If it wasn't the best episode of the season, last night's installment of Justified was damn close. "Coalition," the penultimate episode of the series' hot-and-cold third season, was the most artful way of encapsulating what it's been trying to do all season long: throw all these colorful Harlan characters into a box, shake the whole thing up, and get out the popcorn.
Every weasel in the county converged on a common prize: Mags' missing fortune ($3.2 million!). Some (Limehouse) knew where it was, everyone else didn't, and elaborate schemes were set up, creating the most complicated and dangerous game of hide-and-seek ever. But these hillbillies are smarter than your average yokel, so nothing was as simple as it seemed and a huge chunk of the episode was watching all these parties try and stay one step ahead of each other as the dash for the cash escalated from power walk to Olympic sprint.
It's pretty pointless to recap the stages of the hunt, as the bulk of it was misdirection and misinformation, action and reaction, and cause and effect. The joy from the plot came from watching it unfold as those that were perceived to be in last place jumped into first place and vice versa several times over hte course of the episode. It was like a game of hillbilly Mario Kart with inside tips playing the role of banana peels and broken alliances as good as a flying turtle shell.
In the end, the money was with Loretta all along at the behest of Mags who wanted to set her up for life. While I have problems with Limehouse agreeing not to take 3.2 million from a little girl (he's a philanthropist now?), at least the cash ended up in the right place. In case you're wondering, Justified creator Graham Yost said that is the end of the money storyline and it won't factor into next week's finale.
But just because the money is out of the picture, it doesn't mean these men have stopped wanting to strangle each other. Boyd, Quarles, Wynn, and Limehouse still have no interest in giving up their share of the Harlan drug pie. Wynn planned on blowing up Quarles, Quarles planned on taking out Boyd for Limehouse, Boyd planned on taking out Quarles, and the cops planned on cuffing anyone. But when Quarles arrived at Boyd's and the guns were almost drawn, Wynn triggered the bomb just a tad too early (or too late), and the one who was left with a bullet in him was Officer Tom, Raylan's friend.
The interesting part of this scene is we never actually saw Quarles take the shot on Tom. Tom had him squared up in his sights, and Quarles' sleeve gun was already out. I don't see how Quarles could have shot him despite what Johnny told the authorities. I'm going with the third gunman theory here, and would not be surprised if the smoking gun was in Arlo's hand. Arlo's been having senior moments all over the place, and he might be after the prize that is Quarles' live body. Quarles is worth 200 large alive to Sammy Tonin, and Arlo, who scenes before pulled a gun on Ava, knows this. If Justified has taught me anything, it's that it helps to come up with hare-brained theories when accurately predicting where this is going to go.
But if there is a problem with "Coalition," it's that the set up for the finale seems like we're back to square one. The search for the money didn't end up being the big story for the season as we thought it had been set up to be over the last few episodes. And that's been the weakness of this season. Instead of having one prime focus, Season 3 has mostly been about Quarles coming into Harlan and messing things up for everyone else in smaller doses. These other diversions–Mags' money, the sheriff's race, the oxy drug trade, the set-up on Raylan–have been just that, diversions. We've been pulled in so many directions that we've never had time to concentrate on a greater story. All these characters we’ve met and these small stories told have been fantastic, but at some point piling on more does the overall story more harm than good. We have tons of gravy, but not enough mashed potatoes! When you look at Season 3 from afar, it doesn't pack the same punch that the much more focused Season 2 did.
Postcards from Harlan County
– That scene in the trailer with Quarles in a kimono handing Oxy freebase hits through a shotgun to the whores should go down as one of the five best scenes in Justified history. I don't know if you've ever seen the film Narc, but there was some similar drug administering via shotgun going on in that, except with less successful results.
– So much great dialogue in this episode, probably the best of the season. Napier: "You get a chance to put some bullets in that toe-headed son of a bitch, it sure would be nice if he knew one of them came from me." Whore #1: "The movie with the old people where they go to outer space?" Jimmy the henchman: "We got paying customers inside waiting on mouths to get in there and blow them!" Limehouse: "That's funny how that money brings together all them wayward personalities." Loretta: "Marshal, do I strike you in any way as a Van Halen fan?" And my favorite, Quarles: "Who's next on the shotgun train?"
– Who else froze up when Dickie stepped foot in Boyd's bar? And how about that scene with the plastic bag? Great choice there.
– I was pretty taken aback when Arlo, in the heat of the moment, called Boyd "Raylan" and didn't even correct himself. That's when I knew he was off his rocker. However, do we really need another show playing the imaginary character card?
– Where did Boyd end up in that final scene? He was knocked out by the blast (or by running headfirst into a pole as a result of the blast to be exact) but we didn't see him when the cops showed up to the scene. Could Quarles have taken him?
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom