(SPOILERS) I seem to have an unfortunate knack lately for watching adaptations of great writers’ work as their deaths are announced. First there was Richard Matheson (The Legend of Hell House) and now the latest season of Justified as Elmore Leonard passes on. Leonard was a big fan of the series; of what showrunner Graham Yost had done to expand his short story Fire in the Hole and of Timothy Olyphant’s performance as US Marshal Waylan Givens. Rightly so, as the only Leonard I can think of that approaches this series in terms of quality is Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight.
Leonard observed of the pilot that Waylan seemed very happy shooting people, and Season Four continues to explore the parallels and differences between Waylan and his criminal father - and whether there are lines he will not cross. Hunter Mosley (Brent Sexton), who is responsible for the premature demise of Arlo and was sent down during Season One, expresses the opinion that Waylan is much more like his daddy than he cares to admit. There’s a running theme, as is common with idiosyncratic lawmen, what Waylan would be a criminal if it wasn’t for his badge.
But Olyphant doesn’t portray him as a fascistic or aggressive type; his views, when he expresses them, tend to the liberal. It’s just that he does seem to like shooting people. It’s one of the great pleasures of the series that Waylan will, at least every other episode, enter a situation where someone who means him harm ends up dead. His laconic, laidback manner usually offers the antagonist a way out, but inevitably he is called on to go the Quick Draw McGraw route. On occasion we need to see him seriously exposed, lest we start to think he is more than a mere mortal, but Yost and his writers continually broach the territory of how far he will take matters beyond his remit. Would it have been too much if he’d shot Nicky Augustine (Mike O’Malley) in cold blood? After all, if there was one area we’d expect Waylan to go further than perhaps he should, it’s in protecting Winona and his unborn child. As it turns out he gets others to do his dirty work, and as he sees it there’s no need for guilt on his part (I wonder how long Sammy (Max Perlich) will retain the crown of head of the Detroit mafia; maybe Yost and co are pulling for a return visit from Adam Arkin as Theo Tonin in Season Five, sorting out whatever mess Sammy has made by then and no doubt pulling double duties as a director on the show).
Raymond J. Barry’s Arlo had a good run on Justified, so contemptuous of his son’s lawful ways that he may have even attempted to kill him at the end of the previous season (killing a cop instead). Barry played Senator Richard Matheson (yes) in The X-Files, of course. Appropriately, this season revolves around a secret Arlo is at the heart of; the only issue is perhaps how well this retconing works (more of that in a bit). True to form, the two Givens spurn sentimentality during their last encounter (4.8 Outlaw). Waylan asks him to reveal the identity of Drew Thompson as a parting gesture and Arlo tells him where to go. After he dies, Waylan is back at work as if nothing has happened. It’s only when Art (Nick Searcy) tells him to go home that Waylan reveals a chink in his armour, finding something in his eye as he waits for the lift. The season leaves him pondering his mortality as he surveys the graves of his father and mother.
Winona-haters were no doubt pleased that Natalie Zea’s character only appeared on the periphery of this run. I don’t know what their problem is, really. Although, didn’t Sarah Wayne Callies also attract opprobrium in Prison Break? Is it down to fan girls who don’t want their lovely Waylan sullied? I’ve no idea. They’ll be pleased to hear that plan is for her to feature more significantly in the fifth year.
Her main showing is in the finale (4.13 Ghosts) where she is taken hostage by some of Augustine’s men. Haven’t we seen this before? It feels like it, and it could be that it’s a lazy device to put the girlfriend in peril. She gets a good line about them making a big mistake as Waylan will kill them when he finds out, but it’s a forced, movie cliché moment to have both her and Givens shoot the main henchman simultaneously. That said, I like how this is a series that will set up a hostage situation and resolve it all in the first 10 minutes of an episode (then, any other series would require Waylan to go along with their plan to extract Drew Thompson rather than start shooting).
I began to wonder how well this season was going to come together after a relatively unfocused first third. The arc of the quest for the identity of Drew Thompson felt like they were clutching at straws for a hook, but it turned out to be sufficiently different from just another big drug dealer pulling into town (this one did, 30 years earlier). Some of the plot threads felt like filler, in particular the snake handling church that is set up as a threat to Boyd (4.1 Hole in the Wall) and then fizzles (mostly) out (1.3 Truth and Consequences). Billy, the charismatic preacher who leads the church, is played by Joseph Mozello, best known as the boy in Jurassic Park. His sister Cassie is portrayed by Lindsay Pulsipher, seen as the were-panther girl in True Blood a few years back. It’s unclear is she’ll be sticking around, although she seems to have formed a tentative connection with Tim (Jacob Pitts).
One of the issues in the first half of the season, which seems to be further emphasised when Drew’s identity is revealed, is the discovery that nearly everyone we’ve met up to this point has a shady past. So Lindsey (Jenn Lyon), the landlady Waylan is having a fling with, suddenly turns out to be a former stick-up artist. And, lo and behold, FBI Agent Barkley (Stephen Tobolowsky) is in league with the Detroit mafia (4.5 Kin). It feels a bit weak, really.
By about this point, I was wondering when the big villain of the season would appear. It couldn’t be Colt (Ron Eldard), so maybe it would be Nicky Augustine. He kind of is, but he never attains the centrality of the previous year’s Quarles. Colt, however, is a superb creation; an Iraq vet (a former Military Policeman) and heroin addict who is unable to keep his psychotic impulses in check (and to think, in the first episode we even wonder if killing people might be anathema to him!
Colt allows a much more significant role for Tim this season (I seem to recall a suggestion that he might be gay a couple of seasons back, but this seems to have been left hanging). The two veterans circle each other throughout, first in Kin, again in 4.11 Decoy and finally get their own showdown in 4.12 Peace of Mind. It’s nice change to have someone other than Waylan getting to do the cool stuff, and it must also be an attractive carrot for the likes of Pitts and Erica Tazel (Rachel) that they’ll get something meaty if they’re patient.
Everyone is after Drew Thompson, but Boyd (Walton Goggins) and Ava (Joelle Carter) are also attempting to solve a problem like Ellen May (Abby Miller) after Colt takes his eye of her for a moment and she disappears (This Bird has Flown); they’re concerned that she won’t be able to keep her mouth shut about the crimes she has witnessed, so she has to be disposed of. While Ellen May is likably dim, and her relationship with Shelby (Jim Beaver) is genuinely touching, the Crowders’ plotlines don’t quite come together this season.
They’re almost entirely reactive, and it’s only when Colt is involved that sparks fly. I don’t really buy Ava countenancing disposing of Ellen May in the first place, so it’s laborious walk round to the point where she recognises this herself. Boyd is scrabbling about to be made the local heroin supplier by Wynn Duffy (the ever fantastic Jere Burns), to find Drew Thompson, deal with a pesky preacher or be put in his place by the local super-rich (4.7 Money Trap). None of it really grips, and Johnny’s increasing disgruntlement-come-betrayal of Boyd is all-too predictable. The carrot of Boyd winning Harlan’s heroin supply holds out hope for Season Five, but unlike in previous years his arcs have been on the weak side.
The lawmen have been favoured by material this year, though. Patton Oswalt’s Constable Bob ducks in and out of episodes as a wannabe great lawman who we wouldn’t be at all surprised to find meeting a nasty end while getting in over his head. Instead, Decoyoffers him the greatest worm-turning moment in recent TV/movie memory as he gets the better of sadistic hit man Yolo (Bobby Campo).
And then there’s the Sheriff. I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a number of viewers guessed that Shelby was Drew Thompson before it was confirmed in The Hatchet Tour. It occurred to me on the grounds that we should probably have encountered Drew well before his unmasking, and after the season hit the halfway mark it was probably wise to start looking around for recognisable contenders. Shelby first appeared in 2.5 Cottonmouth and I like how series’ characters evolve beyond their design, based on how well an actor works out (both Goggins and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul are good examples of this).
Yost has drawn on Shelby’s essential dignity cleverly, spinning out both his failings and virtues such that we’re relieved when he doesn’t meet the standard end for a Justifiedantagonist. Of course, that may be because the real bad guy is Nicky Augustine. If I haven’t mentioned how good O’Malley is, it’s because he sort of crept up on me; his performance is riveting in the last three episodes of the season, and he gets some great lines (requesting a translation for the verbose Boyd is a particular high point).
Justified’s light shows no signs of dimming, and I hope we get at least another three seasons. It doesn’t get the same attention as many of the current critics’ darling (Breaking Bad, Mad Men) or the ratings of some of the biggest cable shows (The Walking Dead, True Blood), but it deserves both. Season Four is a slight step down on the previous two, but it remains one of the top five shows on TV right now.