If you were given a lineup of shows that have left a fingerprint on Justified, and asked to pick which series has had the biggest influence, the one many would point to would be Deadwood. Admittedly, the list of possible suspects is pretty slim, as the most widely known TV Western of recent years is the one set in space. But beyond just the starring presence of Timothy Olyphant, the greatest debt – really more of a hat-tip – Justified has always owed, particularly this season and episode, has been to David Milch’s short-lived but revered pioneer drama.
Aesthetically, the Old West of South Dakota and the new west of Kentucky wouldn’t pass for twins, and even dramatically, Deadwood and Justified have their significant contrasts. Deadwood was all about growth, about the building of something. The arc of Justified has seen Raylan Givens clear out the gutters of a decaying Harlan one family at a time. And, surprisingly, it’s the HBO series that has a greater sense of optimism: yes, Deadwood was a brutal, dirty town, but from its hardship sprang prosperity, civility, and some semblance of order. Justified is often more cynical, with the evils of Harlan often being drawn out by greed, not survival. Olyphant’s Seth Bullock would hunt a man across plains and peril to put him on trial; his Raylan Givens will drive a man into a corner just to take him out of the picture.
But the DNA of Deadwood is in Justified, and the latter is nothing if not beholden to bloodlines. Moneymen coming to buy up resource-rich land, and the presence of Garrett Dillahunt are two fresh elements this season that come right out of Milch’s frontier fable. Deadwood always staged the events of each episode over the span of one day, and no episode this season of Justified has covered longer than a 24-hour period. Even little moments, like Avery Markham (Sam Elliott, the most natural Deadwood actor that never was) saying, “reconnoiter,” or Raylan describing the Sicilian defense* make the resemblance seem anything but coincidental.
*Early in the series, Dillahunt’s cowardly Jack McCall kills a famed outlaw when he fails to keep his back to the saloon wall during a poker game. Deadwood’s deconstruction of Western legend feeds right into my fright over Raylan’s safety.
“Burned” goes and turns up the Deadwood-vibes to 11, and perhaps unsurprisingly, also turns out to be the best episode yet in this* magnificent season. The loot of the land is now weed, not coal, but black gold attracts opportunists just as well as the shiny kind did during the time of prospectors. The direction of “Burned” seems pleased to be getting out all the Old West lead that it can, with spinning six shooters and swirling shot glasses featured prominently in close-ups.
*A claim I also made last week. The lesson, folks, is to always assume Justified is saving the best for later or last.
It’s the night’s big setpiece, and its most interesting new player, that make “Burned” feel like the most Deadwoodian episode Justified has ever done. Almost an entire half of the hour is set in Pizza Portal, the Gem of Harlan. Sure, it’s a former-bank turned diner, but tonight the Portal is Markham’s own shit-kicking saloon, just with pepperoni on offer instead of prostitutes (though, as the saying goes, pizza and sex share at least a little in common). With just about every major character drawn to one location, “Burned” makes for a powder keg situation – and that’s before Boyd tries to blow the vault concrete out from under everybody.
There’s no better proof that Markham’s not from around these parts than his assumption that the shindig will go down without a verbose interruption by Boyd. The scene he makes is all the sweeter for being a Crowder-McCready co-production, as Boyd partnering with Loretta makes for one of those “of course” moments where the narrative jigsaw pieces intuitively snap together. Loretta is sounding more like a Bennett by the day, as even Boyd’s persuasive showmanship pales next to her down-to-earth salesmanship. It’s a compelling appeal to community that she makes, the likes of which we last saw being used by Mags to rally landowners against Black Pike. It’s a dynamite showcase for Justified at its speechifying best, but the scene midway through the jamboree is just “Burned” getting warmed up.