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'Justified' postmortem: Joelle Carter talks Ava's game plan and love triangle

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Byron Cohen/FX

Spoiler alert! Justified‘s Joelle Carter, who plays Ava Crowder, took some time to talk to EW about the third episode of the season and how her character is finally taking control of her future. If you haven’t already watched this week’s tense episode, “Noblesse Oblige,” then you might want to stop reading…

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The episode starts after you’ve been drinking all night with Boyd, and you make up this pretty bad excuse to leave, saying that you need to go fill in at the salon.

JOELLE CARTER: Hey now. [Laughs.]

Boyd’s a smart guy—you think he’d catch on to that.

Yeah, you know, love blinds some people.

I guess that’s true. And maybe the bourbon was helping with that.

Yes, exactly. I think he’s suspicious. I was definitely playing, in my mind, for the first couple of episodes, that she thinks he knows. That’s where a lot of the fear, for Ava, is coming from. I don’t think Walton was working with the same thing, but … it’s a cat and mouse game right now. Until this third episode, I think I realized I have to work both of these guys. I have to see where my best opportunity is.

It does seem like in this episode, Ava really starts to take control. She seems more clear-headed.

I think so. And I think she was trying to avoid the actual situation in the first two episodes by not really conducting with Boyd again, and she wouldn’t have information to give Raylan. Then the reality hit when Raylan told her that if she doesn’t deliver, she’s going back to prison. She actually has to play the game.

For the first time, we see her really reprimand Raylan for the position that she’s in. Is some of that emotion just Ava drawing on leftover hostility from the first season’s events? The scene really builds on their history together.

You know, there’s a lot of subtext when they get together. He’s the man that got away, that didn’t want her, and she’s still attracted to him. They’re two people who have chemistry, and they can’t deny it. I think she’s now beholden to him for saving her life, because he really did, getting her out of prison. So there’s got to be a lot of feelings about that too, both attraction and repulsion. And she’s still drunk by the time she sees him! I don’t even know how she drove over there.

As much as Raylan has pushed Ava, he also sympathizes with her it seems. He defends her against Vasquez and Brooks, telling them that Ava needs more time to gather information. I think it shows he still has some sort of feelings for her.

I think so. He’s a lawman, but he’s a lawman by his own morals. He kind of feels out a situation and decides what to do. I think in the end he wants to serve the job, but he also wants to serve himself, and within doing that, I want to say that he does care for Ava. He wants her to deliver and to get out and have another chance.

I think it’s because he understands how people in Harlan can get wrapped up in violence so easily. It’s part of the town; it’s in the soil.

It’s an environment that they were born into. They all want out, and they all want to be free of the burdens that this environment brought them. The only difference between Boyd, Raylan, and Ava, for me, is that one of us wears a badge. We’re all just on one side of the law, but it’s a thin line.

So everyone is working toward the same goal, which is to leave Harlan behind and start anew?

I feel like in the beginning, when they were young and in this situation, they wanted the outside world to save them in a way. Raylan found a way out. Ava thought she did by marrying the football star, but that fell through, and she ended up in a different kind of prison. And Boyd, I believe in his storyline he goes to war, he tries to find a meaning for his life, too. So when he comes back, I think his journey is more about embracing Harlan and how to make it a better place. We all learn by escaping from our lives what we appreciated about them. And Ava flip-flops throughout the season; you know, “I want the world, but the world is too big.”

It’s really interesting the way Ava has taken on a central role in this final season. She’s kind of the most sympathetic character, the one we can root for.

Oh it’s amazing, for me. [Laughs.] I love it. And it kind of comes back to the two guys, and what’s familiar in their lives and what’s kind of affected them, and it’s Ava. It’s a connection that they have that they have to deal with. She’s forced to be an informant for Raylan, and is stuck in a love-hate relationship with Boyd, and I think she just wants sweet liberation. Then having that scene with Sam Elliott and Garret Dillahunt, she realizes … that fear of knowing that she’s losing control over what might happen to her if she stays in the Boyd situation and if she stays in the Raylan situation. You’re really going to see her try to manipulate both of these guys.

I thought that dinner table scene with Avery Markham (Sam Elliott) and Ty Walker (Garret Dillahunt) was really brilliant in the way it called back to the first season, and that tense scene with Ava, Bowman, and Raylan.

And Markham has a lot to tell her about women in this world. He’s kind of being a father figure, asking her if she knows what she’s doing, that maybe she should run because this is a very serious situation.

Markham mentions how the women in the crime business have to be exponentially stronger than the men. I wonder if everyone, from Markham to Boyd to Raylan, are underestimating Ava?

I think so. [Laughs.] I think they underestimate the power she actually has over Boyd and Raylan. It’s complicated. You’ll see as we go along that she has to be loyal to one person.

Did you know the whole character arc in advance, or are you finding out as the season goes along, too?

They gave me a pitch of the season and where they wanted it to go for Ava, and I think they’re still driving toward that end solution, but the season has changed so much, manipulating some things and staying true to others. And both Boyd and Raylan are different characters, and so are the actors [Walton Goggins and Timothy Olyphant], so it makes Ava’s moments with each one of them very different. At first I was having a hard time with it, but then I was thinking, yeah, this is how Ava would act in these situations because she has to deal with Raylan in the way she deals with Raylan, and she has to deal with Boyd in the way she deals with Boyd.

I have to ask: What’s attractive about Boyd to Ava? Is it just his hair and the way he talks?

[Laughs.] Well, I think she finds him physically attractive. I think, in the beginning, they were both in this familiar place and they’ve known each other for a long time, so there’s that history that was attractive. And Ava is attracted to violent men and men that are exciting and unpredictable. Raylan and Boyd are both of those. But I really believe that Boyd was available when Ava was available to fall in love. And they did. They’re like two orphans in a storm; they really want everything for each other. They don’t really trust the world. There’s a weird willingness to try and trust each other. In a way, this episode is about Ava playing herself back to Boyd.

Going back to the dinner table scene, what was it like working with Sam Elliott? He’s such a big name and has such a presence on screen. He’s kind of charming but also really sinister, which works well on Justified.

Just meeting the man, his energy and dynamic changes you. And he’s so sexy! He’s still so sexy! And that brings you in. You want to listen to him and hear what he’s saying, and that’s a great thing that happens in that scene. She’s pissed and repulsed by these men who are working her, but also really intrigued by this man and his sense of self and his experiences. And she’s in this situation where she kind of needs to hear that stuff.

And then there’s Garret Dillahunt as Ty Walker, who is just so creepy. He’s haunting, partly because we don’t know much about his character.

He’s so much fun on the set, and then all of a sudden you see him on the screen and…

When he’s wiping his nose on the sheets being hung by the couple he’s trying intimidate! So creepy!

And the eggs! [Audibly shudders.]

Right at the end of the episode, Boyd says that he’s not always sure who Ava is since she’s been out of prison. Does Ava even know who she is?

I think she knows who she is, she just doesn’t know how to get out of the situation she’s in. And then that makes it confusing for her as far as who she trusts and how to march forward. I mean, she knows her feelings, she knows what’s going on, but she doesn’t know where to land quite yet. 

Justified airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

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