“You’re different than I remember.”-Karen Goodall
A lot of things are different in Harlan County this season. Our lead cowboy, Raylan Givens, can’t shoot straight because he got shot, the main bad guy is a smooth-talking businessman in a suit, and Boyd Crowder not only wants to stay in jail, he wants to be put in solitary. The overall quality of the show is different as well.
It’s better than ever.
I’m not saying this season is going to be better than last season, but nothing in the two episodes so far shows any signs of trouble. To the contrary, the show’s swagger is stronger than ever. How else can you possibly explain the decision to shift Raylan to the sidelines for an episode and let his boss, Art Mullen, be the focus? That would be like Bill Belichick deciding to start Brian Hoyer at quarterback in the second quarter of the Super Bowl.
You’ve never heard of Brian Hoyer? Some points make themselves.
If they had an award for playing a character that is critical to a show but is so good and so consistent that you forget how truly remarkable they are, Nick Searcy would win every year for his work as Art Mullen. Justified is Raylan’s show, no doubt. But we can understand Raylan only as much as he understands himself which, most of time, isn’t very much. Notice how rarely he talks about himself except as a joking countermeasure or as a means to draw someone else out (tonight’s prison conversation between Raylan and Boyd is a perfect example). Raylan is not an open man. We know him best through his relationships, and outside of Winona and Boyd, Art is Raylan’s oldest friend. More importantly, Art is the father figure Raylan always wanted—a begrudgingly and wearily resigned father figure, but a valid one nonetheless. The rapport between Art and Raylan has been believable and complex since the first episode, and it’s a testament to the writers that they’ve been able to juggle two buddy relationships (Rayland and Boyd being the other) while keeping both distinct and organic. Mostly Art finds Raylan exasperating (at one point this week he refers to Raylan as his penance), a sentiment that lead to what I consider to be the best line from last season: “I’m stuck with a man who’s a lousy marshal but a good lawman.” At the time, it played like grim acceptance, a grab for a silver lining. As it turns out, Art knows the difference between lousy marshal and good lawman better than most.
As I said, different season, different rules, different characters.
This week’s plot revolves around an old marshal buddy of Art’s that comes to town to check in on some federal witnesses and gets murdered in the process. Art investigates personally and manages to collar the killer before we even get halfway through the episode. Exit marshal, enter lawman. The ensuing interrogation scene is vintage Elmore Leonard—lean, emotional, and chock full of badass. If you’re ever being interrogated and the Old Testament is mentioned, start talking.
Meanwhile across town, Assistant Director Karen “Don’t call me Sisco” Goodall arrives ostensibly to help with the manhunt and witness relocations, but really she’s there to make Elmore Leonard fans jump up and down like heavily sugared children while she and Raylan casually imply a romantic history through witty banter. Somewhat unsurprisingly, it works like dynamite. Carla Gugino slips right back into the role she played in the (sadly) short-lived Karen Sisco and even brings along her infamous asp baton. The name change was necessary due to rights issues, but the character came through mercifully untouched, and one hopes this isn’t the last we see of her this season. There are a number of winks and nods to previous incarnations of the character, but what could have been clunky pandering somehow manages to be clever and endearing. Nicely done, writing staff, nicely done.
The other plotline is Boyd’s Machiavellian maneuvering to get close to Dickie Bennett in prison. This involves a weight set, a swastika tattoo and a group of very large, very unamused African-American bodybuilders. And Boyd being Boyd. I think we need to coin a new term: Crowderian. The definition is “to achieve a desired result through means so extreme that even Machiavelli would have been freaked out.” Proper usage in a sentence: “He thinks I’m just gonna kill him and dismember him in front of his family, but I’m gonna go Crowderian on him instead.”
Season two of Justified was nearly perfect. It had to be daunting to try and follow it up (especially with Margo Martindale gone). So far, season three is succeeding not by trying to replicate past success but by being different, embracing change and expanding perspectives. Raylan isn’t the number one gunfighter in town anymore and is terrified of impending fatherhood. Art isn’t the straight arrow he likes to pretend he is. Ava is more suited to outlaw life than even Boyd suspected. The hillbilly Bennett clan has been replaced by a big city hitter, a sociopathic icepick wielding nutjob and…and honestly I don’t know what to think about Mykelti Williamson’s Limehouse, who we meet in tonight’s coda. So far I’d say he’s Boardwalk Empire’s Chalky White mixed with Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York. Based on three minutes of screen time, that’s high praise.
Where Justified is concerned, it seems like there’s a lot of that going around lately.
-Maybe it’s all the orange jumpsuits and female marshals, but it occurred to me that in an alternate universe you could make an interesting version of Out of Sight with Walter Goggins as Jack Foley. No offense to Clooney, he was excellent. No offense to Jennifer Lopez either (Karen Sisco was her best role), but I’ll take Carla Gugino while we’re taking sides.
-Just to pick one nit, they need to either find a way to make Rachel interesting or drop the character (she’s the female marshal—she’s so uninteresting I had to explain who she is). Erica Tazel is game, but she’s given nothing to do here. Bringing Nick Searcy to the forefront certainly paid dividends tonight, but it seems like they don’t know what to do with some of the smaller roles. Jacob Pitts as Tim Gutterson only got name-dropped tonight but didn’t appear and was still a more interesting character than Rachel.
-The writers managed to sneak in yet another deconstruction of the Western genre in an early scene where Art and his buddy discuss their cowboy heroes. It’s nice to see the writers having fun with it.