After writing my Castalia article on “Justified”, it got me to thinking about it again. Since it can only be streamed through Amazon – which I’m not paying for – I went out and bought few of the better episodes (there is a large choice!).
While the critical consensus tends to disagree, real fans know what the high point of the show is, was, and always will be: Season 4’s antepenultimate episode, “Decoy”.
I went back to “Decoy”, and to complete the mini-collection I picked up the last two episodes of the season as well, “Peace of Mind” and “Ghosts”. I remembered “Ghosts” as a classic, but had more or less forgotten about “Peace of Mind”, and rewatched it again for the first time today. And MAN, am I glad I did. The more I think about it the more convinced I am that the last three episodes of season 4 represent a high water mark for the series, as superb as season 6 is.
“Justified’s” handling of religion has always been kind of interesting. The first season handled it by having Boyd turn into a wacko fundamentalist preacher who loses his faith when his father murders his flock. Season 4 circles back around to religion, and treats it a bit more kindly. It seems early on in the season that Boyd is going to have an enemy in Preacher Billy, who handles snakes. Boyd realizes his sister milks the rattlers and manages to get Billy killed (or rather, gets Billy to get himself killed).
At this point religion in the South is still looked at as a sort of crazy curiosity. But this all changes in “Peace of Mind”. I’m surprised I didn’t remember how remarkable this episode really was.
The story of the episode revolves around the finding of a whore, Ellen Mae. Ellen Mae has learned a lot of secrets about Boyd Crowder’s outfit and has inadvertently hurt some people in the Detroit mafia. Because of this, she’s been in hiding. Ellen Mae is a sweetheart, but “dumb as a box of rocks”, as Raylan later puts it. At the start of the episode she’s holing up with Limehouse, the head of a black community called Noble’s Holler. Both the Crowder outfit and the Detroit mafia – who team up in pursuit of this mutual goal – are fairly certain she’s with Limehouse, but don’t know where he’s holding her, and are prepared to offer him $300,000.00 for her.
On her side is the U.S. Marshal service. Earlier in the season Ellen Mae had been aided by a man named Shelby, AKA Drew Thompson, a notorious criminal on the run from a murder rap for decades before finally being caught by Raylan. Drew took a great liking to Ellen Mae, and offers an ultimatum: He spills no secrets about the Detroit Mafia – who he was involved with in the past – until Ellen Mae is found safe. The Marshals agree to help find her.
This all sounds complex but you can summarize it pretty simply: Ellen Mae is being searched for by the Detroit Mafia+the Crowder gang, who want her dead, and by the U.S. Marshals, who want to deliver her safe to Thompson.
Okay. Here’s the remarkable part.
After some maneuvering, Ava Crowder – a bad guy, if you’ll note the last name – manages to get $300,000.00 to Limehouse in exchange for Ellen Mae. But Limehouse, to Ava’s shock, turns the deal down and reveals he’s already let Ellen Mae go. He explains to Ava that he’s been wondering about the effects their actions are having on other people. He tells Ava that they can no longer ignore the consequences of their decisions, and so he has chosen in this case to help an innocent person survive. Ava doesn’t understand this: Who, after all, would turn down $300,000.00 in exchange for the life of a person they barely know?
Let’s fast forward through the episode. Some interesting stuff occurs that pays dividends thematically in the final episode, but that’s not what we’re focusing on right now. We’re here for Ellen Mae.
Ellen Mae has sought refuge with a young woman named Cassie, the sister of the preacher who was killed by Boyd Crowder. Ellen Mae tearfully tells Cassie that she was praying to Jesus for help the entire time, and that she knew God had worked a miracle in Limehouse’s heart so she could escape. She comes to tell Cassie that she left something out of an earlier confession: Her participation in the burying of the body of a man murdered by the Crowder gang. She says she’s ready to have her sins washed away by the blood of Jesus.
At this point, we’re still not taking Ellen Mae totally seriously. This whole thing is sweet, but preacher Billy’s church was more than a little out there, and Ellen Mae is more than a little dim. But it gets better.
Ava shows up to the church with a gun, ready to kill Ellen Mae herself. Ellen Mae tells Ava that there is forgiveness in repentance, which Ava denies viciously. Ellen Mae continues to hold to her faith and steps forward, ready for Ava to make her decision…and Ava can’t pull the trigger.
Fast forward again. The marshals arrive just in time to rescue Ellen Mae from the other members of the Crowder gang. As Raylan brings Ellen Mae into the squad car, he casually tells her that the only reason they were there is that Drew got them searching for her; that it seemed like “Someone was looking out for you all along”.
And just like that – because it comes out of the mouth of Raylan, even if he didn’t mean it quite that way – we’re given permission to see what happened the way Ellen Mae sees it: A series of small miracles that resulted in the rescue of an innocent woman because she repented of her sin and gave herself to Christ.
If this doesn’t seem that amazing to you…really think about this. Where else is this story played out in popular media? Where else can we find a story mass marketed to the general viewing population about salvation through the blood of Christ?
This wasn’t a Christian show. It never had that reputation and never tried for that reputation. It was a neo-western cop drama. And this storyline was just…there. A part of the show. Right in front of you.
“Justified” was doing something remarkable, and nobody remarked upon it.
One of the most underappreciated shows ever.