To say that this season of Justified was something of a juggling act would be a fairly accurate representation, as long as you imagine a weary Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) keeping multiple criminal organizations, a self-serving BBQ master, and one ridiculously charismatic backwoods super-villain in the air simultaneously.

Given the two previous season finales, one wouldn’t be hard pressed to think that with the title of ‘Slaughterhouse,’ Raylan would be continuing his particular search for justice by ensuring those who have strayed from his loose definition of the law are properly lead-filled. Certainly, though, the title likely has more to do with one Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) and his little shack of terror, wherein he so menacingly butchers all those pigs, as if each swing of his cleaver stood as an example for all who would think to cross him.

Surprisingly, neither scenario plays out much like one would think. Raylan doesn’t need to fire a single round, let alone fill many ne’er do wells with hot lead, and Limehouse appears positively misty-eyed when exiling his lieutenant, Errol (Demetrius Grosse), after allowing him to finish a plate of pig’s tongue. And although Limehouse doesn’t show that kind of restraint when it comes to Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), the real climax of ‘Slaughterhouse,’ and to a degree the entire third season, comes down to Arlo (Raymond J. Barry) choosing a criminal over his son.

The great thing about Justified is the way it fills itself with characters who live and die by a code that strives to keep even the most dastardly of characters from crossing some sort of ethical or moral line they have put down for themselves. Sometimes, however, lines have to be crossed. We see this every time Raylan bends the law just enough, or in the case of certain perps like Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns), outright breaks it. We see it in the way Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) conducts business around Harlan County, preserving the lives of some, while crushing others underfoot. Perhaps Boyd’s code was best put earlier in the season when confronted by Robert Quarles for the first time. Boyd referred to the Detroit mobster as a carpetbagger, and warned Quarles of his fate, should he continue to coax the illegal Oxy business from the hardworking folk of Harlan.

But this notion of a code was never more eloquently put than when Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) committed suicide at the end of season 2. Not only did Mags refuse to put an end to Raylan in the same manner she chose to die, but – and this wasn’t revealed until the season’s penultimate episode ‘Coalition‘ – Mags also sought a way of making things right with Loretta (Kaitlyn Dever) – or at least tried to.

And while that code of Mags is by and large the impetus for a key storyline in season 3, it is the apparent lack of any moral code that works to make Robert Quarles such an interesting and unpredictable villain. Throughout the course of this season, Robert Quarles has met the moral morass of Harlan County with an entertaining mix of insecurity and gross overstatement of what it means to be a criminal. The trouble that has arisen this season is oddly enough attributed more to the kind of man Quarles is, than anything he’s been able to perform. Because let’s face it, Quarles has been pretty ineffective at being a competent bad guy in Harlan.

It is interesting, however, that each character, and his or her code, is constantly brought to the forefront and examined in a will-they-or-won’t-they cross the line kind of scenario. These characters remain fresh because they aren’t immutable; circumstances and events lead them all to become different people – if only to meet certain ends.  And in the end, it’s watching Quarles debase himself by becoming horrifically addicted to Oxy, and burning every last bridge he has, that the line all characters in Justified are toeing becomes so much more apparent.

It’s seen in Limehouse’s Yojimbo-like playing of both sides, in equal parts pursuit of profit and security of Noble’s Holler. We see it in Boyd, who curiously refers to Arlo as “family” in the beginning of the episode. It’s there when cousin Johnny (David Meunier) double-crosses Boyd in regards to Devil’s death. But perhaps most shockingly, the idea that these characters can alter their beliefs based on circumstance is displayed in the physical abuse Ava (Joelle Carter) dishes out to Ellen May (Abby Miller), especially after being the victim of domestic abuse for so long. These little character flourishes and surprises help to make Justified as strong at developing character as it is in delivering a dense and satisfying storyline.

In his role, Olyphant often embodies the futility of trying to do “good.” Cut off the head of one snake and three more grow to replace it, if you will. Olyphant’s laconic, but witty lawman consistently doing battle with Goggin’s confident scoundrel with a sophistication beyond his upbringing and current means of employment, is something of an odd notion anywhere else – as most other programs wouldn’t have had the good sense to keep Boyd around – but all of this fits perfectly in the realm of an Elmore Leonard story.

So when it comes down to Raylan vs. Boyd, the grudge match was pointedly settled with a bullet to the chest in season 1, and now it has come to be a battle of wits. And with two intelligent men going at one another, what’s at stake is not so much proof of which one is smarter, but which one successfully escapes without looking like a fool. In ‘Slaughterhouse,’ Arlo’s admission of guilt for the killing of Trooper Tom Bergen (Peter Murnik), as well as Devil (Kevin Rankin), certainly played to Boyd’s favor, but the realization that Arlo shot Tom thinking it was Raylan left the marshal looking the fool in this instance. For a program that highlights gunplay as much as witty barbs, the dynamic of Raylan and Boyd continues to be a driving force in the series.

Which is why the boisterous and erratic Robert Quarles proved to be such an entertaining character to watch all season. Quarles truly was an outsider, a carpetbagger. And when it came down to it, he wasn’t just up against Raylan or Boyd; he was up against the whole of Harlan County. All that slickness and psychosis managed to do was earn him the ire of those he was trying to control, while those who controlled him simply cut Quarles loose. So when he is “disarmed” and dispatched in Noble’s Holler, Quarles goes after Raylan with the only weapon left at his disposal: the truth about Arlo’s involvement in Trooper Tom’s death.

Raylan is left with his nemesis once more set free, having been dumped by Winona (Natalie Zea), the mother of his unborn child, as unprepared as ever to be a father – and considering the fatherly example he had, it’s no wonder. Somehow, the gunshot wound he received at the end of season 2 seemed like it left him better off. Still, despite the uncertainty for Raylan, this was a thrilling and satisfying climax to what was a fantastic season of Justified.

Justified returns in 2013 for season 4 on FX.