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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.

Catching up on "Justified"

Justified was last year’s finest example of guilty pleasure television. The FX drama follows in the footsteps of predecessors The Shield and 24, featuring a protagonist who Breaks the Rules but Gets Results, a phrase that might actually be trademarked by the cable network. Thankfully, it returns tomorrow for a second season.

Justified follows US Marshal Raylan Givens as he reluctantly returns home to eastern Kentucky, Stetson and fastest-gun-alive in tow. Givens is an Old West sheriff born in the wrong century, so it’s fitting that he’s played by Timothy Olyphant, whose last major TV role was as Deadwood’s Sheriff Seth Bullock. Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, the show has the author’s sharp-tongued wit and well-drawn characters. Apart from the dialogue, the show benefits from a premise that is both episodic and serial. Week to week, Givens fulfils his duties as a marshal: hunting for fugitives, protecting judges, and negotiating with hostage takers, among other things. He also is the featured player in a love triangle that includes his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) and Ava (Joelle Carter), the woman he loves and the woman who loves him, respectively.

More intriguing is the overarching plot line that pits Givens against Boyd Crowder (The Shield’s Walton Coggins, aka Shane Vendrell aka Cletus Van Damme), a white separatist / cult leader / explosives-wielding criminal. Childhood friends on opposite sides of the law, Givens takes Crowder out of commission in the pilot; the bullet doesn’t kill him, but Crowder (allegedly) changes his ways, finds Jesus, and moves to a commune in the woods. Crowder is more svengali than supremacist, and Coggins gives the role more nuance than he did with his character on The Shield. The question of Crowder’s true intentions is all shades of gray and makes for an intriguing plot line.

Over the first season, the show highlighted the episodic content over the serialized, but finished strong. The romantic subplot is a bit predictable, but it integrates with the other stories organically enough. Overall, the performances, dialogue and unique setting make this show one to watch.

Watch Justified on FX, at 10pm on Wednesdays.