TV shows don’t take risks. That may sound like an over-generalization, but ultimately it’s the way things work. Television is a business, and unlike its sister medium of film, there’s no independent TV where artists are given free reign over their own creative work. Programs need to pull in high enough ratings to draw in advertisers, and if a show can’t pull the numbers it gets axed (this is true even with cable TV, which receives only the slightest fraction of the ratings broadcast networks pull in- just look at FX’s Terriers, a show that ran circles around all but three or four other shows airing at the time, but was still cancelled after its first season due to abysmal ratings). With this in mind, any time a TV show stumbles upon some kind of successful formula, everyone involved tends to latch on for dear life. Justified is a shining example of just such a series. Insert a new villain with a shot of country flavor, build that villain an empire, have that empire crumble away at the end of the season, kill villain, then start anew next year. Add a few self-contained fugitive-hunting episodes and some witty banter and you’re left with entertaining (and wildly successful) television.
Understanding this kind of context is what makes an episode like “Kin” so special. The creative team behind this show have themselves a golden ticket, a veritable Dexter, Weeds, House or any other clever idea that can be milked for profit long after the creative udders are long dry. “Kin” is a reinvention. It’s an incredibly risky venture, but one that’s handled with a confident, steady hand even as it vaults from plot twist to plot twist.
Of all the developments occurring over the course of the hour, the biggest impact by far is on the Drew Thompson mystery. It’s barely even a mystery anymore at this point- by now, we know that Thompson either witnessed Theo Tonin commit a murder or stole from Tonin, then shot him in the eye (or maybe both, or maybe neither), set up Waldo Truth to take the fall, then split the proceeds between himself, Bo Crowder and Arlo Givens. Other than that inciting incident, the pieces seem to be more or less in place, and the mystery seems to have lost a little bit of it’s luster. Which is fine- a Raylan vs Boyd race-against-a-ticking-clock manhunt is, frankly, even more exciting. With this development, Justified breaks new ground. Gone is the typical slow build that leads to chaos in the last three or four episodes the season, the usual unending divide between what Raylan and Boyd’s stories are headed, the slow Southern lilt of the show’s pacing. With previous seasons of Justified, I was excited to see how each arc would build to its inevitable final confrontation- with this season, I’m excited because in all seriousness I have no idea where this story is heading. While some remnants of Justified‘s usual pacing still linger (last week’s slower episode builds to a payoff this week, a pattern that repeated itself consistently throughout the tail end of season three), it’s unclear how these thirteen episode are going to climax, or if this manhunt will last the rest of the season or become something else after one or two episodes.
Because while I might adore “Kin,” it does burn plenty of bridges. Lindsey and Randall are not much more than a distant memory, and Cassie and Billy seem to have existed solely to set up Sheriff Parlow and Ellen May to launch their own assault against the Crowder clan (a reveal that caught me completely off guard- one wouldn’t expect an episode that upends the entire structure of the show to keep laying on the plot twists like it does). Even the character development that’s been one of the high points of the season so far takes a little dip. Tim’s inclusion is nice, but it’s not the groundbreaking stuff we saw with Rachel last week.
Still, if some plot threads seem neglected, it’s only because “Kin” spends so much time atoning for the few weak spots in the first act of the season. The introduction of the manhunt is given a great big exclamation point in Agent Barkley’s murder. There’s no melodrama, no overzealous reveal of Barkley being corrupt; he simply appears off to the side of the frame, already chatting up the Dixie Mafia. His death follows suit with a sudden, casual burst of gore. Like we saw in “Truth and Consequences,” the “corrupt cop forced to confront the evil he’s been aiding” is a situation ripe with cliche, yet this scene, having made no attempt to draw things out or wring extra tension from the situation, never becomes trite. Barkley was a bad guy all along, and now he’s dead. Simple, straightforward, and free of cliche. The off-kilter humor of the premiere is also mended in “Kin.” Patton Oswalt cracks jokes about hill people (who are a touch on the goofy side themselves), but the episode draws a hard line between these extra jokes and the real dramatic moments, thus preventing one from tainting the other.
And of course the biggest fix being made is that Raylan and Boyd are no longer disconnected. While I have my doubts that the twenty-four hour hunt for Drew Thompson will last the rest of the season, I’m secretly hoping it will, and solely because this manhunt is the strongest thing tying the two protagonists together since one shot the other in the chest back in episode one. Not just because both are trying to accomplish the same task, and both have ample motive to get in each other’s hair and sabotage the other, but because hunting down Drew Thompson allows us to see who these two really are. “Kin” doesn’t just refer to Raylan and the hill people. Boyd and Raylan are cut from the same cloth, and they behave just like two brothers who took different paths in life- one follows in the family business, the other moving in the opposite direction. Putting the two of them together onscreen again and having them compete to tie up a loose end from their shameful family history allows us to dive into the depths of these ocharacter’s essences like we haven’t been able to before.
And it’s exactly that kind of depth that comes with taking risks.