Pleasure as it’s been to watch Justified embrace the fact that the end airtime is nigh, there’s a certain comfort in seeing the show slip back into habits that defined its spring and fall seasons. There’s also a fair bit of discomfort that comes too, when the habit in question is Justified’s patented Mid-Season Rut™, which is known for flaring up annually around this time. “The Hunt,” while by no means a bad episode, is a reminder that Justified’s great when it comes to stockpiling explosives and watching the fireworks, but has always had some difficulty when it comes to lighting the fuse.
“The Collection,” “Foot Chase,” “Whistle Past the Graveyard”: all episodes of Justified that lay in the seasonal minefield that hours six through eight have come to represent. What do they all have in common?Well, none are particularly good episodes of the show. Of course, that statement is relative: the high-standard Justified sets for itself means that even an off hour will usually keep your attention. But it’s hard to deny the show’s tendency for soft midsections, as even the hallowed hours of Season 2 find their weak point in the “bank robber Winona” mini-arc of “Blaze of Glory” and “Save My Love.”
What elevates “The Hunt” well above its temporal peers is that it’s not so much a wheel-spinner as it is an engine-revver. Yes, it would have been more fun to have Raylan not deal with baby duty, and there certainly could have been a more punctual means by which Boyd reveals Ava’s deceit. But “The Hunt” is the real deep breath in that I mistook “Alive Day” for last week, the episode that takes stock, and presents two important questions left to be answered by Justified: who is Boyd without Ava, and who is Raylan without his job?
The former query is harder to pin down, as Raylan Givens is, and perhaps always will be a mystery. As a slang-talkin’, Gary Cooper-walkin’ throwback to the lawmen of old, Raylan looks and acts every bit the part of a beguiling tall drink of water. But I’ve never been sure whether that drink is more, or less chemically complex than the often see-through persona he affects. Yes, he’s just as sharp with a pistol as he is with his tongue, but by being the marshal service equivalent of Batman, it’s often hard to discern an internal character to Raylan Givens that’s more than his incredibly charismatic exterior.
Faced with transforming a literary archetype into a flesh and blood TV character, Graham Yost and Timothy Olyphant smartly chose to drip-feed the proof that Raylan is in fact human. Sometimes it was through something as casual as a movie quote, or as momentous as proving he’s not literally bulletproof. But the defining line, and conversation about who Raylan Givens is came at the end of the show’s very first episode. “You’re the angriest man I have ever known,” Winona told him at the close of “Fire in the Hole,” a truth Justified has writ finely, if not largely its entire run. What’s left to be determined is what kind of punctuation Yost and Olyphant want to end such a defining statement on.
So, while babysitting and motel marriage counseling don’t make for the most exciting adventures we’ve witnessed Raylan undertake, they’re perhaps the most important challenge he’s faced so far this season. Though Justified didn’t always know what to do with Winona (and, wisely, came to terms with this fact by shipping her off to Florida), it’s a lot of fun to have Natalie Zea back in the saddle tonight. She and Olyphant have terrific chemistry, as evidenced by how charming the pair can be when there’s a screaming child hollering through half their scenes together.
Winona is an ideal romantic foil for Raylan, as she too has a flashy exterior that surrounds a questionably absent internal character. It’s easy to imagine the two being together simply because they’re both hot and clever, but if their up-and-down history has proven anything, it’s that a relationship needs something to fall back on once all the banging and bantering is done. With a tad in their lives now, the duty of parenthood has been thrust upon them both. Raylan’s said all year that once he’s done with Boyd, he’ll hang up his holster to be with his family. For Winona to suddenly pull a 180, and offer to share custody of Raylan with his job, it’s almost of if Justified has uncharacteristically decided to take the easy way out. Raylan is awesome, ipso facto, he should be allowed to keep both his family and his work.
In reality, the true purpose of “The Hunt” is to give Raylan something more demanding than a duty: a choice. Yes, Winona’s willing to let him off the hook now, but how long would it be before those late nights chasing bad guys start gnawing at her, or his daughter? Worse, what if one of those nights, he really doesn’t come home? Raylan knows as well as Winona that the job and the family are an either/or proposition, no matter how they might try to deny it. Now that he’s been given a hall pass on the issue, it’s all the more imperative that Raylan decide whether he was going to move to Florida out of a sense of responsibility, or because he’s truly ready to move onto the next phase of his life, perhaps sans badge and gun.