Tony Soprano. Dexter Morgan. Walter White. Television’s latest “Golden Age,” on cable and in the ancillary afterlife, is full of men who break bad. Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), the U.S. Marshal at the heart of “Justified,” may not be squeaky clean, but he’s a saint by comparison — and the key to the series’ subtle genius.
Dashing, his square jaw just this side of clean shaven under that ten-gallon hat, Raylan returns to his childhood home after shooting a Miami mobster, only to find that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Harlan, Kentucky is the Wild West of the new millennium, populated by trailer-bound whores, pot-growing matriarchs, petty thieves, and Oxy addicts.
In Raylan, aided by Olyphant’s ample charm, series creator Graham Yost and his talented team of writers have fashioned the anti-antihero, a Gary Cooper whose vengeance is pure, intentions good, and actions only rarely beyond the pale. Even if his relationships with women, including new flame Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter), ex-wife Winona Hawkins (Natalie Zea), and fellow marshal Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel), tend toward an old-time chivalry lined with a little condescension, his heart is usually in the right place. It’s refreshing to root for a protagonist mostly without reservation, and perhaps the more hard-won accomplishment: “Justified” operates by a less murky moral code than most of the last decade’s great series, and does so without losing its grip on the rich texture of the world it constructs.
If its early episodes sit a little high on the poor-white-trash horse — Bible thumpers, neo-Nazis, and drug slingers being, I suspect, just one part of rural American life — “Justified” gradually emerges as a much more complicated portrait than its Western and police procedural roots would suggest. Raylan’s quick draw (shoot first, ask for forgiveness later) may be justified by his adversaries’ ruthlessness, but the villains have justifications of their own. Few shows on television investigate the criminal mind as fully, offering up strangely sympathetic antagonists with their own loyalties, miseries, and fears. The allusions to “Tombstone” and “Gunsmoke” turn out to be a canny form of misdirection — “Justified” is less a country-fried take on “Law and Order” than a twist on “The Wild Bunch,” where the outlaws have something valuable to protect, too.
Raylan’s run-ins with Harlan’s less savory citizens sometimes end in a fusillade of bullets, but just as often there’s a tacit, cautious dance going on, run through with the personal histories of small-town life. Even when their words turn out to be empty, the slippery villains of “Justified” tell another, more potent kind of truth. In Season 2, Mags Bennett argues against mountaintop coal removal — only to take the coal company’s money in the end — in a rousing town hall speech. Played by Margo Martindale, in one of the small screen’s great all-time performances, Mags had me, like all her compatriots, convinced: “The spoil! That is what our lives will be if Black Pike has their way with our mountain… Sometimes we need to stop and remember just what it is we have to lose.”
Mags’ electrifying defense of a particular way of life feels like “Justified” in microcosm, roiling with the conviction that the first and last task is to protect one’s own, whichever side of the law we may be on. So too with Boyd Crowder (series stalwart Walton Goggins, in a slimy, terse, and brilliant turn), whose malleability speaks to the show’s laudable discomfort with easy answers. Boyd is, by turns, a virulent racist and anti-Semite, a godly preacher and anti-meth vigilante, crime kingpin, old friend, new lover, unsparing accomplice. “Justified” manages to keep Raylan’s essential goodness interesting by pitting him against people like Mags and Boyd, whose essential badness is an open question.
Season 3, by contrast, wears a little thin. I’ll admit this feeling may be a reaction to my recent “Justified” viewing binge, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. One of the strengths of the series is its skillful structure, introducing a season’s threads through a handful of seemingly unrelated procedural episodes at the outset, then slowly drawing them together into a gorgeous whole. (Season 2 wound up Boyd Crowder’s power grab, Mags Bennett’s illicit family business, a young girl’s transience and Raylan’s own investigations so tightly that its penultimate episode — titled, appropriately, “Reckoning” — became a perfect novella in its own right, a stand-alone monument to serial television.)
Season 3 is a far looser collection, never quite as cohesive as it needs to be. There’s potential in expanding the series’ world to include the African-American community of Noble’s Holler, where off-the-books banker Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) keeps a firm thumb on local proceedings, but sadly these hints at a complex racial politics never merit the kind of sustained attention that the Bennett, Crowder, and Givens clans receive. Rather, “Justified” ties itself more forcefully to the increasingly dissolute Detroit mafia operative Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), and the narrative becomes unmoored from its sharp, dense rendering of Kentucky’s underworld. The show nods at his family man patina, encouraging his son on the phone before taking out anyone who stands in his way, but Quarles never escapes the bespoke chill of his Dearborn suit. In the end he’s just a hired hand, an out-of-towner who’s out of place in Harlan’s blood-thick web of relationships.
Here’s hoping the series returns to its roots in Season 4, examining what “the spoil” means when those who do the spoiling have more than money and power on their minds. Because Season 3, despite its disappointments, continued to hold out the promise of a show whose hero doesn’t need to philander or pilfer to keep our attention. As Mags Bennett says in the powerful conclusion to Season 2, “You pick the devil you run with,” and I’m running with “Justified.”
Season 3 of “Justified” is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. Season 4 premieres Tuesday, January 8 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.