“The Moonshine War”
February 9th, 2011
“You never go outside…you know that.”
There are two reasons I decided to forgo a pre-air review of Justified second season, despite having access to the first three episodes in advance. The first reason is that I legitimately did not have time to watch all three episodes, making writing a comprehensive review of the likes of Sepinwall or Ryan somewhat pointless. The other reason is that I sort of feel as though my coverage of the first season established my opinion about the series, addressing the lingering concerns about the procedural structure and embracing the series’ complex conclusion. Considering that my opinion on those efforts is entirely unchanged based on “The Moonshine War,” to repeat it would be redundant.
Instead, I want to focus my limited time on “The Moonshine War” itself, a compelling premiere which is surprisingly subtle given the explosive finale that was “Bulletville.” While the title implies a war, this is very much an introductory survey, a short but stellar glimpse into another corner of Harlan, Kentucky, and the battle brewing within. It’s a strong foundation for the season’s serialized arc, but despite the somewhat manufactured circumstances it never feels like a blatant new beginning.
It feels like a return to Kentucky, and a return to a world which is as rife for drama as it was at the conclusion of last season. And, frankly, I’m pretty darn excited about it.
I don’t know if tonight’s live airing worked the same way, but the screener came with a “Previously On…” which was actually just a condensed version of the final scene of “Bulletville.” There’s no lengthy preamble about who Raylan Givens is, or his complicated relationship with Winona and Ava, or his strained relationship with his father, or the basic function of the Marshall Service. The information that “new” viewers would receive was simply a setup for the immediate payoff: Raylan and Boyd hunting down the agents of the Miama drug cartel, and Raylan traveling to Miami in order to deliver a message and achieve a peace of sorts.
They’re great scenes stylistically, with Boyd and Raylan’s rain-soaked showdown at the airport and the staredown in Miami both having an electricity in them that carried over form the great finale. However, they are also mostly functional: they tie off the loose end, establishing that Raylan is no longer dealing with the ramifications of his shooting in the show’s pilot and also establishing the fact that Kentucky doesn’t quite want Raylan and that Raylan doesn’t quite want to leave Kentucky. It’s an epilogue, a brief conclusion to the “cliffhanger” set up by last season before transitioning almost entirely into a new story. We don’t see Ava after Bulletville, we get only a brief glimpse of Boyd to conclude the episode, and the loose ends from the events of the last few episodes of the first season are played out in investigative interviews and white boards rather than intense ramifications.
The ramifications are there: Raylan returns to a caution-taped apartment, blood still on the bedspread and body outlines taped on the floor, and that investigation means that he’s without his weapon for the remainder of the episode. This may seem strange, a purposeful break in momentum, but it’s a welcome reprieve. One of the things that I liked so much about the procedural storylines last season is that they did feel like a break: Raylan’s life could be incredibly complicated, but the procedural stories were comparatively quiet, and the “stillness” often made the explosive moments stand out. The show is very interested in avoiding out and out chaos except for climaxes like “Bulletville,” choosing instead to find quiet moments of suspense which can be broken by bloodshed. It’s the essence of Raylan as a character, that sense that “just talking” can turn into a shootout at the drop of a hat.
“The Moonshine War” is unique in that it doesn’t even have that potential: Raylan doesn’t have a gun, a fact that I honestly didn’t realize until thinking about the episode after watching it for the first time. There was never the potential of Raylan breaking out his piece, never a chance that his visit to Harlan would turn into the shootouts that we’ve come to expect. Instead, Erica Tazel’s Rachel becomes Raylan’s gun, which ostensibly turns Raylan into the mouthpiece and Rachel into the muscle.
I’m of two minds about this when it comes to Tazel, who I was frankly surprised to see still listed as a cast member. The show completely underused and underserved the character last season, as she disappeared into the background and was barely present in the concluding episodes. And so I was pleased to see her featured here, and her conversation with Raylan in the car spoke to insecurities that add some depth to the character. However, for her to be limited to the muscle, never allowed to engage in the same kind of wordplay and conversation that Raylan does, still seems concerning to me, and I wonder whether this actually added any depth to her character at the end of the day.
It did, though, give Timothy Olyphant plenty to work with. He’s at his best when he’s allowed to charm his way into situations, and his interactions with the Bennett clan were an easy highlight in the episode. There has always been something really engaging about Raylan returning to his roots, comfortably returning to old rhythms as he reintegrates himself into Mags Bennett’s general store and the culture therein. The idea that he did so without a gun, and that he and Rachel were forced to work as a team, allowed Olyphant plenty of opportunity to work on his smooth talking while also creating a different kind of dynamic with Rachel (who got to stand up for herself with the Bennett Boys, in particular). The scene at the gas station was especially great in this regard, as Raylan half-asses some small talk, uses the gas nozzle as his gun, and then allows Rachel to take over from there. It isn’t quite deep characterization, but it felt natural, and that’s a step in the right direction when it comes to the rest of the Marshal Service.
As for the Bennetts, this is just a very smart introduction all around. I knew that this was going to be a strong arc based on casting alone: Margo Martindale and Jeremy Davies have been consistently strong in other projects, and I’d argue that everyone else associated with the family fits nicely as well. What struck me, though, was how functional and yet evocative this story was. It seems, at first, like a complicated web of interactions: the concerned father reveals the pervert, the pervert reveals a secret grow house, the grow house results in retribution, and then the pervert re-enters the picture in order to kidnap the daughter and bring the whole thing to a conclusion.
The back and forth of it was really effective just based on entertainment value, taken as a standalone story that Raylon is tasked with solving, but the real value is in that fantastic final scene. It not only tells us that Mags, despite her pleasant demeanor, is someone to be reckoned with, but it also makes us realize that all of the episode’s action was irrelevant. As soon as Loretta’s father made that phone call, he had sealed his fate: his mistake was not his efforts to earn a living, it was his willingness to trust someone other than the Bennett’s to keep the peace. It’s a simple rule, one which speaks volumes about the nature of this family and the kind of control it holds. If the threat of Bo Crowder was his desire for expansion, the threat of Mags Bennett is the degree to which her family has established a problematic tradition which threatens the future of people like Loretta and of Harlan in general.
I’ve yet to watch the next two episodes, but the setup is here. There is still room for this show to tell standalone stories, just as there is still room for Winona to return at episode’s end and for Ava to certainly return in due time. “The Moonshine War” is all about world building, letting the rest of the show’s world largely pass by unnoticed while a new continent is explored. Arlo Givens remains at large, Boyd Crowder is blowing things up (although, it appears, in a perfectly legal fashion), and the show’s world is likely to keep expanding with each subsequent episode. At the same time, though, the world still needs to feel small: it still needs those quiet moments for Raylan to investigate, that subtle suspense which seems distinct to the series. The introduction of the Bennetts was unquestionably the start of a larger arc, but it never felt as though the show was actually getting larger. It was a micro-introduction of a macro-storyline, just the right balance to get the season started off on a very strong foot.
- Really great work from Kaitlyn Dever here – her first introduction to Raylan reminded me of Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit. She obviously doesn’t have as much to do, but she’s certainly in a position to play a key role going forward.
- While there were definite shades of Daniel Faraday’s more esoteric side in Dickie, I’m very interested in seeing Davies work with something a bit more sinister here. He really is sort of Faraday by way of his other most famous television portrayal, Charles Manson, but there’s some room for originality here that I think he’ll easily take advantage of.
- I don’t know if I’m going to have time for weekly reviews, but it is certainly a possibility, so do speak up if you’d like consistent coverage.