Fresh off an Emmy win for Margo Martindale's portrayal as the violently altruistic Mags Bennett in season two, Justified spectacularly kicks off its third season by introducing two intriguing, yet completely terrifying, antagonists that serve to masterfully delve further into the criminal vein that runs through Kentucky’s infamous small town.
Picking up three weeks after the Justified season 2 finale, a visibly weakened Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is forced to take a desk position at the U.S. Marshall’s while his two soon-to-be adversaries, Fletcher “The Ice Pick” Nix and Robert Quarle, make their way in to Harlan.
On loan from Dexter, the always wonderful Desmond Harrington portrays the eerily charming gunslinger Fletcher, who is brought in by the town magnate, Emmitt Arnett (Steven Flynn), to help secure funds that are owed to Justified season 3 baddy Robert Quarle.
Quarle, who is chillingly portrayed by Neal McDonough (Captain America, Band of Brothers), remains a mystery for the majority of the premiere (his name not even mentioned), though his wrath is certainly felt. Without ever revealing his clearly defined intentions for the town, Quarle not only usurps Arnett from his position of power in Harlan, but he also replaces Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) as Harlan’s resident psychopath - something that Duffy will quickly attest to.
While much of the premiere focuses on Arnett’s storyline in order to set up this season’s intended story arc, the beauty in which the writers created these icy characters (one to stay and one to go) out of the already established mythos of the series serves to brilliantly expand upon the already rich storytelling that has engrossed television audiences for the past two years.
Instead of simply crowbarring in a new resident to stand opposite of Givens each season, the producers made the decision to further develop many of the supplementary characters of the series to the point where it becomes perfectly logical for new dangers originate from. This notion, while sounding simplistic at its core, further conveys why Justified is one of the best shows on television.
Despite the possibility that fans of the loveably delinquent Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) will be unhappy with amount of screen time he and his ever-expanding group of intelligence-challenged cohorts - sans Ava (Joelle Carter) – received in the Justified season 3 premiere, it’s understandable that a truly enthralling character such as Boyd has his storylines limited to a certain extent.
With enough foreshadowing to intuit a future battle between Boyd and Quarle over dominance of Harlan, the producers made the wise decision to use Quarle as way to help lay the foundation for the seasonal storyline than to risk overusing one of Justified’s strongest characters.
Of course, the strongest character award on Justified goes to Olyphant. In a move to continuously remind all those watching why he is, in fact, considered one of the best actors on television, the manner in which Olyphant presents Givens’ newly presented weaknesses – something that was arguably mentioned a tad too often - is wonderfully realized in the ever subtle, nuance changes to the way Givens would typically hold himself.
Instead of simply favoring one side or alluding to an injury through his movements, the producers and Olyphant added another level of intrigue to the event. Besides being physically unable to take on someone (and win), there’s an interesting aspect of absentmindedness that was explored with the character being injured. So now not only is Givens unable to rely on his own body to protect himself, but now he’s unsure about the validity of the information that he’s obtaining.
Looking back on Justified season 1, there was an obvious learning curve that was present throughout. While many of the core elements were in place, the producers weren’t yet sure exactly how they wanted to format the series. A glaring jump from concurrent storylines to “prisoner of the week” in the first season is one of the few flaws the series has.
That being said, the manner in which the producers adapted, changed and evolved the series after experimenting with these varying iterations of storytelling clearly represents the earnest intentions of not only staying true to Elmore Leonard’s source material, but also giving their audience enough credit in being able to stay with a series that was an apparent work in progress. Perhaps this is the reason why Justified is the only adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s work that he’s proud of.
And proud of it he should be.
Justified airs Tuesdays @10pm on FX
Follow Anthony Ocasio on Twitter @anthonyocasio