Justified: City Primeval recap - Ep. 3 "Backstabbers"


Carolyn Wilder is first introduced in City Primeval as the latest attorney who seems to exist purely to stand in the way of Raylan Givens and his brand of nineteenth-century justice. Thankfully, this episode takes Carolyn streets ahead of that dynamic by filling out her motivations, her obstacles, and her deft reaction to each new curveball. She's now a fully fledged character, and despite being on opposing sides from our Stetson-sporting hero, she's become someone to root for.

So, when Clement Mansell arrives in her driveway, sucking down a beer and blaring post-punk music, his face bloody and battered, we can see that it's one pain in the ass too many for her. He gleefully informs her that Raylan has assaulted him and they should take this opportunity to bury him and his case in legal red tape. It's the kind of self-satisfied crap that marks the gulf between Carolyn's introduction as a reliable device and where she is now, both within the plot and on a production level. Her incredulous and pissed reaction really hits the spot.

Carolyn's firm rebuke of her client might be fueled by some bad news. Her ex-husband and ex-partner Jamal has escalated from deadbeat nuisance, and now there is a lien on her house to the tune of over $100,000. That makes for a powerful string on her that may be pulled by the wrong people, but what's worse is that it also dashes her hopes of applying for the now vacant bench left by Judge Guy. 

The need to pay off this debt could easily become a string pulled by the wrong people, but in the moment she has simply had enough of the Oklahoma Wildman's antics. She prevents him from entering her house or putting his cigarette out on her lawn, and nixes his legal scheme immediately. "You probably deserved it...messing with a US Marshal's daughter?" It's clear that this particular defense attorney has a working moral compass.

Meanwhile, the character-development front is more hit-and-miss in the Detroit PD office. While Detective Maureen Downey comes further into focus--both with her careful police work in the Judge's murder case and her later opening her tranquil family home to Raylan and Willa--she is balanced by the one-dimensional swagger of Detective Bryl. The tough-guy cop cliche machine reacts to Clement's stunt with Willa much in the way Raylan might have a decade ago: lots of talk of tossing the mope off a tall building or leaving him dead in a corn field. It's such laughable posturing that the more advanced version of Raylan grins derisively at it.

As it turns out, so does Clement Mansell himself. When the task force decides to move on what little evidence they have (pressured by the media and 36 hours of absolute bupkis leads), we are treated to a montage of interrogation room confrontations for Clement, Sandy, and Sweety. The number-one talking point is the murder weapon which, despite a thoroughly ruthless ransacking of Sweety's bar, remains unfound. Sweety asks for his lawyer, which is smart and expected. Sandy says nothing, which is less expected, although she does seem to be giving the slightest of nods. Not only does she have the supposed location of the murder weapon to use as leverage for a deal, but I can't imagine that she is scared or enamored enough of this absolute creep to protect him. If the show is not setting her up for a surprise plea deal reveal, I'd be shocked.

Clement's response in the box is to immediately deflate Bryl's Vic Mackey routine with a few jokes and then serenade Raylan through the two-way glass with a White Stripes song. It's...not nearly as chilling as it was on paper, or as amusing as Boyd Holbrook envisioned it. Holbrook is fully committed to his character, and this is some of his best acting in his career, but it is excruciating to watch him try to sell a tired trope like this in a way that is new or interesting.

So, with really no substantial evidence to hold any of them, the authorities let them loose. Sweety wastes no time in unfurling his plan to both his partner Trennell and later Carolyn: not only is he sitting on the murder weapon from the Judge and his assistant, but the same gun that killed everyone in the Wrecking Crew murders in 2017. Carolyn agrees this could get Sweety immunity as well as "get this cracker off our backs for good," meaning Mansell. I'm sure that's a solid plan that won't fall apart at all.

Clement and Sandy should lay low, knowing full well that they are being tailed. But this black hat does not conform to traditional wisdom, and decides it is time to pull the nearly-forgotten honey trap scheme on Sandy's Albanian boyfriend, Skender. Between Sandy's in-depth lesson on Albanian blood feuds and Skender's monologue illustrating his genuine devotion to her, this episode is using a lot of shoe leather to establish that Sandy is really the skilled labor in her business endeavors with Clement. Another cute extension of this is her cleaning up the entire "borrowed" penthouse after it too is tossed in the search for the murder weapon. 

The hotdog stand mogul is very plainly not a goldmine, his flashy sports car, gold tooth, and the (yikes) engagement ring that he busts out to impress Sandy and her "protective older brother" all exist to evoke self-made wealth without ever having to prove it. But Clement has dollar signs in his eyes, and after getting his mark nice and fall-down drunk he insists--nay, demands--the oddly specific need to see the Albanian's secret room where some fabled liquid fortune sits.

Sidebar: Clement, posing as Sandy's brother, tells Skender some wild story about their mother being carried off by a tornado, and the powers that be behind City Primeval decided to blow a lot of budget on a farmhouse location and more dodgy CGI for a tornado in a fully realized flashback. Why? Was that incredibly necessary to show us? This story, whether fabricated or based in some truth for Clement, would be much better served just locking the camera on Holbrook and letting him chew on it. What an odd tangent.

True to an Elmore Leonard crime story, Skender's secret treasure room is more like a plush panic room, and the safe is loaded, alright...loaded with guns that are in turn loaded with bullets. But no cash, no jewels, no big score. Having seen Clement Mansell angry enough to commit vehicular assault and then pump five or six slugs into someone merely for interrupting his robbery plans, we can easily predict what he's about to do to this irritating little man who has dashed his hopes. But we will have to wait for Ep. 4, as the only hint is Detroit PD calling Raylan to tell him it "got messy."

Speaking of Raylan, his side of the episode deals almost exclusively with putting Willa out of his new enemy's reach. But first, he tries half-heartedly to repair the damage to their relationship. Willa demands breakfast, then orders nothing. She sits next to Raylan in the booth, then moves to sit across from him when he projects his anger and fear onto her. She's pleading with him to communicate. And finally, when her father dodges her attempts to unlock the emotional barrier between them, she speaks for both Raylan and the writers: "I got in the way, and you got in trouble, and it'd be a lot easier if I weren't around."

For me, personally, a more seasoned Raylan Givens trying to fight a new unhinged nemesis while still balancing a relationship with Willa has been the brightest facet of City Primeval, and this conversation brings it to an apex. Yet another young woman is asking Raylan if it is possible for him to make room for her in his life, only this time it is not an old flame who can get fed up with him and cut it off. But, sadly, "Backstabbers" is also an exercise in storytelling logistics. 

It's true; from a narrative perspective, it is nearly impossible for Raylan to keep his teen daughter in Detroit where a psychotic murderer might be stalking them. He would have to remove her from harm's way, like the protective father he is, and to be perfectly honest the rest of this season of television would be bogged down if the accelerating stakes and violence to come were paused to watch Willa rot in a different hotel room with no story of her own until her dad comes home each night.

Still, I'm as disappointed as the younger Givens when her dad puts her on a plane back to Winona and Richard (aka "the 'stache") without much in the way of an apology or a proper farewell. Raylan is emotionally stunted, sure, but his willingness to--ahem--justify this weak moment as a parent by framing the entire dilemma as being out of his hands...it's cowardly. Raylan's cowardice is a firmly established, rare quality that only rears its head in matters of the heart. And it doesn't help that Vivian Olyphant's heartbroken pleas to take the boring road trip to Graceland hit me right in the breadbasket.

This leaves Willa stabbed in the back, which she had warned her pop to avoid. But it clears the way for the inevitable intense showdown to come. But with Sweety, Carolyn, and possibly Sandy looking to betray Mansell, there are still plenty of people who may get caught in the crossfire.

Episode grade: B

Stray Notes:

-Clement starts the episode blasting "Feral Cats" by a current Detroit post-punk band called Protomartyr, establishing that his eclectic musical taste extends beyond the old-school stuff. It also continues the local bona fides of the City Primeval production. Kudos.

-Willa says to Raylan "You do whatever you want," and later Carolyn tells him "Everybody doesn't get to be angry the way you do." The women surrounding the Marshal are trying to show him the amount of privilege he wields like an overgrown child with a loaded gun. Maybe he hasn't grown as much as I've given him credit.

-Clement is really particular about how a bagel gets toasted, specifically NOT in the bagel toaster. I'm, uh...not exactly sure what that's about. Is the toaster a bomb? Is he hiding another gun in it, somehow? I guess we have to let this bagel issue play out.

-Raylan trying to re-litigate the "is a hotdog a sandwich?" debacle with an expert in the frankfurter industry is a solid gold bit. Ten comedy points, cowboy.

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