“You think you get all your turmoil from me?”-Arlo Givens
A lot of shows have trouble with tone, particularly across seasons. A lot of this is forgivable considering the nature of the medium: showrunners come and go; directors and writers change. Plus, there’s always the looming specter of outdoing what came before. You see it all the time with shows that have a big freshman season only to go so big in the second season that they lose sight of what made that first set of episodes so special. Friday Night Lights is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon, with the recent Downton Abbey exhibiting similar problems (though both righted themselves admirably in their third seasons). Part of what makes Justified such a pleasure to watch is its consistency. Since episode one, the show set itself on the peak of the mountain and has quietly maintained altitude ever since. It is a testament to the show that if you flipped past a rerun, you would be hard-pressed to tell what season the episode was from, save for the length of Timothy Olyphant’s hair. The bottom line is that with its first episode of season four, the show starts up like it never left and effortlessly slides back into its unbelievably high groove.
Which makes it all the more interesting that there are some major changes this season.
For starters, Raylan is no longer a kept man. He and Winona are seemingly separated for good, and Raylan is now seeking solace in the arms of his favorite bartender, Lindsey. Much is made of Raylan’s sexuality in this episode, what with a reference to a former fling shown in the first three minutes and virtually every female that he comes in contact with hitting on him. The chaste, white-hatted cowboy of yesteryear he is not. Thus far I’m not exactly sure what to make of that bit of character development. Raylan has never been a saint, and even I know that he’s easy on the eyes, but he’s never been James Bond before. Mostly I think the writers wanted to emphasize Raylan’s new domestic situation and declare right off the bat that this is something of a different Raylan than we’ve seen before, one whose ethics (while always gray) may have shifted some since last we saw him. Certainly this is the case multiple times throughout the episode.
For instance, though Raylan isn’t one to toe the company line, he goes off the reservation for almost the whole hour, bringing in a fugitive to collect reward money rather than for the marshals. This is a considerably more adrift version of our favorite cowboy, and it will be interesting to see how that manifests itself as the season progresses.
It is telling that Jody Adair, the fugitive Raylan is chasing, is really not so dissimilar from Raylan. While not set up as a mirror the way that Boyd is, Adair shares the shame pragmatic approach to situations that Raylan has, always willing to do what needs to be done without concern for any pesky ethical dilemmas or potential consequences. It makes for a fun dynamic between the two characters (particularly in how easily Adair exasperates Raylan), and I hope we haven’t seen the last of Jody.
Speaking of Boyd, he finally has his criminal empire up and running, though his profits have started dwindling thanks to the appearance of a mysterious new preacher in town who seems to be having a suspicious amount of success in persuading the weak and/or desperate to change their lives. This is, of course, overtly ironic given Boyd’s somewhat similar former modus operandi of masquerading as a scripture-quoting religious zealot who used religion to gather himself a small army back in season one. Though the preacher and his counterfeit bill calling cards (a curious choice for a holy man) hang over the whole episode, it is only at the end that we finally get a look at the man himself.
He doesn’t look like much, but he’s heavy on charisma, and I’m afraid that Boyd has more to fear from the preacher than lost customers. Either way, his snake-handling character and the eventual role he will play in the coming season are both mysteries.
In fact, that is by far the biggest change in this young season. We actually have a bona fide mystery on our hands.
The driving plot point throughout is a mysterious courier bag found in the wall of Arlo’s house. Whatever it is, Arlo is willing to kill to protect it (even if it means assuring that he will die in prison). I don’t know how long the mystery will last, but so far I think it adds just the right new direction for the show plot-wise, and it certainly offers up some fresh opportunities to add to the show’s trademark quirk and eccentricity (consider the opening scene with the D.B. Sweeney-like skydiver flashback).
With the new mystery comes some fresh acting blood. Joseph Mazzello (you probably know him best from Jurassic Park) plays the aforementioned preacher, Patton Oswalt shows up as local constable who is a high-school friend of Raylan’s (basically the character is his character from Young Adult if he had turned out to be a rent-a-cop) and Ron Eldard as an old friend of Boyd’s (he was the MP who routinely arrested Boyd during his days in the military…that’s the closest thing Boyd has to a friend). All do nice work, but save for Mazzello, it isn’t clear yet how large a role any of them will play in the big plot picture.
Most interesting off the start was probably Eldard, who is already the most dangerous ally that Boyd has ever had. It’s one thing to rely on people who are either greedy or believe in your cause or both, but this guy actually likes Boyd. That’s as dangerous as they come.
In the end, the fourth season of Justified managed to start off with an effective blend of instant familiarity and an appealing freshness. That’s a tough tightrope to walk. But, when you’re talking about one of the best shows on television, more of the same is exactly what you want.
Some closing thoughts:
-I really hope that the writers didn’t blow their clever dialogue wad all in the first episode. Even for a zinger-heavy show like Justified, this was an embarrassment of riches. Whether it was Raylan’s asshole explanation, Ava questioning her failings or Boyd lamenting the downside of criminal enterprise while invoking his voting district, the night was full of top-notch wordplay. Hell, they even got in a Big Lebowski reference. Impressive.
-In a sea of excellent scenes, my favorite was actually the quiet conversation between Ava and Ellen May. I’ve stated before how much Joelle Carter is able to accomplish which such little screen time, and tonight was no exception. The Ava of last season was a raw nerve, driven by her desperation both for Boyd and for the chance of a better life for herself. The Ava tonight was a calmer, cooler Ava, the Ava who has been running things for a little while. It is a testament to Carter that, at least within the confines of her chosen profession, you buy Ava as a successful businesswoman. You believe without question that this is the same character a few months later. Equally compelling is Abby Miller as Ellen May. This is a character that started out as one note comic relief. She has not stayed that way. There is something genuinely touching about her struggle against a limited self-awareness and the myriad of ways that she tries to be a better person (such as limiting the drugs she takes rather than trying to stay clean). Miller is completely convincing in the role, and I hope Ellen May continues to always accidentally be right in the middle of the action (given her appearance at the preacher’s tent late in the episode, this seems especially likely).
-I loved that Ava loves that Boyd loves Dr. Pepper. And it is telling little tidbits of detail like Boyd’s “ten, two or four” reference that consistently sell the believability of the show’s locale.