Justified Review: “Dark As a Dungeon” (Season 6, Episode 8)

Timothy Olyphant and Sam Elliot in Justified

“I’m not sure Raylan’s going to make it.” This was the thought that crept into my mind over the course of tonight’s Justified. It’s ridiculous, and somewhat paradoxical to worry about the safety of a TV show protagonist. Of course, there has to be some possibility that the story’s hero could die. Otherwise, what would be the point? But I don’t think I was being hyperbolic by likening Raylan Givens to Batman last week. This is TV, after all: the medium comes with certain assurances about what kind of tale you’re watching play out. Even Raylan seems aware of this fact. “This is one of them classic stories where the hero gets his man, then he rides off into the sunset,“ he says to Boyd, the sort of bold statement that would tempt fate on Game of Thrones, but certainly not Justified.

That little FX watermark in the corner of every frame of Justified isn’t just a trademark: it’s a guardian angel, a pact between the show and the audience that some lines shan’t be crossed. The appearance of Raylan’s wailing baby girl last week should have been another good luck charm around his neck, seeing as having a kid is among surest ways to ensure TV protagonist immunity. If you had asked me at the start of the season if Raylan would survive, the answer would have been an unequivocal “yes.” Now, I’m only 99% sure he’ll be able to defy Justified’s iconic song, and actually leave Harlan alive. Those aren’t exactly long odds, but the important thing “Dark As a Dungeon” accomplishes is to make possible something that once seemed impossible.

If anyone’s to blame for my newfound trepidation, it’s Raylan himself, the dick. Tim’s got his name and his number this week: if “Disturb the Shit, Poke the Bear” isn’t what you’d call the song of Raylan Givens, then that’s because you’re saving it for an album title. It’s not enough that he slips back into the old way of doing things in “Dark As a Dungeon,” treating Harlan’s underbelly like a personal Rube Goldberg machine. No, Raylan has to go kick the spiritual hornet’s nest, too. “Dark As a Dungeon” is an episode steeped in ritual and curses, where even the characters seem to know that time and space are collapsing in around them. Perhaps it’s only in such a Twilight Zone, a pit of fear and superstition that Raylan finally starts to look mortal.

“The Hunt” cleared the path for the last half of Justified’s final season, and the show seems just as antsy as Raylan to reach a resolution. The opening of “Dark As a Dungeon,” staged with a bitter melancholy by director Gwyneth Horder-Payton, has Raylan disposing of his father’s leftovers. It’s a scene I’ve been waiting for ever since Arlo died, and a better time for it could not have been picked. Seems right that Raylan would only be ready to face his father’s ghost once his own fatherhood had settled in. And it seems just as right that, for Raylan, the past isn’t something to be dug up and confronted, but ripped up from the root, and burned to the stem.

The great irony of Boyd and Ava’s situation is that the only person more desperate to get out of Harlan than they are is the man pursuing them. “Dark As a Dungeon” shows Raylan in his nature state, a manipulator who could have wound up on the other side of the law just as easily as Boyd. But the Raylan we’ve watched through all of Justified isn’t the one he’s ever wanted to be; returning to Kentucky was a punishment, not a choice. He only got out of Harlan in the first place by denying it ever existed, by burying his past, and “always walking forward,” as Ava puts it. “That’s how you walk,” he tells her, which says less about her statement than it does his view of things.

“Just like you boy, your head in the goddamn clouds,” Arlo’s specter tells him (and what a treat it is to have Raymond J. Barry back one last time). This is how Raylan comports himself: up and ahead, the direction of someone who has something to be running away from. “The past is a shadow, always there behind you,” according to Avery Markham. On this, Raylan can agree, which helps him bond an “enemy of my enemy” truce with Marham that’s designed to smoke out Walker.