After 7 months, FX’s critically acclaimed series Justified is returning to television.
Following a truly wonderful first year run, fans of the series were wondering whether or not this modern-day western would be able to continue delivering the high caliber of storytelling, character development and scene-stealing performances that Justified has become known for.
Thankfully, the Justified season 2 premiere, “The Moonshine Wars,” not only exceeds all critical expectations, but also beautifully introduces another series antagonists, Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale), that serves to rival the previous fan favorite outlaw Boyd Crowder, both in likeability and ingenuity.
Picking up directly where the first season finale left off, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) finds himself having to reunite with longtime friend (and longtime criminal) Boyd Crowder, if for no other reason than to survive the surprising shootout that took the life of Boyd’s father, Bo.
While the scenes leading up to the premiere’s extremely late title card served to provide an acceptable conclusion to the trials and tribulations that followed Givens throughout last season, it was unfortunate to see that this would be the extent of Boyd Crowder’s involvement in the episode.
Fortunately, not only does Boyd take center stage in the subsequent two episodes, but any emptiness that was felt from this mostly Goggins-less episode is completely filled by the perfectly realized and wonderfully acted Bennett family, specifically Mags and Dickie.
Tasked with tracking down a missing girl and her pedophile kidnapper, Givens and his new partner (we’ll get to that later) circle the outskirts of Harlan County and end up on the door of Mags Bennett. At first glance, Mags appears to be a loveable, countrified, maternal figure that unfortunately gets caught up in the criminal activity of her offspring. Of course, once the apple pie moonshine comes out and Mags proudly admits, “We’re pot-growers, Raylan…” it soon becomes clear that there’s more to Mags than meets to eye.
Refreshingly, the conversation between Mags and Raylan always stays casual, which provides for extremely enjoyable viewing. This theme of protagonists and antagonists conversing informally is one that Elmore Leonard – the creator of the Raylan Givens character – loves to explore in his novels. Considering Elmore Leonard co-wrote this episode, it's not surprising to see his colloquial flare being represented.
Even though Mags puts on a friendly face to the public, the wrath that is contained within this matriarchal character would serve to unnerve any would-be criminal looking to “move in” on her territory. As the season 2 premiere serves to more or less introduce the character and highlight her more overt qualities, it’s hard to see exactly where her character arc will go as the season progresses. Fortunately, any qualms about progression can easily be dismissed, as it’s going to take more than poor plot structure to spoil this wonderful addition to Harlan County.
Throughout the entirety of the second season premiere, a supplemental character has been added to Raylan’s proverbial hip. Described as Raylan’s new partner, Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel) initially appears to be an unneeded addition to the series' already fluid cast. Since we’ve already seen Raylan dealing with evil-doers on his own, any supplemental support – especially when it’s someone new – feels like a poor attempt at forcing character depth (by using a new character to delve into the mind and experiences of Raylan Givens).
At some level the notion is correct, but when you actually look at Brooks, it's easy to see the integral roll that she plays in the series. For much of the first season, we’ve seen Raylan single handedly take on any and every criminal that has come across his path. The problem with this is that, while Raylan is an extremely competent marksman, he’s logically not able to take on every situation singlehandedly.
Disregarding the first season episode where Raylan lost a bar fight, he generally went untouched. Admittedly, this perceived notion of invincibility is an extremely interesting element of the series and something that really helps to sell the modern-day western aspect of the series, but the problem with these invulnerabilities is that there are only so many logical stories that can be told within these confines before the audience beings to lose interest.
With the addition of Rachel Brooks, the character of Raylan Givens can continue to grace the screen with his familiar cadence and unmatched machismo, but is able to logically be involved in more compromising interactions and scenes. Seeing Raylan standoff between three or four bad guys is fun, but highly illogical. Seeing Raylan in the same situation, but with someone serving to back him up from afar is much more believable.
Of course, with that specific element of “from afar,” the series runs a fine line of pigeonholing that character for a single purpose. While I can’t recall the extent of Brooks’ involvement in the subsequent two episodes, the season premiere certainly made her out to be the character that stands out of frame while Givens steals the scene.
As this season premiere comes to an end, we see the aftermath that Givens is continuously forced to live with. With his motel room a crime scene, he finds comfort in the arms of an unexpected woman - Winona Hawkins (Natalie Zea), his ex-wife.
Touching upon this new romantic tryst only briefly, the subsequent episodes will serve as a platform for Raylan to explore this rekindling. Of course, he’ll also have to deal with the surprise of Ava (Joelle Carter) and Boyd (Walton Goggins) living together.
Justified airs Tuesdays @10pm, on FX