Justified is a peculiar animal. It manages to be smarter, faster and more enjoyable than the vast majority of its competitors, but at heart, it’s still a cop show. And even a cop show that’s been flexing its creative muscles as of late (like Justified has) still runs the risk of falling back into old, easy habits. For “Foot Chase,” it’s the peaks-and-valleys pacing that plagued the year or two spent in Harlan County- one episode errs on the slow side, laying out all kinds of narrative pieces but without any real thrills of its own, and then the following episode explodes out of the gate thanks to everything that was set up last time. The pattern then continues for vast stretches of episodes at a time. Setting things up and paying them off down the road is crucial to any good story, but never when repeated the same way so many times.
Thus, “Foot Chase” isn’t the most memorable episode of Justified to ever air, especially when compared to the episode that came before and the bombshell that’s sure to go off next week. Despite hinging around Raylan and Boyd’s frantic search for Drew Thompson, the hour moves at a leisurely pace, barring a few moments of sickening gore (with the premiere’s throat-slitting, the snakebite, and now this, Justified is really pushing how much of the red stuff FX will allow onscreen), and there are as many character moments that end up leading nowhere as there are that end up somewhere poignant. It’s admirable that the creative team keeps pushing incidental characters like Tim and Rachel towards something with a little more dramatic heft, but Tim’s attempt to carry his own little sequence just didn’t hold up. Boyd and the gang could wander down some odd tangent that had nothing to do with the series’ major plot arcs (and did so numerous times), but it still felt important due to the weight of the characters and the story. Both Tim and the tale of his strung-out friend are still too one-note to add anything of real value to the world of Harlan, with the odd mutual respect/ impending showdown between Tim and Colton standing out as the lone bright spot. Colton himself is also a victim of underdevelopment. Yes, he’s progressing nicely in a way that Tim isn’t, but everything Colton’s doing- falling back on hard drugs, growing increasingly violent and unstable- is eerily reminiscent of what Robert Quarles was doing a year ago. Surely Colton’s path will diverge with time, but six episodes in he feels like a fresh coat of paint on a previously-used character.
Thankfully, even a weaker episode of Justified has an enormous amount of good in it, if not in the action then in the themes hidden within. Last week’s “Kin” hinted at the idea of Raylan and Boyd as brothers, through their mutual revulsion for their fathers and for the camaraderie those fathers shared, and “Foot Chase” leads both characters down their own path defined by a lack of a positive male influence. For Raylan, it’s the team-up with Sheriff Shelby. Not only was this pairing the highlight of the episode (solely for the chemistry Timothy Olyphant and Jim Beaver share), but Shelby is the father figure Raylan has so sorely needed. Shelby sets boundaries when Raylan’s methods get a little too gung-ho. He pushes Raylan down a path of smart police work rather than violence and intimidation. And when Shelby tells Raylan of his past exploits, it’s not Shelby’s ability to take a hit from a car and still take down a perp that’s so impressive, but rather that Shelby has had the ability to do that all along and still hasn’t fired his gun in decades. There’s no telling how long this partnership will last, but if Raylan is ever to grow out of his overzealous cowboy nature, there’s no better way than under the tutelage of the wise old sheriff.
Boyd’s big moment of the hour was clearly his proposal to Ava. It seems like every TV show to have ever aired has at one point done either the wedding storyline or the pregnancy storyline (something Justified wasn’t immune to), but the motivations behind these nuptials have much more to say than “the writers ran out of ideas.” Despite what any single episode might suggest, Boyd Crowder might not actually be the most capable of criminals. He has his minor victories, but Justified spends considerably more time reveling in the constant failings of his criminal enterprise. Unlike, for example, Walter White, whose successes on Breaking Bad define him as a character (nearly all of the most memorable moments on AMC’s program come from Walter coming back from brink of failure to obliterate his opposition), Boyd Crowder’s moments of triumph don’t paint him as an all-powerful figure so much as a man who’s barely held onto the status quo. Even as he finally gains a place of dominance over the Harlan County, every one of his key capos (Ava, Johnny, Colton) are on the brink of either quitting or tearing the entire crew to pieces.
When compared to Raylan, it’s easy to see Boyd as falling short of success. Yet while Raylan may win out in the dominant male action star department, Boyd is far an away the better family man. Whereas Raylan’s leapt from woman to woman throughout the series, Boyd and Ava maintained their relationship through violence and gang warfare. Raylan tries to support the child he never planned on having, but only gives his nest egg the thought required to throw it in his sock drawer and marvels when it’s stolen. Boyd, on the other hand, stashes his cash above ceiling tiles and in lockboxes, and has the foresight to start saving before he actually has any children. Raylan’s rebellion from his father extends only to Raylan, while Boyd’s extends through children, grandchildren and future Crowders us in the real world will never ever see.
This brings up a couple of important questions, of course: namely, if Boyd is really be able to leave his life behind, what happens to his place on the show? I sincerely doubt that we’d see a Justified where Boyd was written off after four seasons (although stranger things have happened- Boardwalk Empire comes to mind), so it’s likely the bulk of this newfound character depth may be forgotten. It’s a shame. Even in an episode that meanders as much as “Foot Chase” does, Justified is one of the few shows on television with enough under the surface to really make you think.
Which is something the vast majority of TV these days can’t do.