I wouldn’t profess to know the ins and outs of US cable shows; certainly the extent to which a cable “hit” has a wider profile is beyond me. It seems like FX, Fox’s cable arm, is still best known for formative hit (in terms of original programming) The Shield, with other long-stayers including Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck(neither of which have I followed).
Series that I did follow were either unceremoniously ditched (The Riches) or continued elsewhere at diminished quality (Damages). The exceptions are Sons of Anarchy(despite a really stinky third season) and Justified, both of which air on Channel 5 in the UK. The latter seems to be that example of a quality show that hasn’t quite caught on in the UK; most people seem to have at least heard of Game of Thrones, or The Wire, or Dexter. Maybe it’s the restricted, southern locale; I don’t know. But it’s one of the most wholly satisfying imports of the moment, anchored by Timothy Olyphant’s laidback charisma and Graham Yost’s expert translation of Elmore Leonard’s easy charm and choice dialogue (no easy thing) to the small screen.
Season Three picks up where the previous run left off, and everyone (just watch the DVD extras) seems to agree that at very best they’ll only be able to equal that batch. The main reason for this is the iconic character of Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale), whose departure leaves enormous shoes for any “Big Bad” to fill. It’s safe to say that Neal McDonough is unable to do this as Robert Quarles. But that’s more down to being served a fairly standard “Boo-hiss” villain with a nest of nasty peculiarities; Mags’ matriarchal figure was dangerous because she was so reasoned and nuanced. Even when Quarles appears to have the upper hand on Olyphant’s Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, you’re never in any doubt who’s craftier. Quarles’ precise demeanour is quickly stripped away to reveal a man on a precipice in a number of respects, while Raylan’s calm and stoicism in the face of danger means he will always win-out.
The various overarching story trands follow Quarles’ quest for a crime foothold (based on supplying drug oxy), Boyd Crowder’s (Walton Goggins, who appeared in the pilot as a one-off but made such an impression that he is basically the series’ second-lead) to recover his own “empire” and the various playing of sides off each other by Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson, probably best known as Bubba in Forrest Gump). Quarles’ involvement enables a welcome increased presence for enforcer and co-conspirator Wynn Duffy (the fantastically weasely Jere Burns, also known for Breaking Badand Burn Notice). Then there’s the return of Jeremy Davies as would-be-bad-guy-but-consummate-fool Dickie Bennett, and Raylan’s looming fatherhood, to contend with; it has to be said that some of the regular characters definitely suffer from lack of interest on the part of the writers this season. While Ava (Joelle Carter) holds her own, Winona (Natalie Zea) and Marshals Tim (Jacob Pitts) and Rachel (Erica Tazel) have slim pickings.
The character-based comedy that comes from Leonard at his best is fully in evidence. Scenes fly by loaded with wall-to-wall witticisms; some so deadpan you barely catch them. What makes Raylan so endearing is his ability not just to give them but be on the receiving end, bearing the brunt with benign (mostly) resignation.
Individual storylines and guest stars interweave with the broader season arc from the off. The Gunfighter begins the season with cocky hit man Fletcher “The Ice Pick” Nix encountering Raylan. The showdown is inventive (partly devised by Olyphant, there’s more than a whiff of The Avengers’ episode A Touch of Brimstone to Raylan’s face-off with his adversary). Dexter’s Desmond Harrington really gets to have fun in this one, really playing up the jerk in Fletcher. Carla Gugino guests in the second and Pruitt Taylor Vince has a memorable spot in Harlan Roulette as a disreputable pawnshop owner. Vince has had a clutch of good roles of late, with this, The Mentalistand The Walking Dead. And James Le Gros returns from Season Two as Wade. Thick as Mud is a frequently hilarious showcase for Damon Herriman’s Dewey Crowe (no matter how dumb the characters in Harlan are, Dewey is guaranteed to make them look relatively smart), when he falls victim to organ traders. When the Guns Come out holds the first of two appearances from William Mapother (that’s Tom Cruise’s cousin to you), playing the new pimp in town.
The Man Behind the Curtain (Episode 7) pushes in to gear for the last half of the season with a number of returning faces; Jim Beaver as Sheldon (along with Olyphant and Vince, ex- of Deadwood), induced by Boyd to run for mayor, and Winona’s ex-husband Gary (William Ragsdale). Best of all, Stephen Tobolowsky’s infuriated FBI Agent (who will pop up again in the fourth season). The plots are more tightly-linked from this point, with the mayoral campaign, the attempt to frame Raylan and the escalation of antagonism between the various factions. Along the way come some superbly written and shot set pieces; the landmine in Loose Ends, Waylan testifying against Dickie (going hilariously wrong) in Guy Walks into a Bar, the plotting and counterplotting and counter-counterplotting in penultimate episode Coalition. The final episode manages to satisfyingly pull-off the seemingly impossible (keeping certain regular characters out of prison, to fight another day) while bring back into focus Waylan’s aberrant relationship with his father Arlo (Raymond J Barry).
Also guesting in the last few are the likes of Adam Arkin and Michael Ironside. The former directs an episode, as he has done since the first season. Fellow thesp Tony Goldwyn also calls the shots frequently. Jon Avnet is another series regular, hitting a stride he’s rarely found on the big screen (Righteous Kill, anyone?) while John Dahl’s noirish stylings are ideally suited to this sort of fare (he seems equally at home with Dexterand Californication, so hopefully he’ll find the time to get a movie off the ground again before too long). The director of the finale, Galaxy Quest’s Dean Parisot, has Red 2 coming out this summer; like many cable series, Justifiedattracts both TV veterans and “slumming it” (or out-of-favour, or just frustrated at not being able to get a project going) moviemakers.
The series has not yet been renewed for a fifth run. It doesn’t quite have the ratings dazzle of FX’s brightest shows, but it would be a shame if, having got this far, Yost was unable to shepherd it through the six seasons he envisaged. Highly recommended.