I'm not passionate about Justified, which is perhaps evident by my yearly decision to wait for its UK broadcast on 5USA (which tends to premiere weeks before a season ends on FX in the US). It's a great show with fantastic performances, and season 2 was streets head of its spotty inaugural year (because of tighter serialisation and much stronger recurring characters), but it's never been must-see television in my eyes. My opinion may be about to change, on the evidence of Justified's best ever season premiere, "The Gunfighter"...
We catch up with swaggering U.S Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) less than a month after he was shot in the line of duty, and there are signs that this "cowboy" is starting to show his age. Raylan's gunshot wound may be healing, but it's robbed Raylan of his pin-point accuracy with a firearm (forever?), and girlfriend Winona (Natalie Zea) wryly comments on his advancing years. As a premiere, "The Gunfighter" naturally had to set-up new characters to replace those who didn't survive season 2; most importantly the "urban cowboy" Quarles (Neal McDonough), an enforcer from Detroit with Travis Bickle's forearm-gun from Taxi Driver, who's chasing repayment over a failed investment from Emmitt Arnett (Steven Flynn), associate of the Dixie Mafia.
There's also a Arnett's quiet bodyguard Fletcher "Ice Pick" Nix (Dexter's Desmond Harrington), who's preferred method of execution involves a game of table-top quick-draw. Both men reflect different aspects of Raylan: Ice Pick being his ego and gun skills; Quarles the tranquil intelligence. The episode's best scene is when Ice Pick gets a chance to pit his skills against Raylan (in his mind, his only contender), placing a loaded gun in the middle of a table and offering a 50/50 chance of them reaching for it after a count of ten to kill the other. It ends with Raylan, knowing he'll be unable to shoot quicker because of his injury, beating Ice Pick with lateral thinking: tug on the tablecloth to bring the gun closer his way on zero. Genius.
Indeed, Justified is brimming with moments such as the one above. Snappy, inventive, crowd-pleasing bursts of violence and treachery that make you grin from ear to ear. And as the show evolves, I love how each year it gains layers of back-story and an ever deepening ensemble. Raylan was the indisputable star of the show when it began (and that still holds mostly true), but he's not always the most interesting character these days. We still have season 1 baddie Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) on the scene, Raylan's childhood best-friend, who has such natural chemistry with Raylan that I'd enjoy an hour listening to those two men talk in an empty room. By the end of this premiere, it seems we'll be spending time with Boyd in the Harlan County jail alongside hobbling Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies), the key henchman and son of weed-dealing matriarch Mags Bennett from last season, which is a tantalising turn of events. I thought the breaks would be cleaner between seasons, but instead showrunner Graham Yost is choosing to enhance this universe by keeping key players around Harlan County. It's almost becoming a sort of edgy, violent, complex, Southern soap.
Anyway, just a few thoughts on the premiere, because I know a few people sometimes wonder what I think of Justified. Obviously people watching at UK-pace are susceptible to massive spoilers from all Americans/Canadians reading, so please don't ruin things if you leave a comment. Try and be vague in your positive/negative remarks, if you've seen ahead of this episode, or your comment will be deleted and you may be blacklisted.
written by Graham Yost & Fred Golan / directed by Michael Dinner / 28 March 2012 / 5USA