Harlan County may be on its deathbed, but the writing staff over at "Justified" is giving the town one hell of a eulogy, managing to peek back on some of the lives we've stepped in and out of over the years, even in the midst of what's supposed to be Raylan and Boyd's climactic tilt in the withering coal country.
On most other shows, an episode such as "Sounding" would have been a paint-by-numbers race against the clock, with Raylan running all over Harlan to chase down Ava, as she stumbles perilously close to Boyd's line of sight, nearly exposing herself as a rat for the federals.
It would have worked. It would have been a B-plus episode of the show, and we would have eaten it up because Timothy Olyphant, Joelle Carter and Walton Goggins have mastered their roles of rock, hard place and thing caught between.
Instead, "Justified" uses Ava's escape attempt to drag some old friends back into the fray, creating a frantic and fun episode that managed to tie up storylines that were left somewhat unresolved between Seasons 3 and 5.
I wasn't exactly on pins and needles wondering what became of Constable Bob (Patton Oswalt) after his heroic involvement in the Drew Thompson caper in Season 4, and I'd be lying if I told you I'd lost sleep wondering how or if the relationship between Errol and Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) had mended.
But I'm glad "Sounding" went there. By using Ava's escape to show us what happened to some of "Justified's" most beloved and under-utilized secondary characters, we get a fun romp through Harlan's history while smiling through a necessary, but ultimately pointless, piece-moving episode. (Ava's decision to run is a natural character reaction given Katherine Hale's actions last week, but it's too early in the game to take her off the board, so that story had to end with Raylan saving her sight unseen. That was a foregone conclusion.)
Limehouse is always an interesting foe for Raylan, even though the two don't cross paths here, as he's not the kind of antagonist we can easily dislike. He generally puts his ill-gotten gains to good use by caring for an extremely small minority in Harlan, but he won't do anyone any favors unless it profits him. We know Ellstin and Ava have something of a friendly history, but he's none too moved by her current plight until she dangles some money in front of him.
With Ava on the move, Raylan is hamstrung in trying to track her down because his direct involvement will out her as a C.I. This opens the door for the return of Constable Bob, the lovable sidekick who traded in his "go bag" for a nicer ride. The material isn't anything complicated but watching Bob pretend to be the baddest man in town before he desperately drops Errol with a stun gun was amusing enough for me.
In other news, Wynn Duffy finally leaves his hotel to interrogate another guest star from a previous season, the hapless and sexually deprived prison guard Albert Ficus, played by the always marvelous Danny Strong. Our favorite mob underling is a bit "aplexed" (as Mikey might put it) over Ava's prison release, and he has no qualms about using a cattle prod to get the truth out of the diminutive corrections officer. The scene seemed like a strange nod to Constable Bob's last appearance in Season 4, with both characters holding up under torture at a moment when surrendering might have endangered someone else's life.
Albert is another character whom I wouldn't have wasted a second thought on, but his presence here gives Gutterson and Rachel something to do and lets us know the Marshals have gone further than we thought to ensure Ava's protection (Rachel seemed to let on that Ficus has been under police watch for a while now).
This episode hummed along just fine until the closing scene, as Raylan's return home with Ava seemed like a pretty moronic move from a plot standpoint. How're you explaining that one if Boyd is home, dear marshal? Having Ava refer back to their reunion in Season 1, and then freeze Raylan with a kiss like she did the last time she was terrified of Boyd Crowder, was a nice touch, though I'd be a little surprised if Raylan fell for that routine here. We've come a long way from seeing Ava as a damsel in distress, and I'd really hope the show doesn't relegate her to that role again. Here's hoping she's playing our marshal, and a little more hope that he makes her pay for it.
* Maybe the show is continuing to nod to its own history, or maybe I'm just paranoid, but did anyone else wonder if Ava's fried chicken dinner might end in her pointing a hunting rifle at Boyd Crowder, the same way she once felled Bowman long before the show began?
* Maybe one more complaint… We're almost halfway through the final season, and I believe we've only had one scene involving direct conflict between Boyd and Raylan. I know Boyd has been off the beaten path trying to figure out ways into Avery Markham's safe, but I could use a little reminder that these two men are playing a high-stakes game against one another.
* "Choo Choo" is everything Coover Bennett was and more. A big, dumb, monster of an enemy who poses a legitimate physical danger to Raylan. I know I probably shouldn't have laughed as hard as I did at his casual murder of Calhoun Schreier, but … well c'mon? Like you didn't chuckle?