The third season premiere of Justified did not disappoint fans of the show and deftly established new conflicts while simultaneously recalling key moments and players throughout the series and doing so with a well-paced, action-packed and pitch-perfect stylized plot that made me want to dig up my plastic cowboy hat and six shooters. The episode had a lot to live up to as it follows the devastatingly epic story that was the Bennetts versus the Crowders last season, an arc which surpassed its impressive season one predecessor, but “The Gunfighter” rose to the occasion and hit virtually every target it needed.
I love when a season premiere picks up exactly where the last season’s finale left us, especially in this case as Raylan’s injuries heavily informed his status right off the bat. Seeing our favorite marshal struggle to come even close to his former bull’s eye glory was as painful as it looked and created real tension throughout the rest of the episode. There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing a character go through some debilitating traumas (physical or mental) and seeing zero consequence thereafter as soon as the next episode or even the next scene. I loved how the writers did not take lightly the ordeal Raylan endured and allowed the audience to witness its effects as oppose to sweeping them under the rug because it emphasizes the fact that our hero isn’t impervious, he’s human, and imperfection and vulnerability will always make for a more compelling protagonist than one who’s some sort of untouchable demi-god.
One of the most entertaining elements of this series is the dynamic between Raylan and Boyd, two peas in a pod who are obviously cut from the same cloth yet despite reflecting a similar heritage, define themselves by the very different paths they each chose to follow. As giddy as I was to see these two burst through a pane of glass I’d be remiss seeing Boyd back in prison if I didn’t already know he’d be out again soon enough, but judging from the closing scene in which the cowardly and shrewd Dickie Bennett and the so stupid he’s almost likeable (except for the whole neo-Nazi bullshit) Dewey Crowe spot Boyd being escorted to his cell, I’m eager to see what shenanigans the master manipulator will orchestrate to survive and escape.
Boyd’s incarceration also proved to be an intriguing and welcomed opportunity to see how his crew operates without him. Once the more balls than brains Devil learned he couldn’t unload the massive amount of marijuana he and the rest of Boyd’s crew confiscated from Mag’s former compound due to shotty maintenance (c’mon guys, damp plants accumulate mold is like lesson number one in weed trafficking 101), the audience got to see some very impressive initiative from Ava, a woman who’s as handy with a frying pan as she is with a shotgun, as she very effectively conveyed Boyd’s order to burn the dangerous and ruined merchandise. Speaking purely as a casual observer of media and history, the American South carries with it, among many other things, a negative connotation for being backwards and undeveloped in terms of not only race but gender as well. In the 21st century it’s fascinating to study how these conventions and customs continue to function and operate and Ava seems to be an apt example of a person who works within her status as a female to nevertheless overcome the ignorance and underestimations of people like Devil. With Raylan’s aunt and Arlo’s wife, Helen, no longer with the world of the living, it’s easy to see how Ava, a strong and capable woman who’s clearly not afraid and is in fact quite comfortable among the criminal ranks, will hopefully rise up to become an intelligent and resourceful authority among the Harlan County underworld.
Even more exciting than the mechanisms of the new top criminal clan of Harlan was the hostile takeover of the Dixie Mafia by Detroit representative Robert Quarles, a cold and calculating man whose deadly serious actions are not quite camouflaged by an almost jovial confidence which will no doubt be challenged throughout the rest of the season. His demand of the $250,000 owed to his organization by the former crime boss Emmitt Arnett introduced a very different Desmond Harrington than you might know from Showtime’s Dexter. Unlike Detective Joey Quinn, Harrington played a totally badass “real estate broker” named Fletcher Nix, a character whom shared more qualities with No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh than your average thug as demonstrated by the seemingly fair game Nix plays with his victims before unveiling his signature ice pick. Because I dislike Harrington so much as Quinn on Dexter, when I first saw him in “The Gunfighter” I moaned like I was getting homework on a Friday, but as it turned out I was almost sad to see Raylan shoot him in the heart (in a very clever move which demonstrated Raylan’s thinking is as quick as his draw) because of how remarkably well Harrington played him. It was an especially nice touch to see Nix recalling Raylan’s shooting of Tommy Bucks, the gangster in Florida whose timely demise landed Raylan back in his old stomping grounds at the series’ inception. Quarles’ and Nix’s actions have also drawn closer crime boss Wynn Duffy whose evasive demeanor never ceases to make me chuckle. I’m very excited to see how Quarles and Duffy attempt to run the game this season, especially considering what a steep departure the slick, urban alien Quarles appears to be compared to the home-grown Mags whom had deep connections to Harlan as well as Raylan.
“The Gunfighter” did everything a season premiere of one of television’s finest series should: it reestablished its main characters in realistic and exciting new positions and reminded us of the supporting characters’ presence in a relevant yet subtle manner (this was done well with the aforementioned characters as well as Chief Deputy Art Mullen, my favorite sniper, Tim Gutterson, and crafty, wheelchair bound Johnny Crowder who’ll “turn up sooner or later”, but not so much with Agent Rachel Brooks who did not have one line this entire episode) while also firmly establishing new main antagonists and what will become the seasonal arc. The only thing I noticed missing from this episode was talk of Raylan and Winona relocating to Glenco, the training school where Raylan could act as a shooting instructor in a less dangerous environment for the sake of his and Winona’s on the way baby. There were some adorably absurd suggestions for baby names and discussion of moving to a bigger place, but the notion of Glenco was noticeably absent and I hope the writers don’t just hope we forgot about this direction the main character was seriously considering just before the end of last season as it can make for genuinely suspenseful story telling. Considering what an incredible episode of television “The Gunfighter” was combined with more new characters joining this season (including another U.S. Marshal character created by Elmore Leonard, Karen Sisco, the hero of the 1998 film Out of Sight as well as the titular character of her own ABC series) I’m more than confident we should be in for one hell of a ride through the backwoods of Kentucky.