“This Bird Has Flown” is the TV equivalent of one step back and two steps forward. As far as Justified episodes go, it’s a touch on the slow side, and the big fight that would normally cap off an hour spent in Harlan County ends up feeling a little anticlimactic. That’s our step backwards. The two giant leaps in the right direction come in the form of small, insignificant side characters that are expanded upon, and the inclusion of all sorts of little touches that could potentially pay off in huge ways later in the season.
Let’s begin with something that was long overdue: Rachel actually stepping up and becoming a more interesting character. Before, she was a face, a name, and to be honest, very little else outside of one or two fleeting moments of insight, like being uncomfortable as a black woman surrounded by the stereotypical (and virulently racist) white country folks of Harlan, or leaving the husband we’ve never seen in the first place. After “This Bird Has Flown,” we can add something big to that list- she may actually like being around Raylan Givens. Over the past two episodes their rapport has developed enough that she’s comfortable trading a few barbs, and she willingly takes time out of her day to help him track down Lindsey, but she’s also showing the some slight Raylan Givens-like tendencies. Like Raylan, Rachel can back up an ultimatum. If she tells a cockfighter to keep a blade out of her face and he doesn’t take it seriously, he gets a beating (which is something we’ve seen ever since the first episode, as Tommy Bucks would know). She even supplies the trigger-happy Raylan with some extra firepower for his confrontation with Randall.
The catch is, of course, that the shotgun he gets is loaded with beanbags, but that’s where Rachel’s other newly-discovered side comes in: she’s also got the responsible streak that so eludes our protagonist. Because while Rachel will give Raylan a helping hand with his extra-curricular activities, she still leaves when it’s time to either head to work or call in sick. Like Art said last week, Rachel’s still got potential even if Raylan is a hopeless case. Were she to start moving up the chain at the Marshall’s office, Rachel might become a very useful ally for Raylan to have on his side. As wonderful as all this new Rachel info is, it’s all for naught if it doesn’t continue. Here’s hoping that Rachel might just get her own storyline in a future episode.
Both Lindsey and Randall also get a similar boost. Lindsey was always a good fit for Raylan, but she was never the most captivating character, and having her relapse back into her old, crooked ways is a definite improvement. It’s not spectacular, but she does command more of a presence onscreen than she did in earlier outings. Randall, on the other hand, gets a serious overhaul. At the outset of tonight’s episode, Randall’s the same man he always was. Not particularly smart or self-aware, and with no real dreams of grandeur. Over the course of the episode, he becomes more human, bit by bit- stealing a bottle of champagne to celebrate with Lindsey and revealing that his lifelong dream is to manage a team of fighting roosters. He ruins everything pretty early on when he beats up the clerk, but there’s an underlying sweetness to all that criminal activity. Ultimately, Randall’s real goal is just to get back with his ex and follow his dream, and if it wasn’t for his near-constant violence, threats and other illegal matters, he probably would have achieved it. There seem to be good intentions at his core- the problem lies with everything surrounding those intentions. So if Randall never shows up again (which seems fairly certain, less so with Lindsey), he’ll at least have gone out on a more complex note than he came in on.
Sadly, because so much time is spent with Randall and Lindsey in comparison to everyone else, a lot of the dramatic tension and the overall excitement factor is lost. It’s easy to figure out that this story will converge with a Raylan/Randall face-off, and while there are some clever twists thrown in (the beanbag gun and Lindsey being the one to actually finish the fight), there’s only so many ways this situation could end. Sadly, none of them have an enormous impact on the story. Lindsey either stays or goes, and either Randall or Raylan (or, as it turns out, the both of them) take a beating. It almost feels like a means to an end, where the ride is fairly enjoyable, but more so for the ride than for any destination.
Yet oddly enough, it’s the exact opposite for Ellen May. That sneaking suspicion that Ellen May might not make it through this episode is there from the start, and by the time it’s confirmed with a phone call the tension is practically overwhelming. Yet these two setups are perfect parallels- Raylan and Randall’s fight is just as telegraphed as the gunshot that was supposed to have ended Ellen May. So why do they differ so much?
Well, for one thing, the consequences are greater. The respective tones of the Raylan/Rachel and Lindsey/Randall sequences are little lighter and a little more banter-friendly, and ultimately there’s only a minute chance that any of the three participants at the end won’t survive the hour. Ellen May, however, is that perfect mix of “shows up every few episodes” and “not extremely important” that makes the perfect cannon fodder (see: Devil, roughly a year ago). And the majority of the time spent on Boyd’s side of town this week is used to make Ellen May seem as dumb and useless and also as sympathetic as possible. She’s setting herself up to get killed, but it’s hard to blame her- it’s very likely she’s got nowhere else to go. Just hearing her refer to Boyd and Ava’s bar as “home” (which happens on more than one occasion) is heartbreaking enough. As she’s riding with Colton, hands playing in the breeze, overjoyed that she gets to return to the one thing she knows how to do, the amount of dread and desperation and sadness that this show wrings out of a fairly minor background character is hard not to be impressed by. It’s also hard not to draw comparisons to a similar moment in The Sopranos, which may or may not be intentional. In his review over at Hitfix, Alan Sepinwall notes the same homage, but brings up the slimmest of possibilities that Ellen May was faking her excitement in the car, and was cognizant enough to figure things out and run all by herself. Call me naive, but I think Ellen May was genuine. If she wasn’t, the emotional payoff of that car ride would be tainted, in a way.
But no matter what, Ellen May is sure to become another thorn in Boyd Crowder’s side. Like the reveal of Colton Rhodes’ drug use. And whatever else Cassie might have planned to avenge her brother’s death (if anything, really- it seems a bit unclear whether or not she has anything left after her trip to Sheriff Parlow). All these little seeds of trouble will presumably blossom later on in the season, but what’s truly exciting are the hints that Boyd may finally have a part to play in the Drew Thompson mystery. It’s not much to start with: a single shot of Drew Thompson’s name on Shelby’s computer and an indication from the “next time on Justified” that Arlo will be reappearing in next Tuesday’s episode. Shelby is primarily a Boyd-related character and Arlo falls squarely between the two, so with any luck the divide in season four might start to mend next week.
In the meantime, I’ll have to contend myself with donning a Stetson and practicing my draw.