Justifying: Season 3, Part 2 (with Greg Boyd)

Due to a mix of obligations personal and professional, I didn’t have a chance to write about FX’s Justified as much as I wanted to this season. I checked in after a few episodes to note approvingly that the characters and dialogue were as sharp as ever, but wasn’t able to come back and write regular installments as I had during the second season.  It remained appointment TV for me every week however, and I didn’t want to let its third season go by without full analysis, especially given some rumblings about its overarching plot on Twitter and a finale with an impressive amount of “holy shit” moments.

Given that I hadn’t written about it for two-thirds of the season I was worried some things would slip through the cracks in a more traditional analysis, so I decided this merited a long conversation with a fellow critic. Joining me on this endeavor is friend of the blog Greg Boyd, who writes a mix of TV and film criticism over at Screen Ramblings (where next month he’ll start an ambitious classic TV project to review every episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show). Like me, Greg offered some thoughts about the first few episodes but wasn’t able to recap the whole thing regularly, so we’re in a similar headspace to talk over the season’s progression.

Greg, let me start off with a simple question. Now that Justified’s third season has wrapped, where would you rank it compared to the heavily acclaimed season two?

Greg: I think it’s pretty safe to say that most people would rank it a fair bit behind season two in terms of quality. That’s where I’m at as well, but I also don’t think the gap is as large as it’s been made out to be by some. This is despite the fact that I’m apparently one of the few who didn’t completely love the finale, which was for the most part excellent but featured a handful of moments that either didn’t ring true or else just didn’t carry the weight they were meant to. It was a strong conclusion, but not quite at the level of “Bloody Harlan”.

I’m sure we’ll get back to that at some point. But as to the question at hand… one of the few edges season three has over season two is its overall consistency. Season two’s stretch run was phenomenal television, but its first half left a bit to be desired, featuring one too many solid but unmemorable case of the week installments for my taste. Season three obviously had a few of these episodes as well, but outside of “The Devil You Know” (which felt a bit generic to me) they were much crisper and more unique than last year’s. I’d go so far as to name one of them, the brilliant “Thick as Mud”, as my favorite of the season. So there’s been definite progress in that area, which is something that will hopefully continue into season four.

However, that can’t entirely overcome the overall lack of cohesion that began about two-thirds of the way through this run of episodes, as well as the constant feeling that they were missing something: a theme, a sense of place, or maybe just the sense of purpose contained in every episode from “The Spoil” onwards last season. Take Limehouse and Quarles, both of whom seemed like extremely promising characters early on. The former wound up not getting enough to do, and the latter’s story basically petered out towards the end as he slowly went on a downward spiral after his plans went awry: a development that never felt earned to me despite how good Neal McDonough was in this role. In the end, nothing here was as strong in any way as the arc involving Mags. (Regarding Limehouse, I’m hopeful he’ll get more screen time next season, and that we’ll also get to see quite a bit more of Noble’s Holler.)

Okay, I’ve talked enough for now. Les, I know you had some issues with certain aspects of the season as well, and one of the possible explanations that has been bandied about is the idea that maybe there were just a few too many things going on. We had Quarles coming in from Detroit, the search for the Bennett money, the introduction of Limehouse, Raylan and Winona’s breakup, Boyd’s attempts to gain control over Harlan’s criminal business, and so much more. It felt like a little much, and while I personally feel most of the problems (which I think we both agree are minor compared to a majority of other shows) were related to the execution of these various storylines rather than the set-up, one can’t help but wonder if they would have been handled a bit better had there been more time to devote to them.

What do you think? Did the desire to include so many characters and plots ensure from the start that the season was “doomed” to not being quite as good (or at least not as deep) as season two, or is it almost entirely due to the ultimate follow-through?

Les: I’m in the same boat with you regarding the fact that while I felt the season’s individual parts were much stronger – and I still get more joy out of an hour of Justified than most anything else on television – the overall whole wasn’t as strong. Now, obviously the death of Mags Bennett left a big hole in the middle of the show’s world, so we were always going to view this season through that lens, but I think what a lot of us missed when considering that was how important she was to the show structurally. What made Mags such a potent force in the season (aside from of course the terrific performance of Margo Martindale) was that she was a deeply established central figure around whom all of the plots revolved. Raylan had the family history with her clan, Boyd had to lock horns with her to cement his empire, her sons were the major secondary antagonists, and it was her overarching plan for the mining deal that drove the action of the season even when it was still vague in early episodes.

Here, Robert Quarles failed to be as unifying a force to drive the story, when it really did seem in the first third he was being set up as such. It looked like his partnership with Wyn Duffy and his efforts to set up an Oxycontin empire with Detroit muscle at his back was going to bring him into serious conflict with Raylan and Boyd and force the two to join forces – especially after that “carpetbagger” speech Boyd made in the bar. But once it turned out he wasn’t a vanguard but an exile, and he kept falling apart whenever any of his schemes were cornered, it made the character less centralized even as McDonough was excellent at playing this much more unhinged version of the character. I don’t know if that was a problem with their plotting or with audience expectations, but there could have been a center and there wasn’t.

In terms of plotting, looking back over the episodes I still think there was a lot of great stuff going on, but I think the quest for the Bennett money should have been cut entirely after its first appearance. Bringing Dickie Bennett back into the mix of the last third of the season just distracted from the feuds between Limehouse, Quarles, Duffy, Raylan and Boyd, and turned into a somewhat convoluted scheme for the three to cross each other, and felt on the whole like padding. This was no strike against Jeremy Davies – who was appropriately twitchy and rattlesnake-mean – but he should have been sent back to prison after “Thick as Mud” for the rest of the season, to come out at an appropriate time. As it stands now, I’m actually hoping Raylan put him down for good in “Coalition” because I honestly don’t think there’s anything to do with that character.

And speaking of Raylan, this was a pretty rocky season for our hero both personally and professionally: pregnant wife leaves him again, living above a bar, pinned as a dirty cop by the FBI, and learning his father would have shot him to save his arch-nemesis. How’d you feel about the character arcs of Marshal Givens this year?

Greg: Raylan was a character who occasionally got lost in the shuffle this season: something that probably contributed to the lack of a center you mention. That’s not necessarily a result of a lack of screen time, as it didn’t seem like he was on screen that much less than he was in season two. But in season three he sometimes felt less like a character integral to the season and more like a figure trailing the action, at least until the finale. Is this an inherently bad thing? I don’t think so, because the rest of Justified’s ensemble is so capable. But coupled with the other issues we’ve both noted, it did wind up hurting the show just a bit this year.

What’s interesting about all of this is that, as with Quarles, it didn’t seem to be a concern early in the season. But as time wore on both he and his relationships to some (though not all) of the other characters began to feel slightly marginalized. His and Winona’s break-up, for instance, wasn’t given nearly enough screen time to truly resonate, and while the final scene in “Slaughterhouse” was incredibly powerful it also felt kind of jarring given how little we’d seen of both Raylan and Arlo – together or apart – over the course of the episodes preceding it. Sure, we knew their history, but it was still enormous jolt given the way the two were often sidelined in favor of Quarles, Boyd, Limehouse, and others. That was probably the point, but I would have appreciated more of a buildup.

Though they weren’t especially great for him, many of the other events in his professional life certainly fared better from a dramatic standpoint. Obviously the multiple attempts to frame him in “Watching the Detectives” made for one of the season’s strongest hours. But there was plenty of other good stuff. I loved his interactions with Boyd all season, although there seemed to be less of them as we got further into the season. The brief glimpses we received of his deepening relationship with Art were also pretty nice in showing how Art’s become arguably Raylan’s closest friend. And though he did often wind up feeling like someone watching the action rather than taking part in it, there was still plenty of brilliance to be found in this rather different role: most notably in his conversations with Limehouse. Overall, I’d say Raylan Givens remains both a highly entertaining personality and a deeply compelling person on this series.

However, I definitely think other characters actually had even more to do this year. I’m speaking of course about Rachel and Tim, who arguably played an even more vital role than they did in either of the first two seasons. What was your reaction to the vast range of interesting storylines involving them?

I’d ask you about Ava and Boyd, but so far the show still hasn’t given either of them any real development of note. Perhaps you have a few comments you’d like to make about these two as well, though.

Les: Not much else to add to what you said about Raylan. I think you’re spot-on that while he does feel less integral at times, he’s still the core of the show in terms of his worldview and actions, and you couldn’t do it without him.

As to the other marshals, while your comment was meant in jest I do think they’re slowly getting better at incorporating them. Tim I would say certainly got more time, and used it to his benefit – I like how it’s pretty much established that he’s annoyed by Raylan’s cowboy attitude and his continually pumping him for information. And yet at the same time, there’s still the indication that they’re both still marshals, and if Raylan starts being straight with him he’ll return the favor. That little moment in “Watching the Detectives” where Raylan tells him “I think Quarles planted a murder weapon in my car,” and Tim pauses for a minute and lets him get off the elevator, was a great character moment for the both. Rachel on the other hand only seemed to get little pieces here and there: the shootout with the WITSEC episode, an early conversation with Limehouse about where she was from, the strong-arm of the Memphis drug kingpin.

That said, in my opinion they’re still not giving enough material to justify Jacob Pitts or Erica Tazel getting billed in the opening credits. Rather than bringing in another rotation of bad guys next season, they should have more story lines like they did in “Coalition” when they seized Dickie’s money. Both of them have been sobered by having to kill people, and I think if they can touch on that – and also recapture moments like the one in season two where all four marshals are drinking in Art’s office – it’ll give the show a stronger base.

Onto the other side of the tracks, I don’t think it’s necessarily right to say there wasn’t as much development this season. Certainly Boyd didn’t have the moral debates with himself he had in seasons one and two where he seesawed between being a neo-Nazi, a born-again Christian, a powder man and a crime boss, but he seems past the point of being conflicted about that dichotomy. As he told Devil early on, he’s realized he can have been all of those things once upon a time and still be them in some way. We saw him draw from all of those sides of his personality: his Mags-channeling moment at the debate, his Hail Mary pass to swing the election for his candidate, his careful parrying around Limehouse, and his silent blinding rage as Dickie walked into the bar. Boyd’s just Boyd, and with Quarles taken down and the murder charges cleared he’s primed to finally start building a Harlan empire.

I’m also not sure if we saw as much of a conversion in Ava this season as we did the last one, we just saw her committing more heavily to taking her role as Boyd’s Lady Macbeth. I really enjoyed her arc in “Loose Ends” where she protects the prostitute, then executes Delroy for his crimes, only to then turn around and decide she wants to take over as Harlan madam. We’ve always known she was violent, but it looks like more and more her darker impulses are going to take over, which hopefully gives Joelle Carter more range of material.

Phew – I’m exhausted writing all this stuff out, which just underlines our point that the season felt a bit too stuffed in comparison to the second. That raises an important question though: do you think maybe we’re in a Sons of Anarchy-type situation where the second season’s focus might have wrongly raised our expectations of what the show was? I think Justified is a superior show to Sons of Anarchy, but save not sending Raylan Givens to Belfast for six episodes a lot of the complaints on spreading things too thin could easily be applied to both shows. And with Graham Yost on record in some interviews saying that he wants to move off “big bads” and towards three or four-episode arcs, do you think this formlessness is what Justified is?

Greg: I agree with pretty much everything you said here. Unfortunately, I doubt the amount of material Pitts and Tazel are given will ever increase all that dramatically, which is kind of a shame considering how good they are in the small amount of screen time they get. Like you, I always enjoy the Tim-Raylan interactions, and the few Rachel stories we’ve gotten have been pretty solid. But I want more. At the same time, I also always want more Raylan, more Boyd, more Ava, and now more Limehouse. At a certain point something has to give, doesn’t it? Otherwise you wind up with a season that’s just too packed, like this one.

I actually think this might have been the strongest season for both Boyd and Ava to date, and you nicely articulate some of the key reasons why. So I’ll basically leave it at that. The only thing that didn’t work was Ava taking out her anger about Boyd’s arrest on Ellen May in the finale, for the simple reason that it didn’t fit with anything we’d seen from the character before. Part of the reason she took over the prostitution business was to make money while also protecting the women from thugs like Delroy. And now she’s viciously attacking one of them based on the rather far-fetched possibility that she was responsible in some small way for what happened to Boyd? Sorry, I don’t buy it. I agree that she’s truly embraced being a member of a criminal organization, but for now she still has some morals: and there’s no way those morals would allow her to do something like this without proof.. So that struck me as a bit of a false note.

As far as the Sons of Anarchy comparison goes, there are certainly similarities to be found. But I don’t think it’s fair to make the statement that season two overinflated expectations for Justified the way it did for FX’s other major drama quite yet. Both shows did indeed have brilliant and tightly focused second seasons. And both had third seasons that, though still good, weren’t as strong or as cohesive. However, I would submit that the fourth season of Sons of Anarchy saw the show regain the focus of season two, and I expect the same thing to happen to Justified. But that otherwise superb fourth season was undermined by a finale that refused to follow through on the consequences of the events leading up to it.

So far, this hasn’t been an issue for Justified. Sure, it’s kept to the status quo in a lot of ways. But it’s done so organically (a critical distinction between the two shows and one of the main reasons why I agree that this one is better), and there have been enough shifts with each passing season to keep things interesting. If the show can get back to the type of storytelling it did so well last year while avoiding the pitfalls of Sons of Anarchy’s fourth season, there’s no reason why it can’t equal or even surpass what season two achieved. We’ll have to reevaluate this comparison then, but for now one flawed but still pretty good season of television doesn’t seem like a reason to worry too much about Justified having peaked. This is still a very young show, and contrary to popular belief many TV dramas actually wind up delivering their strongest material late in their runs.

As for the possibility of shorter arcs, I’m really not that concerned about it. There’s nothing wrong with trying a different format, even if I do generally prefer heavily serialized television. It could work by preventing things from feeling as overstuffed as they did this year, or it could backfire and cause the storytelling to be all over the map. As with longer-term storytelling, it all depends on both the concept and the execution. That will determine whether the formlessness of this season is the show’s future (in which case I’m sure I’ll still enjoy it), or simply a slight bump in the road on the way to greater things. I’m leaning towards the latter. Or at least I’m hoping for it.

Lost in all this abstract analysis, however, are the actual stories that will continue to carry this series going forward. New characters will likely get introduced again next year, of course, but among existing ones many things were left very open ended by this finale.  What did you think about the potential conflicts and plots that will likely play a role in season four? And do you believe Justified did a good job of setting a few of them up amidst all the resolution in “Slaughterhouse”?

Les: Greg, I think the word “organic” is the best indicator of why I’m not terribly concerned about the show’s direction going forward. Few shows are better than Justified at building a world and dealing with what that world means to the characters who live in it (or disrupt it as in the case of Quarles), and I don’t think they’ve in any way exhausted the story potential of Harlan County. The show knows what elements of the county are ready to bring out and power a story arc, or when to reintroduce elements here and there so we’re reminded they exist and could be a storyline in future episodes. We saw that this year as bit player Wyn Duffy was brought out to become a key part of Quarles’ organization, or when U.S. Attorney Vasquez had to bring out the file of Raylan’s multiple indiscretions when the FBI thought he was on the take. Whatever structure they choose to take for the fourth season, it’s not like they don’t have an idea of how handle it.

As to what storylines we’ll be seeing more of next season, I think “Slaughterhouse” did a good job of keeping doors open to play with. For starters, I’m thrilled Limehouse survived the showdown with Quarles and Raylan and will be coming back in some capacity, as otherwise I’d feel this season had been largely a waste of Myketi Williamson. The introduction of Noble’s Holler feels like a part of the world that was only tangentially touched on this season with Mags’ money and Raylan’s family history, and I feel like with how close to the vest Limehouse plays things there’s many other aspects of his organization and character we haven’t even begun to see. He’s also tied to the most obvious powder keg left unlit in the finale – that Johnny conspired to send Boyd to prison – and given that he and Boyd have to operate in the same spheres we’ll have to see if they go with an uneasy peace or right back to war.

But there’s also a lot of scattered plot threads the show can pull at any time, helped by the show’s trend of bringing very talented character actors into the fold. Jim Beaver’s mine security operator Shelby had only been seen in passing in season two, and now wound up a key part of Boyd’s strategy to undercut Quarles. Now sheriff – and apparently feeling he owes Boyd no more favors – how will he deal with the Crowder/Limehouse operations? Stephen Toblowsky as a pretentious FBI agent was a great foil to both Raylan and Art, and given how Raylan’s certain not to stop poking hornets’ nests how soon is it until he targets him again? Wyn Duffy’s also still floating around, and in “Coalition” was in direct contact with Adam Arkin’s* Detroit mob boss Theo Tonin. Does he try to take credit for Quarles’ death and collect the bounty, and parlay that “success” into running Quarles’ proposed Oxy operation with more support than the latter man had?

*Getting back to our SAMCRO comparisons, Arkin was of course stellar on Sons of Anarchy‘s second season as white supremacist Ethan Zobelle.

Whatever shakes out though, it’s certainly going to involve some big things for Raylan Givens, who (as we said) has taken more knocks this year than he’s taken in a long time. Those last few minutes of the pilot, where he explains to Winona that Arlo just wanted to shoot the man in a hat pointing a gun at Boyd, were as jarring as the “disarming” of Quarles, and far deeper emotionally than I think the show’s been all season. He’s had to face the hard truths that his father hates him enough to kill him, that he can’t be with the woman carrying his child for good, and that the longer he lives the way he does the more of a toll it takes on him. He’s not a healthy or happy individual – is season four where he tries to make some serious changes? Or does he go to darker and darker places, to the point where he’s playing Harlan roulette with every bad guy in front of him? Honestly, I don’t know, and I think it’s a testament to Justified they could go either way and sell it.

I think we’ve covered most of the bases of what we agree was still an excellent season, so let’s close with the positive: what’re your picks for top moments of the season? What scenes were the funniest, most dramatic, or both at once?

Greg: I think we covered a lot of the best moments in our other comments about the season, but there are a couple of additional ones that stand out to me. Let’s start with the season premiere. Fletcher Nix was one of the best one-off villains the show ever had, and he was involved in two masterful scenes. The first is an unbelievably tense sequence where he offers a man he’s holding captive a chance to reach for a gun on the table. The suspense arises from our intuitive knowledge that something’s wrong, and it builds and builds until the moment when the man reaches: only to have Nix to stab him in the hand with an ice pick, take the gun, and kill him. It’s every bit as harrowing and well-executed as anything on Breaking Bad. Later in the episode, however, he tries to pull the same trick on the much smarter Raylan, who realizes that it must be a ruse. This scene isn’t as suspenseful because we know that Justified isn’t about to kill off Raylan Givens. But the way it unfolds is still absolutely brilliant, as the man known for his quick draw wins a gunfight by simply pulling a tablecloth a few inches.

Everything in “Watching the Detectives” was great, of course. There’s a short scene near the end of that episode that I especially loved, though: Raylan going to see Wyn after finally escaping the legal troubles Quarles had thrown his way. It’s no secret that Justified’s dialogue is frequently flat out brilliant, and this exchange was arguably that element of the series at its absolute finest. Seriously, it managed to have a character use the word “taupe” and reference Mythbusters in the same scene: something only a few other shows – none of them currently airing – could have pulled off. It’s almost impossible not to love a series that’s this confident in its writing, whatever other issues it may have from time to time. (In a related observation, giving Wyn Duffy more screen time this season was a great decision. He’s become one of the better villains on any series in recent memory, as well as one of the best supporting characters on TV right now.)

And in the end, it’s these types of little conversations (with similarly great lines in each one) that made this season quite good in spite of its flaws. It doesn’t come close to season two in terms of big scenes, and certainly nothing here rivaled Raylan and Mags’s final moments in “Bloody Harlan” or the stunning events of “Brother’s Keeper”. Rather, the season relied a lot on characters simply interacting with each other. If it all felt a bit scattered, at least it had great writing to go along with that feeling and keep it from overwhelming the plethora of good material these thirteen episodes offered. From the phone conversation between Wyn and Boyd to close out “Measures” (I loved how they both figured out each other’s identities within seconds) to Raylan suddenly realizing he’s been outsmarted by Limehouse in “Slaughterhouse” and now has about twenty guns pointed at him, there was almost always something compelling going on. The end product may not have been as satisfying as the previous year’s was, but that Justified was still able to keep us riveted most of the time shows why it remains one of TV’s finest dramas. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to season four.

Les: Couldn’t have said it better myself. A hour of Justified remains more fun than anything else on TV, big picture be damned, and I’ll be thrilled to see it come back next year.

About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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