5x12 – Starvation
“Ain’t none of this been easy. But we came here to settle as a family. We can still do it. All this shit we done been through ain’t got to be for nothing.”
The first paragraph I wrote this season, I said there’s one thing I expect from season five of a show with Walton Goggins. If it’s season five, it’s time for shit to get real. And if it’s season five with Walton Goggins, he’s long since been the dark heart of the show. He’s the half of a whole that, torn apart, is gonna hurt like a motherfucker.
I say that because, to this day, season five, episode eleven of The Shield is my threshold for that kind of pain. Postpartum is an episode that detonates around Goggins’ Shane Vendrell in such a way that season five of Justified is still well shy of that mark. (Thank God for that.) But Starvation feels like Justified doing its version of that. The Elmore Leonard version of that, which is not quite so harsh a detonation but in a new way, emotionally wracking. What’s interesting, though, is the parallel between the two episodes. The reason Starvation cuts deep is so similar to the reason Postpartum cuts deep. In the latter, Shane, faced with an unthinkable choice, and knowing he’ll have to act alone to make it, has a line, an excuse, an appeal for forgiveness:
“It’s all about family, right?”
It’s all about family, and I’ll go back to that over and over for as long as the show goes back to that over and over. Which, I hope, is always. No other story has so much power. No other story could cause half so much wreckage. Doubt that and all you’d have to do is look around.
How else did it ever come to this?
What Starvation does though, so beautifully, so effectively, is starve everyone of the means that have sustained them until now. All season we’ve had Raylan isolated, and Boyd and Ava isolated, but this is different. This is taken to a new level. Raylan, who looks to Art as a guidepost, even when Art’s angriest at him, now has Art out of commission entirely. Boyd, whose purpose and aim in everything is Ava, is utterly untethered from her and adrift. Ava, who’s never preached a word she doesn’t believe heart and soul, says no more of this bullshit every-woman-for-herself, just to have that slapped right back in her face and left more alone than ever.
And riding around in that panel van, Raylan and Boyd hear Wendy Crowe say something out loud that, while not the whole picture, has more truth in it than either would care to admit. It’s what Darryl’s fed her as part of his bullshit, a master of psychological war games, but he wouldn’t get away with it half so well if it was only a lie.
Wendy: I shouldn’t have taken those pills you gave me. I shouldn’t have left him.
Darryl: You ain’t no use if you all nerves. For sure ain’t no use to little Kendal.
Wendy: I’m still all nerves. So just drop it, all right.
Darryl: I’m just trying to help, sister.
Wendy: Why did I come back here? I should’ve gotten a room up in Lexington, stayed close. I just want him to know I’ll be right by his side.
Darryl: Pfft. You ain’t never been by his side. That’s why all this happened, after all. I ain’t laying blame. Just putting words to truth. Don’t wanna dwell on it no more either, girl. Got to move forward, you know. Dust yourself off.
“The part I played in all this,” says Wendy to Raylan, “was bad mother. I failed Kendal and now he’s got to pay the price.” Raylan has been trying to get her to admit it, that she played a part in all this, “a dark heart like the rest.” But the part Wendy owns up to is the part where you could swap out the word mother, and then replace the name Kendal with Ava or Art and the pot and kettle and the other pot would all have to call themselves black.
The scene doesn’t need to even linger to underscore the point. We cut right to: Ava receiving her own death sentence, framed as a snitch by Gretchen Swift, retaliation at least in part for Boyd putting her brother in intensive— which was Boyd lashing out over failing to protect Ava at all. (“This is bad, Ava,” says Nikki, and Ava’s “No shit,” is only one of the many, many ways Joelle is killing it this year.) We could rewind too, if we wanted to, through everything this season between Raylan and Art. Art is paying that price for Raylan, and no other reason could have Raylan so driven right now, so desperate to set this right and more effective than he’s been all season. I think Wendy hits home with that line, and I think you can tell when Raylan, for once, doesn’t get the last word. When Boyd, for once, keeps to the background, all body language and silence, no words at all.
In Starvation, it all accrues. It takes shape and weight so innocently. Raylan and Boyd and Ava— nobody’s telling each other lies. Just the truth, the way they see it. Boyd, desperate to get the marshals on a collision course with Darryl and the cartel before the deadline Duffy gave him— sundown— goes to Raylan with no other goal in mind. What he asks for in exchange is what Raylan’s usually giving him anyway: a free pass, a look the other way. Raylan, desperate to get to Darryl on his own deadline, knows there’s got to be an angle Boyd’s playing but misses all the signs that point to what it is. In Boyd’s willingness to help without demanding Ava’s release, he sees the old Boyd, cavalierly ready to leave the past behind.
And Ava, desperate to save her own life, so isolated that she’s never even heard the name Darryl Crowe Jr, is given just enough pieces of the puzzle to mistake it for the whole picture. They all do— they all have insufficient information, which really, is all we ever have. Boyd doesn’t know Raylan’s so desperate for Darryl that clemency for Ava is possible; he doesn’t know Ava, set up as the prison snitch, now has the same death sentence on her head as he’s got on his. Raylan doesn’t know the cartel deadline; Ava doesn’t know what Boyd’s meant by what he said. All she has is what they all have. An image that isn’t the truth, but isn’t all that far from the truth, or it wouldn’t be so possible to believe it.
Raylan: Bullshit? There it is. Thick with the names of the suffering and the dead, many felled by your own hands. The trail of human wreckage you’ve left rotting in jail cells, cold graves throughout this state. And why? Because they had the poor judgement to believe your lies and follow your tune. Well, it’s high time that tune reach a shattering crescendo.
Boyd: Well, what about the file on Raylan Givens? [Raylan laughs.] It must be just as thick.
There it is. The same bullet Raylan’s usually firing at Boyd; the same mirror Boyd’s usually holding and Raylan ends up reflected back in the shards of glass. Not a true picture, but plenty of truth in it. More than enough. What’s funny, though, is how long they act out the exhausted version of their cat-and-mouse and old-coal-buddy antics, using each other without compunction, and where it finally takes the sharp turn. Raylan, in simmering frustration, plays the card he’s had up his sleeve— the file on Boyd— and Boyd takes more of an affront to that than anything.
That’s not how this story goes, and that’s not how this story ends. Raylan knows it, and Boyd knows Raylan knows it, and Boyd knows it himself. This isn’t some bullshit to be settled with files and grand juries. This is bigger than that and greater than the two of them. There is unfinished business. There’s more to this story yet.
That very same moment, not even close to coincidental, the family that Raylan’s been estranged from all season starts to band back together. Boyd plays his trump card of Nicky Augustine and all Rachel says is, “That’s yesterday’s news. This is today.” She and Tim are a united front with Raylan and Boyd can only land a glancing blow. That’s what sets family apart from any other kind of thing. It survives more than any other kind of thing. It outlasts and it can do more good or it can cause more harm, even when stressed or fractured or broken. That’s still where all the power lies.
To stress and fracture and break up the Crowes, Raylan throws down one more big bet with the highest of stakes— Kendal’s life. “Jesus Christ on a lunchbox, that’s a big bet,” Judge Reardon says. “Once you fire this bullet? It don’t go back in the barrel.” But that’s the case of every bullet fired so far. It’s Boyd’s warning to Jimmy that’s all the more ominous:
“Storm clouds are gathering, son. And I think this flood is gonna be epic.”
“Yeah,” says Jimmy. Ominous, but already too late. Jimmy, never one to shed a tear, with tears rolling down his face. “Yeah, Boyd. I hear that.”
“Oh, you motherfuckers.” I don’t know who I’m even saying it to— Alberto’s guns, the writers, the universe at large— but I’ve said it all week, every time I watch that ending with Jimmy. I mean, it could be said about so much more, but I know Boyd’s going to survive the season and Raylan, et. al. Goddamn, I don’t want to see Jimmy go.
Caleb, though. Boyd’s unlucky bartender quits with a fury the way I was sure he had after Wrong Roads. “Baby Jesus! This is the worst! job! ever!” shouts the only man in Harlan who uses more exclamation points than Dewey Crowe. But it’s his monologue to Carl just before then that really highlights the indignity, which is something I hope he did a lot, trailing Carl around with monologues of indignity: “Did some backyard fighting. Took my lumps. Got hurt bad working the kill floor when I was out in Greeley, but shit fire. I didn’t get this knocked around even in the mines and I was in the Huff Creek collapse.”
“A funny story,” Boyd says, and Tim: “A funny short story.” Tim keeps channeling Elmore: “Why don’t you leave out the parts we’d like to skip.”
Parts I don’t want to skip: Rachel, Tim, and Raylan reviewing Oscar nominations. (Tim: “Needs more Jason Statham.” Raylan: “What doesn’t?”) And, suggesting again that we’re living in some kind of Kentucky time warp. By my calculations, we’re just shy of a year since the events of the pilot, and yet we’ve gone from 2009 to the year of American Hustle.
Writer Chris Provenzano pulls off the hat-trick with this one, three episodes in one season. Previously: Whistle Past The Graveyard and Shot All To Hell, so I’m glad he got to give us the fallout on Kendal and Wendy and the closure on Dewey Crowe’s turtle-dog.
It’s the little things I enjoy in this one. Darryl’s falsetto “housekeeping!” Wynn Duffy shouting to the heavens as his Winnebago’s being towed. One last car, that shitheap Gremlin, Dewey can’t remember how to park. Boyd, peeking through the blinds as they’re getting towed, messing with Raylan’s nameplate on the desk.
“Well, you got your fish in the boat. Think you gonna have to put him back?” asks Boyd, and Raylan: “We do, he’ll likely want to kill you.” But Boyd remembers season 4: “Well, I don’t know. You’re pretty good. I figure you’ll get to him first.”
“If it’s an apology for sending me to hell, I’ll take the kindness. It’s been one of the more frustrating days in recent memory.”
This time, fourth season. Raylan and Tim and Rachel ran all over Harlan trying to mess up some bad guy’s day— in this case, anyone hampering Shelby’s deal by hiding Ellen May. Boyd and Colt and Augustine were all in search of the same thing, until Ava put a stop to it. All Ava wanted was some Peace of Mind.