Raylan Givens is off his game, but Justified (Tuesdays 10 p.m./9 c) is as sharp as ever. Last season left off with our surly hero (Timothy Olyphant) reeling from a series of revelations and traumas, including the news that he’s about to become a daddy with his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) and the horrific killing of his aunt/stepmother/moral compass Helen Givens (Linda Gehringer) by the pot-dealing Bennetts. On top of all that, Raylan got shot. The third season picks up three weeks after the end of the last one, with the Bennetts effectively destroyed and Raylan recovering, slowly, from his wound. The shooting hampers Raylan physically and (it seems) mentally. He’s not the quick draw and ace shot that he used to be, and during the first four episodes sent out for preview there are moments when he thinks he's on top of things, but the viewer recognizes that he's actually making errors and falling short.
This is a nice way of freshening up a series that’s always at risk of settling into formula. For all its country-western mournfulness, nasty violence, and sly acting, Justified, based on an Elmore Leonard character, is TV comfort food, the sort of show you watch at least partly because you know the characters and the rules of this world and take pleasure in the sight of people doing more or less what you expect. But unlike past seasons in which Raylan was always one step ahead of everybody, there were moments in the first few new episodes when I found myself saying to my TV, “Don’t just keep staring at that guy, pull your gun!” and “No, no, Raylan, don’t let that slide – ask him a follow-up question about X.”
The season feels like a sequel of sorts to season two, or maybe an extension of it. Much of the plot deals with fallout from the rise and fall of the late Ma Barker–like crime boss Mags Bennett (Emmy winner Margot Martindale). Her surviving son Dickie Bennett (gesticulator-in-chief Jeremy Davies) is in prison but still integral to the story; he’s heir to a bunch of money squirreled away by Mags in an African-American enclave called Nobles Holler. Raylan’s frenemy Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) is trying to build a new criminal empire along with his soulmate Ava (Joelle Carter), associate Devil (Kevin Rankin), and Raylan’s dad Arlo (Raymond J. Barry); unfortunately, it’s founded on marijuana taken from the Bennetts that they allowed to molder, greatly decreasing its value. There are several new antagonists, including slick-suited Detroit baddie Quarles (Neal McDonough, who played a somewhat similar psycho capitalist in the remake of Walking Tall); a hateful assassin who’s nicknamed Icepick for a reason (Desmond Harrington of Dexter); and Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson), the boss of Nobles Holler and a skilled butcher. (Both McDonough and Williamson were on Graham Yost’s old show Boomtown.)
So far Limehouse, who steps into the foreground in a couple of weeks, is my favorite new character, a tough old bastard who thrashed Raylan's daddy back in the day. He gives the show a much-needed dash of color (in more than one sense) and hints that the widening of scope that made season two so distinctive might happen this year, too, but in a different context. Midway through season two, the Bennett clan’s criminal maneuverings opened out into a statement about the suburbanization of rural America and the devastation of natural landscapes and old ways of life via mountaintop removal. Based on season one, I never expected Justified to turn into something like a cornpone crime-thriller version of a social problem novel, but it did. I wouldn’t be surprised if season three tried to do something similar with Limehouse and the people of Nobles Holler, who seem to have built themselves a kind of juke-joint Shangri La in a wooded valley, with Limehouse as the resident anti–Dalai Lama and master of barbecue.
My biggest concern going into this season was the possibility of testosterone overload. And between Helen’s shooting, Mags’s suicide, and Winona being de-spunkified by her pregnancy, tonight’s premiere has a serious estrogen deficiency. Luckily that changes soon enough, with the African-American marshal Rachel Brooks (the previously underused Erica Tazel) moving to the center of the action and Carla Gugino, star of ABC’s late, lamented Elmore Leonard series Karen Sisco, showing up next week in a recurring part as Karen Goodall, who worked in Miami when Raylan was there and has an, um, history with him. I’d like to think Raylan is too much the gentleman to stray from his baby mama, but then again, he hasn’t been himself lately.