Justified's second season was one of the most perfect seasons of TV I'd ever seen. Which is a big claim, although I still stand by it. But for all the greatness of that season, and the buzz for more it left me with, the nagging doubt remained: can the series top that? Is the next season just going to inevitably disappointing, no matter what its strengths may be? So it was with some trepidation we rolled into Season Three of Justified, to see where the show could go from there. Smartly, it chooses to go somewhere different.
Whilst Season Two ended pretty cleanly, both in terms of storytelling and in terms of emotional journey, Season Three smartly deals with the newly-opened power vacuum in Harlan County, and the matter of a missing few million dollars. With the towering presence of Mags Bennett gone, new players come forward, both out-of-towners and an expanded cast of locals. Chief among these are Detroit Mob enforcer Robert Quarles, played by the a chilly Neal McDonough, and Elstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson), who seems to act as a neutral broker for local hoods whilst protecting the African-American enclave of Nobels Holler. Rather than focusing on a central family, this season we are seeing many shifting alliances spinning around each other in a bid for control of the Hillbilly underworld.
The key thing about Justified for me is that it repeatedly showcases its actors by giving them fantastic scripts that let them show range without too much scenery chewing. Both the "main" newcomers, Quarles and Limehouse, start looking like one thing but end up looking like something quite different, as their masks slip and we gradually get to see into their psyches. Both are great characters, but its particularly nice to see Limehouse and his people, as African-Americans are under represented on Justified, and seeing how the community fits (or rather doesn't) amongst the poor Kentucky hills.
But lets not forget the returning characters who continue to evolve. Boyd, after a season of soul-searching, is now comfortable as a criminal again, and expanding his operations (and fending off Quarles) is his major focus, although his growing relationship with both Eva and Arlo is strangely touching. Arlo this season finally falls from the contemptible character he was to an almost pitiable one, something subtly woven into the season before becoming stark towards the end. But for me the biggest setup has to be Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns), a somewhat minor Detroit Mob hood from earlier seasons that gets a lot of great screen time here alongside Quarles, and really, really deserves more exposure next season.
And of course there is Raylan, who can't seem to get anything right, and can't seem to escape his own past. Its a credit to the show that its ostensible star character is often the straight man to the craziness surrounding him (never more so than in the episode about Dewey's Kidneys) and for huge stretches of the season he feels like a background character to his own show, before exploding into the foreground in a blaze of barely-controlled aggression and sharp gunplay.
I don't think that this season has had quite the dramatic and emotional focus that the previous one had, and for all I really enjoyed its finale it didn't quite carry the same weight. Which is fine - it was aiming to do different things, in a different way, and all power to it for doing that. It is still extraordinarily gripping, moving and engaging. It remains one of the best written and acted shows on TV; something that doesn't get the mainstream attention of say, Mad Men but really deserves to be seen, and praised, to the hilt.