As Justified starts its fourth season, I’d like to back up and nail down my thoughts on what’s come before. In its first season, Justified walked the line between straight procedural and pulpy fun, ending the season on an immensely enjoyable shootout. The show had a massive jump in quality the next year, which dropped most of the procedural aspect in favor of a tale of a family feud. Margo Martindale created a classic television villain yet was only a small part of what made the season so good. Much like Breaking Bad, Justified struggled in its next season to fill the gaping hole the villain previously occupied. Season three wasn’t exactly a drop-off in quality, but overall whether you thought the season was great or simply entertaining rested on what you thought of the season’s villain, Robert Quarles. I enjoyed the Quarles character while admitting it took a while to get a firm idea on what the show was trying to do with him. Eventually the character came into his own, and as the season progressed it started looking more and more like second season Justified.
So now that season four has started, are we going to find that, much like Star Trek, the evens are the best? For now our only indicator is the season premiere, so I guess it’s time to get to it.
What’s most apparent about the fourth season of Justified from the premiere – other than that the Star Trek rule could very well apply – is that the focus is returning to Raylan. While that shouldn’t be a surprise given that he’s the main character, the past two seasons have pushed Raylan to the background as it fleshed out all the “Springfield-ian” characters around Harlan. Now, though, we’re not getting any more big bads, so we’re stuck with Raylan, and he’s stuck with money problems, a baby on the way, and a 30-year old family mystery rearing its head.
Raylan isn’t the only one with problems around Harlan, as both Boyd and Ava are running into problems with their criminal enterprises. A new snake-handling preacher is taking the road Boyd once traveled in Harlan, and is hurting Boyd’s new drug enterprise and Ava’s whorehouse as a result. Boyd’s customers are getting off drugs, meaning a decline in business; and one of his congregation is Ellen May, meaning Ava has to deal with a whore trying to make peace with the Lord. The big question is whether or not the preacher is a villain in disguise. My money’s on him being legitimate, but I’d bet Boyd wouldn’t agree.
But because of that baby on the way and the money problems, Raylan finds himself doing an illegal bounty hunt to score some cash. He enlists the help of Constable Bob (Patton Oswalt, fitting into the show like a glove), and through their misadventures end up in a classic Justified showdown with a bounty, two teenagers, and a pissed-off car crusher. Even though we seem to be getting a more personal mysterious season, we’re still getting plenty of fun stand-offs and splats of violence. In the last premiere we got Raylan pulling a tablecloth to stop an icepick, this year we got Raylan incapacitating a man by shooting an airbag. And Bob even gets in on the creativity by stabbing a teenager in the foot.
The most important thread of the season is Arlo, who knows something about that parachutist that he’s not telling. If Arlo’s willing to kill the prison librarian – unless he thought Raylan had gotten the job – I’m betting there’s a dark, twisty story behind the bag behind the wall. All the pieces are in place for a great season of Justified, but for now, we’ve got a great episode.