What makes a surprise a surprise? One would think a genuine surprise is something that comes from nowhere, that introduces something so far beyond the expected that it can’t help but be… well, surprising. Yet far too often television shows (or films) take the easy route where a “surprise” is one of two clear choices, and the only suspense comes from which of the two gets picked. “Outlaw” falls into this trap far too often, and that overreliance on weaker material saps away the addictive thrill of seeing a good TV season reach its conclusion.
When Colton first spies Tim’s junkie friend at the dealer’s, it seems like a pretty obvious move for him to execute that witness on sight. And while Colton bucks that suggestion and seems to treat the guy like a friend, it quickly becomes clear that he plans on either shooting the poor sap or offering him some kind of odd alliance. The bullet is the easier choice- this way he can be pushed towards a showdown with Tim in a few episodes’ time, but either way it’s not a particularly tense decision. Either a minor character kills an even more minor character or he doesn’t. It’s a common occurrence in “Outlaw.” Theo Tonin’s mystery hitman goes through the same murderous “will he or won’t he” with Frank Browning to the same end (again, neither of these characters have enough weight to them for the scene to be particularly captivating). The hitman-as-cop-with-iphone sequence is even repeated verbatim with one of the members of the wealthy Harlem elite rather than Browning.
Each one of these situations falls flat. Raylan’s showdown with Jody last week was marvelous because it came at the end of an entire episode devoted to Jody as a villain, and the circumstances of the shooting could potentially foreshadow Raylan going absolutely insane (this week, Raylan once again nearly empties his pistol into a perp- not a good sign). This week, seemingly endless confrontations affect characters who have been spread too thin throughout the course of the season, and who are thrust into situations where there simply isn’t enough breathing room to do anything interesting or unique. And it’s all so frustrating because the sequence immediately preceding the opening credits smartly subverts all that plainness with something as simple as two extra shots. Once Arlo springs to life things become so gruesome (as much for the gore as for Raymond J. Barry’s ugly animalistic grunts of “get some”) that it becomes increasingly difficult to focus on anything else. When Mosley reappears, first in the corner of a mirror and then in a brief closeup, it’s not for surprise’s sake but to establish that there’s absolutely no question about what’s going to happen. The mirror gives just enough information to catch the eye off guard, the closeup makes it obvious, and in the very next shot it happens. Mosley getting back up is a surprise, but the sequence doesn’t hinge around that. It’s effective because we can figure out exactly what’s going to happen and that there’s no way to stop it. The music is also very un-Justified, sounding more like something out of a horror movie and adding an extra little layer of variation to the sequence.
Yet despite Arlo’s death being one of the biggest things to ever happen on Justified, “Outlaw” spends very little time with Raylan’s dearly departed dad. Part of that is obviously intentional. The less time spent with Arlo, the bigger it hits when Raylan casually mentions that his father has finally passed on. It’s a superbly acted scene, and lets Timothy Olyphant play Raylan in a rare moment of emotional vulnerability, on the verge of tears and snapping at his colleagues like an angry teenager. But while Raylan obviously wants to to spend as little time on the subject of his father as possible, those at home suffer for lack of Arlo. The past three years have seen someone close to Raylan get killed off right before the big finish, but Aunt Helen and Trooper Tom’s death acted like connective tissue, pulling every storyline together into one big push for the end. Arlo’s passing seems more like an isolated event that keeps getting interrupted by other passing subplots. The most memorable moment of the end of Arlo’s life doesn’t even occur in this episode. Last week’s simple, raw ugliness of Arlo barking “eat shit” and Raylan saying how happy he’ll be to see Arlo killed was a purer summary of their relationship than any of the emotion drawn from his actual death.
This season in particular lacks cohesion- too many of the smaller arcs seem to exist in their own little world with few consequences for the rest of Harlan, and the big mystery has lost its ticking clock. What little chance there was of reviving Arlo’s plea deal is gone forever, and Boyd has apparently grown bored of hunting down Drew Thompson and has moved on to better things. So while Boyd will still be on the hunt to keep Tonin off his back and Raylan will presumably focus all his energies on Thompson to tamp down any emotion about his dad, the story’s lost a big part of the lighting fast focus that was implied when the twenty-four hour manhunt first began. “Outlaw” still has its moments, but other than Arlo’s death those bright spots are all character moments, not story ones. This hour brimmed with life when Boyd cheerily professes his love for Dairy Queen or Raylan and Boyd or Raylan and Shelby take a moment to throw some barbs in each other’s direction. Justified has established a reputation for some absolutely incredible lead characters and more than a few sub-par supporting ones, and while it’s important to try and elevate the weaker ones, it can’t be at the expense of those that make up the backbone of the show. It’s incredibly admirable how Justified changed up its format this season. Perhaps next year it could change again- towards something a little more streamlined.