One of the interesting things about watching a television show is the fact that, by virtue of it being an ongoing story with multiple installments, there’s rarely one moment that you can point to where it crosses the threshold from good to great. You can certainly point to moments and specific tweaks as improvements in quality (post-pilot episodes of Cougar Town and Parks and Recreation), or episodes that serve as exemplars of why a show belongs in the pantheon (Mad Men‘s “The Suitcase,” Breaking Bad‘s “One Minute”). But your actual moments of epiphany tend to be saved until the very end of a season, or after a string of episodes where you realize just how strong the writers and performances have been and how much they’ve advanced the story.
All of that is a rather convoluted way of saying that I can’t say exactly where FX’s Justified made the leap from good to great show, but at the close of the second season there’s no denying that it did. As I wrote about in great detail last year, the program’s leap in both entertainment and quality was nothing short of spectacular, thanks to both a tightened focus on Harlan County and an electric Emmy-winning performance by Margo Martindale. While the first season had been a laconic cowboy show with some sharp writing, the second evolved into a show that in my mind supplanted Sons of Anarchy as FX’s flagship drama, and one I had no problem putting at the top of my best of 2011.
And now, after seeing four episodes of the third season, Justified has yet to break its stride. The dialogue remains as sharp as ever, channeling Elmore Leonard in its best moments; and it manages to strike exactly the right balance of tension and humor to keep episodes simply more fun to watch than any other drama on TV. But more to the point, these episodes have cemented probably the show’s most important feature: it’s the show that casts the best working actors out there, and gives them material that measures up to their talents.
As with the start of the first two seasons, the opening of Justified season three picks up immediately where the last season (or the pilot in season one’s case) left off, and we see characters dealing with the repercussions of earlier shootouts. U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens is now off his game after taking a bullet, and is also weighing the future now that his ex-wife Winona is carrying his child. On the other side of the law, Boyd Crowder now sits at the top of Harlan’s criminal community with the near-elimination of the Bennett clan, but is finding the ragtag collection of criminals he’s assembled doesn’t quite have the faith in his organization they once did.
Traditionally, Justified usually doesn’t get going until four or five episodes into the season – using its first few episodes to attract new viewers before digging deeper into its serialized story – and the third season continues that strategy. In four episodes Raylan and the Marshals’ service follows up on a double homicide and jewelry theft, the murder of a fellow U.S. Marshal closely tied to WITSEC, a ring of stolen goods and drug peddling, and a pair of fugitives breaking out of prison by virtue of a coroner’s van. There’s an arc to each of the episodes that feels self-contained, with a three-act structure that typically ends with the weekly villain at the wrong end of Raylan or Boyd’s gun.
And despite casting them for only one episode, showrunner Graham Yost and company took admirable care to make sure they picked the right people for the roles, and fleshed them out accordingly as Leonard-style bad guys as concerned with their own image as they are with making money. TV’s Pruitt Taylor Vince (known from Deadwood, The Walking Dead and THE CAPE) left probably the strongest impression as as a pawnshop owner who knows exactly how much power he holds over his junkie employees and has no compunctions about playing “Harlan roulette” with their lives. Admirable turns were also given by Frank John Hughes as a lizard-raising crook looking to buy his way out of WITSEC and Desmond Harrington as Fletcher “The Icepick” Nicks, another sadist with a penchant for cheating at the games he creates – a trait that also led to the best moment of the premiere when Raylan managed to out-cheat and subsequently outdraw him.
The gold star has to go to Carla Gugino though, giving a spiritual connection between Leonard TV adaptations as she’s reprising her role as Karen Sisco. (Well, technically she’s playing U.S. Marshal Goodall for legal reasons, but there’s enough winking nods to her name being changed that you know it’s the same person as her short-lived ABC drama.) While she’s only in a few scenes of the second episode Gugino displays an obvious joy in stepping back into the role, and she plays off Olyphant so well – particularly in a hotel stand-off – that I found myself wishing she could join the cast full-time. Thankfully, aside from some wistful looks at Raylan and Winona kissing, Yost and company don’t close the door on her returning so I remain hopeful for future episodes.
That hope is further strengthened by Justified continuing to not only bring in a steady stream of new players, but also relying on the stable it’s populated after 26 episodes. As a consequence, while the plots are easily taken as stand-alone there remains a strong sense of continuity to it, and the criminal activities of the episodes all remain rooted to the established criminal organizations of the Dixie Mafia and the Bennett clan. Dickie Bennett hasn’t been exiled after his arrest in the season two finale, and Jeremy Davies continues to delight in his ambitious meanness – and the decision to create an odd couple with Damon Herriman’s dimwit jailbird Dewey Crowe was absolutely inspired. Jere Burns is also back as Dixie Mafia underboss Wyn Duffy, pulling the strings of many of the bit players; while James LeGros’s junkie Wade Messer comes to a reckoning for his betrayal of Raylan. We even get a satisfying scene with Loretta McCready in episode four, a character I never thought we’d see again now that Kaitlyn Dever is collecting a network paycheck on ABC’s Last Man Standing.
And to further build continuity, the show’s also managed to install not one, but two new antagonists who are subtly guiding the action of the early episodes. Wisely, the show hasn’t tried to make lightning strike twice after the overwhelming success of Martindale, and has instead split the apparent “big bad” down the middle with Yost’s former Boomtown cohorts Neal McDonaugh and Myketi Williamson. McDonaugh, who I was quite taken with in my recent viewing of Band of Brothers, appears as a Detroit gangster named Robert Quarles whose mission is to shake up the status quo of the Dixie Mafia. I mentioned the showmanship of Leonard villains earlier, and Quarles is the showiest of them all, with neatly tailored suits and a sleeve gun straight out of “Taxi Driver.” More to the point, he’s a character we haven’t seen before on the show, an outsider who brings a raw enthusiasm* for his environment and a willingness to throw away the lives of his cohorts with such indifference that he even unnerves resident sadist Wyn Duffy.
*My friends Chris and Kelly have both compared him to a modern-day Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, and it’s a comparison I can’t help but see in his enthusiasm for the fresh air and quality bourbon he’s able to get. In a future episode I half expect him to be scouting locations for his Oxycontin trailers and ask Duffy what kind of fantastic trees these are.
On the other side on the tracks, Williamson portays Ellstin Limehouse*, a man who is essentially the Chalky White of Harlan County – a man who rules his city’s black population with a mixture of fear and bonhomie. If McDonaugh gives the show an almost exuberant sense of danger, Williamson delivers the quiet menace as he governs from behind a barbeque pit and brooks no interruptions from anyone else. He also gives the deeper connection to the world of Justified that Quarles is an outsider to: a long-time associate of the Bennetts, a potential rival to Boyd’s operation and a man who could lay out Arlo Givens in his prime with one punch. I’m not sure which one is more dangerous, but I do know I can’t wait to see both lock horns with either Raylan or Boyd.
*And also, as I’m now contractually obligated to comment on all hat-related casting, Williamson wears a very appropriate hat on this show. The wide-brimmed straw fedora gives the attitude of a man of influence, while its weather-beaten appearance conveys this is a man unafraid to get his hands dirty, either at his barbecue or in his business dealings.
And I’ve now talked for all this time without giving any real detail on the show’s main characters, mostly because it’s hard to find new words for just how good Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins are in their roles. Both men were rightly nominated for Emmys last season, and continue their high caliber of work as both Raylan and Boyd deal with personal and professional obstacles respectively. And as always, Olyphant and Goggins have a remarkable amount of charisma together – a scene in the second episode where they discuss the oddity of their current relationships in a prison visiting room is electric, and is the best evidence the show could get away with a bottle episode about those two alone.
But as good as that episode would be, these first four installments prove that Justified is best as the sum of its parts, and with a cast this talented centering the show on your leads hurts more than it helps us. After four episodes, I’m as enthusiastic as Quarles to spend more time in this world, especially as history has taught us the show only gets better the deeper it gets into its story.
- In the time between seasons two and three, Elmore Leonard wrote a new book featuring Raylan Givens, appropriately titled Raylan and featuring the promotional art from Justified season one on the cover. I have yet to read it, but expect an article sometime in the next few months in the vein of my earlier Text-to-Screen Ratio pieces when I do.
- These episodes also continue to betray how entwined Elmore Leonard remains to the show’s DNA. Besides LeGros and Gugino representing past versions of Leonard characters, a discussion between Raylan and a secretary in the season premiere mentions his hat in comparison to a businessman’s Stetson – the hat which Raylan originally wore in the novels and which Leonard hasn’t been shy about taking digs at in the past. Later, Raylan’s monologue on strike-breakers trying to enter his mother’s house in the fourth episode is taken almost verbatim from Riding The Rap, which originally served as basis for season one’s “Fixer.”
- As to other minor cast members: Nick Searcy got a welcome showcase in the second episode as Art bent the law to get a suspect to talk, but Rachel and Tim continue to exist only as bodies that are there to be at turns assist or be frustrated by Raylan. Ava’s been quite good as part of Boyd’s developing empire, but Winona’s mostly there to create conflict for Raylan, a move that’s alienated some viewers. My advice: cut Brooks, Tazel and Zea, then get Gugino full-time.