As good as its surprising first season was, “Justified” entered rarefied heights in its second season, earning critical acclaim (a well deserved Emmy for Margo Martindale, plus nominations for Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins) as well as fanboy huffing here at Warming Glow, where all of the show’s trappings — a shoot-first protagonist, complex characters, femmes fatales, bourbon, snappy one-liners, and noir undertones — appeal equally to our intellectual proclivities and baser instincts. Entering Season 3, my primary concern was whether “Justified” would match Season 2′s quality and join “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” as a terrific show that grows from year to year, or regress to mere testosterone thrills, as its FX mate “Sons of Anarchy” did after its own stellar second season. After viewing the first four episodes of Season 3, I’m happy to say that the former is very much the case: “Justified” is still one of the best shows on television.
As Season 3 opens, the void left by the death of Mags Bennett dictates most of the conflict. As Raylan Givens (Olyphant) recovers from his gunshot wound, Boyd Crowder (Goggins) looks to rebuild a criminal gang from the ground up. On his to-do list: take over the Bennetts’ marijuana business, recruit more muscle (he doesn’t have much more than Arlo and Ava at the outset), get revenge on Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies) for shooting Ava, and steal Mags Bennett’s savings, which are in the trust of new bad guy Ellstin Limehouse, played by Mykelti Williamson. It sounds like a lot, but if there’s one thing we know about Boyd Crowder by now, it’s that he always has a plan.
Over in town, Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough) has been dispatched by the Detroit mob to clean up their operation in eastern Kentucky. He recognizes the opportunity to get into the Oxycontin business and snares Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) to help him out, despite Raylan’s threat to kill Duffy the next time he saw him. Raylan, meanwhile, is finally committed to Winona (Natalie Zea). She’s pregnant, they’re looking for a house together, and for the first time since the show’s inception, they appear to be truly happy with each other — and that’s when Carla Gugino shows up for what I hope isn’t just a one-episode guest appearance. Gugino arrives in the second episode as a higher-up in the Marshalls (not named Karen Sisco) who shares a past with Raylan, and she’s fantastic in the role. Of course, that’s the same thing I’ve said about every role Gugino’s ever had, and I saw Sucker Punch. It’s possible that I’m not entirely objective.
My Gugino bias notwithstanding, the writing and acting remain outstanding on “Justified.” My notes from the first four episodes are peppered with helpful insights like “Walton Goggins = great,” and at this point it should be understood that Goggins and Olyphant carry the show as perfectly matched friends and foils without me having to say so explicitly. But everyone else holds their own, too. Winona and Ava (Joelle Carter) are both developing in pleasing ways, and the new season wastes little time in giving story lines to the Raylan’s oft-overlooked co-workers: Art (Nick Searcy), Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts), and Rachel (Erica Brooks). Every scene is handled with care by the writing staff: in one scene during the third episode, Raylan talks to a state trooper about the whereabouts of a fugitive. The scene is primarily expository, existing only to link larger, more important pieces of the story, but the state trooper deadpans two acerbic lines and delivers a laugh in his only minute of screen time. Details matter: on “Justified,” the trooper is a sarcastic guy bringing his daughter to work because his wife is sick; on “CSI” or “NCIS,” that nameless character may as well be a cardboard cutout holding a sign that reads “BAD GUYS THATAWAY.”
Those new bad guys don’t meet in the first four episodes, but it’s clear that Quarles and Limehouse will present a daunting challenge for Raylan and the Marshalls (and, by the looks of it, for Boyd as well). McDonough plays Quarles with casual menace; he’s a cold-blooded gangster in a sharp suit, a Hollywood archetype that fits the 21st century only slightly better than Raylan’s throwback lawman. (James Cagney versus Clint Eastwood could only make sense on “Justified.”) Williamson, however, has the breakout performance of Season 3′s first act. Limehouse first appears late in the second episode, carving a pig carcass as he makes quiet threats to a young man who fell asleep on watch. Perhaps butchery is a trope for Hollywood villains (see also: Gangs of New York, “Game of Thrones,” “Boardwalk Empire”), but it’s a badass trope effective in its characterization: a man capable of casual conversation while filleting an animal carcass is not someone to be trifled with. Quarles may be quicker to use his gun, but Limehouse is the expert in creating pain.
What happens the rest of the season, in terms of both plot and show quality, is anyone’s guess, but the first four episodes indicate that we’re in very good hands. “Justified” does many things well — it’s well-written, well-acted, sexy, and surprisingly funny — but its best quality has always been the way it gives overarching story lines a slow burn over the course of a season while providing tense, explosive action from week to week. Season 3 maintains that excellence across the board. You don’t want to miss it.