‘Justified’ – ‘Brother’s Keeper’: I will turn this car right around!

A review of tonight’s fantastic “Justified” coming up just as soon as I imitate Spicoli…

“But then, you pick the devil you run with.” -Mags

Wow. That was something, wasn’t it?

It’s one of the trademarks of Elmore Leonard’s writing that his characters talk and talk and talk about how the plot of that particular book is about to go down – only for all that talk to usually get blown up with a climax that’s often simultaneously more and less complicated than anyone guessed.

“Brother’s Keeper” felt like an entire hour of that. Every time I thought I had a handle on how this episode – and the rest of the season – was going to go, something happened to upend that. It wasn’t a case of the script (by aptly-named staff writer Taylor Elmore) cheating or going out of its way to shock and surprise, but rather these flesh-and-blood characters being cagier and far more unpredictable than fictional characters often get to be.

So just as we seemed headed for some circumstance in which Boyd and Raylan wound up slinging their guns back to back against the Bennetts, we instead see Boyd return to his self-interested ways, screwing over Carol in favor of getting a big payday from Mags. Just when we think we’re heading for episode after episode of Mags and Carol trying to outmaneuver each other, Mags out-slicks the city slicker and gets an unequivocal win.

And just when it seems like “Brother’s Keeper” shouldn’t be the 9th episode of a 13-episode season but a black “evil triumphant” season finale, Loretta goes to Coover’s place looking for her daddy’s watch, makes the necessary rescue call to Raylan, and things go completely sideways. Coover attacks Dickie(*), takes Loretta off for a reunion with her daddy, and Raylan – not hungover, with two guns on his person and a motivation besides self-destructive self-loathing – finally beats him.

(*) How many of you, like me, assumed Coover had actually killed his brother? That’s certainly how Brad Henke played Coover’s reaction (though, of course, Coover is an idiot), and while I wouldn’t have wanted to lose Jeremy Davies just yet, it did feel like a cheat when the bong water brought Dickie coughing back to life. For Mags to lose two sons in one night – and one death she couldn’t even blame on Raylan – would have made the ending that much darker, not to mention even more of a classic Elmore Leonard “the bad guys fatally turn on each other” moment.

And with Coover dead, Mags filthy rich but grieving/vengeful, and Raylan still convinced his time in Kentucky (if not in the Marshals service) is running short, there’s no telling exactly where the rest of this season is going. Hell, at this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if we somehow get back to Raylan and Boyd teaming up again.

Even if you take out the surprise factor, this was a damned fantastic hour of television, proving once again what a masterstroke it was for Graham Yost and company to both conceive of the character of Mags and to cast Margo Martindale in the role. Martindale owned every damn second she was on screen, presenting so many different faces of Mags – doting mother figure to Loretta, charming hostess and then cold and blunt negotiator to Carol, grieving mother and then evil spirit of vengeance to Raylan at the end – and doing it in a way so that, as with Walton Goggins’ work as Boyd, you can believe as much or as little of the public poses as you choose to, and it works either way. I can believe that she genuinely came to care about Loretta and wasn’t just covering up for her daddy’s murder, but I can just as easily buy that she wanted to see the girl one last time to try to hurt her for setting in motion the events that led to Coover’s death. Mags is such a slippery character, and Martindale so strong and charismatic in playing her (just check out the infectious joy of her impromptu musical performance after she checkmated Carol), that anything and everything is possible.

For that reason, it felt right – if out of the blue – for Boyd to align himself with her. Boyd is always going to be too complicated to ever be pure good guy or bad guy – which is how the series has cleverly managed to keep him around as an ongoing part of Raylan Givens’ black-and-white world – so I can see him jumping ship from Carol in the name of making a big score. And he and Ava are now such a successful, tight team that it almost feels like they’ve already made the jump to coupledom that we’ve all been assuming is coming. Goggins’ crazy-legged dance of joy for Ava was just as wonderful to behold as Martindale’s singing a couple of scenes later.

Where FX sends some of its series out in large chunks (if not as entire seasons), “Justified” is one of the ones where I only get to see them one or two at a time. I have yet to see the episode after this one, and while I’m glad to be able to write this review without it being colored by what happens next, after the last 10 or so minutes of “Brother’s Keepers,” I’m damn dying to see it already.

A few other thoughts:

• Not sure if we’re done with Loretta, but huge props to Kaitlyn Dever for her work in the season to date, and particularly in this episode. I wasn’t sure in the opening scene if Loretta suspected what Mags had done to her father, but the scene where Loretta tries to rip the borrowed dress off was a great piece of acting that made it abundantly clear how little the otherwise-savvy Loretta knew before Coover (either out of stupidity or a desire to show the new favored child just how scared she should be of him) put the stolen watch on.

• I get why the episode didn’t show Boyd negotiating with Arlo, as it would have given away where Boyd’s loyalties now lay, but it still felt a bit jarring given how opposed to selling Arlo was last week.

• Really liked the scene where Raylan prevented Dickie from going into the meeting. Davies played Dickie’s disbelief (that someone would stand up to him on his home turf) and then hurt (that Raylan was right about Mags leaving him out) so so well, and we know how good Tim Olyphant is at this stuff.

• Raylan resisted temptation with Carol this time, but why do I have the feeling that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of the redheaded temptress, and that she’ll somehow wind up coming between Raylan and the unreachable Winona before the season’s out?

What did everybody else think?