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TV Diary | Justified – “The Gunfighter”

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TV Diary | Justified – Episode 3.01 – “The Gunfighter” – Original Airdate: 1/17/12

Episode Grade: B+

First things first – let me just say, on a personal level, how damned giddy I am that Justified is back. It’s been one of my favorite shows of the past two years and, of all of the series returning and premiering in January, I may have been looking forward to this one the most. With that out of the way, I have to say that I agree with the developing critical consensus of the show. Justified’s third season is a make-or-break year for the series. The first season took a little time to find its rhythm and get untracked [1] but once it did, it ended with a cracker of a story and only managed to get better in its second year as it capitalized on the first season’s positives and essentially eliminated the negatives. True, it was helped along by an amazing performance by Margo Martindale as the season’s villain, Mags Bennett, but it sustained peak quality from its season premiere all the way through its crackling finale so the third season is a litmus test of sorts. The question then becomes: Was the second season so good because of Martindale’s performance for the ages or was it a combination of both the show finding its footing coupled with the strength of the Mags Bennett character? Is this the season that Justified takes its place among television’s best – such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men – or does it struggle to follow up a strong year like FX’s Sons Of Anarchy did after its own second season? Based on what I saw in “The Gunfighter,” I’d say that the early returns are very promising. Less a blowaway premiere and more of a table-setter for what’s to come, “The Gunfighter” introduced one of the third season’s new villains – Neal McDonough (Boomtown, Band Of Brothers) as a Detroit mobster who comes to Kentucky with designs on taking over the local Dixie mafia operation [2]. McDonough registers a strong impression in his first appearance, which no doubt comes both from the fact that he’s a talented actor and that he’s done very well with Justified’s creator Graham Yost’s material in the past [3]. Guest star Desmond Harrington (Dexter) also seemed to have some potential as the sadistic Fletcher “The Ice Pick” Nix, but he was dispatched in entertaining fashion by Raylan at the episode’s end. Despite his quick exit, I liked the way that his standoff with Raylan was foreshadowed earlier in the episode by his robbery of a watch dealer. By showing how he liked to play games with his victims and also that he wasn’t averse to killing bystanders, I didn’t think it out of the realm of possibility that Winona could have been a casualty [4] which most definitely amped up the tension of that scene to an even higher level. Showing how Nix got off on toying with people, allowed us to see how Raylan was able to one-up him by using his brain instead of simply outdrawing him. This plays nicely into another theme that was pointed out by Hitfix’s Alan Sepinwall —  that Raylan’s age may begin playing a factor in his effectiveness as a marshal and, indeed, for much of “The Gunfighter” he’s restricted – or supposed to be restricted – to desk duty as a result of being shot in the second-season finale. He also shows apprehension in going out into the field, which is a first for him during Justified’s run. He’s way off of his game, and it’s a very interesting – and strangely satisfying, in some ways – color to watch from Timothy Olyphant. Raylan has always been an intelligent character, and the final standoff with Nix shows that he may need to begin relying on his smarts even more than he has in the past. Along with the newly cautious Raylan, there were also some interesting developments with regard to Boyd and Ava. Walton Goggins was in but a couple scenes in “The Gunfighter,” but he made them memorable as always. His fistfight in the marshals’ office that lead to his incarceration was puzzling at first, but his plan revealed itself when he landed in the same prison as Dickie Bennett [5] making it much easier for him to exact revenge for Dickie’s shooting of Ava at the end of last season. And Ava’s continuing evolution from victim to willing and active participant in Boyd’s criminal dealings has been an interesting character shift for Joelle Carter to play, and the “wife/girlfriend partner in crime” has worked well in the past with Carmella Soprano on The Sopranos and with Kelly MacDonald’s Margaret Schroeder on season two of Boardwalk Empire, so I’m very interested to see how far Ava is willing to break bad as the season progresses. Again, this wasn’t really a home run of an episode but, to stick with the clichéd sports metaphor, it was like a solid leadoff double that put an early runner in scoring position. Not a bad way to kick off the season.

[1] The first half of its debut season was marked with too many standalone cases for an FX audience that had come to expect season-long story arcs.
[2] McDonough’s Boomtown castmate Mykelti Williamson will reportedly be showing up late in the second episode as the season’s other new big bad.
[3] Yost was the main creative force behind Boomtown, an NBC crime drama that lasted one season in 2002. Despite its relatively low profile, McDonough’s performance as tortured DA David McNorris was so good that it’s, to this day, the first thing that I think of when I see McDonough in a film or TV show. He looked like he was in position to be the season two villain in FX’s Terriers prior to that show’s cancellation, so I was thrilled to see that he was cast as one of the season three villains here and felt that he was a great choice for the unenviable task of following up Martindale’s second season run. I also recommend tracking down Boomtown if you can.
[4] A little inside baseball: Natalie Zea (Winona) reportedly hasn’t been too happy with the lack of attention to her role during the series’ run and, coupled with the fact that she pops up as a guest star on other shows on a regular basis, it wasn’t far-fetched to think that her character could be killed off.
[5] And, as a huge fan of Jeremy Davies’ performance in season two, I was very happy to see that he’ll be sticking around for at least a little while as well.

Miscellany:
*I also liked how McDonough’s presence came organically out from an already established presence – Steven Flynn’s Emmett Arnett who meets an untimely end thanks to McDonough’s concealed Derringer. It also seems to mean more time for Jere Burns’ great Wyn Duffy character, which is another huge plus.
*Winona’s mother drank when she was pregnant with her. That really does explain a lot, as Raylan notes.
*I just love the atmosphere of this show so much. The Dixie-fied score, sights, and one of the best opening title sequences on television add so much to the show.
*”Did you try lefty?” “So I could shoot the side of a barn?!”
*”Boyd, I’ve been to Mexico – I don’t think you’d like it.” “How so?” “There’s a lot of Mexicans.”
*”I could be the guy on the radio telling people what to do.” “That’s my job, asshole.”
*”Sorry about your tablecloth.”
*”You know me now?”

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