Season 2, Episode 1: “The Moonshine War”
Last season we learned about fathers and sons, and here’s what you have to like about fathers and sons. Fathers and sons are learnt of each other, bred of each other, engaged in each other on a level so gut you would be forgiven, for instance, for not understanding, at first, Raylan’s mistrust of his father. For condemning it, perhaps. But as the season progressed and we learned a shard of what Raylan had in his bones, we knew enough to stand back in that motel room, to let the bullet be what it would be. “What did uh…Arlo say?” asks Raylan to the suits. “Your father said you shot him by accident when the bad guys started shootin’.” Smirks Raylan, “He should know.”
And so with that, and with a trip to Miami, and with Boyd off somewhere and Raylan submitting to a full investigation, we bury the first season. He turns in his gun because it’s a season one gun, and now it’s time for season two and a season two gun. Only what could be as interesting as the relationship between a father and a son, what could be so complex as that. Maybe Raylan’s people could be. And I don’t mean his family this time, neither does Rachel, when she asks Raylan to accompany her up to Harlan as she pursues a fugitive. Rachel doesn’t feel comfortable in Harlan, a good angle to lead with on her thus-far ridiculously-underutilized character. She is a woman, but as we’ll soon see that’s not a problem; she is black, which apparently is. So Rachel becomes our eyes, the outsider in the hollers of Kentucky, as Raylan strides forward with all the confidence and swagger a prodigal can have.
What’s up in the holler this time is a sex offender who’s been pursuing a wise-beyond-her teenager named Loretta. Loretta’s mother is dead and her father is depressed and if having a sex offender following you around weren’t enough problems for one family, they’ve also caught the attention of the Bennetts, the local farm-to-table syndicate. Loretta and her father have been growing pot in Bennett territory, and here’s how we meet the gang. Two Bennetts visit Loretta’s father to warn him off growing further. One’s got a limp and the other is the law (adorable!), but they’re both mean as hell. The one with the limp is named Dickie, and first he shoots Loretta’s father in the leg and then he forces Loretta’s father to trap his own leg in a bear trap. It’s awful, and we’ve barely got started. We haven’t even yet met Mags.
Mags runs a store. That’s all she does, you can check. She knows Raylan, is even glad to see him when he and Rachel Ma’am drive up to ask after this sex offender who they have heard is in her family’s employ. Mags tells Loretta here’s Raylan Givens, he was a baseball player, now he’s a fed’ral. Offers everyone a round of apple pie. Apple pie is not a baked good. It is a moonshine. Mags reminisces fondly of her days selling moonshine with Raylan’s grandfather, and wouldn’t you love to know more about that generation but no, no. We’re here in the store, with Rachel as us looking on, trying to keep up with the bred-in familiarity between Mags and Raylan. The way he treats her, distantly respectful and smiling the whole time, tells you plenty about the depth of Mags’ reach. Raylan knows better than to push hard, better than to insult her. Were Rachel driving, what would she be doing, what would you? Seeing an older woman, who clearly knows more than, who openly bemoans the declining life of a grower and turns hard at any hint she might have the law down on her. But where does that leave all of us who aren’t Raylan, all of us who weren’t baseball players back then? How’s anyone supposed to get a thing done in a town operating on gut level itself.
Anyway it turns out that once they learn he is a sex offender, the Bennetts want nothing to do with the fugitive. “She likes me,” says Loretta to her father, and she’s right. Mags likes the girl and fears for her character. Character is big among Harlan folks; while warning Boyd off one of their cartel opponents, Raylan took time to note that while he didn’t want Boyd to do the killing, he had no “moral objections” to her being killed. “You understand, Miss, the life you’ve led?” Must be something gets in you from the hills, and so the fugitive is turned out. He makes a run for it, throwing Loretta in the trunk as he goes. Raylan and Rachel track him to a gas station and Raylan, loathe to return to the “paperwork and self-recrimination” that gunplay would create, drenches the fugitive in gasoline until the man surrenders. It’s a tidy ending but for the coda, which returns us to Loretta’s father’s house. Loretta’s father sits with Mags, and with Dickie, and with the apple pie, that as I said is not a baked good. The three drink, but one glass is poisoned. As Loretta’s father dies, Mags says calming things to him. Soon he’ll be free. Soon he’ll know the secret. Soon he’ll see his dead wife again. And best of all, she’ll raise the girl. And that will be better for the girl. Won’t it? It’s like one of Boyd’s sermons, refracted through the lens of motherhood and power. Boyd had righteousness but never true power. Mags has it less God plus cold cruelty. After a season of dangerous men, she pulls hard at a string you thought had been overlooked. To be a woman in Harlan is no problem at all, so long as you know everyone, and rule them, too.
Oh but the second coda. Can there be? I don’t know. I didn’t forget, anyway, about Raylan being so goddamn tired he can’t help but sleep with his ex-wife, again. “Sonofabitch,” he says, the sweetest pillowtalker you could ever want, and if that weren’t enough, it’s just then that he receives word of his other long-lost love. Boyd having surfaced, in a manner of speaking, in a mine. Fire in the hole, wearing wonderful glasses, seeking, I can only imagine, redemption at the hand of legal explosives. “Are you stealing gas?” asked the fugitive of Raylan. “Yeah,” he lied. “Shit. You caught me. I’m stealing gas. I don’t know why I do it! It’s not like I can’t afford it.” Well, we’ll see.