Justified’s third season began its life with a heavy burden: the shadow of the beloved second season looming over it.
Season two, led by a captivating Margo Martindale performance, vaulted Justified from a flawed series with potential and a great lead character to one of the most compelling dramas on television. But last season represented such a major leap, and Martindale’s character was so iconic, that season three seemed like a perfect time for a fall to earth and a letdown.
I’m not arguing that season three was stronger than season two, but I do think that critics and fans have built a hagiography around the second season that’s not entirely fair. Mags Bennett and her clan were wonderful, and their story brought a new resonance to the tale of Harlan County and its lawmen and crooks, but the season wasn’t perfect. There were slow episodes, plotlines that didn’t entirely work, and some convoluted moving-the-pieces setups. It was still a brilliant season of television, but season three was almost as good.
When Clarence Clemons died, Bruce Springsteen responded by adding an entire horn section to the E Street Band’s live lineup. Graham Yost and Justified’s powers that be addressed Mags’s departure the same way — they didn’t attempt to replace her larger-than-life presence, they added a whole new cadre of villains with differing strengths and quirks.
Even as the Bennett story continued to cause ripples throughout the show’s world, in came Quarles, Limehouse, and various members of the Detroit and Dixie Mafias. And criminals we had met before who survived the events of season two still lurked around the edges, including Wynn Duffy, Dickie Bennett, Dewey Crowe, and of course Boyd Crowder’s crew. If that wasn’t enough: hey, look, it’s Karen Sisco! And a new assassin with a Raylan Givens fixation! And a pawn shop owner who’s into Russian Roulette!
While the main arc of season three may not have been as emotionally transfixing (or as seemingly natural) as the Mags Bennett arc, the season made up for it with the strongest standalone episodes of the series’ run, and by expanding the show’s universe with rich, diverse characters.
If anything, the show may have an overcrowding problem heading into season four. Let’s take a look at where Justified left its characters at season’s conclusion.
Raylan is beginning to give Lost’s Jack Shephard a run for his money as a tortured protagonist, though he lacks Jack’s penchant for the douchetastic. Raylan entered the series a cocky gunslinger and has seen burdens added and layers stripped away until we’re getting to the point where we can see right through him. He began season three physically incapacitated and unable to shoot, but leaves the season even worse off. He’s lost Winona, presumably for good, and his relationship with his forthcoming child has yet to be determined. His victories over Mags and Quarles have not come without cost, and not been entirely satisfying. He has no real friends. His boss likes him but remains suspicious of him. His other coworkers find him annoying. He lives above a bar. And his Oedipal issues just got a whole lot worse. We’ve seen Raylan go from a superhero to a human — will we see him become something less than human? Will his rage and sadness consume him? Could he survive without Boyd Crowder? Next year will tell, but this year ended in a dark, dark place for our favorite marshal.
Boyd has always represented the flipside of Raylan’s coin: the path not taken. If Raylan applied his particular talents to creating crime instead of fighting it (and if he was a bit more into white power), he’s be Boyd. And while Raylan ends season three depressed in a hollow victory, Boyd is ascendant. He’s finally reached his goal of being the last man standing among Harlan criminals, and there’s seemingly nothing standing in the way of his monopoly. Well, except the turncoat among his own ranks. And while Boyd and Ava seem like a perfect match now, Boyd better watch his back if things go south, because now that Ava knows how to throw a punch and swing a frying pan, that breakup could be ugly.
Fine, Boyd, I’ll help you run your crime syndicate, but I only have one rule: no whoring. Got it? OK, maybe some whoring, but we’ve gotta treat the girls right, not like Ethan from Lost. OK, maybe we’ve gotta punch them in the face every now and then to keep them in line, but definitely no chaining young kids to toilets and doing horrible things to them, cool?
When Arlo was faux confessing to killing Devil in the season finale, just for a second I thought we was going to pull an Uncle Junior, and we were going to learn that he had been faking his dementia all season long. But while Arlo seems to have lost his shit for reals, that doesn’t mean a non comps mentis plea isn’t in his immediate future. I don’t expect him to play as large a role in the show going forward as he has to this point, but as long as he draws breath (and even after he stops), he’ll be a force in Raylan’s life.
Several episodes into this season, I grew worried that Quarles was becoming too cartoonish a villain: sadistic without purpose, armed with a secret sleeve gun, and even cartoonish in appearance thanks to Neal McDonough’s odd coloring. But that backstory! So so good. Quarles’ dark history gave him an excuse to act like a deranged pervert, and more importantly, gave us an excuse to sit back and enjoy it. Killing Quarles at season’s end was the right choice: not every villain can hang around forever, or the show would run out of space to introduce new ones. Only the special ones, like Boyd, can keep coming back. Which brings us to…
Goddamn, do I love Limehouse. The introduction of the African-American “holler” in Harlan seems like a no-brainer, and Limehouse is our perfect gateway into that community. Unlike Quarles, Limehouse is worth keeping around into next season because we can go much deeper into his character and into his holler. This is still a mostly untapped resource for Justified’s writers. It looks like a Boyd/Limehouse conflict is in the works for season four, which makes sense given Boyd’s disturbing history with race relations. And like Boyd, Limehouse isn’t a one-dimensional villain — despite his savagery, there’s a lot of nobility to him. It’s natural for Limehouse to be suspicious of the outside world, and just as natural for him not to trust the law. Those qualities should continue to make him a compelling character going forward.
Oh, Wynn. Thank you for your part in this season’s finest single scene (the confrontation with Raylan in the RV that gave this post its title). And thank you for surviving the season so you can make early parole next year and continue to be awesome/a thorn in Raylan’s side.
Tim and Rachel
Carla Gugino was badly underused in her episode this season, especially since her chemistry with Timothy Olyphant was even better than expected. Assuming Gugino is available, there’s no reason she shouldn’t come back for a four-episode arc next season involving Raylan’s old Miami enemies and a torrid affair.
The last man standing from the legendary Bennett clan (not counting Loretta) is both the dumbest and the twitchiest. If Jeremy Davies weren’t so great, Dickie probably wouldn’t have been back this season, but he is. Like Arlo, I expect his role to be reduced next year, but he will remain a part of the Harlan fabric. The stupidity of many criminals is a key recurring theme of Justified — and all of Elmore Leonard’s work — and nobody represents that concept better than Dickie (except for maybe Dewey Crowe).
Oh yeah, Adam Arkin’s going to back. And even without Quarles, you can bet that Detroit is going to be all in up in Kentucky business for some time to come. You don’t introduce a mob boss like Theo, played by a name actor like Arkin, with no plans to use him beyond two three-minute phone conversations. He could prove to be Raylan’s most dangerous adversary yet given his power and connections.
Like I said, season three probably wasn’t quite as strong as season two overall, but it came a lot closer than it had any right to, and a lot closer than most critics would probably admit. This season’s collection of ne’er-do-wells cemented Justified’s place in any respectable list of the best shows on television today.