Season 1, Episode 12: “Fathers and Sons”
Over the last few episodes we have seen the show do a remarkable thing to its hero, which is, it has made him look fairly unheroic. If your complaint in the early episodes was that Raylan was always getting off too easy or succeeding too much, good news, that is no longer happening. Having his father nearby has brought out what appears to be the absolute worst in him. Raylan-as-bitchface. Raylan as “It’s astounding to me that you’re just now realizing that’s why we’re here.” Raylan as petulantly drinking his boss’ bourbon. Raylan as got to the point where I was thinking, for god’s sake, Raylan, give your damn father a break. I truly thought that! And the episode leads you on, there, by presenting us the scene in the VFW where Arlo talks a young veteran (all Iraq veterans must be named Lucky, that is television law) out of blowing up the only bar in town by feeding him a line of bullshit about his own service in Vietnam.
It’s an awfully clever deke, because of course it puts you in the mind of Raylan’s own hostage negotiation, and you start to think you know there’s a lot to be said for the things we inherit from our fathers and maybe a man can change, right, a man can change, I kind of wish a man could change, and then (a) Arlo tells the VFW bartender that “My son’s been fighting wars since the day he was born,” and (b) Arlo tells Raylan that he will wear a wire and you are like SEE THAT SEE THAT A MAN CAN CHANGE A MAN CAN
Except he can’t. One line of bullshit follows another, and the wars that Raylan’s been fighting march ever onward. Arlo takes that wire, he does, and he marches straight into Bo’s hideaway and he proceeds to double-cross the marshals. And Raylan. Red-faced, petulant Raylan. Who has done his honest best to warn us off falling for his father’s tricks! Can’t stop this one. It’s not that he’s cried wolf too frequently. It’s that anything rings hollow if it’s heard too often, if it’s shouted too stridently. If it appears to be coming from a heroic man who is recently acquainted with desperation.
Plus Raylan must certainly want his father’s redemption, in some way. That want is a form of hope. And if Arlo destroys it, here? That’s a far fall for our marshal, who has guarded so carefully and who told the truth so much.
The Crowder family is meanwhile fighting on a different plane, one where both parties are being entirely open with one another and waiting to see which will crumble first. Two bucks and horns and a mountain and something something, right? Boyd is bold and Boyd is crafty, Boyd certainly knows that his father is on the hook to the Miami cartel and Boyd certainly knows that blowing up that shipment will put his father in trouble. I suppose it could put Boyd in trouble as well, but he’s lately got the air of a man protected by God, so I’m not too worried about him. His play is complex, his play is a shuffle in the aisle at church as well as a rocket launcher on the side of the road. All that wondering I’ve done about whether or not he’s a good or bad man, it may all be irrelevant. It may all be about fathers and sons, it may all be about disposing of his own roots so that he can grow fresh. In the eyes of God or in the eyes of becoming the new Crowder in town. Either way. What would Boyd do, with his father gone. What would Raylan do, without his. If you have leaned on a stuck door your whole life, and it falls open all of a sudden, how do you learn to walk through?
Ava walked through. Back in episode one she did. She shot her husband and fell in love with a new man, and look, now, where all those choices and chances have got her. When Winona came to Raylan, at night, and she took off her wedding ring and the two of them fell together I could not figure it. It was smart to keep the scene wordless, to give me room to think all sorts of things: was it just sex, or just power, or just something deeper. Why now, why, now. Hard to say, except for Ava’s car out front. I don’t know why now for Winona or why now for Raylan, but I do know why now for Ava. I know that she’ll never go back, now. I know that it’s important she went to Aunt Helen, then, and asked her for a gun. Aunt Helen looked at Ava and no doubt saw a piece of herself. Aunt Helen warned her dutifully, about picking the lifestyle with the sawed-off shotgun and you sitting in the dark, but Aunt Helen knows that sometimes you can’t and shouldn’t rely on the ones who swear to protect you. Particularly the men. They have their own battles, their father and son battles. You are easy collateral, because you love them so much.
In church Boyd said that he is “a new creature,” and though it was part of a shuffle-and-hop, I believe him. I believe him and I believe that this is the way to survive in Harlan. Ava is a new creature now, and I believe she will survive. Does Raylan have it in him? You hope. He could choose the other path, he could be Bo or he could be Arlo and he could hang on tenaciously, unchanging and cruel. Raylan may think he’s a new creature, but being different than your father does not make you new. That is a position he took years ago. What he needs now is more than righteousness, more than a quick draw, more than confident negotiation tactics. What he needs now is to be reborn.