‘Justified: City Primeval’ Episode 3 Stresses the Limits of Good Intentions — Spoilers

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Justified: City Primeval” Episode 3, “Backstabbers.” Read our review of Episodes 1 and 2 here.]

As Raylan Given (Timothy Olyphant) sits outside the Wild Earp bar, waiting to see what Clement Mansell (Boyd Holbrook) does next, he hears a not-so-helpful piece of advice. Earlier, when Raylan and his daughter, Willa (Vivian Olyphant), were staying with Detroit P.D. officer Maureen Downey (Marin Ireland), the elder lawman couldn’t help but notice the family’s easy-going camaraderie. “I was honestly wondering how you did it,” Raylan says, sitting in the tail car with Maureen. “The job, domestic bliss” — two things that have never gelled for Raylan, and that Willa is demanding he reassess once more.

But, despite her hopeful opening line, Maureen doesn’t have the answer. “Oh that’s easy,” she says. “Pretend.”

Plenty of people are pretending in Episode 3, whether they’re aware of it or not. Sandy (Adelaide Clemens) is pulling triple-duty: pretending she threw Clement’s murder weapon into the river (when she actually put it back in the bathroom of Sweety’s bar), pretending she doesn’t know what the cops are talking about when they arrest her in the middle of her casino, and pretending she’s in love with Skender (Alexander Pobutsky), the Albanian hot dog salesman who’s actually her primary mark. Clement, for his part of the charade, pretends he’s Sandy’s brother, in order to gain access to Skender’s luxury apartment (and the promise of money within) — just as he “pretends” not to see the stoplight turn green, in order to expose his DPD followers, Norbert (Norbert Leo Butz) and Wendell (Victor Williams).

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 19: Boyd Holbrook attends the "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" press conference at the 76th annual Cannes film festival at Palais des Festivals on May 19, 2023 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Sebastien Nogier/Pool/Getty Images)

"Minx" Season 2 Starz

This type of pretending is purposeful. It’s consciously orchestrated in order to accomplish something. Clement wants to get the cops off his tail, so he can rob Skender without being seen. He lies to Skender so the lovesick kid will trust Clement enough to walk into an ambush, which is the same reason Sandy has been lying to Mr. Hot Dog Sandwich, too. But Episode 3, “Backstabbing,” is even more interested in self-deception; the type of pretending that’s either unremarked upon or unrecognized. Poor Skender probably should’ve accused Clement of “pulling my shit” for reasons beyond his dead mama story (we’ll come back to that), but he’s too love-drunk (and drunk-drunk) to see the warning signs. Willa, like most teenagers, thinks she’s safe so long as she’s with her dad, even though Clement made it abundantly clear that’s not the case. Still, she’s a kid. She needs to believe in safety right now, just as she needs her father to hear what she’s really upset about.

Therein lies the rub. Raylan’s good intentions aren’t helping him grasp what’s got Willa so riled up, despite her being pretty damn clear on the subject. Back in Episode 1, before her trip to camp was so rudely interrupted, Willa tells her dad, “You wouldn’t last an hour without your phone. How else would you get the call?” “What call?” Raylan says. “Your call? All you do is text.” But Willa isn’t talking about herself. She’s talking about the U.S. Marshal service. “Not my call,” she says. “The call.”

It’s a quiet but crucial moment. Raylan barely tracks the conversation — because he’s already spotted the fast-approaching car-jackers in his rearview mirror — and that’s very much Willa’s point. Raylan’s job keeps pulling him away from her. It’s why Willa’s not in camp. It’s why they’re in Detroit. It’s why he’s not with her when Clement comes calling, and it’s why he’s sending her back home, while he wraps up yet another case, thus ending any chance of a father-daughter trip to Graceland — a place she didn’t want to visit, but a trip she’s desperate to share with her father.

The call comes in again, right when Willa is boarding her flight to Florida. At first, Raylan sends it to voicemail, turning back to his daughter and asking for a hug goodbye. But when it rings a second time, he picks up, and when he turns around she’s already gone.

JUSTIFIED: CITY PRIMEVAL Episode 3 Pictured: (l-r) Boyd Holbrook as Clement Mansell, Norbert Leo Butz as Norbert Bryl
Boyd Holbrook and Norbert Leo Butz in “Justified: City Primeval”Courtesy of George Burns Jr / FX

It’s unclear how much Raylan recognizes about his fracturing relationship with Willa. Earlier, over breakfast, he’s steadfast in his belief that she’s angry with him. After all, Willa just saw him beat the shit out of another human being. From Raylan’s perspective, what matters is that his daughter witnessed her role model act in an excessively violent matter — an upsetting action, to be sure. But Willa insists she’s not mad. She’s more concerned with how consumed Raylan was, and is, with Clement. He didn’t escort his daughter back to their hotel room — he stayed with Clement. He didn’t talk to her about what happened — he just went after the threat. One gets the sense Willa has experienced this situation before: Her dad’s time and attention drifts away from her because he’s got a convict to catch, a case to crack, or another duty more pressing that his paternal obligations. All she wants to convey to him is the pattern, as well as her disappointment, and Raylan has yet to acknowledge anything more than he’s sorry this happened, but that’s the job.

“Justified: City Primeval” is playing a tricky game. In these first three episodes, Willa is forcing her dad to choose between his job and his daughter, which in turn asks the audience to root for Raylan to quit chasing bad guys… which is the engine that drives the show. Even considering as much is enough to unsettle viewers who’ve been anticipating more “Justified” since the initial incarnation ended; typically, people don’t want their favorite stories to return, only to explain that coming back was a mistake. “City Primeval” isn’t going that far — Raylan is still in Detroit, and he will see this investigation through to the end — but I admire the courage to ask such questions, and look forward to seeing how Raylan defends his choices.

That leads us to our third kind of pretending, as illustrated in Episode 3 by Carolyn Wilder (Aunjanue Ellis). She’s first shown sitting on a pool chair next to an empty pool, staring at a surprise lien on her house — a lien, we later learn, that could put her out of the running for a judgeship. In that opening scene, a wailing trumpet sets a weary tone, but Carolyn doesn’t stay down. She stands tall when Clement pulls into her driveway, covered in bruises, expecting to file a claim against Raylan. And she pushes back when the U.S. Marshal tries to bully her into betraying her client. “We know he did [it],” Raylan says. “Then prove it,” Carolyn snaps. “Get it — the right way. Look, look, look: I know that’s your kid. You’re angry. I get it. I’d be angry, too. But everybody doesn’t get to be angry the way you do.”

Carolyn is angry, but she has to pretend otherwise. Everyone else is pretending in order to deceive — either themselves or others. Carolyn is pretending because she has to, just to get through each day. And she’s growing tired of it.

Grade: B

“Justified: City Primeval” releases new episodes Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX, which are available the next day on Hulu. For more, check out IndieWire’s full-season review.

(El)More Leanings:

  • As has been established time and time again, Clement Mansell is a liar. But for whatever reason, it appears he tells Skender the truth about one key aspect of his life, even if it’s a little less clear why: Clement lost his mother to a tornado. That’s right. Given the morbidly cartoonish story has nothing to do with conning the Hot Dog King, as well as Sandy’s serious reaction to its very mention, I have to believe Mrs. Mansell really was swept up by a tornado. Clement claims “it was a day like any other,” and his mama was hanging clothes outside when a twister set down nearby. Before she could get back inside, she was lifted up and her body was never found.

    Now, there’s a few ways one could interpret this story. One is that it sounds like something a kid was told about a parent who abandoned them. (“No, no, little Clem. Your mother didn’t leave you. She was, well, she was killed by a tornado.”) Another interpretation could be that Clement, “The Oklahoma Wildman,” was the tornado — he killed his own mother, and this is just the story he’s come up with to share with other people. (He may have told Sandy the same thing, which is why she’s so shaken up by its mention.) Of course, Clement could be lying — and Sandy is just acting, since she’s still pretending to be his sister — but the live-action flashback tends to imply this is something else besides another tall tale from a man full of them.

  • I didn’t write much about Sweety (Vondie Curtis Hall) last week, but he’s making big moves now. Not only does the soberly smoking bartender find Clement’s murder weapon before the cops can dig it up, but he tells Carolyn he’s got it! Sweety’s a smart guy who’s been waiting a few years to get back at Clement (for killing their gang, the Wrecking Crew, who we saw get offed in Episode 2’s opening flashback), but he better be careful. Clement betrayed him once (when he outed Sweety mid-robbery) and he’s been blackmailing him ever since. (If Clement gets put away for those murders, he’ll tell them Sweety was there, too.)
  • “Black bag in a cornfield” — that’s Norbert’s solution to Clement, as soon as he hears the Oklahoma Wildman came after Raylan’s daughter. The man didn’t even blink. Yikes.
  • Let’s not forget that Skender’s secret room only exists in case he gets into a violent “blood feud” with his own family. Those Albanians must mean business.
  • “I was once standing behind an individual who ordered a hot dog sandwich — is it a sandwich?”

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