The leap in quality from Season One to Season Two of Justified brought with it a measure of anxiety about Season Three. Was the show better because, like a lot of good shows—including FX series like Louie from first to second season and Breaking Bad from first to second to third—the writers seized on its strengths and built on them from there? Or was the show better because of Margo Martindale, whose Emmy-winning turn as Mags Bennett amounted to one of the most compelling villains in television history? (In a role that also drew the show closer to its insular community than ever before.) With Martindale gone, and her son Dickie (played by the also-excellent Jeremy Davies) in the pen, Justified enters its third season in the unenviable position of having to rebuild, which means finding new wrinkles for its returning cast and writing new villains who have to meet an imposing standard.
Yet “Gunslinger,” the promising first episode of the new season, suggests another way of looking at it: Just as Mags’ death—and the Bennett family’s collapse—left a power vacuum in the marijuana business (and criminal business of other sorts, too), so too did the show leave a power vacuum for talented performers to fill. In fact, you might read “Gunslinger” as creator Graham Yost (who co-wrote, with Fred Golan) doing a meta-commentary on the show itself, an audition for which of the colorful lowlifes have what it takes to be this season’s Big Bad. And the Darwinian struggle that follows provides ample evidence that the show isn’t going to have a problem coming up with sinister figures in Martindale’s absence, though it remains to be seen whether any of them will entirely fill the void.
There was never any question that Boyd Crowder will get his piece of the action, and given his tenuous partnership with Mags toward the end of her life, it makes sense that he and his cronies—here Devil and Raylan’s father Arlo—would make off with a drying shed full of weed. While Boyd is off for a jail stint for assaulting Raylan over Raylan’s failure to serve up Dickie to him, we get a reminder of how incompetent Boyd’s underlings tend to be when he’s not around. An attempt to move the weed—some piled in a conspicuous heap in Arlo’s living room—to a client from Memphis backfires after it’s discovered that it wasn’t dried first and has become a magnet for mold and vermin. From jail, Boyd tells Ava to direct his men to burn it, rather than hold product that will send them all away for 20 years, but when Devil disrespects Ava’s authority on the matter, she swats him with a frying pan.
This alliance between Boyd and Ava was one of last season’s most promising developments, mainly because it gave Ava a more active role and gave her a moral alignment with Boyd that’s deeper than we might have suspected. After all, she was married to another Crowder, so she’s comfortable walking with the criminal element, and she now slips into the gray area Boyd himself occupies—a wild card who dabbles in criminality but doesn’t entirely resist our sympathy. Ava’s days of victimhood appear to be over; her partnership with Boyd, in love and war, is real and she clearly knows how to handle herself. And for a show that’s sometimes stranded its major female characters—the still-peripheral Rachel, the ditzed-up Winona of last season—that frying pan to Devil’s face played like a statement of purpose.
The real marvel of “Gunslinger,” though, was the showdown between two psychotic crooks at cross purposes. In one corner: Robert Quarles, a Detroit mobster played by Neal McDonough (a former cast-member of Yost’s Boomtown), whose presence recalls a tradition of blue-eyed killers from Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time In The West to Anthony Hopkins in The Silence Of The Lambs. In the other: Fletcher Nix (Desmond Harrington), henchmen for Dixie Mafia boss Emmitt Arnett, and a man whose flair for sadistic gamesmanship recalls Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. Though the latter’s demise doesn’t come at Quarles’ hands, the writers give them both a mythic power that other shows would have more trouble conjuring. After all of Fletcher’s mischief-making in this episode, it’s surprising to lose him so quickly, though Raylan’s clever upending of his quickdraw routine is the episode’s tensest and funniest scene. (And ironic, too, since shooting across a short table doesn’t require the marksmanship that eludes Raylan in the gallery.)
It remains to be seen whether McDonough—and Mykelti Williamson, who debuts as Big Bad #2 next week—will measure up to Mags, but along with an increased role for the great Jere Burns as Wynn Duffy, Justified seems poised to flood the zone with bad elements. Absent a singular presence like Martindale, an all-out turf between various toughs seems like a wise strategy, and the plotting in “Gunslinger” remains as confident and suspenseful as ever. It’ll be a busy season, with a few new characters and old ones emerging more prominently, but the show seems firmly in groove.
• Winona’s hot-and-cold dynamic with Raylan still seems like a problem in need of solving, and I’m not sure her pregnancy helps matters any. She’s one of the few characters who could disappear without taking much away from the show. For a gunslinger like Raylan, being a loner comes natural.
• Terrific scene with Fletcher using the pizza guy to infiltrate the home of a wealthy associate. Possible line of the night: “You understand why I’m not paying for that pizza, right?”)
• Nice exchange between Arlo and Ava after the frying pan incident: “You didn’t have to do that, Eva.” “Of course I did. Otherwise I wouldn’t have done it.”
• Dickie Bennett, in jail with Boyd eying revenge, looks to be in a position of weakness for the time being. Presuming that won’t last and hoping Jeremy Davies, who was superb in a more limited role than I expected last season, gets more play this time around.