A good TV mystery is hard to come by. Even a mediocre TV mystery is still a rare find these days (although maybe that’s just because weaker examples like AMC’s The Killing are better off forgotten). So a mystery that actually has some teeth to it tends to gravitate towards the top of the TV pack- especially so when it comes from a show not normally known for whodunits.
And the story unfolding within Justified‘s fourth season has more than its share of teeth. There’s not a whole lot of new information unveiled within “Where’s Waldo?,” but manner in which those sparse clues are unveiled and the air of mystery embedded in every plot thread of the episode is marvelously done.
The prize at the end of “Where’s Waldo” is one juicy new lead: the identity of Waldo Truth. It turns out that Waldo was the poor soul last seen pancaked on a stretch of pavement twenty years ago, and the real pilot, Drew Thompson, presumably had a hand in Waldo’s untimely demise. It’s certainly a start for Raylan and the rest of the Marshals, but it’s by no means a particularly big reveal. And it shouldn’t be- this early on in the season, the focus should be on building anticipation towards the case, with the bigger steps towards an answer saved up for later.
That anticipation comes not from Raylan’s actual storyline in this episode, but rather from the little elements of mystery peppered into the rest of the hour. Obviously, part of that intrigue comes from watching Raylan start to move closer to the answer behind the dead parachuter, but the pieces with Boyd and Lindsey’s surprise husband are filled with unanswered questions that add to the overall mysterious atmosphere, and each one functions in a different way. With Raylan, the unanswered questions exist for both the person on TV and the person watching- Raylan and those at home are trying to piece together the same thing. With Boyd, things are more localized within the viewer. Boyd’s fairly certain that Preacher Billy and his sister are just after money, but in his play to divine the leader of the two he might still be curious about the exact details of their game. But on TV (especially well-written TV), things are never as simple as they seem, and while the mystery exists both in character and viewer, it’s much stronger in the latter. With Lindsey’s spouse, things change completely- the way he’s presented, there’s no real question about his identity to anyone but the viewer. Raylan assumes he’s a common thug until the final moments of the episode, and those taking bets on his fight don’t particularly care about his identity outside the ring. But presenting a character without any kind of established identity into a TV show that’s been running for four years is bound to kick up a few questions. “Who is this guy and why should we care?” come to mind. Thus, the entire episode builds momentum, as every nearly scene contains some form of unanswered question. Through creating three different questions on three different levels (and even outright answering one at the end of the hour), that momentum stays fresh without breaking a constant forward stride.
Yet there are other things to look at in “Where’s Waldo?” besides mystery, of course. Something that sticks out is in Raylan’s story- while the comedic tone of the premiere is significantly lessened without an appearance from Patton Oswalt, traces of it still linger in the Marshal’s confrontation with the Truth family. The family’s obsession with an illicit bonus check, the youngest Truth squealing “pervert!” and drawing a gun that’s practically bigger than he is, the matron’s lewd stories of dating and of a scar on Waldo’s nether regions- the Truths may not be as outright jokey as Constable Bob, but their presence is not what you would call gripping drama. Although, there may be something to the kiss that the elder Truths share- the camera gives it plenty of attention, and afterward Mother Truth is highlighted wiping a hand across her mouth. Too much spit, or was she concealing something that her new husband passed to her through a kiss? Either way, you add in some Elmore Leonard-style fast-paced dialogue between the Marshals themselves, and the fact that the Truths are so outgunned by the Marshals that any standoff between the two would be an easy victory, and Raylan’s part in this episode flows at a much more leisurely pace then the other elements. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it does mean that the Raylan material tends to be overshadowed by everything else.
Especially so by Boyd’s continuing conflict with the local church. Once again, Justified goes straight for the public-speaking-as-power dynamic, but this time with some direct competition. At this point, it may be a bit hard to discern just who came out on top when Boyd and Billy had their battle of the bible verses, as both of them seemed to get what they want. Boyd gets confirmation that Billy’s sister is running things behind the scenes (although her real role in the congregation has yet to be explicitly shown), while Billy gets to appear Christ-like in creating a peaceful solution to Boyd’s confrontation while simultaneously denying funds to his own church out of the goodness of his heart. On paper, it would appear that Boyd is losing this battle. Despite getting the information he needed, Boyd still comes off as the loser to the churchgoers, coming off as an attacker while Billy comes off as gracious. Further still, Billy’s own offensive, in the form of children bearing church flyers, has yet to be returned in kind. So when Boyd tries to strike up an alliance with the Dixie Mafia only to wind up with a hostage full of bullets, it’s hard to see Boyd on anything but a losing streak. Still, he does end “Where’s Waldo?” with one small victory: a tentative deal with Wynn Duffy regarding Arlo’s most recent murder.
Inching Boyd towards the real motives of that killing, and with it, the season’s primary mystery, is something that absolutely needs to happen for this season to be a total success. The biggest (and one of the only) drawbacks to last season was the gulf between Boyd’s gang and everyone else, and if this Boyd/Wynn Duffy information swap ends up tying every plot thread together, it’ll serve as absolute proof of Graham Yost’s ability as a showrunner, and one who can recognize and fix any mistakes made along the way. Other aspects have started to improve as well since the season started, like the quality of the cinematography and the increase of parallel ideas and clever transitions (note the money being stored being stored in Raylan’s sock drawer and Boyd’s ceiling last week, two simultaneous bar deliveries this week, and a fun match cut between a punch thrown and a punch received).
Plus, keeping the focus on the series’ mainstay characters is already starting to pay off. That overwhelming vacuum that a brand new “big bad” can create in a show (leaving only the scraps for the regulars) is gone, and the newbies are just given enough time to develop without encroaching on the real players of Harlan. Lindsey’s husband is only given two quick scenes on his own (the other two times he pops up are at the tail end of scenes that develop Raylan and LIndsey’s rapport), yet it’s more than enough to demonstrate him as someone who’s a slight cut above the scoundrels Raylan usually deals with. He’s still brainless enough to casually threaten a US Marshal, but with an incredibly powerful physical presence. An enemy whose strengths are purely physical rather than strategic is a rare find on Justified, at least when it comes to villains that last more than an episode. One of the few with any real presence was Coover, who still had the significant disadvantage of being astoundingly dumb.
And the reveal of Lindsey’s husband does feel a bit on the weak side, if only because two scenes without anything to anchor him into the rest of the show create the impression that he’s being set up to appear at the last minute with some kind of revelation. And then he does. Yet it’s not the cliffhanger that makes waiting for next week’s Justified such a chore. It’s the forty-one minutes that came before it.