2x05 – Cottonmouth
“You will not die down in that hole, Kyle. You have my word on that.”
I really want to know if, in naming this episode, they meant “cottonmouth” as in the cottonmouth snake. It could have other meanings, I suppose, or it could be enigmatic altogether, but I’m from the South. In the South, it’s the snake. And it’s enough, just the name, to feel that tingle of danger, fear, excitement, dread. Awe. If the South is stories— and it is— any kind of snake at all might as well be code in Southern lore. It’s as privileged a genre as ghosts. If you want to get all mythological and symbolic, or pseudo-analytical, I suppose you could say snake stories are about the very close presence of danger. The kind of danger that can crawl in the front door in broad daylight. The kind of reminder that it’s all life and death.
You get that kind of lore in rural cultures. Farmers, miners, any place where you run into death in a daily basis and where death often comes by nature herself. Out in a field. Down in a hole. The preoccupation and fascination with those primal kinds of stories is the way to— not make sense of it, necessarily— but certainly to live alongside it. To make it both commonplace and extraordinary. In Appalachia, you can take the fascination a step further to the signs and wonders snake-handling churches, where handling snakes is the test of faith and grace and power. To a kid, playing outside the way I grew up, it’s just another thing in the world full of everything out to get you.
It gets in your blood as a kid, I suppose. It got in mine. I can hear it now, going out to play in the woods and the creek and we’d hear, “watch out for copperheads, watch out for cottonmouths.” It scared you because it was supposed to scare you, because if you were scared, you were careful. But there was always that secret excitement too. That sense you can get as a kid that just surviving the day, on an elemental level, will take you to the limit of challenge and adventure. Either you’ll come through the door that night all right, or you’ll not come through at all, and either way it will be exciting.
I take it back. I don’t want to know if that’s what they meant by the name. It never occurred to me years ago that it could mean anything else, and by now, I don’t think it could. This is not a story about snakes. There’s not so much as a mention of a snake in the story. But also it is that kind of story, in every other way.
So. Shit. Cottonmouth. Preferably, that “shit” gets said the way Arlo or Art would: with as many extra syllables as you can cram in the word. Or, the way Ava says it to Boyd when he drops a sack of cash in her hands and there’s fifteen-to-twenty thousand dollars in there. Or, the way Coover says it to Dickie when Raylan’s got the drop on them, waving from the Town Car parked outside the Reverend Baines’ Church of The Two-Stroke Jesus. (“It’s good,” Raylan says to Baines, the check-forging, ATV-running, taser-wielding preacher. “It’s a good angle.”) Shit, as in, we’re in for it good now. Shit, as in, where to even begin?
Emulex. Payroll. Detonation. Tom Bergen says the three key words, and he can hardly get them all out before Raylan knows the fourth: Boyd? “I can spot outlaws at a thousand paces,” Raylan said to Boyd that very afternoon. He was wrong about the Oxy bus. But it was just a matter of time. Like it was just a matter of time for Ava: she says no liquor in the house, and no trouble with the law, and here’s both at her kitchen table.
But here’s Boyd at her kitchen table too. Alive, when he was supposed to die down in that hole. Here, when he didn’t think he was gonna find a way out. Honest, when Ava’s got to know why he didn’t run.
Not in so many words, but in so many others: he’s done running. He’s run high and low trying to find some redemption to escape who he is. Every time he tries to escape it, this is where he ends up, a sack full of cash and something blown to shit. Except he’s never been exactly here before, facing it. And I don’t even know how they pull it off, how Boyd breaking his word to her actually makes good on his word on such a larger scale. He’s promised he wouldn’t lie to her, and here’s Boyd not lying to himself. No loopholes. No equivocations. This is who I am, Ava. This is what I do. Like the real change he’s needed is just to say that out loud. All this search under every rock and branch for absolution, and here it is inside himself. He pulls up the chair. He sits down at the table. He lays all the masks down.
But what Boyd is underneath them, is the outlaw. He is this penchant for playing these roles. He loves it, changing guises and ideologies like he changes clothes, trying them on for size, ambiguity personified. There’s an aversion in him on the molecular level to being categorized and pinned down, and irony of all ironies, living it clean has been another straitjacket. He’s the outlaw. The line he walks is a lot of things, but it isn’t a straight one. It zigs and zags like it was beat out of place with a sledgehammer. If he gives up that part of himself, he might as well die down in that mine.
It’s kind of beautiful, how the reason he doesn’t is nothing short of Boyd just absolutely doing what Boyd does best. Scheming, stealing, playing every angle and never showing his hand. Hinging the whole plan on one long shot of trust, Ava picking up the phone and dialing that number. It’s kind of beautiful, how ATF comes wailing into the yard and Ava’s holding a sack full of cash that could either buy her some security or that could turn him in, and the only thing you get is the sense that Boyd will sleep better tonight than he has in a good long while. These guys had the choice. Ava has the choice. Boyd has the choice himself. This is what they choose. This is how the chips fall. This is Boyd learning— with us right alongside him— where his line is. Where it changes direction, and where it changes again, all one step at a time.
“Oh shit,” Coover says one last time to Dickie, “Momma’s with him,” the next morning as Doyle drives up. The fear of God in him the way Raylan could never put it. The first episode of the season, I said Mags was a force of nature, and here’s Mags, the force of nature with a ball-peen hammer. The rule of nature, among other things, that payback is a bitch. Whatever it is we think Mags is up to at this point— it’s not even half of what Raylan thinks Mags is up to at this point— Dickie and Coover have made jeopardizing it their full time jobs. Warnings aren’t working. It’s time for some consequences, and Raylan helps kick the hornets’ nests, and Loretta’s at the eye of the storm.
It’s the world— like I said at the start, so I can pretend it wasn’t an accident and that I meant to bring it full circle— that keeps shape-shifting behind Loretta’s back. The close presence of danger, in broad daylight, in places she can’t even guess. But Raylan’s got one more order of business. The next day, which means it’s likely he made the drive back to Harlan for just this one thing. This one all-important thing. To give Loretta the lifeline that Helen used to give him. He sits on the hood of that car, he lets Loretta be fourteen, all smart-mouthed and clever and tough, but then he makes her the promise that he’s one phone call away. Whatever happens, whatever any kind of trouble, whatever time of day or night: “You call me.” Without a waste of any words: “I will drop whatever I’m doing and I will come for you.”
There’s not even another line in the episode after it. Not even Boyd or Mags with what they’ve been up to could end the episode on a more resonant note. The sound fades out and the traffic and the music all fade out, and it’s just a soft beat like a heartbeat. Loretta holding that phone tight in her hand, in the afternoon sun, the wind blowing around.
If there’s a list of my favorite episodes of season two, Cottonmouth’s on it. If there’s a list of my favorite episodes of all time, Cottonmouth’s on it. You know, if you couldn’t tell. Hats off to Taylor Elmore for the writing credit on this one. And it would even be fun to think they meant something else by the name this whole time, when just the name was enough to get me excited for it before the episode ever aired.
I’m glad they hang a lampshade on it in season four, how Raylan drives down to Harlan every other damn day. He’s clocking a lot of books on tape this season.
1) Doyle Bennett’s a dirty cop. 2) Jimmy Earl Dean hates Raylan like poison. 3) It’s complicated, with the bank, mortgages and shit. Raylan has to give Dewey a refresher course: “Dewey. The way this works is, you have to tell me something I don’t know.”
You wanna make a living in this business? You gotta know 1) when to walk away, 2) your ABC’s. “Always be cool,” Boyd says, and you know he wanted to go along with that heist just to get to make an exit like that.
One of Boyd’s new acquaintances: “You don’t need to know us. We’re minding our own business. Suppose it’d be best you do the same.” Raylan: “Well, that wouldn’t be like me.”
No one else is going to be my favorite state trooper so long as Tom Bergen has some crazy story about Raylan tasing Reverend Baines in the nuts, and Raylan goes, “I did,” and Tom Bergen goes, “Nice!”
This time, first season: We set the precedent for Cottonmouth with The Lord of War and Thunder, and with more than just the name. With Arlo and Helen Givens up to something big. Raylan picks up his father’s bat and asks, you know tornado weather? “The sky turns green,” he says, “you know something’s coming.” That’s what Helen used to save him from.