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'Justified' recap: The gunfighter returns

January 18, 2012 |  6:30 am

Until the final scene of the third-season premiere of “Justified,” I thought the episode was perhaps a touch too jumpy. It was working so hard to introduce characters, deal with the fallout from the end of Season 2, and catch us up with where the characters are three weeks after the end of that season that it occasionally felt a little breathless. And then Boyd Crowder strolled down the hall of the local prison, big grin on his face, and everything snapped into place. Man, it’s nice to have this show back.

It was whatever Boyd was up to that felt most tangential to everything else that was going on, since Boyd often stars in his own series that hangs out at the edges of the series proper. Whatever Raylan is up to, Boyd will be off on his own path, and those paths will cross only occasionally. It’s a structure that worked well for the show last season, but it can also seem like the series occasionally isn’t sure where to turn its focus. However, once Boyd walked into prison and we saw Dickie Bennett watching him with wary eyes, everything snapped into place: Boyd is going to get at Dickie, one way or the other, and he’s either going to exact his revenge for what happened to Ava or he’s going to get to Dickie to get some sort of information on the Bennett fortune, which has mostly been repossessed by the government or (in the case of the marijuana) is now almost completely without value because of mold and mildew.

The show also has to deal with the long shadow of the Bennetts in another way. Mags Bennett, as played by Margo Martindale, was one of the great TV villains. The show aims to combat this in a couple of ways, but the chief one seems to be Neal McDonough’s work as Detroit-based mobster Robert Quarles, a man who waltzes into Kentucky and takes on the Dixie Mafia at its own game, emerging victorious by episode’s end, all with a smile on his face and a song in his heart, it would seem. McDonough’s done such great work over the years as troubled heroes that it’s fun to see him turning on his considerable charisma as a relatively untroubled villain. Plus, he’s almost the opposite of Mags. That doesn’t mean he’ll match up to the power of that character or of Martindale’s work, but the character being so different means he also doesn’t really have to try. He and the show are doing their own thing with Robert, and it’ll be fun to see what happens next.

Apparently having less impact on this season is Desmond Harrington as Fletcher Nix, but, man, does he make an impression in the one episode he’s in. As a hired hand/serial killer who goes around stabbing people in the hand with an ice pick when he teases them with the option of grabbing a gun and drawing down on him, Harrington is eerie and appropriately intimidating. The scene where he and Raylan ride on an elevator together is fraught with tension, and the episode’s highpoint comes when he invades Raylan’s hotel room when our hero and Winona are returning home after a long day’s work. It’s a bit strange to think that Fletcher wouldn’t realize Raylan might figure out his modus operandi, but it still pays off in that great moment where Fletcher lunges to stab at Raylan’s hand and Raylan instead tugs the table cloth, dropping the gun into his waiting hand and killing Fletcher.

As for the rest of our favorite characters, well, they’re continuing along much as they were. Ava survived Dickie’s attempt on her life, but she’s moving a little more slowly now, with her arm in a sling and all. (At the same time, she’s standing up impressively for herself when surrounded by Boyd’s goons. Her taking a frying pan to one of their heads was great.) Raylan and Winona are talking about what their unborn child — no bigger than a walnut right now — will need out of life, and Raylan’s considering moving out of the motel and into an actual house. (Winona seems thrilled at this notion, as well she would be.) Art’s life keeps getting disrupted by Raylan crashing through walls while engaged in brawls with Boyd. And Tim and Rachel are there to provide backup. (Please let this season give these two something more to do!) Everything’s returned to the status quo. Why, even Raylan’s injury, which keeps him from firing as well as he usually might, doesn’t end up being a big deal because he uses his cleverness to defeat Fletcher, not his quick-draw.

But at the same time, the status quo has been re-obtained for these characters because there’s a void in the Harlan power structure. With Mags out of the way, everybody’s quarreling over the scraps of her empire, even as Robert’s moving in on the Dixie Mafia. Lots of lowlifes show up here, from Arlo (now hanging out at the Crowder home seemingly all of the time) to Wynn Duffy, who sets Raylan and Tim on the trail that ultimately leads to Fletcher ending up in Raylan’s hotel room. There’s a big vacuum at the center of Harlan, and somebody’s going to need to fill it. If I were a betting man, I’d say this season boils down to Boyd versus Robert, with Raylan being forced to choose sides with the man he grew up with and the man he both hates and loves in equal measure. But this show has a way of upending expectations.

So that’s where we sit at the end of “Gunfighter”: The status quo has returned, but only so long as it takes for a new batch of bad guys to try to grab a piece of what’s left over. The thing that’s great about “Justified” is that it understands that if you defeat one villain, another will just pop up in his or her place. You can defeat a criminal, but you can’t defeat crime, because the sorts of things that drive a person to a life of crime — upbringing, poor social standing, sheer delight in doing awful things — are eternal. Raylan can never leave his job or Harlan, much as Winona might want him to, simply because so long as there are bad men out there in the dark, there’s going to need to be someone to shoot them down, no matter how slow his draw.


Memorable TV quotes of 2011

How did prime-time TV become an adulterer's paradise?

Complete Show Tracker 'Justified' coverage

—Todd VanDerWerff

Photo: Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins, left) hatches a scheme to land back in prison by taunting Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant). Photo credit: FX.