'Justified' Makes That Rare Leap Forward In Quality

Sophomore season proves the series has achieved greatness

The strides that FX’s sophomore sensation Justified made this season were impressive. A  better sense of balance, stronger character development, a realization that far more than gunfights, dialogue is the key to the series – all of those were necessary improvements. And Wednesday’s season finale delivered each of those in one of the strongest episodes so far. In fact, if Timothy Olyphant doesn’t get an Emmy nomination for best actor and Margo Martindale a nod for her season-long guest-starring role, there is no justice.

And that’s not even factoring in Walton Goggins, who was robbed several times on The Shield and expanded his can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him footprint exponentially this season as Boyd.

Beyond awards, Justified elevated itself from a very good series last season to a great one this season.

Not a lot of shows make that jump.

What stood out most about the finale was that, despite the title – “Bloody Harlan” – the writers didn’t have Raylan (Olyphant) or even Boyd (Goggins) spew bullet shells all over the Appalachian hills. Instead, Raylan got himself beaten with a baseball bat and, in the final scene, staged a détente with Mags (Martindale) after decades of family wars. Her death – self inflicted by poisoned homemade alcohol (“apple pie” may never have the same meaning for Justified fans), was heavy on dialog, tempered emotion and an understanding about the ways of people living off the grid in poor, rural America that the U.S. Marshal’s might not understand.

It was understated and moving, a showcase for a number of strong performances.

Justified also had the confidence to keep some story lines hanging going forward. Ava (Joelle Carter) is shot, Winona (Natalie Zea) is pregnant, and both situations have enormous impact on Boyd and Raylan. The series also managed to make the wonderful Nick Searcy as Raylan’s boss Art more complex because of what he knows about Raylan protecting Winona on a very bad bit of judgment. Even Raylan’s fellow Marshal Tim (Jacob Pitts) got his character fleshed out. There is still, however, a serious lack of good material for Erica Tazel, who plays Rachel, another Marshal in the office. The writers need to step up and fix that deficiency quickly next season.

Other than that, Justified had the kind of season where viewers will want to go back and rewatch scenes just to bask in the dialogue, which combined the verbal gymnastics of Deadwood with the kind of subtle humor a ton of comedies should take notice of. Elmore Leonard is proud of this series and it's easy to see why.

But the notable achievement here with Justified, crowned by the finale, is that a very good series got a lot better. In television, there are a lot of very good shows that have nowhere to go but down, creatively. You can witness the limitations throughout a season. There’s no sin in being very good. But there’s glory in being great.

Justified proved this season that it’s in television’s top tier.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine.