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When season three of FX’s “Justified” premiered this January it had some big shoes to fill – both in the cast and story – after the series’ tremendous breakout second season. What I am referring to here is the absence of Margo Martindale and her portrayal of Mags Bennett, a role that won Martindale an Emmy for Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. With Mags and the rest of the Bennett family dead or incarcerated, “Justified” had a void needing to be filled. 

In that excellent second season the story was primarily focused on the Bennett clan – their power play for Harlan and their rivalry with the Givens family of which our protagonist, Raylan (Timothy Olyphant), is a member. Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) is always lurking and was part of the action, naturally. With the Bennetts pushed aside, the story took a turn this season. Enter Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson), more servings of Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns), and the rest of the troublemakers in Harlan. Quarles, a slick-suited mobster from Detroit, comes to Kentucky to carve out territory for himself and take over the oxy trade. Limehouse, the leader of Noble’s Holler, knows the area as well as any; his ultimate motivation is for him and the people of Noble’s to be left alone – though he certainly picks his spots to take advantage of situations. In Quarles and Limehouse the show added two new characters in an effort to fill the void left from the Bennett storyline (which was still present albeit in a reduced role this season). Anyway that’s essentially how the season is setup.

Raylan (Olyphant), Quarles (McDonough) and Limehouse's back (Williamson) (from left to right) on FX's "Justified"

Now, some thoughts on “Justified” season three, in bullet form:

  • General thoughts on the finale: I, for one, was expecting more fireworks than we got but this is not a complaint. We still got some fireworks, including the disarmament of Quarles, which was fitting. The writers took the story back to Raylan as they should. Though, I’m not sure Arlo’s willingness to kill Raylan had the greatest effect on me because we already knew he was willing to part with Raylan to protect himself. That’s not to say it didn’t have any effect on me because the fact that Arlo sees Boyd as more of a son (or family member) than Raylan was effective for all characters involved. It just didn’t shock me or hit me especially hard. The payoffs were good, especially the entire disarmament scene. There was good use of call backs too including the Russian Roulette scene in Duffy’s RV. Plenty is setup for next season too. Raylan has a huge realization dropped on him and he’s about to become a father. Boyd is still around. Limehouse is still around. Johnny (David Meunier) seems to be plotting against Boyd….
  • Really what “Justified” does better than anything else is “badassery,” which was on full display, as it should be. Tough talking and leveling threats is this show’s wheelhouse.
  • The performances across the board were exceptional as usual. This cast has tremendous chemistry. Any scene with Olyphant and Goggins gets a smirk on my face. Just excellent stuff. McDonough and Williamson fit right in. There isn’t a combination of actors/characters that doesn’t work. Furthermore, the series has really done a good job of casting solid character actors, with bit players such as Stephen Root (Judge Reardon), Jim Beaver (Shelby), and Stephen Tobolowsky (Agent Barkley) shining this season (and in some cases past seasons).
  • This season continued the trend of moving away from standalone episodes; each season has had less than the one preceding it. This season, like last, did a fantastic job of incorporating the standalone elements into the serialized story. In this respect specifically, season three was better than season two, in my estimation.
  • Where last season was more or less straightforward, the third season had many more twists and turns. It would take way too long to recap all that happened plot wise in the third season. Even then it would be confusing. This happened to be the case because there were a lot of characters and things in play to go along with alliances being forged and broken. At times you had to sit back and enjoy the ride while getting most, but not all, of what was going on. I’m fine with this for the most part. There was just a lot of table setting and pieces moving just to be moved again.
  • My biggest complaint of the season deals with Boyd capturing and locking up (literally) Quarles. Boyd could give him over to the Detroit mob for $200,000 or kill him for $100,000. Even if he doesn’t care about the money, he has him locked up. He has won and Boyd is smart; he’s shown this much throughout the run of the series. But Boyd leaves Quarles, the man he has battled all season, alone with two of his whores as watch guard in a camper. We know Quarles’ run isn’t going to end there (there was still most of two episodes to go) so it’s just a matter of time before he escapes. I wish the writers would have come up with something better than him getting captured and Boyd being stupid in the way he secured him. For a show that seems to pride itself on having smart characters at the center it was an unusual misstep.
  • Another season gone without much involvement from Raylan’s Marshall colleagues Tim (Jacob Pitts) and Rachel (Erica Tazel). It would be great if Tim and Rachel could have bigger roles on the show. Obviously it is not about them. There is only so much screen time to parcel out. Still, the show would benefit from incorporating them more into the story and diving a little bit into those characters.
  • Wynn Duffy. The more the better. Duffy may be locked up in season four after confessing to the car bomb. Either way, I hope he still plays a role in the series. Out of Quarles’ madness we got to see other sides of the character. Jere Burns did awesome work.

Overall, I really enjoyed this season of “Justified.” The entire crew seems to be confident in where they’re taking the show after back-to-back high quality seasons. It wasn’t as tight or clean as last season but it was a worthy follow up. No, “Justified” is not the deepest show on television, but it is perhaps as entertaining as anything, which is probably the most fundamental reason for watching television (at least for me). Last year it was number six on my top 10 series of the year list. There’s no question it will be on the list again. The question is whether it will be higher. Simply, “Justified” is one of the best shows on television.

What did you think of season three of “Justified”?