TV Review: 'Justified' Picks Up Its Greatness Again in Season 3

21 TOC Justified
David Strick

Timothy Olyphant cheks his e-mail March 14 during an early morning break in filming the "Justified" season finale.

Elmore Leonard doesn’t endorse the FX series Justified just because it’s based on one his characters. He’s had a long while to think about how many times Hollywood has messed up one of his books. Nope, he loves Justified because it gets him. And it gets him right.

As Justified heads into its third season tonight (10 p.m., FX), there’s still an open door there for you newcomers. Now, that door doesn’t exist for a lot of shows 26 episodes into their run, but consider this a screen door in Harlan County, Ky., propped open with a jug of illegal liquor, beckoning you in with Southern hospitality.

Go ahead. Step forward.

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As one of the top-tier dramas in all of television, Justified doesn’t need much of an introduction. Timothy Olyphant plays U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens like he was born for the role (or, if it makes you feel better, born to play it after he did a similarly brilliant turn on Deadwood). And Walton Goggins plays the devilishly dangerous rattlesnake known as Boyd Crowder, who opens Season 3 making plans to be El Jefe, or whatever they might call the equivalent down in Kentucky. Add in a great cast and fantastic writing, and you’ve got all you really need to know moving forward. Raylan’s a perfectly created Leonard character. Troubled. Haunted. Smart. Funny. He has a way with words and can draw a gun faster than most of the people on the other end of it ever imagined. He’s both lawman and local. And there’s a history (which intersects with Boyd through their families and back generations) that infuses Justified with something not quite seen on TV before.

One of the beauties of Justified is that Season 1 was very good but a mixed bag, as the writers – headed up by executive producer Graham Yost – tried to get the formula just right. They wore wrist bands that prompted a very good notion: “What would Elmore do?”

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Well, he’d make it great for starters. And real. Which is precisely what happened with about four episodes left in that first season and then magnificently outed itself in Season 2, when Justified jumped with gusto from very good to great. The first three episodes of Season 3 indicate there has been no slippage at all, but rather a digging in of the philosophy at hand: Keep the characters unique and vibrant and keep them in their native habitat – rural Kentucky, a backdrop to a series like no other.

With those objectives met – and we shall see if the wonderful Neal McDonough and Mykelti Williamson can carry the guest star weight that Margo Martindale exuded last season when she won an Emmy – the story picks up right from where Season 2 left off.

Raylan was shot and his wounds are healing slowly. Raylan’s ex and now current, Winona (Natalie Zea), is pregnant. Boyd’s girlfriend Ava (Joelle Carter) also is nursing a gunshot wound. But new forces are moving into Harlan to seize on opportunity, just as Boyd begins to form his empire.

Will forces clash? You bet your Elmore Leonard book collection they will.

Again, what separates Justified from so many series is the wonderful writing, overwhelminlg praised by Leonard and delivered with pitch-perfect precision by the cast.

Consider this scene, where Boyd walks into his cousin’s old bar and decides to take it over, first tearing down all the Christmas lights. Buck, the new owner, grabs a baseball bat.

“I’m Boyd Crowder and you’re probably wondering why your day has taken this turn and why woulnd’t ya – but don’t worry I’ma tell ya. See, not long ago this bar belonged to my cousin Johnny, do you remember him?”

Buck: “I bought this place fair and square!”

“Buck, have you ever been shot?”

It’s a tiny moment that encapsulates all the small moments of joy in the series, but it continues with Boyd’s soliloquy.

“I have --  right here in my chest. It hurt like hell. It almost cost me my life. But my cousin Johnny, he took it a lot worse than I did. A shotgun at close range. Spent months laid up in a hospital room contemplating the difficult nature of his new existence. And while he was – infirmed – you swooped in and you took advantage.”

The rest of that scene is superb on other levels, but “contemplating the difficult nature of his new existence,” coming on the heels of the softly stated, “Buck, have you ever been shot?” was just one example of so many well-written scenes in Justified.

If you’re already invested in this series, there’s no need to tout its greatness anymore. If you’re new, just walk through that open door and find out for yourself.