava's dangerous game of pinball between Raylan and Boyd make her scenes instantly tense and engaging, a complete 180 from last year's prison storyline.

Walker isn’t the first outsider to come into Harlan hoping to make a nickel off the town’s presumed backwater residents, and Garrett Dillahunt’s constant shifts between charm and frenzy definitely evoke the composure-turned-chaos that marked Neal McDonough’s performance as Season 3 bad guy Robert Quarles.

Much like Quarles, Walker's impatience with Harlan's populace is by turns entertaining and terrifying. His bubbling frustration at being unable to buy a home early on in "Cash Game" is worth a snicker, while his persistence in questioning the bank manager about Calhoun Schrier's safe box is entirely unnerving as the poor woman seems to want to shrink into her car and disappear at the simple suggestion that Walker might actually enter her home.

He's the right mix of menacing and entertaining, while the idea of Raylan contending with a trio of ex-soldiers instantly raises the danger factor for our marshal. I spent most of Season 5 yawning at the Crowes, who were just unworthy enemies for Raylan to put down, but the combination of Choo-Choo's freakish size and Walker's seemingly vicious streak make the folks at Tiger Hawk Security an instantly credible threat.

Moving from allegiances we understand to allegiances we don't, the show has done a great job of making me sympathize with Ava's plight through the first two episodes of the season. Gulpin' Wild Turkey at sunrise, twitching at even a slight breeze, the former Mrs. Crowder is a quivering disaster as Raylan's informant, able to compose herself only long enough to possibly dig her own grave by landing back in Boyd's web.

It's not entirely clear whether Ava is playing Raylan, Boyd or both men until she can find a road out of Harlan that doesn't lead her toward a bullet or a jail cell, and I imagine her shifting loyalties will weigh heavily on the close of the rivalry between the marshal and Crowder.

Her actions have also produced an interesting series of reactions from the two leading men. During face-to-face meetings with Ava, Raylan seems almost indifferent to the risks she's taking, coaching her on how to play double agent when necessary but otherwise shrugging off her panic at realizing Boyd may have been testing her by leaving the ledger in the shed.

Boyd, on the other hand, seems caught between his love for Ava and his insecurity about her release from prison. Sure, he's ready to run away to Iceland if it makes her smile, and he's more than happy with her discovery in the episode's closing scenes, but that image of him leering over her sleeping form seemed to be closest to Boyd's unguarded opinion of his lady love.

Two episodes, two wins for "Justified" so far. It seems as if the show has found its footing again, and while that probably bodes ill for some of the show's main characters as we head toward the finish line, it's certainly great for the viewer.

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