Expectations are a bitch. Not just a bitch. An unholy bitch goddess whose wrath can be nothing short of fatal. Think about how many second albums by bands, second movies in a franchise, or second seasons of TV shows offered up disappointment to those who were wowed by their inaugural efforts. How many times have we liked a thing, only to go back to that thing when it provides new content, only to find ourselves deflated? More times than I can count, personally.
Justified didn't just have high expectations to live up to with its third season--they were astronomically high. The series had a great first season run, but the second season of Justified ought to be studied by any would-be showrunner looking for tips on how to build on strong momentum. Its strong introduction of a new slate of villains to go up against the returning characters--including the Emmy-winning turn by Margo Martindale as the maternally terrifying Mags Bennett--combined with the slow-pouring, yet utterly gripping pace of the first season made for only a handful of frustrating moments through an entire 13 episode season.
So how would showrunner Graham Yost follow up on what was arguably one of the greatest season finales in crime television? Exactly the same way he follows up any episode of Justified. With an emphasis on character, pacing, and the insular environment of Harlan County, Kentucky.
"The Gunslinger" really only deviates from the normal progression of Justified's previous seasons by introducing US Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) as something other than a preternatural bad-ass. Still reeling from a gunshot wound at the end of season two, last night's premiere introduced us to a Raylan Givens that is vulnerable, uncomfortable, and frankly, a pretty lousy shot. He's been assigned to desk-only duty, and seems more or less okay with it. He can't hit the broadside of a barn with his gun, so perhaps in Raylan's mind, he actually is useless. Sort of a refreshing stance, considering how many cop shows feature episodes with frustrated detectives trying to get off of desk duty right after an injury.
But, of course, Raylan ends up mixed into the episode's events, mostly thanks to the finagling of fellow Marshal Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts), whose hunt of a murderous fugitive (Desmond Harrington, who I'll describe in later) requires Raylan to talk to some folks he's been previously acquainted with, including local Dixie mob lackey Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns). You may remember this fellow as the guy hassling the now ex-husband of Winona (Natalie Zea) during season two. This is also the fellow Raylan laid ground rules for, namely that he was not to go after Winona's ex-husband (who Raylan all but demanded leave the country for his chicanery), and that the next time he and Duffy had a conversation, it wouldn't be a conversation at all.
Raylan's pouting reaction to being raised from his convalescing state is a big part of why I love Justified in general. Raylan isn't necessarily disinterested in leaving the comfort of his desk, but more doesn't want to have to talk to Duffy, because if he shows up just asking questions, that totally ruins the macho, threatening way he left things with Duffy previously. Justified, perhaps better than nearly any other show on TV, has a way of disarming any feeling of pretense or falseness by often directly addressing its own occasional absurdity. Raylan's bad ass cowboy routine is mocked by others as often as it is legitimately bad ass and threatening. Seeing Raylan uncomfortably have to talk to Duffy like a 10-year-old being forced to apologize to the kid he was just bullying was nothing short of brilliant.
Interestingly, Raylan was really only a small piece of the puzzle in tonight's episode. Much of the script work went into establishing both the aftermath of Boyd Crowder's (Walton Goggins) operation following the dismantling of the Bennett operation, as well as introducing one of the series' two new villains, Detroit mobster Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough). On Quarles, we know little about the man just from the meat of this episode, but it's easy to assume a lot. The method with which he arrives in town, bullying Duffy's Dixie Mob boss and bandying about threats from his overlords in Detroit gives one the impression he's there to fix some problems and be done with it, but elsewhere, we hear him talking to his family about how much he loves the Kentucky country. The episode's primary plot, which involved the aforementioned fugitive stealing a bunch of expensive watches for Duffy's boss so he could pay off Quarles and get him out of his hair, was made infinitely more interesting when we learned that Quarles had no intention of being paid off. Not only does he leak details of the deal to the Marshall's office, but he kills both Duffy's boss and his assistant, presumably with the idea of taking over the local operation.
McDonough is a fantastically charming actor who can play the kind of "friendly mean" nature of this character oh so well. We haven't seen the season's other villain, a renegade pot farmer played by Mykelti Williamson, just yet, so how those two characters will cross paths remains to be seen. But purely as a solo presence, Quarles looks like he'll be an engaging villain.
As for Boyd, we got precious little screen time with the man, though his opening salvo--which involved starting a fist fight with Raylan in the middle of the Marshal's office--was pretty fucking great. Instead, we mostly saw Boyd's underlings (which, thankfully, still include Arlo, who was the surprise delight of last season) trying to get rid of all that pot they stole from the Bennetts, only to learn it's gone to rot, and essentially worthless. Thus, in steps Ava (Joelle Carter), to set things straight. Justified has, at times, had issues finding interesting ways to use its female characters--Mags Bennett not withstanding, of course--but Ava's increasingly menacing presence in season two has carried over into something pretty fantastic here. The second she starts giving orders (by way of a prison visit with Boyd), you see in her the kind of strong-willed character that you'd always known Ava could become. It's not just about relying on Boyd to protect her anymore. If anything, she's right there at Boyd's side, instead of ducking behind him. She has easily morphed into one of my favorite characters on the show.
I wish I could say the same for Winona, who spent most of this episode joking about her pregnancy and seeming as wishy-washy as ever. Here's hoping they find more to do with her than just being the pregnant damsel in distress through the rest of the season.
All in all, "The Gunslinger" was about as an effective a season debut for Justified as anyone could have hoped for. It deftly combined the groundwork for the season's long-running plotline with a criminal-of-the-week that was actually pretty interesting. While Harrington's gun thug was perhaps a bit gimmicky in his desire to let his victims try to draw on him before he eventually shoots them dead, the payoff for that gimmick at the end of the episode was as perfect as that payoff could ever have been. Raylan simultaneously realizes that, even in his hobbled state, he's still smarter than nearly any of these dimwitted gun thugs out there, and that he's still got what it takes to do this work. What that means for him and Winona, who the hell knows, but hey, at least we know he's probably not going off to Glencoe to teach recruits any time soon.