Justified finished its second season last night with another in a string of incredibly strong episodes. In its first season, Justified was a fine cop show with an interesting southern slant; the cowboy hats, drawls, and sticky-sweaty swampland were a welcome change from the usual kinetic urban backdrop of most police shows. But in season two, Justified really found its footing, especially as it moved away from a strict hero story for Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan and toward a more ensemble vibe, and introduced one of the best villainesses in recent memory. Here are the three key reasons that Justified went from a good show to a great show. (Attention DVRers: Spoilers from last night’s finale follow.)
1. Less Boyd Crowder. As a hard-core fan of The Shield, it’s blasphemous to wish for less Walton Goggins, particularly given how good he is as Raylan’s sort-of arch nemesis Boyd. But the Raylan-Boyd feud became sort of futile after a certain point — either kill each other or kiss already, you two — and this season shifted a lot of the antagonism and destined-to-fail scheming to the fascinating Bennett clan. Boyd is integral to the show, but not necessarily as its central villain.
2. A Killer Nemesis. Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale, killing it), her dopey sons, and her would-be daughter Loretta (the young Kaitlyn Dever, also killing it) gave the community a depth in ways Boyd never could. Mags was a better foil for Raylan, too: Boyd is sort of Raylan’s evil twin, so his various motivations make a certain kind of sense to our behatted Marshal. While Mags had similar goals — power and money and respect — she was far more calculating and manipulative than Boyd could ever be: As much as Raylan was working against her, he found Mags deeply enthralling. He wants to hate Boyd because he’s morally repugnant, but deep down Raylan cares for him; he wants to like Mags because she’s so riveting, but deep down he knows their families have been at odds for generations. The final scene of the season, with the two of them sitting, bleeding, at Mags’s kitchen table, was a perfect moment: After all that, let’s sit down and have ourselves a drink. (And in Mags’s case, some poison.)
3. It was surprisingly funny. With all of this season’s murders, vengeance plans, torture, and attempted child rape, it was also hilarious. Raylan’s always been good with the zings, but Tim (the agent sent to babysit Raylan) had plenty of good ones, too. Some greatest hits of the season: Dickie, all crazy eyed with greasy hair, going for a “base hit” when he whacked Raylan with a bat. Winona fought with her dweeby husband about a “goddamn horse” that Gary, in a rare moment of self-possession, fired back was “a champion Arabian.” Art Mullen teasing Raylan that he was “like the hillbilly whisperer.” The characters laughing at the term “Dixie Mafia.” Mags naming her moonshine “apple pie.” Of course Justified is incredibly affected, and Raylan distractingly seems to survive a severe beating every few episodes — but the moments of humor keep the show from just being an exercise in style. These little tidbits help create the show’s humanity, which in turn makes its storytelling far more meaningful.
So what might season three hold? Sure, all the new interesting characters from this season either died, went to jail, or ran their course. And yeah, Raylan’s love life — pregnant Winona or no — is far less dazzling than his career. But if Justified can hang on to even a small fraction of the intensity of this season, we’re still in for a treat.