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'Justified' recap: Just don't try the apple pie

February 9, 2011 | 11:57 pm

Js2ep201_20101026_PG-0635 The best thing about “Justified” is how well-developed its rural Kentucky world feels. OK, that’s maybe not the “best” thing, not on a show with such riotously fun episodes, such a great protagonist, and such terrific dialogue. But the world of the show doesn’t just feel like a TV world. It really does feel like if you took the wrong exit somewhere around Lexington, you might drive just long enough to end up in this place and among these people. Sure, everyone’s just a bit cleverer than they would be in real life, and sure, life is probably more exciting there than it is in the REAL rural Kentucky, but, hey, all of it FEELS right. That’s one of the show’s chief strengths, and that’s one of the things that makes tonight’s premiere, “The Moonshine War,” so much fun. Tonight, we meet a whole raft of new characters, but it feels like they’ve been there from the first, and we just hadn’t gotten around to hanging out with them yet. And that’s unquestionably a good thing.

The head of this little clan is Mags Bennett (played by character actress Margo Martindale, who’s defiantly playing against type here), a backwoods-y marijuana farmer who runs a little store and serves up some of her own homemade moonshine, including a little concoction she calls Apple Pie. She knows Raylan from way back, when he was living in Kentucky and was a promising baseball star, back before he became a government man.

Now, she’s not so sure why he’s sniffing around her operation, but as he assures her, he’s got no desire to shut down her business, since as a federal marshal, marijuana production isn’t really something he’s concerned with. What he IS concerned with is the call he got on a tip line, the call that suggests a sex offender and child molester is holed up within Mags’ operation, threatening one of the barely teenage girls in the area.

It’s a great way for us to meet Mags (and her slightly more direct sons) because it lets her seem like a good old girl who, sure, skirts the law with her primary occupation but doesn’t seem like she could hurt a fly all the same. At the same time, we get to see that her sons are just slightly more threatening. When it turns out that the young girl’s father called the tip line to turn in the Bennett worker, Dickie Bennett (an impressively threatening Jeremy Davies, perhaps best known to TV fans before this for playing “Lost’s” Daniel Faraday) appreciates the dad’s apology, but, well, he’s just gonna have to stick his foot in this bear trap, all right? Mags’ other two sons, Coover and Doyle, are no better. Coover spends his time shooting rats, later hurling one at Raylan’s car and nearly hitting Rachel in the process. Doyle is a member of the local law enforcement, suggesting the Bennetts may have a finger in every pie they can possibly think of.

But the end of the episode proves the apples didn’t fall far from the tree (particularly when it comes to that Apple Pie). Mags collects the girl’s father, to apologize for the fact that one of her men took such an interest in the kid. She would have made sure he was dealt with, had the Feds not gotten to him, see? And just have a nice sip of this here Apple Pie, all warm and cinnamon-y. What she neglects to mention, of course, is that the glass she’s given him is laced with an all-natural poison, culled from plants dug up from back in the woods somewhere, meaning that he’s not long for this world. It’s an effective, chilling scene, nicely setting up the stakes for what’s to come. Raylan may have sort of a guess as to Mags’ cunning, but he’s got absolutely no idea. And the way Martindale plays the deadly smile behind all of Mags’ charm is pitch perfect. When she tells the girl’s dad that there’s no way he’ll make it, even if she had a chopper right there to take him to the hospital, but he shouldn’t worry, since she’ll take care of his little girl, well, that’s all you need to make a great bad guy right there.

Even though “The Moonshine War” spends so much time with the Bennetts, there’s still plenty of room to go and see what the other characters are up to as well. Rachel’s the one who first gets the call to look into the possible child endangerment, and she pulls in Raylan because when she goes down to Harlan – as an African American female surrounded by white people who respect her authority only so far as they absolutely have to – she doesn’t feel comfortable. Rachel and Tim, Raylan’s other occasional partner, never got the character development they probably deserved last season, so it’s nice to see this episode dealing with how Rachel’s strong, smart and capable, yes, but also strong, smart and capable enough to know that sometimes, having somebody like Raylan, who can effectively pretend to be one of the Harlan folks, is nice to have along while solving a case. And, hey, if it results in him getting to avoid filing endless paperwork, Raylan’s just happy to be along for the ride, too.

If there’s a sequence that doesn’t work as well here, it’s the pre-credits attempts to put everything from the end of last season to bed. Season one ended on a sort of cliffhanger, one that didn’t leave very much to the imagination, and I’m not sure season two needed to start immediately with cleaning up the old business. It very easily could have been dealt with in one or two lines of dialogue, and while all of these scenes are fun, they don’t work nearly as well with the rest of the hour as they might. Sure, seeing Raylan go all the way back to Miami to deal with his problems at the source was a great scene, but this whole prologue felt unnaturally hurried, especially in comparison to the material back in Harlan with the Bennetts and the search for the missing girl (which was over almost as soon as it began). It had the weird sense of cleaving the episode into two episodes, and while both of those episodes were good, I might have liked it if the whole hour had just dealt with the primary storyline. Still, it’s a small quibble in a remarkably self-assured start to season two of the series. I can’t wait to see what other evils are hiding in the back woods of Harlan.

Some other thoughts:

  • --Boyd Crowder runs off, much to the consternation of Art (who is always able, perhaps surprisingly, to find new notes in the endless stream of scenes where he’s miffed at Raylan but impressed by his results). Where does he get off to? Well, we don’t learn that until the end of the hour, but he’s headed down into the mines. No telling what this might all lead to.
  • --Raylan and Winona’s constant ability to fall into bed together at the drop of a hat should be getting annoying, but the two seem to find their mutual attraction so darn irritating that it remains funny to me. Really liked the post-coitus pillow talk in this episode.
  • --I don’t know if the new promos FX has been papering the TV landscape with are from future episodes. So far as I can tell, they’re not in the three episodes FX sent out to critics for review. But they’re great fun and a great introduction to the basic character of Raylan and the storytelling ideals of “Justified.”
  • --"Did I not tell you there would be booby traps?"
  • --"We're reefer farmers, Raylan. We don't consort with sexual deviants!"
  • --"You caught me. I'm stealing gas. I don't know why I do it! It's not like I can't afford it."
  • --"Yeah, that's what a girl wants to hear for pillow talk: Regret."

--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) may seem like a simple reefer farmer/general store owner, but there's more to her than meets the eye. (Credit: FX)

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