Review: Justified Season 3
TV shows are usually reviewed episode by episode, but with the continuing popularity of serialized fiction, reviewing tv that way is more like reviewing a book chapter by chapter. Justified is one of the shining examples of the kind of show that should be reviewed as a whole than piecemeal.
Justified, for the uninitiated, is the story of US Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), who is transferred to his hometown Lexington, Kentucky. After butting heads with all his old acquaintances in season 1, he battles the Bennet family criminal enterprise in season 2. Season 3 was a banner year for Justified. It was a near perfect crime story centered around the matriarch of the Bennet family, Mags (Margo Martindale in a worthy Emmy-winning performance). There was a lot of doubt whether or not Justified could live up to its second season. It raised the bar considerably, and the chance of the series falling back on all of its machismo tropes was a reasonable result. Thankfully, showrunner Graham Yost did the two things necessary for continuing Justified: 1.) further developing the character of Raylan Givens without regression and 2.) properly fill the antagonist void left by Mags Bennet.
When Raylan Givens is first introduced to us, he is the archetype of all archetypes. A gunslinger that doesn’t follow the letter of the law but still keeps the peace. He even wears a cowboy hat. When we see him at the opening of the season, he is suffering from the gunshot wound he got himself in season 2. That gut shot has put a damper on his ability to quick draw his weapon taking him completely out of his comfort zone. Raylan is forced to be more clever and intelligent than we’ve seen him in the past. Not that Raylan was ever particularly dumb, he just tended to rely quite a bit on his sidearm. Even as he starts to get better, he seems to face down people less often as he did previously. He was always on a hair trigger ready to bite. Our expectations for him have become subverted with the season 2 revelation that his ex-wife and on-again, off-again love interest, Winonna (Natalie Zea), was pregnant with his child. His outlaw loner personality suddenly seems ready to settle down, and she’s the one who has her doubts. It’s not a turn of the coin kind of change, but rather a steady development of character that is challenged around every corner. While the writing sets the framework for Raylan’s emotional journey, Olyphant’s subtly sincere performance is what makes it worthwhile and what makes Raylan more than a hard-boiled cowboy.
The void left by Mags Bennet as primary antagonist left a big void. Margo Martindale gave such a powerhouse performance that they have to replace her with a big rogue’s gallery of baddies to muck up Raylan’s work. Of course, that hight number of villains immediately reminds me of the Schumacher Batman movies, but using more than one baddie is a juggling act that Yost makes look real easy. The big bads make up a who’s who of Southern types. The occasionally neo-Nazi rednecks are jumping at the opportunity, especially Boyd Crowder. Walton Goggins is snake-like in his laying in wait attitude before striking his prey. Than there is a Southern fried “godfather,” Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson). He is cool and collected but ultimately egotistical butcher who uses words rather than violence to get things done. His blue-collar job and thick accent hide the intelligence brewing underneath the façade. He originally came off as a bit too broad, but Williamson really grew into the character making him come off more legitimate than cartoonish. The biggest bad of all is Quarles (Neal McDonough). He is a “carpetbagger.” a Northerner trying to take advantage of Southern work. A guy like that can never be taken seriously in Harlan County. The hometown pride is too strong for Quarles to make a dent, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. Cue McDonough’s exponentially growing scene chewing, which could be occasionally groan-worthy, but was ultimately entertaining. These villains fight over territory like sharks fighting over chum and end up making business personal.
Their tense and thrilling rivalry practically steals the show from Raylan’s character development. But it is Raylan who punctuates most of the action. His existence is what keeps the criminal masterminds from turning Harlan into a bloody battlefield. Raylan, who is well-known for walking the line and even occasionally crossing over, is now restricted while everyone else seems to be crossing lines. Ava, for example, was trying to live a simple life taking companionship with Raylan. But ever since she shacked up with her former brother-in-law, Boyd, she starts making her own criminal enterprises without Boyd’s consent. She starts off with honorable intentions but brings the hurt when she needs to. Raylan’s estranged father, Arlo, also chooses sides, the opposite of Raylan’s to be exact. Arlo and Boyd start a father-son relationship that is bound to make Raylan jealous. Their relationship unfortunately is more conceptual. I never found Boyd and Arlo’s chemistry to be that genuine. The real heart-breaking emotional impact comes when Raylan reacts to them.
Like any crime story, the stylish machinations of a grand scheme game of cops and robbers grabs your attention and keeps the pace rolling along, but it is when the interpersonal relationships between the cops and robbers are explored that keeps you coming back. These details are the linchpin to the continuing success of the show stopping it from being just another episodic procedural. Season 3 is not the grand opus of season 2, but it is a worthy successor anyways. Season 2 is the bar at which every season will be compared and it gets a 10/10. Season 1 was like an 8. This season was definitely a 9!