"Justified" began its third season this week on F/X. Third time out is rarely the charm.
After a writing staff has gone through two seasons, they’ve exhausted all the great ideas they had when the show was created. There are a lot of blank looks when season three has its first writers’ meeting – every idea seems to be a retread or at best a variation on a well-exploited theme. For most shows (and there are always exceptions – "The Good Wife" is doing just fine in its third go-round), the goal is to get to a rejuvenated season four.
"Justified" has the advantage of being a cable show with a thirteen-episode order; at least as far as the individual mysteries go, every idea hasn’t been exhausted. And the decision last season to write each season with a defined villain (or villains) who do not have to continue onwards allows the writers to reboot the series with each outing. (It also provided Margo Martindale with a character that won her an Emmy.)
“The Gunfighter,” this season’s opener (written by Graham Yost & Fred Golan), is clearly a reboot. A new and quite different bad guy emerges – one from Detroit, a setting not unfamiliar to Elmore Leonard, whose short story is the basis of every episode. (It’s a credit I’ve never seen before – note that the series is not based on Leonard’s “Fire In the Hole.” Each episode is.)
The show also functions as something of a stand-alone piece – one of the few that requires no familiarity with previous episodes. Again, this is a very savvy strategy. "Justified" is just now gaining the attention its quality deserves; new viewers will have no problem picking it up and going on from here.
In many ways, Yost & Golan have gone back to the show’s beginnings – Timothy Olyphant’s penchant for gun-play, the ruthlessness of the bad guys, and the peculiarity of the show’s Kentucky setting are all major components. Having an out-of-town bad guy does indicate that this season can play itself out without relying on the past season’s backwoods settings, thus allowing for new textures.
What’s not as clear is how the series is going to handle the complex series of relationships that have been its backbone until now. With his ex-wife Winona pregnant and his former girl-friend solidly linked to the Crowders, Raylan’s romantic allegiances are no longer fluid.
Most problematic (as it was last season) is Raylan’s relationship with Boyd Crowder (the wonderful Walton Goggins), who was both adversary and ally in the first season. Trying to maintain that delicate, combustible balance is proving more and more of a strain – in “The Gunfighter,” Crowder provokes an entirely unnecessary fight that lands him in jail. The end of the show suggests that the fight was a maneuver to put Boyd where he wanted to be; it does, by necessity, mean that the writers are going to have to work awfully hard to create scenes that place Raylan and Boyd together.
Writing about the Marshal’s service is not easy; not only is their jurisdiction very precise and limited, but searching for fugitives means that the protagonist and antagonist play very few scenes together. By stretching the major story out over the season, the "Justified" writers manage to put Raylan together with his adversaries or their allies. They created an incredibly rich world last season. Here’s hoping they can break the season three curse and do it again.