Here’s why I call Justified the best series on TV: because every season, I ask myself “How can this possibly get any better?” and it always does.
“The Gunfighter” starts off simply enough, but within minutes we’re reminded that everything in this world is much more complex than it appears. Winona finds herself being pulled over by the state police; seems that Art has been trying to reach her. She arrives at the hospital, where Art tells her “he’s going to be all right,” and we don’t need to be told who he’s talking about. Yes, that’s Raylan taking a nap in a hospital bed, where we know he’s been before and probably will be again.
Three weeks after that, he’s on medically restricted duty. As he struggles to regain his aim, Art talks about issuing him hand grenades, which makes me laugh out loud, because that’s what he needs – more firepower. Their conversation ends when Boyd arrives at the Marshals’ Office, so that Raylan can ask him what happened to Mags Bennett’s stuff after her death. The situation escalates into an argument and then a fistfight that sees Raylan tackled through a window into Art’s office. This does not surprise me at all, but it’s another reminder that Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins make for one of the best matchups on television. I think I speak for many fans when I say the original idea of Justified sans Boyd Crowder seems unfathomable now.
This season’s got an awesome big bad, and his name is Neal McDonough. He plays Quarles, who’s from Detroit and concerned about his investment. Check out the other new guy in the room: that’s Dexter star Desmond Harrington, with a different hairstyle and that cold stare that served him so well in the flick Ghost Ship. Here are two of television’s underrated, most intense actors in the same show. What a fabulous surprise. The latter goes and invades a guy’s house, shooting the homeowner and the innocent pizza guy he used to get in the front door. There’s a reason Harrington played a soul collector: the man is very good at pretending he doesn’t have one.
At the end of the day, Raylan goes home to a still-pregnant Winona, who’s now crashing with him at the hotel and telling him that he’s not getting any younger. Everything seems fine, but knowing that they didn’t work out the first time for several very valid reasons, and knowing that Justified is not the show where Raylan will settle down with a baby and a picket fence, I can’t help but wonder if they’ll really last.
The next morning, Tim briefs him on the homicide and Fletcher “The Icepick” Nix, with the added bit of info that Wynn Duffy’s company installed the security system at the dead guy’s house. He eventually persuades Raylan to skip out on desk duty and help him with the case. And so after seeing him on Burn Notice, we get to see Jere Burns return to his other recurring bad guy role. Tim suggests they talk to Arnett, Duffy’s boss and the shot-caller of the Dixie Mafia, as Duffy calls Arnett and tells him about his not-so-bright idea to send The Icepick after the dead guy.
This is how The Icepick and Raylan end up in an elevator together. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but it’s actually a pretty cool scene, with that added bit of comedy Justified is known for when an elderly woman gets on the elevator momentarily. The two talk like they’re friendly when we know they’re anything but. It’s uncomfortable and a bit creepy and definitely makes an impression even though it’s such a brief scene.
Raylan arrives at Arnett’s office to find that he’s not there, and takes his assistant out for a drink. Oh, Raylan, you are a sneaky one. She spills that she doesn’t believe her boss is in the real estate business and that Arnett cancelled a meeting with The Icepick at the last minute, but rescheduled for that evening. He suggests that she quit her job as he plots to crash said meeting. What he doesn’t know is that the assistant was feeding him information on Quarles’ orders. The assistant asks him what he came all this way for, and he makes some excuse about liking the scenery.
Back at the office, Raylan tells Art that he thinks the information about the meeting came too easily, but Art tells him to go home. His father is enjoying Ava’s cooking, before she relays Boyd’s instructions from prison: to burn the marijuana they swiped from Mags Bennett before they get caught with it. When Devil objects to the idea, she hits him in the face with a frying pan. Ava really came into her own last season and that seems like it’s continuing here.
The Marshals are determined to break up Arnett’s meeting with The Icepick, but it doesn’t go well. The Icepick looks on as they arrest someone else, and slips away in a taxi. Art is forced to call Raylan and admit that the bust was…well, a bust. Raylan finds that out for himself when he and Winona walk into the hotel and find Nix sitting there with a gun aimed at the both of them. He tries to play the same game with Raylan that he did with the man he killed, but this time he’s the one who ends up dead.
Meanwhile, Quarles shoots and kills Arnett and his assistant in front of Wynn Duffy without a second thought. “You know me now?” he asks Duffy, who is clearly cowed. The surviving Bennett brothers spy Boyd in prison, and surely they all still have parts to play in what looks to be a fantastic season.
There are a lot of things I love about “The Gunfighter.” I’ve talked so much about the level of acting talent in Justified‘s regular cast, and as repetitive as it is, that’s still true. Timothy Olyphant is simply astounding in the role of Raylan Givens. Every week there’s a moment or a line or an acting choice that he makes that I remember well after the episode ends. We continue to see his supporting cast members flourish: Jacob Pitts isn’t around much, but he still makes an impression. Joelle Carter has taken Ava so far from where she started. This cast deserves all the credit that they receive and then some.
Not only that, the addition of some truly talented guest actors brought the show to a whole other level this week. Bringing in Neal McDonough as the season’s primary villain is a great move; anyone who’s seen his award-worthy work as Deputy District Attorney David McNorris on Boomtown knows how brilliant he can be. It helps that Graham Yost, who created Boomtown, is now running Justified so McDonough is getting great material handled by someone who knows how to write for him. I can’t wait to see what he does next. When you have a leading man as strong as Olyphant, you need an equally strong villain, and I have no doubt that McDonough is that. It’s going to be a heavyweight fight for certain.
Seeing Desmond Harrington here is such a pleasant surprise. His character on Dexter largely went to waste this year, so it’s great to see him really get used here. He’s disturbing and yet charming in a creepy way. There’s always so much more going on behind his eyes than what’s on paper, and that helps to flesh out characters like this. Too bad they couldn’t lock him up as a regular for this season. Having three of my favorite actors (McDonough, Harrington and Timothy Olyphant) in a show that I already know is amazingly well-written? Well, that was a perfect storm.
I have to also confess that I love that Justified comes from a literary pedigree. Today saw the newest Raylan Givens novel, appropriately titled Raylan, arrive; you can read my Q&A with Elmore Leonard here. Justified truly conveys on screen the depth that can be found in Mr. Leonard’s novels. While both versions are distinctive in their own right, it’s a rare thing to feel that I’m getting as much detail and life in 45 minutes as I can find in 400-plus pages. That’s a testament to Yost and company really understand Leonard’s work, and also being skilled professionals themselves. They have created a world, and in this episode they not only brought us up to speed on everything in that world, but introduced a new villain and did so very naturally, plus it still made me laugh. This is a show that covers every aspect of what great writing is. This is writing with style and nuance. This is the one writer’s room I’d love to sit in and probably would never want to leave.
Justified is the answer to television’s biggest problem: the need for every season to be outdo the one before. It was one of television’s best dramas three seasons ago and it is unquestionably the best now. As much as I believe this series sets the standard for what TV drama should be, I have to admit that I like Justified standing on its own, too. Just like Raylan Givens, this show will always be one of a kind.