There was a whole lot to like in tonight's episode of Justified, a chest-compressing hour that turned a manhunt into what would have been, had it been real, the country's biggest news story of the day. It's not often that little Harlan County finds itself on the national map, but the events in "Decoy" would have begged CNN to stop airing water-skiing squirrel videos and send down a fleet of news vans. Let's recap the madness that would leave Wolf Blitzer hyperventilating: Some heavily armed Detroit mobsters cruising around in helicopters pinned down federal marshals in order to exact revenge on a known felon at the heart of a 30-year-old cold case. And when you think about it, all "Decoy" did was get Drew out of town. Yet it was easily one of the most entertaining episodes of Justified this season, and in the running for one of the series' best.
But the best thing about "Decoy" was that, despite the extraordinary circumstances and helicopters and molotov cocktails and IEDs and giant friggin' guns, the episode was unequivocally an hour's worth of everything we love about Justified. The familiar, lighthearted lobs of eloquent spoken word and "gosh I wish I had thought of that" zingers didn't stop just because everyone was one trigger squeeze away from a massacre. Quite the opposite. "Decoy" was stuffed with the type of top-notch dialogue that we—greedy little mugs that we are–somehow expect the show to deliver each week, even as the writers are conjuring magic from their fingertips. Tim and Colt's phone-conversation-slash-writers'-workshop was worth the price of admission alone (Colt: "I would like a young Gerard Depardieu to play me in the movie. I'm honored." Are you f'ing kidding me? Outstanding!), and it earns a spot right up there with the best chats of the season. Up top, Graham Yost and Chris Provenzano, you guys wrote an amazing episode.
Yet the laughs only added to everything else that was being built up instead of detracting from it. Humor is often used to break tension, but the wit in "Decoy" was laser focused on never letting us relax. I can take just about any scene as an example of this, but the best would probably be Constable Bob (Patton Oswalt) getting his face terraformed by psycho mob lackey and frat dirtbag Yolo in order to give up the whereabouts of Drew Thompson. The brutality of this scene left bruises on MY soul, mostly because seeing one of my favorite comedians get treated like a piece of angus in a Rocky movie in such devastating fashion was difficult to watch.
But Bob wasn't going out like 80/20 ground beef, he was tougher than a two-buck steak. Between punches and wafts of Axe body spray, Yolo (still funny) would shout "Where's Drew?" To which Bob would reply something along the lines of, "You mean that doctor on TV?" Or "Like Nancy Drew?" But dammit if I didn't lose it when Bob said, "Drewbacca," not as a question or answer, but as a rebellious challenge to BRING IT ON, FRAT BOY. It's the kind of scene that's so hard to watch, yet screams to be watched over and over again. Your soul will bruise, but your sides will split also. Watching this scene back-to-back is like doing 30 minutes of core training. Also: Bob is so badass I can't stand it. And he did it without his Go Bag.
But "Decoy" was quintessential Justified, and it can't be a quintessential episode of Justified without it being really about Raylan and Boyd. The hunt for Drew between the marshal service and the mobsters was entirely orchestrated by Raylan and Boyd, and once again it was their deep roots in Harlan that trumped everything else. These two have been friends or something else ever since they were teens, and their mutual admiration and disdain for each other comes from some weird psychic connection between the two to the point that they can get into each others' heads as easy as they can get into trouble. "Decoy" was move-countermove between Boyd and Raylan while everyone else played their pawns, and the fact that the critical moment of their game came from their old high-school days only deepened their legend and history.
That's what Justified is doing, building legends. Raylan and Boyd will live long after Justified is off the air the way other classic television characters have found life off the screen. And the more episodes like "Decoy" there are, the further those legends will travel. An outstanding episode of Justified, but still probably a hair behind the emotional and violent "Outlaw" for the season's best.
POSTCARDS FROM HARLAN COUNTY
– I had one beef with the episode, which I also brought up last week. Would mobsters REALLY take on federal marshals for simple revenge? Is Theo Tonin THAT insane that he would put his whole operation at risk just to get back at Drew? Although I guess the man screams into a severed ear when he's upset, so I guess so. There's a reason wise guys kill cops as a last resort, and tonight's events came very close to ending with a whole pile of dead cops. And it wasn't like they were being sneaky about it, either. This distracted me at first, but once I got past it, "Decoy" took off like a rocket.
– However: This sets up a perfect situation that could be lifted out of Elmore Leonard's novels. Both sides were willing to go as far as they had to in order to get what they wanted, and both sides wanted to avoid the bloodbath and the inevitable repercussions. The resulting display of strength was actually very cordial; as soon as the mob knew they'd lost, they took off.
– YOLO. Oh my. This guy... so great. One of my favorite single-episode baddies Justified has ever produced. He's so unlikable, yet so real. And it was so perfect that Raylan could never get his name right. Raylan probably doesn't even know what LOL means.
– Art: "Nobody smokes? This is Kentucky, not Sausalito, what's wrong with you people?" And then the, "I thought you were gonna throw it" miscommunication with Tim. Too funny. Tim + Art is just slightly behind Tim + Raylan.
– Mike O'Malley plays a great Nick Augustine, but sheesh that guy's an asshole. And a stupid one, too. From a business perspective, I'm not sure the way he was talking to Ava was very smart. If it gets back to Theo that he almost blew a deal by talking about how Ava blew, it could mean curtains for him. And exposing Johnny's plan to take over Boyd's turf doesn't help the immediate goal of getting Drew, either.
– Johnny's in love with Ava? Is crushing on her in the Crowder blood?
– HOUSEKEEPING: After about 12 years of sitting at my desk, I'm actually going on vacation and won't be around to cover next week's episode. However, I should be back in time for the finale... though I might be so jet-lagged that it will feel like the day after the finale so maybe I will write a review of it FROM THE FUTURE.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter if you want to: @TimAtTVDotCom