Welcome back to my analysis of the second season of FX’s Justified, coming to you a week ahead of schedule. I was originally going to slot this installment in after the next episode, breaking the analysis into three sections of four and one special article on the finale, but circumstances have aligned to have me bring this to you earlier. First of all, I’ve got two premieres to focus on next week – AMC’s The Killing and Showtime’s The Borgias – and it’s uncertain whether I’ll have the time in between those to dissect a month of action. Second, while I haven’t seen either tonight’s or next week’s episodes, the buzz on Twitter from those who have is that they will be bringing many arcs to a boil and there’s a lot I want to discuss before that happens.
And for the happiest of reasons, FX announced yesterday that they’re bringing the show back for a third season, an unsurprising move considering its consistently solid ratings and the disappointing cancellation of Lights Out. So it seems right to take a little time to celebrate the show’s continued existence, and the best way to do that is to look at what it’s been doing right.
And oh, it’s been doing so many things right of late – if you’re not already watching this show after my first exhortations, let me say once again that this is probably one of the most entertaining things on television at the moment. In the last three episodes, not only have they managed to keep the momentum of their earlier installments going but have validated my faith that they know exactly what they’re doing as the story progresses.
The first of those payoffs has been in the advancement of Boyd Crowder’s story – and considering the lower billing I gave it in the first installment, it seems only right to start there. The central action of the show’s fifth episode “Cottonmouth” brought his internal conflict about his “outlaw ways” to a boil, and did so in a way that proved while he may be conflicted about who he is now that doesn’t mean he’s afraid of it. Half-persuaded and half-strongarmed into joining a trio of robbers trying to make off with a mining payroll, Boyd governs his involvement with a series of very clever moves (calls to his own cell phone, batteries in soapy water) that not only alerts him to their treachery but puts him in a position to ward it off and turn their booby trap right back around on them. His dispatching of the wounded survivor had a flavor very similar to the jaw-dropping close of Breaking Bad‘s penultimate episode “Half Measures” – he’s made his decision about this instance, and any blood that comes from it is an afterthought for him to deal with as dispassionately as possible.
And passion is the key word here – the reinvention Walton Goggins has brought to this character between seasons is a testament to his talent and charisma. I’ve rewatched the Justified pilot since writing my first installment, and the difference between that episode’s bombastic militant and his current incarnation is remarkable not only for the fact that you believe the evolution is genuine but that you find yourself oddly rooting for this former white supremacist to come out on top. He appears to be moving back to the orbit of the main story, and the show will no doubt be better for it.
Boyd’s action was the forefront of “Cottonmouth,” but equally important was the fact that it once again brought the Bennett clan into the spotlight with a terrifying performance by Margo Martindale as matriarch Mags. Finding out that her sons were screwing up yet again by cashing the checks of a man she murdered, she takes dimwit Coover to task with a rap on the hand – a rap that comes repeatedly from a ball-peen hammer. The merciless way she does so, and the still affectionate way she hugs the sobbing man to her chest, continues to demonstrate how fantastic this character is and the lengths she’ll go to protect what’s hers – even at the expense of her own blood. I’m all for showrunners being judicious with their characters, but Martindale needs more screentime soon – and like Goggins, it feels like the pieces are being set to bring them back into orbit with Raylan.*
*I haven’t commented too much on Olyphant’s performance in this season, mostly because I said it all before when I talked about Season 1 on TLOTE. Olyphant continues to portray Raylan with all the charm and control Elmore Leonard originally wrote the character with, and his relationships to each character – Winona, Boyd, Art and Mags – all feel genuine based on his history with each. He’s held back on shooting people and is wearing his hat less this season – possibly due to Leonard’s lukewarm reaction to the Stetson – but he’s no less convincing or entertaining for it. Seth Bullock has officially moved to the number two spot of roles you identify Olyphant with.
Outside of its masterful world-building in the fifth episode, the show has also reaffirmed my faith in its storytelling after what seemed to be a lackluster sixth installment “Blaze of Glory.” Though it did allow Raylan a wonderful faceoff with a pair of supposedly kamikaze bank robbers (“In Harlan, we know the difference between road flares and dynamite”) and had an interesting decision on Winona’s part to take a $100 bill from an evidence locker, on the whole it felt like a throwback to the show’s first season of semi-standalone episodes. And as a standalone there was nothing new offered – the elderly bank robber it centered on even felt like a slightly modified version of Douglas Cooper from the show’s second episode, and his accomplices were near identical to any of the show’s other throwaway thugs.
But then, after making it seem like all the loose ends were tied up, the show jolts both us and Winona out of our complacency in the opening scene of episode seven (“Save My Love”) when she realizes that $100 bill wasn’t recovered from the robbers by Raylan as we were all led to believe.** This realization turns an easily dismissed plot thread into the show’s tensest non-gun-related action to date as Winona reveals she took far more than just one bill and the two have to plan their maneuvers through a courthouse of security and suspicious coworkers to put it back.**** By the end of the episode, we’ve seen a new side of Winona’s character, just how far Raylan will go to protect her, and how clearly frightened the two of them are by that discovery.
**Scott Tobias, who recaps Justified for The A.V. Club, actually mentioned to me on Twitter that the episodes work better as a two-parter, and I think he’s 100 percent right. If you’re catching up on these, definitely watch the two in a row if possible.
***Those coworkers thankfully include Stephen Root as the eccentric Judge Reardon, first introduced in Season 1’s “Hammer.” Certainly one of the highlights of the early standalone episodes, I’m hoping the writers give him more reason to stick around.
A large part of the tension around the courthouse revolved around a wrongful deathllowed for the introduction of a new character: coal mining executive Carol Johnson, played by Rebecca Creskoff of HBO’s Hung (which I haven’t seen, but according to a podcast from HitFix’s Dan Fienberg and Alan Sepinwall her character is best defined as “the sociopathic, redheaded other pimp [who] got naked periodically”). This new character puts me very much in mind of Agent Stahl (Ally Walker) from Sons of Anarchy – an aggressive, professional woman going up against a traditional band of criminals and/or lawmen with the goal of grinding them into the dust. She’s clearly marked the Bennetts as enemies, has hired Boyd on as her enforcer with little care for his ambivalence about returning to his “outlaw ways,” and it’s not too much of a stretch to interpret the looks she’s given Raylan as hungry ones. She might grow to feel like an uncomfortable intruder as Stahl did in later episodes, but now she seems like just the spark to light the powder kegs of at least three plot threads.
If there is something off with this season halfway in, it’s the feeling that perhaps there might be a little too much going on. Between the Bennetts, the tumult of Raylan’s affair with Winona, the body count of Boyd’s internal conflict and the cases of the week, each episode seems to be short on time to get everything out of the way. I was supportive earlier of the subplots given to both Rachel and Tim – and since they’re getting more general screentime this year it’s nice to feel more attached to them as characters – but whatever’s going on in their lives is certainly nowhere near as interesting as what’s brewing outside of the office. And while a subplot with Winona’s inept ex-husband Gary getting back into bed with the Dixie Mafia certainly adds another layer of tension to Raylan’s relationship with Winona – and happily brings back Jere Burns’ psychopath Wyn Duffy – it does feel like that’s an angle I’d rather they shelve for next season.***
***Granted, a large part of this is because I’m hoping the show’s penchant for bringing back Deadwood actors (Jim Beaver of Ellsworth fame is the latest as the mine’s foreman) will lead Ian McShane back to lock horns with Olyphant as the shadowy head of the Dixie Mafia. Not now though – were you to have both McShane and Martindale in one season you might as well send the rest of the cast home.
The other complaint also has to do with the sheer size of the growing cast, in that Joelle Carter’s Ava has been mostly pushed off to the side now that her relationship with Raylan has come to an end. This makes sense from a balancing point – Natalie Zea was mostly an afterthought from the first season so it’s probably Carter’s turn now – but she’s starting to feel less like a cast member and more like a hanger-on to Boyd’s efforts to keep himself together. There’s been some hints of a budding romance between the two, but although they’ve had some very good moments together – particularly in the close of “Cottonmouth” where Boyd not only confines in her but makes her an accessory to crime – I’m not sure a romantic attachment feels like the natural response from either of the characters.
But this is a show that is continually reassuring me that it knows where it’s going, where one lackluster episode can be transformed into the first part of a masterful suspense story and where even a throwaway line about a “bank man” in the premiere can be the indicator of where the second half of the season is going. This isn’t a show where they’re fumbling with the plot lines, nor a show that’s overreaching its narrative bonds – it’s just a show that’s spoiled for choice in what it can offer week to week. And as we’re heading into the second half of this season, it remains at the top of the offerings week to week as well.