Spoilers for the latest Justified after the jump:
It may be a bit too early to say this, but based on these first few episodes of its third season, Justified appears to have finally figured out how to make its seasons’ beginnings as or at least close to as enthralling as their endings. The pattern of the first two seasons has been to begin with a fantastic opener, only to see that momentum stall just a bit in a handful of solid but unremarkable case of the week episodes while many of the main conflicts get set up in the background. Season two was and is justly acclaimed as one of the better seasons of TV drama in recent memory, but it still suffered slightly from this problem at the start. So far, though, season three is showing no signs of letting up on the accelerator for even one second, even as it’s also setting a ton of stuff up that likely won’t see a payoff for at least a few episodes down the road.
Last week’s episode, though still superb, was the weakest of the three simply because it was mostly devoted to a procedural case. It was a good procedural case, but by their very nature such cases don’t usually (there are of course exceptions) have quite the impact that long-running storylines do. “Harlan Roulette” features a self-contained case as well, involving a pawnshop owner whose side business is hiring drug addicts to steal goods, then selling those goods to the Dixie Mafia. And that case is very well-done, and wrapped up quite well by episode’s end. But its role within the episode (in addition to providing two of my favorite Raylan-centered moments ever) is to allow for the first meeting between Neal McDonough’s still unnamed man from Detroit and Raylan, though I’m certain there will be many more.
What’s especially interesting here is that Raylan essentially owns this episode right up until that final scene. He tracks down Fogel, leading McDonough’s character to order Fogel to kill “the hat”. His reasoning is sound. He doesn’t have much use for Fogel anymore, so why not set him and Raylan against each other? Raylan will probably come out on top, but either way he’s rid of one of the obstacles to his plans. In any case, Fogel delegates the hit to Wade, leading to a sequence of events that includes Raylan delivering a brilliant monologue about his own views on the etiquette of entering a residence uninvited, disarming Wade without a shot after and in spite of expressing those views, doing the same to Fogel a few minutes later before Fogel and Beckett shoot and kill each other, and finally showing up and punching Wynn several times before dropping a bullet on him and saying that the “next one’s coming faster”.
It’s as if the show is taking extra care to remind us just what a dangerous adversary Raylan is, even as he’s likely still not a hundred percent. Just about every villain in Justified’s universe fears him, and they should. And that’s what makes the man from Detroit’s reaction borderline unprecedented. True, we’ve seen characters foolishly underestimate Raylan before, but this is something far different. This man’s not a fool, and he clearly knows that Raylan is going to be a tough enemy, but he believes that he’s even tougher and smarter. All of this is communicated in that single, memorable line he delivers in response to Raylan’s threat against Wynn. It could have been an act of foolish bravado, but it’s not. It’s a powerful statement of purpose that’s meant to be intimidating, and Raylan doesn’t quite know what to make of it, other than to snap a picture and walk away for the time being.
If that’s not enough great material for you, “Harlan Roulette” somehow also finds room for a couple of superb B-stories involving Ava, Boyd, and the rest of the Crowder gang. One involves their attempt to take back the bar that once belonged to Johnny. I’m not going to spend too much time on this plot, because it’s pretty basic (albeit compelling) stuff. Suffice to say that the plan basically goes off without a hitch due in large part to the two new guys Johnny hired, and the bar is theirs again.
But it’s the tension between Devil and Boyd that develops and is seemingly resolved within the hour that manages to be perhaps the most memorable aspect of it. Certainly it provides the best scene, in which Boyd delivers the episode’s other great monologue, about how his past has shaped who he is today and about what he’s offering to those who join him. It’s a brilliantly written bit that’s a delight to the ear, while also managing in typical Justified style (and largely thanks to the acting powers of the great Walton Goggins) to feel completely true to the person saying it. At the end of it, Devil’s in. And we’re reminded once again of just how good the decision to keep Boyd around after the pilot was. (We’re reminded every week, truthfully, but this was still something special.)
A set-up episode this may have been, but it’s the rare show that can manage to make the set-up almost as compelling as the ultimate payoff, while still providing enough dramatic fireworks to keep the viewer satiated in the meantime. “Harlan Roulette” is perhaps slightly weaker than the best efforts of season two (such as “Brother’s Keeper” and “Bloody Harlan”, among others), but it’s still without question one of the strongest episodes Justified has ever done: filled with the virtuoso dialogue and compelling confrontations that define it when it’s at its best, and featuring absolutely no filler material. Everything here moved quickly and with purpose from one moment to the next, cutting between several equally compelling storylines. It’s the kind of installment this series usually saves for later on. Credit it for realizing that not holding back as much in the early going can make it an even better program than it already is, while of course still laying the groundwork for the season’s main storylines to (hopefully) become even more riveting as they hit their full stride in the coming weeks.
- I realize that the man from Detroit has a name, and that most Justified fans probably already know what it is. It’s certainly not any sort of big secret. But in the interest of those who don’t know it, I’m going to continue calling him that until the show itself gives us that name (which I’m sure it will at some point).
- This episode was light on other storylines, outside of Dickie being approached by another person after Mags’s money (this time the guard who overheard his conversation with Boyd) and the moderately interesting but relatively uneventful initial meeting between Boyd and Limehouse.
- Indeed, many of the supporting characters like Rachel, Tim, Art, and Winona were either entirely absent or almost absent. That’s fine with me. Trying to fit them into an installment with so much else going on wouldn’t have made sense.
- I’ve been able to get these reviews up on Friday the last two weeks, but that probably won’t be the norm throughout February and early March. Saturday’s more likely, and in some cases they may not be up until Sunday or Monday.