One week after the gunfight that led to Choo-Choo's last stand, "Justified" chose to slow things dramatically with "The Hunt," an episode loaded with talking, talking … and more talking … that cements the stakes for the series' final chapter. And it worked, sort of.
We know what Raylan and Boyd are fighting for in the series' final chapter. The marshal wants to settle in with his daughter, wherever and however that may happen, and Boyd wants Ava and the means to provide for her somewhere outside of Harlan. We haven't seen Winona all season, and Ava's loyalties have been far from certain, so we needed an episode like "The Hunt" to let the viewer know Raylan and Boyd were fighting for prizes they can win.
But where the Boyd-Ava scenes crackled with tension, Raylan and Winona's chatter was warming but ultimately forgettable, out of step with the desperate tenor of the rest of the episode. I'm a big fan of Natalie Zea, and of the larger Raylan-Winona relationship, but the payoff of their conversations seemed like a foregone conclusion.
We've gone around this topic a few times, with Winona unable to handle Raylan's lifestyle, or able to handle it before the gunslinger pushes her away as he did in the Season 2 finale. While I enjoyed her monologue about finally being able to push past her reservations and dive head first into Raylan's life, especially her line about how he could be with her and be himself, ultimately knowing the destination made the journey less fun.
Giving Raylan a second chance at a life with Winona seems like a necessary raise of the stakes, but I could've done without the concussive force of Raylan's baby daughter screaming in my ear the whole episode. Zea and Timothy Olyphant have great chemistry, and watching Raylan drop his guard is always entertaining, but I don't know if I needed to see this much of it.
Ultimately, I spent the Raylan-Winona scenes waiting to get back to Boyd and Ava's hunting trip. Watching Boyd bide his time and poke and prod Ava about loyalty and commitment until playing his ace card was mesmerizing, and Walton Goggins continues to present Crowder as beyond conflicted. Even though he had complete control of the situation, he seemed desperate to play this trip off as something sweet and romantic, constantly avoiding asking the questions he had to ask. The closing shot of Boyd swapping the empty magazine out of his handgun was especially poignant, letting us know that he was still testing Ava during the hunt, and maybe now still doesn't trust her as he jams live rounds into the weapon.
The end result of Boyd-Ava's pork dinner also adds another layer of confusion to the already complicated Raylan-Boyd-Ava relationship. The lady was just barely holding it together as Raylan's snitch, so how do you think her mental state will fare working as Boyd's double agent? Beyond that, can I believe anything out of Ava's mouth?
I'm not entirely sure she didn't sleep with Raylan, and I'm not entirely sure she meant all the parts of her declaration of love for Boyd. That scene was earnest and painful (especially Ava's more than valid complaints about how Boyd didn't rescue her from prison when he had the leverage to do so), but I have to wonder if Ava is keeping one in the chamber the same way her boyfriend is.
With the bulk of the episode devoted to those two relationships, there wasn't much room for the Ty Walker manhunt, but we got enough time to see Garrett Dillahunt perform truck stop restroom surgery and execute two paramedics, which seems to ensure the crazed mercenary and Raylan will be standing in a swirl of gun smoke real soon. Dillahunt has always handled crazy extremely well (For the "Burn Notice" fans, how could we forget Simon Escher?), and I'm definitely excited for the coming showdown. We also got to see Avery Markham and Art stare at one another, which basically boiled down to Sam Elliot and Nick Searcy trying to be cooler than one another. Sam won this exchange, by the way.
In short, "The Hunt" was probably one of this season's weaker offerings, only because the Raylan-Winona scenes were a drag. But bad episodes of "Justified" are like bad pizza. It's still pizza.
(Personal note – I'm from New York, so that statement is true. You Angelenos have trapped me with crud pizza on numerous occasions, so maybe you want to imagine taco trucks in the above analogy).
-- Erica Tazel hasn't had much to do this season, but she made the most of her time in "The Hunt," between slapping down the old boys' club notion that she can't make cracks about male genitalia in the field and dismissing Raylan from her office when she received a phone call, as if to say, "we aren't playing by Art's rules here."
-- The Markham scene fit nicely into the relationship tension of the episode, even though Katherine Hale was nowhere to be found. I am surprisingly invested in finding out who snitched on Grady.
-- Don't take the money, Seabass! The loyalty and friendship of the mercenary crew has been a nice emotional pull that has made Walker and Choo-Choo far more layered than some previous Justified heavies, and I'd hope the sergeant doesn't turn on Ty so easily next week.