It’s such a pleasure when a show knows exactly what it’s doing and how to do it, and stretches itself without overreaching. FX’s Justified is that kind of show. Before season three began, I had a hard time imagining that it could equal season two, with its deft mix of family melodrama, local politics, and crime thriller shenanigans. But things are shaping up nicely. An initial fear of an estrogen deficit is being allayed by the arrival of Miami agent Karen Goodall (Carla Gugino), who is pretty clearly supposed to be Elmore Leonard’s Karen Sisco of Out of Sight and the short-lived Gugino series Karen Sisco, but had to be named something else for legal reasons. (ABC owns rights to the character; Justified is produced by Sony.) I’m liking all of the new and returning antagonists, although Neal McDonough’s Detroit baddie strikes me as a bit much, with his maniacal expressions and short fuse and quick-draw device. (At least they owned up to the fact that they filched it from Taxi Driver; the idea of a psycho watching that Martin Scorsese classic and taking nothing from it except, “Hey, that quick-draw gadget was awesome!” is the sort of touch you’d see in an Elmore Leonard novel.) And I like what they’ve done with Raylan post-shooting. He still carries himself with that easygoing confidence that star Timothy Olyphant portrays so convincingly, always leading with his shoulders. But we’re aware (even more so than Raylan) that he’s off his game, and that eventually it’ll cost him.
The series is also answering one of the few recurring complaints I had about seasons one and two: that for the most part, Justified seemed to be taking place in one of those magical Dukes of Hazzard–style Southern milieus with almost no black people in them. Mykelti Williamson’s Limehouse, boss of a very old mountain enclave of African-Americans, is shaping up to be this season’s answer to last year’s Mags Bennett, a political powerhouse with an aw-shucks demeanor and a knack for using his head rather than instantly resorting to weapons. Limehouse is a beautifully written character expertly played by Williamson, who has been a fixture in TV shows and movies for about two decades (he was in Forrest Gump, Heat, Ali, and Justified showrunner Graham Yost’s Boomtown, on which he co-starred with McDonough). This week’s opening scene between Limehouse and Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter) was a classic Elmore Leonard conversation, a tough negotiation and mutual declaration of intent disguised as a friendly how-do-you-do over grilled meats. The subsequent scene on the bridge was fine, too; Walton Goggins’s Boyd Crowder is a strong character who tends to equal, and sometimes wipe out, any character who tries to intimidate him, but as Boyd faced off against Limehouse, I got the feeling that he was overmatched but too prideful to realize it. (Pay close attention to Limehouse’s line, “You give my regards to Arlo Givens; I believe the last time I saw him was on this very bridge.” It’s one of those great Justified setup lines that you might not register as significant until the season is done.) It’s very, very rare for TV to present a strong African-American character who’s this complicated and opaque, much less one who wraps his power inside so many layers of charm. Is Limehouse a bad guy, a good guy, or just a tough guy? Will season three come down to a face-off between him and Raylan, a present-day confrontation that’s also about redressing old racial and personal grievances? However things shake out, I’m sure it’ll be written and played just right. This is Justified.