After last week’s barnburner and ahead of next week’s season finale, “Peace of Mind” downshifted a bit to let recent developments breathe and move a few game pieces into place. With Drew Thompson safely ensconced in the clutches of federal law enforcement, the next target in the Great Harlan County Scavenger Hunt of 2013 was Ellen May, the “trailer park bunk bunny” with the “tragic Southern name.” Drew has made her safety a condition of his cooperation; the cops needed to find her so he would play ball, and the criminals needed to find her so he wouldn’t.
So where the Marshals should've been celebrating a victory lap—and where Raylan should’ve been enjoying a hard-earned suspension—they instead ventured once more unto the Harlan breach. Raylan was particularly insistent that he be allowed to tie up this last loose end before being relieved of duty, since what's waiting for him back in civilian life is an estranged ex and their unborn child, domestic concerns that leave him completely out of his depth.
Yet it’s a testament to the way Justified has honed its use of supporting characters this season that neither Raylan nor Boyd was involved in the best stretch in “Peace of Mind,” when all the parties in search of Ellen May converged. She had sought sanctuary and salvation at the erstwhile church of Preacher Billy, and the sequence of events that unfolded there distilled many of the show’s chief strengths into one long, deliberately paced act. The focus and the sources of tension shifted repeatedly without feeling abrupt, and brought a measure of closure to several characters.
I think it’s worth examining the scene as a stylistic contrast to “Decoy.” While that episode demonstrated again how much pleasure Justified can wring not just out of violence but out of the threat of violence, this week’s centerpiece proved equally effective at a far more difficult task: mining drama from the decision-making processes that lead to those threats and that violence.
Ava laid that out quite explicitly. Notwithstanding Ellen May’s assessment of God’s will, it was the choices people made that put both of them (and Cassie) in their situation. And all three of them have long been, to differing extents, more the objects of other people’s choices than masters of their own volition. Boyd and Ava sent Ellen May on the run; Shelby took her in, then delivered her to Limehouse; Limehouse succombed to a pang of mercy, leaving her free but adrift. Cassie was only in Harlan to receive Ellen May’s confession because she was carrying on her brother’s legacy; “he was the true believer,” she admitted. Ava, too, has often followed in the wake of a more determined will, her actions guided by total faith in Boyd.
But there in the church, all three had the chance to do, as Ava emphasized, what was right in their hearts, fully aware of the consequences. Ellen May, whose defining naivety had curdled into a weary fatalism after so many betrayals and manipulations, at last unburdened her soul. Cassie, whose role in Billy’s evangelizing had been at least partially cynical, stood strong with a lost girl who had no place else to go. And for all her criminal activity and adjacency to the same, for all the damage her former charge could do to her, Ava was unwilling to become a cold-blooded killer.
Hence Colt’s presence as the backup plan, because Ellen May still posed a threat to both Boyd and the Detroit mob. Narratively speaking, Ellen May was expendable enough to be in very real danger throughout the episode, so the stakes never faltered even as the center of gravity shifted. With Ava holding the gun, the tension stemmed from an internal, character-based source; with Limehouse’s rueful warning still ringing in her ears, how much of a villain would she let herself be? When Colt arrived, the crux of the danger became an external, plot-oriented one: He would ice her without breaking a sweat unless something intervened.
Intervention arrived in the form of Tim, and the locus of the tension seamlessly shifted once more as these two by-now-old foes squared off a final time. Inverting their rapid-fire battle of wits in “Decoy,” this was a duel of pure nerve. But once the name of Tim’s murdered buddy was invoked, the outcome was all but sealed. Tim, with retribution as much as justice behind his eyes, was determined to squeeze the trigger at the slightest provocation. Colt, whose assessment that “most of [Mark] died somewhere in Kandahar” carried a whiff of projection, was determined to provoke.
Amid routine (but routinely funny) Justified motions—cops rousting criminals for information, criminals rousting other criminals for information—“Peace of Mind” trusted its crescendo to a mostly verbal setpiece among two of the show’s less developed regulars and three recurring characters. That’s a daunting feat for any series to pull off, especially in a season’s penultimate episode, and it's a mighty feat that Graham Yost, credited writers Taylor Elmore and Leonard Chang, and director Gwyneth Horder-Payton did so in such a rewarding fashion.
As a result, Ellen May enjoyed a warm, if brief, reunion with her ersatz father figure Drew—chaperoned by Raylan, who couldn’t help but feel stung by his own paternal insecurities. With Drew’s deal on track at long last, the Marshal can turn his attention to his personal life. But so too can Detroit, as Nicky’s man Picker infiltrated Winona’s home in perhaps TV history’s most nerve-wracking cliffhanger based around a rocking chair. The object of Theo Tonin’s revenge appears to have shifted. After this week’s wary, meditative installment, the finale looks set to once again ratchet up the threat level.
POSTCARDS FROM HARLAN COUNTY
– Kudos to Abby Miller. Her character began in a space somewhere between comic relief and hapless innocent, but this episode demanded a quiet, disarming pathos and she delivered.
– My second-favorite scene of the episode was the confrontation on the porch of the barbecue shack. I loved the way the blocking and framing put Raylan right in the midst of Limehouse and his muscle, while setting the other two Marshals starkly apart. And I loved how Rachel decisively slapped down yet another man who thought he can size her up easily.
– Seriously, did anyone else think that rocker was going to, like, explode or something when Winona sat down?
– “What’s the matter with you, Raylan? Are you not used to positive attention?”
– Rachel demanded to know what we were all wondering: “Does this mean you’re finally getting a haircut?” And Raylan promptly shot us all down: “Don’t hold your breath.”
– Art thinks Julia Roberts looks too much like Eric, albeit with better legs.
– “You know, suspendees don’t get to choose when they get suspended. That would be ‘vacation.’”
– “Don’t you know how to win? Can’t you enjoy anything?”
– “It’s Everybody Wins Day here at Johnny’s bar. Everybody except Johnny.”
– “I’m gonna need Google Translate on my phone if I’m gonna keep talking to you.”
– “He’s gonna back me up, I’ve got to put my boot up your ass out here in front of everybody.”
– “Did you not wake up this morning thinking today was another opportunity to mess up some bad guy’s day? I did.”
– “Don’t do that. Don’t even think about that. That ain’t gonna end well for you.”
– “It’s my job, being a dick. It’d be weird if you liked me.”’
– “Good plan. Small problem.”
– “I guess I’ll quit today.”
– “He’s still lookin’ out for you. Else none of us would be here.”
– Thanks to Tim for asking me to fill in this week. He'll be back next week to wrap up Season 4.