Certain shows do certain things well. When it comes to FX’s “Justified”, making its long-overdue return to television on January 8th, the thing that comes to mind most often while watching it is the sense of place that the show evokes better than almost any other on the small screen. The characters don’t simply live in Harlan. They are infused by it, with the soil creeping up into their pores, their minds, and their hearts.
Season 3 saw an expansion of the ostensibly small town that suggested a “Game Of Thrones”-esque opening sequence might be the only way to truly grasp its scope. (And now that I’ve said that, that’s pretty much all I want to see at the start of the next episode.) The introduction of Noble’s Holler felt like “Justified” unearthing a large chunk of history heretofore unexplored on the show, implying that there were plenty of other avenues for the program to explore both new, nefarious forms of crime, but also countless veins of history for the show to mine.
History plays a big part in the early goings of Season Four, which marry the show’s excellent week-to-week procedural storytelling with a mystery that stretches back nearly thirty years. Getting into what that mystery is would be telling, but sufficed to say that the fourth season opens up in a way to mysterious and surprising that you have to go back to the third season opener of “Breaking Bad” to find one equally as mesmerizing. What unfolds in that scene ultimately impacts both the DNA of “Justified” as well as its denizens, and seeing how many are truly caught up in that spider-web is one of the early pleasures of this season.
And my, but that spider-web has a large cast of characters. Many of your favorites from previous seasons are here and accounted for in the first two episodes sent out for review. But there are a host of new ones as well, including Patton Oswalt, whose character has a tie to Rayland’s childhood. Walter Goggins’ Boyd Crowder gets a new member of his crew in the form of Ron Eldard’s Colton Rhodes, brought in to deal with the arrival of a Pentacostal preacher (Joe Mazzello) and his sister (Lindsay Pulsipher), the latter of whom just may be the real power behind the church’s sudden and fierce hold over the minds of Harlan’s most depressed and destitute.
That destitution highlights another of the show’s strengths: its ability to highlight those outside of any “fiscal cliff” talks on CNN, FOX news, or any other cable outlets. There are no cliffs to fall from because these characters have long scraped by along the rock bottom in which they have always lived. Even those with money, such as Raylan Givens’ boss Art (who has retirement looming on the horizon as the season starts), don’t pay much attention beyond what they can see in front of them. The show never explicitly ties the fates of those onscreen to the post-2008 economic landscape of the United States. But “Justified” doesn’t have to, either. Seeing an underground, MMA-style fight take place on someone’s front lawn tells you all you need to about the ways in which some citizens of this show’s world make a living.
As for Raylan himself? Well, he’s still a badass among badasses. Whether or not that’s a particularly good thing is something for the series to decide. His hubris gets him in fairly major trouble in the season premiere, as an errand for an old “friend” turns into a wild good chase that turns into a Robert Altman-esque examination of the random connectivity that exists between human beings. That particular conundrum gets solved by the hour’s end, but his reasoning for even taking on the errand at all stems from elements that have been in play since the series premiere, and will continue through the end of the series. A rolling stone gathers no moss, but it does accumulate blood, often at the expense of innocent (and not-so-innocent bystanders).
It’s too early to tell if this show has returned to the near-operatic heights of its second season, or if it will take on the “more is more” approach that dominated the third installment of the show. While there ere highs last season, it also suffered under the weight of trying to fill the hole left with the departure of Ma Bennett. Rather than take a different approach, it suffered some of the same problems that the third film in superhero trilogies often face. (If Ma Bennett was The Joker/Doctor Octopus, then Quarles and Limehouse were Bane/Catwoman and Venom/The Sandman.) In trying to serve multiple masters, season three of “Justified” suffered from a lack of focus, which pushed previously central characters to the fringes and left them there to linger.
Bringing in another outside force in the form of the Pentacostal church doesn’t feel like an intrusion upon Harlan but rather a way to further explore it. There are vast swaths of this town yet to be explored, and large gaps on the map yet to filled in. Sometimes those gaps exist deep in the woods, where a newly erected tent offer salvation. Sometimes those gaps exists inside the hollow walls of an abandoned home, offering a clue to the past to whomever can find its contents. In any case, I’m anxious to see a little more of Harlan sketched in this season. It’s an almost effortlessly entertaining show as well as a skillful example in narrative cartography. The landscape of TV is better for having “Justified” in it.