Justified: "The Moonshine War"
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Justified: "The Moonshine War"

[Disclaimer: Welcome back to our weekly coverage of Justified. Since this review will run before the premiere of the show’s second season tonight, I’m going to keep spoilers to a minimum, but all subsequent episode reviews will operate under the usual TV Club assumption that you’ve seen it.]

The second season of Justified debuts tonight on FX at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Justified enters season two with the wind at its back. Its first season was a success, critically and commercially, and judging by the ubiquitous (and extremely clever) promos for the show in prime spots, including the Super Bowl, FX seems confident that it can build on its core audience. Better still, the show seemed to understand its strengths as last season went on; after a brilliant pilot, it offered two case-of-the-week episodes that were probably the weakest of the lot, settling into a cop show that was engaging and flavorful but nothing particularly special. (I have several friends who dropped the show after that, and I’ve been pleading with them to come back.) It found its voice quickly, though: First, with a terrific standalone episode starring Alan Ruck as a fugitive dentist, and later, by bringing Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder character back into the fold and pushing the serialized elements forward. While I think creator Graham Yost and his writers still want to make the show immediately graspable for casual viewers, I suspect we’ll be seeing Raylan’s world expand and evolve more consistently this season.

For the most part, “The Moonshine War” gets us off to a hell of a promising start, though it has a little clean-up to do before setting the table. If you’ll recall, last season ended in a bloody Old West-style shootout, with temporary allies Raylan and Boyd on one side and enforcers from a Miami drug cartel on the other. When all the smoke cleared, Boyd’s duplicitous father, Bo, and one of the enforcers were shot dead, but some loose ends were left untied—namely, a stray Miami gunwoman who made her escape and some uncertainty about whether Raylan and Boyd were still maintaining their fragile alliance. Structurally, this causes problems for the first episode, which plays like 15 minutes of finale wrap-up grafted onto 30 minutes of  distinctly new material, but at least the i’s are dotted and the t’s crossed.

For Justified fans, the episode also brings us back with familiar signifiers: Raylan offering the Miami boss an ultimatum (“You give me your word in 10 seconds, or I shoot you in the head”); Raylan emerging from a messy scene with the line “I thought that went well”; Raylan going through the familiar paces of turning in his badge and gun for a short suspension and charming his way through a montage of AUSA officers’ questions. For the time being, he’s succeeded in closing off the Miami threat and more intriguingly, has rejected an offer to return to Miami in order to stay in Kentucky, where he’d been temporarily banished for his gunslinging ways. On balance, you can understand why: He’s done well at his job; he’s managed to get close to his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) again (not to mention Joelle Carter’s femme fatale Ava Crowder); and he’s extremely skilled at dealing with the nuances of local criminals.

At its strongest, “The Moonshine War” reminded me a lot of Winter’s Bone, The A.V. Club’s choice for the best film of 2010. (It was my #2.) Both Winter’s Bone and Justified take place in regions that are highly insular, connected by blood ties, longstanding friendships and rivalries, and a language of its own. The people are distrustful of outsiders and resistant to the law, at least insofar as it conflicts with their own codes of right and wrong. Raylan may not have left Harlan County on the best of terms with everyone, but as a U.S. Marshal, his roots in the area have been his main tactical advantage. He knows these people, he knows how to talk to them, and he knows how to tread the line between the law and “the law.”

After cleaning up the bloodbath from last season, “The Moonshine War” has Raylan riding along with his African-American colleague Rachel (Erica Tazel), who’s tracking down a sexual predator in marijuana country. (That I had to look up Erica Tazel/Rachel, despite her being in the cast and opening credits from the start, is a sign that the show really needs to give her more to do.) Rachel is rightly concerned about the racism lurking just beneath local politesse, but more generally, she’s marked as an outsider and needs Raylan to help her get information. Just released from prison, the sex offender, named Jimmy Earl Dean, has hooked up with the Bennett family, which controls the marijuana trade in Harlan. Jimmy currently has his eye on a 14-year-old girl, and her father, who was already keeping a small cache of marijuana plants on his own, has made the additional mistake of alerting the authorities. This draws the ire of the Bennetts, who prefer to handle their business in-house.

The Bennetts bring us two prominent new villains for Season Two: Mags Bennett, played by the great character actress Margo Martindale (whom I interviewed for a Random Roles that ran today), and her son Dickie, played by certified weirdo Jeremy Davies, most recently of Lost fame. Justified has made a habit of absorbing first-rate character actors, and the casting here is gob-smackingly brilliant. The ever-likable Martindale has made a career of playing gentle, maternal Southern women, and to see her turn these same homey qualities into something genuinely menacing is an absolute delight. And Davies, whose odd tics I once found mannered and irritating (see: Million Dollar Hotel), has grown into an unpredictable and exciting presence. Based on this early display, Martindale and Davies have acting styles that are both wildly contrasting and surprisingly compatible; they really do seem like mother and son but with generational differences that could become more pointed over time.

I won’t say any more than that for now, other than to note that Mags and Dickie’s final scene sold me on their pairing and has me reinvigorated for season two. See the episode and let’s talk about it below.

Stray observations:

  • What of Boyd? The first episode doesn’t hint at the show’s plans for Boyd this season, but I’m curious to see how this character—who was supposed to die in season one, episode one, but was smartly incorporated as last season’s Big Bad—continue to be a fresh and relevant element of the show. With the focus presumably on the Bennetts, where does Boyd fit in?
  • We learn early on that Art wanted Raylan to transfer out of his office, which is personally bruising to Raylan and seems likely to cause some tension this season.
  • As I suggested above, I think it’s important to note the generational differences within the Bennett family. Mags may be ruthless, but she does live by a code. She can’t abide a sex offender in her clan, and she refuses to sell meth or any drugs more corrosive than marijuana. But given that the marijuana trade grew out of the Bennetts’ moonshine operation during Prohibition, isn’t it possible that Dickie might have other ideas about where the family business could go?
  • Line of the night: Mags on Jesse Earl Dean: “Never trust a man with three first names.”
Filed Under: TV, Justified

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