When a show is lucky enough to have Elmore Leonard built into its DNA, skating by on the kind of effortless cool that comes with such a genetic gift might be something of a temptation. And with three seasons of critically-praised Kentucky justice already under its belt, Justified would have no trouble beginning season 4 by resting somewhat on its laurels. But a show doesn’t become as addictively watchable as this simply because the audience expects it to bring cool by the bucket load; it does so by integrating that composed charm into characters, old and new, that are as capable of driving the story as well as, if not better than, most other programs on television.
Justified is not merely a tale of one unflappable lawman doing his best to deal with the often-thorny morality that exists within the microcosm of Harlan County and how that relates to the rest of the world. And while it could certainly glide along on such things, the series is also about more than the breezy swagger of its star, Timothy Olyphant, or the infectious charm that Walton Goggins brings to his performance as the silver-tongued criminal entrepreneur, Boyd Crowder. It's really about the many colorful characters that comprise writer Graham Yost's version of Kentucky, and the connection they share as a result of their unique locale.
Perhaps, then, that is why Justified finds it so easy to bring new characters into fold. There is a shorthand these characters either have or they don't, which gives the audience a quick and easy way to gauge where someone fits in the particular scheme of things. Take for instance Jody Adair, the bail-jumper Raylan spends most of the premiere chasing after at the request of a "super hot" bail bondswoman named Sharon (Aja Evans) – who he once helped with emptying a hotel mini-bar – for the low, low price of some mild flirting and a share of the money bringing Jody in will fetch.
Normally, someone like Jody would just serve to move the plot along – which he does by inadvertently getting involved with teen thieves Benny (Casey Brown) and Roz (Alexandra Kyle), after they break into Arlo's (Raymond J. Barry) house to steal a mysterious bag hidden inside the wall – but even though he may only be around for a single episode (though the way he says "Raylan" is pretty ominous), the double-murderer still comes across like a full-fledged, multi-layered character. What's surprising is that in addition to Benny, Roz, Jody and Sharon, 'Hole in the Wall' still has three major players to introduce in the form of Patton Oswalt's semi-bumbling, but outrageously well-equipped Constable Bob; Colton Rhodes (Ron Eldard, Super 8), a former MP and deadly friend of Boyd Crowder; and the mysterious new preacher of the Holy Ghost Revival Church in Black Lick Holler, Billy St. Cyr – played by Jurassic Park and The Social Network's Joseph Mazzello. This says a lot about the way Justified sees its players: they may not all get equal screen time, but they all feel equally real.
Season 3 was very much about the conflict between outsiders (or carpetbaggers, as Boyd called them) and those who had always called Harlan County home. Neal McDonough's twisted Robert Quarles learned the hard way that regardless the alliances or disputes that exist between the various hollers, there's nothing that'll bring folks together like an impudent outsider looking to cash in on the suffering of others – there're plenty in Harlan capable of providing such a service already. Now there seems to be a new foil for Boyd in Harlan County, one who has quickly proven himself adept at preying on/alleviating the ills of the good and not-so-good members of the community with his Moe Syzslak-like snake handling skills, and delivery of the righteous word with the help of some cleverly mocked-up $1,000,000 bills and his larger-than-life sermonizing. Though Billy and Boyd don't meet face-to-face, it doesn’t take long for the inimitable Mr. Crowder to figure out what's been eating into the profits of his illegal rural enterprise.
Still, what's great about the premiere is that there's really no telling how these characters will ultimately fit in to the story over the coming weeks. With the success the series has had in the past, inserting a new villain into the storyline early on, it is pleasant to see that 'Hole in the Wall' acts almost like a one-off episode, mostly pitting Raylan against his better judgment, and slowly setting up the catalyst to this season's storyline by having a little bit of mystery literally fall from the sky. A particularly enjoyable aspect of the fast paced episode comes in the way it eases into the question of the bag in Arlo's house, and why, with its late-'70s ID for a man who sounds like a character out of a Thomas Pynchon novel, it is the object of so much desire, a pair of teenage crooks would contemplate killing a U.S. Marshal to keep a hold of it. And that's nothing compared to what Arlo does to a fellow inmate who sticks his nose into some business he shouldn't have.
The end of season 3 placed a spotlight on Arlo and the backwards relationship he has with his son and with Boyd Crowder. That capped off a dark and violent season with an oddly personal, somewhat tragically intimate note – the realization that Boyd sees Arlo as family while Raylan cannot. When a show is as good at bringing out the relationships between its characters as Justified is, it is welcome to take its time setting up a new storyline. Unlike the transition from the superlative season 2 to season 3, there was no need for season 4 to attempt to outdo Margo Martindale with the likes Quarles and Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson); it merely has to continue to play up that emotional intrigue that keeps these people so interesting, and the story, no matter how tightly plotted, will inevitably follow.
'Hole in the Wall' provides fans what they've come to expect from the series: A narrative that can easily handle multiple new faces, while confidently getting us up to speed on where the series regulars have been. So far, it's not completely clear just what is going on, but the unanswered questions seem to be working. If all these intriguing additions are anything to go by, season 4 is going to an eventful one, even by Justified standards.
Various other items:
- Sometimes seeing a stand-up comedian cast in what is ostensibly a drama can have the Richard Pryor in Superman III effect, wherein the opposing aspects of the funnyman and the drama of the narrative struggle at times. Thankfully, that doesn't seem to be the case with Patton Oswalt as Constable Bob. Here, Oswalt is his typically funny self, with plenty of gags to go along with it. But there's also something tragic and sullen about his character that is sillier, but not entirely unlike his role in Young Adult. Bob has an anger and desperation about him that will hopefully yield some interesting storylines
- As usual, Boyd has several great lines, and Goggins' delivery remains spot on – especially after Colton misunderstands an order to "deal" with a newly saved Oxy dealer who'd intended to give Boyd's drug money to the church.
Justified continues next Tuesday with 'Where's Waldo?' @10pm on FX. You can check out a preview of next week's episode below: