From guilty pleasure to must watch: thoughts on "Justified"

When I wrote about Justified before this season, I called it a guilty pleasure. It was another procedural-serial hybrid with a main character bigger than the institution he’s a part of (a post-Wire faux pas), albeit taking place in a unique setting. But after the culmination of the show’s second go-around in Kentucky’s Eastern District, I’m reconsidering that designation.

The second season of Justified built upon the solid foundation of the first, literally picking up right where the first left off. Raylan and Boyd became further entwined, as Raylan’s Miami cartel problems became Boyd’s: a cartel member deprived Boyd the privilege of killing his father Bo. Surprisingly, this issue was cleared up rather quickly, putting to bed a storyline that began when Raylan capped Tommy Buck in the pilot.

Raylan sorts through the paperwork and testimony that results from one of his bloodbaths, getting back to marshal business, and Boyd continues life on the straight-and-narrow. Without his flock (who were summarily killed by Bo’s crew), Boyd returns to the mines, content to live a humble existence from the comfort of Ava’s attic. Neither Raylan nor the audience is sure whether Boyd has honestly turned over a new leaf or not, the type of complexity the first season offered.

The second season’s major plot line concerned the Bennetts, a local crime family that shares a “Hatfields and McCoys” relationship with the Givens clan. Matriarch Maggs Bennett is played by Margo Martindale, a true delight who has been featured on The Riches and Dexter. Maggs was infinitely more compelling than Bo as a crime boss, her relationship with her family richer and more complicated. With her three sons, corrupt sheriff Doyle (Joseph Lyle Taylor), wannabe gangster Dickie (Lost‘s Jeremy Davies), and the dimwitted Coover (Brad William Henke), Maggs dominates the fictional Bennett County.

Raylan is no stranger to the Bennetts, but only becomes professionally interested when state troopers need a hillbilly whisperer to track down a sex offender deep in Bennett territory. A local hustler named McCready had anonymously called in the law. Between that and encroaching on Maggs’ weed business, McCready ends up with a bellyful of poison. This leaves his daughter Loretta (the scene-stealing Kaitlyn Dever) an orphan under the protective watch of Maggs. Meanwhile, the Bennetts work towards their big plan, which ends up being a land deal with mountaintop miner Black Pike. The whole affair feels like an Appalachian Chinatown.

Meanwhile, Boyd is dragged back over to the dark side, first as the hired protection for Black Pike and then as a full fledged outlaw. Was it inevitable? Was it premeditated? Or was it the result of the constant doubts of Raylan, et al? The evolution of Boyd’s character this season was always captivating, from his solemn shots of whiskey as a coal miner to bursts of violent anger (one involving a pickup truck left me breathless).

For his part, Raylan stays busy, attempting to mend his relationship with Winona while simultaneously being a marshal and keeping tabs on Boyd and the Bennetts. He spends the entire season in the doghouse, with Art content to play the fatherly “I’m not angry, I’m disappointed” card. The writers didn’t rely on Raylan’s quick and itchy trigger finger, and the show benefited greatly from it. The show is still violent – with more blood and a higher body count that last time – without being exploitative or redundant.

The first season introduced us to the world of Justified, and the second season got to its heart. The longstanding blood feuds and the us-versus-them mentality toward outsiders give a distinct flavor to this Kentucky drama, and meditations on “the sins of the father” give it a poignant edge. This season, Justified truly surpassed itself – and its competition.

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