The story of Justified—which, when it comes down to it, is the story of Raylan, Boyd, and Ava—has always been interested in asking whether or not we can change who we are. What is it that makes us into who we are? Is it the circumstances we are born into, or the choices we make regardless of those circumstances? Is it possible to be dedicated to something beyond ourselves (Raylan as part of the Marshals Service) and entirely selfish (Raylan’s lack of family commitment, or even his own outlaw brand of law enforcement) at the same time?
Tonight’s episode deals explicitly with the idea of the past and how it informs our understanding of ourselves, for better or for worse. For the most part, “Dark as a Dungeon” lets us know that the events taking place in the present, from Boyd and Ava’s conflict to Duffy and Hale’s plans and beyond, are informed by years of history and backstory that we’ve never seen.
The writing on Justified has always been its greatest strength. The show has managed to keep a consistent tone in line with that of Elmore Leonard’s work, which is no small feat when stretched across six seasons. It’s that stellar writing that makes this season, with all of its interweaving storylines and loads of backstory, really work. We’ll never really know who Simon Poole was, or really understand what made Grady Hale so attractive to Katherine, or so threatening to Avery Markham, but those characters have a lingering effect nonetheless. Considering that we’ve never seen them on screen, that’s pretty remarkable.
“Dark as a Dungeon” is all about how the ghosts of our past affect us. The episode opens with Raylan doing what he can to purge his house of anything unnecessary before he sells it and moves to Florida. He’s swigging bourbon and throwing out everything form the medicine cabinet, because who brings any of that stuff with them when they move?
Then he gets to a box of Arlo’s old stuff, including photographs, letters, and his dog tags from the war. There’s a moment in there where it looks like Raylan may finally have a sentimental moment in honor of his father, perhaps keeping his dog tags in his memory. Sentimentality has never been Raylan’s strong suit though, especially when it comes to Arlo, so he takes the crate outside, douses it in bourbon, and sets it on fire. That’s one way to try and escape your past, but if Justified has taught us anything, and if the appearance of Ghost Arlo at the end of the episode is any indication, escaping the past just isn’t that easy.
With Arlo’s belongings burned, his burial plot set to be removed, and the required 24-hour cool-down period over with, Raylan can now focus on getting back to work. For Raylan, that involves not going back to the office or taking part in the manhunt, but rather paying a visit to Avery Markham at the Pizza Portal.
“Dark as a Dungeon” is filled with great one-on-one conversations, and the one between Raylan and Markham is a thing of beauty. After a run-in with Zachariah, where Raylan learns about his role in Boyd’s vault-robbing plan, he heads to the Portal with a unique offer. See, Markham is backed into a corner, what with Walker on the loose and Boyd having successfully told people to stop selling land to Markham.
Raylan concocts a plan that will thus benefit both of them. Markham will go on the radio and say that he’s offering $100,000 to anyone who can help catch Walker. Markham isn’t convinced the plan can really help him, but he knows that he needs Walker under wraps, so he agrees. As much as the plan is about Raylan getting Walker, it’s more about getting to Boyd and seeing if he can goad him into doing something stupid so that he can finally put the cuffs on him.
NEXT: Walker finds his way to the Crowder home[pagebreak]
Walker is making plans of his own though, barging into Ava’s house in the hopes of talking to Boyd and coming up with their own plan to get Markham’s money and get the hell out of Dodge. At this point, Walker is out of options, so teaming up with Boyd is one of the few things that could maybe keep him alive. He knows the combination to the vault, and that’s valuable to Boyd, as it may be a much easier way to get Markham’s money.
The ensuing interaction between Walker and Boyd is, once again, a perfect example of how well Justified constructs one-on-one dialogue. Each man is trying to figure out how the plan benefits the other. Walker is trying to convince Boyd that he can be trusted, while Boyd is trying to figure out if Walker’s new plan is truly the easiest way to get the money and run. Add in a reference to Michael Mann’s Heat—”thrill-seeker liquor store holdups with a ‘Born To Lose’ tattoo on your chest”—and the fact that these characters are really up against it, and you have the makings of an iconic scene.
It’s a bit of a shame then that Boyd and Walker never get to team up. It’s not long before Raylan shows up at the house to question Boyd, and once Raylan informs him of Markham’s generous offer, Boyd realizes there’s no way he can go anywhere with Walker, because everybody will be looking for him.
Walker attempts to run, but Raylan shoots him before he gets too far. With Walker sufficiently taken care of, Raylan is free to focus on Boyd. But before he does, he has to take Boyd to Markham so that the man can claim his $100,000 reward. Boyd is obviously suspicious, but, as Raylan makes clear throughout the episode, no redneck can turn down a handsome sum of money.
Markham is furious when Raylan shows up with Boyd, and it becomes clear that Raylan’s plan all along had been to shake up the dynamic between the two. Raylan wanted Boyd to come claim the money, and he wanted Markham to have to open his vault and show what’s inside. Boyd may have the $100,000, but Raylan knows he can’t resist the $10 million that’s sitting inside that vault now that he’s had a peak at it.
As much as greed is a central theme to the episode, “Dark as a Dungeon” still comes back to the ghosts of the past. Ghosts haunt the scenes where Katherine Hale informs Duffy about her plans to marry Markham and take his money a year from now if Boyd can’t come through, and the scene where she gives Art some information about the murder of Simon Poole. That crime, which went hand-in-hand with the murder of Grady Hale, has been motivation for Katherine for 14 years. She wants revenge, and if she has to use Art to get it, you bet she will. Even Duffy seems like an disposable pawn at this point. When Katherine buttons up his shirt, never really assuring him that once she gets the money from Markham that she’ll share it with him, it’s menacing, an indication that Katherine is really only loyal to herself.
The episode ends with a much more literal haunting. Raylan has taken a key from Arlo’s dog tags, and it opens an old shed that Raylan was never allowed to enter when he was a kid. When he opens it now, as an adult, the presence of Arlo is still there. He asks Raylan if he’s disappointed that he didn’t find anything meaningful in there, anything that would give him an indication of who his father really was. Raylan doesn’t seem to care about his father, but it’s clear how much of an effect he’s had on him.
Harlan is filled with ghosts. Grady Hale, Simon Poole, Bowman Crowder, Arlo Givens; these are names that still hang over the heads of the characters, that still influence their actions even after their deaths. As Justified barrels toward its series finale (five episodes to go), it’s clear that even if the likes of Raylan, Boyd, and Ava manage to escape Harlan, they can never really outrun their past or change who they are.