After last week’s high stakes premiere—which saw Boyd rob a bank and Raylan struggle to keep up with every move of his nemesis—”Cash Game” puts more of this season’s primary pieces into place. It’s a classic episode of Justified, emblematic of everything this show can do when it’s at the top of its game. It not only deepens the larger narrative arc that will dominate the season (the game of cat and mouse between Raylan and Boyd, and Ava’s role in it all) but also gives us an isolated storyline (Boyd’s attempted blackmail) to latch on to.
The tension between Ava and Boyd takes center stage here. The episode opens on Ava seated at the table for breakfast—if Wild Turkey bourbon counts as breakfast, and in Harlan, in certainly does. Ava hears something out in the barn though, and seeing as she’s on edge, grabs her pistol before checking things out. The direction here is wonderful, as the camera focused on the gun in Ava’s hand while she determinedly marches to the barn, setting us up for a confrontation. That confrontation doesn’t come though, as it’s just Boyd in the barn, apparently looking for some paint.
What’s great about this opening scene is how it establishes all the lies and tension that will drive this season. Firstly, Boyd can’t possibly be looking for paint that Dewey dropped off, because Boyd killed Dewey (which I’m still sad about) in the last episode. And secondly, by choosing to focus the camera on the gun and establish Ava’s paranoid mind-set, the show perfectly sets us up for an Ava-Boyd confrontation later this season. It’s only the second episode, but the walls are already closing in around the main characters. Soon, they’ll be fighting for a way out.
Once Boyd leaves the farm, Ava searches the barn and finds the ledger and deeds that Boyd took from the safe-deposit box in the previous episode. She gathers them up to take to Raylan, a clear conflicted look on her face. She’s fighting for her survival and freedom, but you can tell she still has feelings for Boyd. Joelle Carter does great work throughout the episode portraying a woman who’s morally conflicted yet dead set on making the best life for herself.
When Ava delivers the documents to Raylan though, he’s not too happy. He thinks that Boyd left the documents in the barn for Ava to find, testing her loyalty. He orders her to put the documents back, and then they’ll hope for the best. This leads to one of the episode’s best scenes, where Ava has to think on her feet and prove herself to Boyd. Beautifully lit at night by just the headlights of Ava’s truck, Ava confronts Boyd with the documents, telling him how irresponsible it was to leave them on her property, knowing full well that she’d be sent back to prison if they were ever found by the police. It’s true, but it’s also a cover, and a perfectly executed one at that.
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