Season Premiere Review: Justified, “The Gunfighter”

I’m a bit short on time today, but I wanted to jot down a few thoughts on the very-good season premiere of Justified.

When series take the kind of leap in quality that Justified did in its second season (although I maintain that somehow, we’ve retroactively decided the first season isn’t that great and that’s just not the case), critics and diehard audiences are at least a little nervous for the follow-up. This feels particularly true for Justified considering so much of S2’s quality and praise for it was tied, directly or indirectly, to Margo Martindale’s powerhouse performance as Mags Bennett. But with Martindale/Mags out of the picture for season three, one might wonder how Justified could ever fill that void and if the series can ever reach that quality apex again.

Last night’s season premiere, “The Gunfighter,” is a great first step in answer both questions with “yes, probably.” Graham Yost and his team smartly use Martindale/Mags’ departure from the world as a catalyst for all sorts of compelling story angles. She’s gone and now there’s a bit of a power vacuum in Harlan, one that Boyd is eager to fill, but one that also probably won’t come too easily. And while the residents of Harlan County fight for the throne, it appears Raylan’s going to have even more problems locally in Lexington this season with the Dixie Mafia, and a smooth-talking, murderous carpetbagger played by Neal McDonough in particular.

Therefore, instead of one singular character influencing all the action like Mags did, Yost is approaching this season with a larger quantity of crooks, carpetbaggers and straight-up bad dudes for Raylan have to try to really hard not to shoot. While there is some danger in going with a slew of new villains in hopes that the audience will somewhat forget the excellence of your former antagonist, Justified is uniquely structured to take in all these villains with relative ease. Harlan is always going to be a hotbed for organized crime and Mags’ death should push other criminals to make a play even more. A lot of desperate bad guys trying to grab that top spot, with Boyd directly in the middle of it? That sounds tremendous. The series is so much about Raylan’s struggles with his past and how it influences his present and forcing him to deal with even more idiots he went to school or played baseball with is a great idea in my book. And the Dixie Mafia has weaved in and out of the story thus far in the series’ run, so its importance in this first episode and McDonough’s presence feels like an expansion of already established plots instead of a shoved-in addition.

In short, I don’t think there’s much to worry about. Mags might be gone, but her presence is still being felt. And now Raylan has to move on and keep all these hungry criminals at bay when he’s arguably at his weakest point.

One of the other great things about season two was how intensely it deconstructed Raylan’s contemporary outlaw persona (and really that character construction all together) and forced Raylan into one situation after another where he wasn’t necessarily the smartest or most powerful person in the room. His feelings for Winona got him in all sorts of hot water when she took money from the bank. He cared deeply about Loretta and that almost got him killed a half-dozen times. “Complicated” doesn’t even begin to describe his relationship with Boyd, or his father or even Mags and Dickie. Art was ready to fire his ass. He never lost sight of right and wrong, but by the end of season two, when Raylan claimed he wanted to move away with Winona, I actually believed it. Coming home and dealing with all these people from his past that he tried to forget, it has gotten under his skin and sometimes, he doesn’t really know which way is up.

Thankfully, season three appears to be just as concerned with Raylan’s damaged masculinity. He’s still recovering from a gunshot, he can’t even shoot straight and his deduction skills aren’t quite on track yet either. Which, of course, makes him an even bigger pain in the ass for someone like Art. An injury isn’t going to stop Raylan from trying to do his job, but in “The Gunfighter,” he does it very poorly and accidentally puts Winona in jeopardy (shocker there). Of course, he ends up making it right by winning the round of gamesmanship with the villain-of-the-week Fletcher Nix (Dexter’s Desmond Harrington, doing one of the oddest accents I’ve ever heard).

One thing that I noticed in comparison this premiere to last season’s opener is the difference in setting. Last season, we began outside, in the cruddy world of Harlan, with a man coming after a little girl. Much of that episode featured sequences with Raylan outside, searching for Loretta and trying to find James Earl Dean. And of course, outside in the cruddy world of Harlan is where much of the season’s great action took place and although Raylan had his identity issues throughout, there was always a sense that he knew these people (even if he didn’t literally know them) and he knew this world. A comfort existed, and though that comfort might have caused more problems than he expected, it was still there nonetheless.

“The Gunfighter” doesn’t spend a whole lot of time outside, in the creepy, cruddy world of Harlan. Instead, the action happens comfortably inside business offices. Raylan doesn’t do business offices. This suggests to me that season three is going to throw Raylan into a world that we’ve never seen him in before. The comfortability and familiarity of Harlan might hamper his judgment on occasion, but this Dixie Mafia problem will force him to use different skills and perhaps rely on others (maybe Tim and Rebecca! Yeah, probably not) a bit more. Maybe he will realize that the comfortability of Harlan and his relationships with all those criminals has lulled him into a false sense of security, maybe not.

Watching Raylan deal with a higher class of criminal while simultaneously trying to control Boyd and all the madness in Harlan? I think Justified’s going to be just fine in season three, folks.

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