The first season of FX's Justified was consistently entertaining, but only really found its voice when it started focusing less on crime-of-the-week plots and more on the ongoing story of bank robber Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) and his reprobate daddy. It wasn't the first show to change tact this way, as TV shows increasingly discover that audiences (especially cable audiences) enjoy watching one big story unfold over multiple episodes, rather than be fed a diet of separate stories that are resolved in an hour. A healthy balance is key, and Justified achieved equilibrium in the latter-half of its inaugural year. So it's a relief that the season 2 premiere, "The Moonshine War", spends most of its time setting up another ne'er-do-well family for US Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) to grapple with for 13 weeks, in a confident and assured opener to what promises to be another engrossing trip to Harlan, Kentucky... A reprise of the season 1 finale's dying moments opens the premiere, with Raylan fending off Miami drug cartel bad guys with the help of frenemy Boyd, during a small-scale shootout in a remote hut, before dovetailing into a coda that wraps up loose ends from last year. Primarily, the Miami gangster who's been out to avenge the death of one of his men (whom Raylan shot in the pilot, resulting in his transfer to hometown Harlan), is dissuaded from continuing his vendetta, in scenes that felt like showrunner Graham Yost washing his hands of last year's ideas. It's a palette cleanser, before the new season's allowed to move on. The story behind "The Moonshine War" involved Raylan's search for a fugitive sex offender/paedophile called Jimmy Earl Dean (Billy Miller), a man employed by the disreputable Bennett family to grow marijuana crops, introduced trying to molest his 14-year-old co-worker Loretta McCready (Kaitlyn Dever.) While Loretta managed to evade creepy Jimmy's advances, her father (Chris Mulkey) alerts the police by calling a hotline he believed was anonymous, which thus brought his daughter's employers to his doorstep: hick siblings Coover (Brad William Henke) and lame-legged Dickie (Lost's Jeremy Davies), sons of rotund matriarch Mags (Margo Martindale.) Justified nails the tone and prickly characterizations you expect from a crime drama set in the sun-baked American countryside, based on the work of author Elmore Leonard (who co-storylined this premiere), where lowlifes seem to scuttle about like lizards in the Kentucky heat. This episode is primarily concerned with introducing a new clan of villains for Raylan to contend with, and they're once again people he's known since childhood. One of the key features of Justified is how Raylan has a shared history with most of Harlan county's criminals, and there's a mutual respect between them. You get the impression this is almost playground tomfoolery that's continued into adulthood, with Raylan almost seen as an aberration for choosing to become an officer of the law. It also echoes Leonard's literary oeuvre very well, with sparkling dialogue, scenes that veer into unexpected directions, creative action, and characters who jump off the screen. This premiere is full of several great moments; from a man being coerced into putting his own leg into an animal trap, and Raylan soaking someone in gasoline to prevent him firing his gun ("do you know how a firearm works?"), to a brilliantly tense moment when Loretta put Jimmy Earl Dean on the back foot by calling him out on his perversion. But above all, "The Moonshine War" relished introducing us to the antisocial Bennet's; meathead Coover (later seen shooting rats in his garage), squirrely Dickie, and mother hen Mags -- who looks and acts like an amiable shopkeeper from the sticks, until you watch her trick someone into drinking lethal homemade poison. A great role for veteran character actress Margo Martindale, and interesting to see the show giving us a shot of estrogen after season 1's emphasis on disreputable fathers and grownup children with daddy issues. Overall, "The Moonshine War" was a near-perfect start to season 2 and, beyond the opening few minutes, very accessible for newcomers to get involved in this show. At heart it's "cowboys and Indians" in the 21st-century, with an outstanding performance from the snake-like Olyphant, who stalks the terrain with a positive swagger and drawl that has you hanging on his every word. The fact Olyphant's joined by an even more expansive rogue's gallery, played by equally talented actors, has me very excited for this show's future. With an eye on last season's highs and lows, it knows what worked and what didn't, so I'm sure we're in for a slicker, more focused year of gunslingin' drama.
WRITERS: Graham Yost (story by Elmore Leonard & Graham Yost) DIRECTOR: Adam Arkin CAST: Timothy Olyphant, Nick Searcy, Margo Martindale, Jeremy Davies, Walton Goggins, Brad William Henke & Kaitlyn Dever TRANSMISSION: 20 April 2011, 5USA, 9PM