After Ava’s day out in last week’s episode demonstrated just how precisely Justified can orchestrate chaos, “Alive Day” takes a different tact entirely. Once, Raylan used something as structured as the U.N. to describe all the assholes he was presently having to deal with. “Wonderful things can happen when you sow seeds of distrust in a garden of assholes,” he says of Avery’s bunch tonight, and the change in collective noun is reflective of what kind of hour “Alive Day” is. Compared to the rigor of Season 6 so far, “Alive Day” is a looser episode of Justified than we seen recently. Even when the final 10 minutes of mayhem due arrive, it’s an intentionally messy affair.
It’s in the little details, like Raylan awkwardly framed parallel to the corner of Ava’s kitchen, or the dramatic zoom on Rachel late in the hour, that things just seem a little “off.” In part, this is due to “Alive Day” not really being about our core characters: Ava’s housebound, Boyd’s down a mineshaft all day, and Raylan’s investigation into Calhoun’s killer barely takes more than a tail job. It’s the new characters, and in particular, Choo-Choo, who get our attention, and provide the episode its namesake.
It’s difficult business, attending to new characters this late in a show’s run, but “Alive Day” really does do a great job of putting the spotlight on TigerHawk, and bringing weight to the story of two characters we only met at the start of the season. The trick is to distill that story down into component parts: Raylan’s garden metaphor aptly describes “Alive Day”’s naturalistic incoherence. It breaks a complicated situation down into elemental motifs of blood and bone, coal and diamonds, the sandbox and the shit.
Raylan’s a regular green thumb when it comes to planting seeds of discontent, revealing to Avery the mess his hired hands have gotten him into. “You hired a bunch of mercs ‘cause they look the shit in jungle fatigues. Turns out they know killing, but they don’t know crime.” Unlike the other outfits that have tried to muscle in on Harlan’s underworld, the TigerHawk gang has the gift of discipline, but even the sharpest tool is useless so long as it’s the wrong one for the job. “This ain’t the army anymore!” Seabass explodes earlier, wounding both Choo-Choo for pointing out his burdensome existence, and Ty for stating the obvious explanation for why his unit is losing cohesion.
In remarkably short order, “Alive Day” makes the story of the TigerHawk gang, who were destined to be little more than a speed bump leading to the real endgame, its own little tragedy. Justified has always been a series about coming home, but Raylan’s definition of the act is very different from the one Boyd, Ty, and Avery share. The three, all servicemen from a different generation of war, had to reshape their lives following a return from combat. Avery became a gangster after Vietnam, and Boyd went on to rob banks after Kuwait. Ty has tried to maintain his overseas identity and family back in America, and it forces him into a painful decision about Choo-Choo tonight.
And, oh, poor Choo-Choo. Duke Davis Roberts was given a goon that needed to look tougher and dumber than shit, the kind of Neanderthal Justified has played with a few times already. There was a soulfulness to his portrayal that took over from the moment he longingly watched Ava leave the Pizza Portal, even before the full details of his debilitating injury were revealed (clarified tonight in a speech expertly handled by Dillahunt). With his disfigurement and gargantuan size, even Choo-Choo’s not slow enough to not see a quality in himself like Frankenstein’s monster. “It’s like all you want is for the other person to understand,” Penny, another kind blonde, says of his impediment, as Mundo leads her to her to unwitting peril like the innocent farm girl in the ’31 Universal monster movie.
“I been thinking…maybe there’s another way,” Choo-Choo tells Ty, making decision for himself that simultaneously seals his own fate. Even when Raylan and Tim corner Choo-Choo and his would-be killers, he’s compelled to stand by his unit to the end. “You can’t still be taking his order,” Raylan implores. “They’re all I got,” Choo-Choo resignedly answers, before all hell breaks loose. Peter Werner sets up a graceful shot moments earlier, as Choo-Choo stands upright, yet still somewhat hunched in the forest clearing. He’d blend right in with the trees if he weren’t bigger than all of them, and like a mighty redwood, bringing him down turns out to be a slow, painful process. Escaping along with Ty, the fatally wounded Choo-Choo settles on some train tracks to live out his final moments. In an otherwise roughhewn hour, “Alive Day” gives its most potent death a quite respect, letting the light of the oncoming train take Choo-Choo to rest in peace, instead of crushing him.