'Justified' postmortem: Graham Yost talks 'Decoy'
SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t watched this week’s episode of Justified, “Decoy” written by showrunner Graham Yost and Chris Provenzano and directed by Michael Watkins, stop reading now. We were treated to a great Western as Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) and the Marshals tried to get Drew Thompson (Jim Beaver) out of Harlan alive, and Boyd (Walton Goggins) did his best to stop them for Nicky Augustine (Mike O’Malley). As he’ll do throughout the season, Yost takes us inside the writers’ room to break down the episode and tease what’s to come (only two episodes left!).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You know I loved seasons 2 and 3, but I think this is my favorite episode since the season 1 finale.
GRAHAM YOST: It was a good episode. When Provenzano and I saw it, we were pretty damn proud of ourselves. Are we not geniuses? (Laughs) No. There were a lot of contributions from everyone, including Tim — it was his idea to have Constable Bob [Patton Oswalt] beaten up. And he figured the way to get out of the confrontation at the high school, which was something that we were headed toward, but made it the showdown that doesn’t happen. Chris worked very hard on all the scenes with Raylan, Rachel, and Shelby, and also all the stuff at Johnny’s bar, and I focused a lot on the convoy stuff. It was a nice team effort, and one of the big factors was Michael Watkins, the director, who has done a number of documentaries in Afghanistan, so he loves doing anything that has a little bit of tense, almost military action type stuff in it. And then the actors: One of my favorite scenes in the whole series is Ava, Nicky, and Johnny in the bar. Mike O’Malley just brought it, as did Joelle [Carter] and David [Meunier]. It’s some of David’s best work in the series, and he had like three lines. (Laughs) That’s enough of my glowing self-congratulation.
This is the first episode you’ve had your name on as a writer since the season 4 premiere. Why this one?
If you look back at season 3, I cowrote the opener with [EP] Fred Golan, and then had a little hand in the story of the finale. But I also wrote the one where Gary is killed and the bullet is traced back to Raylan. And then in season 2, I wrote the one where Raylan and Winona have to try to get the money back into the courthouse and into the evidence locker. So working on those kind of very structured tension pieces is something I really enjoy. It’s the kind of stuff I did when I was working in features — whether it was a bus [in Speed], or nuclear weapons [in Broken Arrow], or a flood [in Hard Rain] or whatever — which was to try to come up with these sequences that build. And then I needed someone to do it with me, and I knew Chris would balance it with really great humor and character insight, so it was a good fit. We hadn’t written a script together before, so that was fun.
Let’s start at the beginning with Nicky’s conversation with Boyd about his clothing, his teeth, and his use of 40 words when four will do.
It’s being a little self-referential without going overboard on it. I know Walton has said that he kinda got an insight in to Boyd when he buttoned up the top button. Everyone who’s watched the show has remarked on his teeth: He has such amazing teeth for backwoods. So I wanted to answer that question, and also just the way Boyd talks. Walton always has a suggestion or two when we’ve got a scene: “You know, what if I said this? What if I said that?” So he has a great insight into Boyd and enjoys the colorful language and just nails it. So I thought it would be fun that this outsider comes in and just goes right at everyone’s pride and vulnerability. He does it again with Ava. He’s shining this harsh light on the reality of their world.
Boyd losing a tooth was a nice touch.
I went back and forth on it. It was scripted, it was shot, and I wasn’t sure. It steps right up to the line of believability, and it’s a film cliché — someone gets hit and the tooth pops out. But we thought that it also set the tone for the whole episode in a way, which is we’re going right to the edge on this one: Crazy, crazy stuff is gonna happen.
Why have Nicky use a Biblical reference with Boyd?
I did the first draft of that scene, and a lot of that stayed in tact. There were a couple of things going on, one is that it’s always good to talk about God with Boyd because of his journey. And we establish him as an atheist, essentially, at the beginning of the season. It was also setting up that Nicky is dealing with a boss who is all-powerful and unpredictable. At the time of the writing, we didn’t know exactly how the season was gonna end. Things develop in the next two episodes that took us away from that a little bit.
We find out from Nicky in that scene that Wynn has run. Will we see him again this season?
Keep your eyes open.
The whole episode revolves around Boyd’s knowledge of Raylan from when they dug coal together, which harkens back to the pilot.
It’s a flip on what Raylan brings to the series. In the pilot episode, the reason he’s brought to Kentucky is because of his knowledge of the culture and the terrain and the people. In this episode, instead of Raylan trying to catch a bad guy, it’s bad guys trying to catch a good guy. Boyd’s knowledge of Raylan allows him to solve the puzzle, and it also keeps him alive.
Moving on to the fun at Arlo’s house, what’s the story behind the “Battle of Bloody Porch” Wild Bunch reference?
That is actually a line from my brother. My brother and I are huge fans of The Wild Bunch. Our dad, who passed a year and a half ago, took us to see it when my brother was 14 and I was 9. We saw it in Florida the summer it opened. I wouldn’t always recommend people showing The Wild Bunch to their 9-year-old, but I was well-prepared given the family I grew up in. That’s one of our favorite movies of all time, and the big climactic battle scene was nicknamed on the set “The Battle of Bloody Porch.”
How did you come up with how Arlo and Drew met in Saigon?
At a certain point, when we figured out that Shelby was Drew Thompson, we decided in the room that it’s part of the whole reason why this came to Harlan: Drew knew someone there, and that’s why he sought out Arlo. Then Arlo brought in Bo, and they took care of him, and in turn got a crapload of cocaine. So how would Shelby know Arlo? We just backed it up: Well, maybe they met each other in Vietnam. I said, “What if they met outside a whorehouse?” That just sort of popped into my head. We wanted to establish Raylan as a reader when he was a kid. We thought that was fun and a surprise to the audience and Rachel. You find out Arlo was, too, so it’s one of those “Oh, we read different books but we were both readers, I never knew that.”
Why didn’t Arlo burn the bag as Drew requested?
Because that was always his “Get out of jail free” card. Which is why you can never count on Arlo. You could only count on Arlo to always be Arlo.
NEXT: Circle the wagons!
Take us through the idea for the convoy.
I just liked the idea of this convoy that gets stopped down, and they don’t know whether to proceed or not. It gave us insight into Gutterson, and it really became a Gutterson sequence showing how smart he was, how he could figure out the trick, and a battle of wills between him and Colt. Early on I thought of the phone call between the two of them, and I thought that would be a cool scene. Then going to wow, he circled the wagons. Sometimes it’s fun to hit the nail right on the head and just say, “Yes, we’re doing a Western.” So that was the basic notion of it, and then it was just following it through: Well, how would they get out? And that led to the blowing up of the car.
And Colt’s line about wanting a young Gerard Depardieu to play him?
I think it probably just came from Ron [Eldard]. That had been our joke once we saw him this year: It’s like, “He looks like a young Gerard Depardieu” with the hair and the heft. (Laughs)
Colt shot Mort so that would be one less of Tonin’s guys coming after them when this all went to hell?
Yeah. Boyd wants all of this to succeed because if the bad guys get Drew, he is a made man, but at the same time, they’re all trying to get out from under the control of these bad guys. At one point, I had Colt end up in the bar and help Ava get out of there, and even had a scene at some point where Colt and Ava then pick up Boyd when he’s coming out of the school, and we actually thought about shooting that. But it ended up working just fine without it. It’s the idea that at the end of the episode, Boyd, Ava, and Colt are in the wind.
Why set the standoff in an abandoned school?
Honestly, it was just trying to make the thing producible. Where could we go and just camp out for a couple of days? It posed certain problems for us. We didn’t want any gunplay in a school, naturally, given the recent events. So we wanted to make sure it was an empty school, and that’s part of the reality in that area — they did consolidate the schools into one big school. It takes Raylan back to this youth, and it reminds us of where Raylan came from. If there’s any missed opportunity in the episode it might be a little bit more of the effect of that place on Raylan. Just a line or two maybe, we could have gotten into what life was like for him in high school. We get a glimpse of him talking about reading, and being at the house and never having noticed the view. We might’ve gotten a little bit more out of that, but at the same time, we also had this big clockwork structure that we have to keep moving through.
Whose idea was the astronaut?
I think that was Provenzano. I think an astronaut landed on the baseball diamond at his school in a helicopter. He can’t remember a thing the guy said, but it was like, “OHMYGOD, there’s a helicopter landing on the baseball diamond.”
You said it was Tim’s idea to have Bob get beaten up when he goes to check on Arlo’s house.
It’s a double homage to Tarantino. One is the unbelievable scene in True Romance, which he wrote, between James Gandolfini and Patricia Arquette. It’s that notion that Tim loves that when you torture a character you find out who they are. It doesn’t literally have to be physical torture, but when you tighten the screws, you see who they are. So we liked the idea of Bob’s true character emerging in this, which is he doesn’t give up the information. AND, he ends up getting the guy. We debated on that: Initially it was that Yolo was gonna try to kill him, and then Raylan showed up and killed Yolo, and Tim was saying, “No, let’s have Bob see it through.”
When I wrote the first episode this season, when Arlo killed the trustee giving out the books [in prison], I had him cut his femoral artery and that’s how the guy bled out. And then [director Michael] Dinner said, “You know it’s better on camera if it’s a neck thing.” So I still had this horrible femoral artery thing in my pocket, which was the end of Jason Patric in the film Rush with Jennifer Jason Leigh. And I also thought it would pay off Bob’s belt knife. The conceit of the scene is that he always had the knife on his belt, but he was never able to use it until he played possum and waited for the guy to get close. The other homage to Tarantino in that is having the song playing while the beating is going on. It was Watkins’ idea and the editor’s to try “Love Train.” Believe me, we thought about setting it up, we were going to shoot shots of a hand turning on a radio and all of that, but then we watched it and we said, “Let’s just go for it.” That’s actually a third homage to Tarantino, which is just the willingness to just go for it and hope that the audience goes along. Some of the song choices in Django, perfectly inspired and there’s no motivation for them, they’re just cool songs and sound good against picture.
What did Patton first say about the scene?
He read it in the script, and as far as I know, just said, “Holy s—.” We knew Patton would be good, we didn’t know that he would be brilliant. Just his performance in that scene, he is totally Constable Bob and yet we are finding out new stuff about him. We’ve been very blessed to have him on the show, and the other side of that is that he gets to do stuff that he hasn’t gotten to do before, which makes it even more fun for us. And the actor who played Yolo was just fantastic. At the end of it, we were like, “It’s too bad Yolo died, because that guy is great!” When we saw that sequence, we were like, “Well, that’s about as good as we’ve done.”
NEXT: The last stand
It was a great idea to set Raylan’s initial conversation with Boyd and Picker [John Kapelos] on the stairway. Was that scripted or something found on location?
That was something that Watkins found and liked. Originally, it was written as two ends of a hallway and more showdown-y. But it worked better with the staircase because you’re not thinking, Well, why don’t they just shoot?
After Raylan tells Bob that he bought them five minutes, Bob says there’s something he wants to tell Raylan, and Raylan tells him not to say it. What was Bob going to say?
You know, what did Bill Murray say to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation? I think he was gonna say something to the effect of, “It’s been an honor to serve with you, and if I have to die, I’m glad I’m dying in the line of fire.” Something sort of professing love and admiration for Raylan and some kind of gratitude.
Now we get to the Ava, Nicky, and Johnny scene. At what point did Ava know she was going to threaten to set Nicky on fire to make her escape? When she ordered the brandy?
We went back and forth on that. On the first pass on that scene, I had Ava getting brandy right off the top, and she was planning on trying to get out of there right from the beginning. And it was Tim’s inclination that the scene escalate and things get worse and worse for her, and that it’s once she orders the brandy, when she makes that switch, then she’s thinking of it. She doesn’t switch to brandy until Nicky has already started on his run. This became the defining Nicky Augustine scene. Some stuff from the first version stayed — him looking at her ring and saying, “Did you get it from a claw machine at Denny’s?” But then he embellished it. Literally going into this foul-mouthed rant about what she must have done sexually to get where she is was something that developed over the various drafts. Originally, he was insulting her, saying, “Look, you’re an attractive woman. A Harlan 10, no doubt. But let’s be realistic.” But the idea was let’s just have him unleash on her pretty early on. Mike did a lot of ad-libbing. He just went.
And then you have Nicky outing Johnny for having gone to Duffy to conspire against Boyd, and Johnny admitting that he loves Ava.
One of my favorite moments is, as Fred Golan noticed, the little hitch in David’s voice when he says it. “Ava, I…I love you.” And the outing, we knew that we wanted to have it happen in this episode and we wanted to have it happen in this scene. And then again, there were adjustments on how it actually came out. In an earlier version, he’s not outed until after Ava has threatened to set Nicky on fire, gotten a gun, and says, “Come on, Johnny, let’s go,” and then you realize he’s not going and then it comes out and he leaves. The switch was made: Let’s have it come before, which is just another thing that tightens the screw on Ava. Just as Bob was beaten up and we saw who he really was, get Ava in this situation that gets worse and worse and worse and we see who she really is and what she’s capable of.
And her response, “Oh, that’s sweet,” is perfect.
That one was in there from the beginning. There was an additional line like, “If you really want to do something for me, put a bullet in your head,” but it was better to have her say “Oh, that’s sweet” and leave.
What’s next for Ava?
You’ll see in the next episode, right from the top, Ava, Boyd, and Colt have found each other. Plus Jimmy returns. Boyd knows everything.
In the final showdown at the principal’s office, you almost had me wondering whether they’d figured out how to use an intercom system elsewhere and Raylan wasn’t even behind the door.
Michael Watkins shot coverage of Raylan and Bob inside the office, but when he did his director’s cut, he didn’t use any of them inside. We thought it was more interesting for us not to know where Shelby is, for the audience not to know what’s going on. There were various versions of Raylan talking to Boyd and the bad guys through a closed-door. That was in the very first draft of the episode, and the idea that it was becoming a threat to Boyd’s life — that either Boyd goes through that door or he’s gonna die. We liked the idea of Raylan not saying that he’s saving Boyd, but he is saving Boyd.
So he was saving Boyd in that moment?
He’s saving Boyd, but it’s also a smart tactical move: All Raylan is trying to do at that point with Bob is buy time for Shelby and Rachel to get on the coal train. We don’t know that, but that’s all he’s trying to do. So when it comes to the point where bullets are gonna fly, then Raylan knows that he may get killed, Bob may get killed, and a bunch of other people are gonna get killed, and what’s the point — the guy’s gone. So at that point, he played the hand.
Raylan asked them to promise that they’ll all do this again someday. So this isn’t over with Theo Tonin and Drew?
It is not over with Theo Tonin and Drew, and specifically Nicky Augustine and Drew. And there is a big hanging threat from episode 10, which needs to be addressed in 12.
Ellen May comes back?
Ellen May comes back.
Who came up with the idea for Shelby to leave on the coal train?
I’ll take credit for that, because I think it’s really cool. I just thought trains in Westerns and trains in Harlan. It’s not a coal boom right now in Harlan, but hearing the coal train is a big part of the life. That’s always the job of the hero: To figure out the trick that the bad guy doesn’t.
The enjoyment of this episode is season finale-level, so how do you top this for the last two episodes?
We go in a slightly different way. This is about as big as we can go. We got to do a practical explosion — and that’s fun for the crew, that’s fun for everyone. When that car goes up, that’s not CGI. That’s good ol’ time moviemaking. When we made the decision to reveal who Drew was in episode 9, we had a lot of questions about that, no doubt: Are we letting the air out of the balloon? It was just my feeling that what happens after was every bit as interesting as finding him and that it gave a third act to the season. It wasn’t necessarily easy finding all of the episodes, but we feel pretty good about what we found. You find out who Drew is, then the next thing is getting him, and then the next thing is getting him to Lexington. And then what is 12? We have this big story to wrap up about Ellen May, and then 13, it’s how do we really tighten the screws on our main cast — Raylan, Boyd, and Ava, etc.? The next episodes are more contained, but they have some huge, huge character moves.