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Justified, Ep. 3.01: “The Gunfighter” promises a bigger, knottier crime saga

Justified, Ep. 3.01: “The Gunfighter” promises a bigger, knottier crime saga

Justified, Season 3, Episode 1: “The Gunfighter”
Written by Graham Yost and Fred Golan
Directed by Michael Dinner
Airs Tuesdays at 10pm ET on FX

When last we saw Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), he was bidding an unwitting adieu to Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale), one of the most feted TV villains in recent memory (even giving Breaking Bad‘s Gus a run for his money). That would seem to place Justified showrunner Graham Yost, his writing staff, and producer-star Olyphant in the unenviable position of trying to replace the Bennett clan with an equally compelling force of no good. But that’s not entirely accurate.

After all, runt of the Bennett litter Dickie (Jeremy Davies) is still alive and kicking – in jail, of course (along, thankfully, with perpetual delight Dewey Crowe, played with the usual dim wit by Damon Herriman). Some of the series’ other ne’er-do-wells are still here, too, notably Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns), who’s back in a more permanent capacity this time around. As if they, along with Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) and his cronies, weren’t enough, we’re also swiftly introduced to Robert Quarles (veteran I-know-that-face character actor Neal McDonough), a slick hood from Detroit with plans for Harlan that we’re not privy to just yet and a quick-draw mechanical gun holster worthy of a Bond villain, as well as hitman Fletcher Nix (Desmond Harrington). Oh, and we get another baddie next week, played by Mykelti Williamson. That is a huge stockpile of villains – even if one of them doesn’t make it past the premiere.

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The best thing about “The Gunfighter” is the confidence and ease with which it rolls out its (many) introductions, making it clear that Justified‘s third outing is intended to be a knottier affair, replete with competing interests, silently hatched schemes, and serious stakes. It’s an ambitious direction, one that’ll take seriously solid writing to really pull off, but Yost and his crew have earned a measure of trust – and continue to here. It helps immensely that, despite all of the encroaching threats, the show’s distinctive blend of wisecrackery and high-wire tension are completely, blessedly intact. For that, special credit goes to Olyphant, who’s yet to nab a statue for his stellar work as Raylan, and whose behind-the-scenes role has, according to Yost and company, been primarily one of making sure the series’ tone sticks close to Elmore Leonard’s idiosyncratic style. (Actually, a recent Slate piece went as far as to suggest that Justified has beaten Leonard at his own game.)

That careful attention to tone is most apparent in the parts of the episode that deal with Nix, a glass-faced, icepick-wielding, and notably black-hatted (hats are, as ever, very important to this series) creep with a penchant for dispatching victims with a cruel “game” involving quick-drawing. It’s vitally important that, despite Nix’s elaborate MO, we take him seriously as a threat, and we do, thanks to Harrington’s unsettling performance and a well-staged early scene in which we see what it looks like when the game goes his way (as it always does). Raylan’s dealings with Nix are laced with some delicious irony, principally the fact that if he’d done his paperwork, he’d have identified him upon their chance meeting in an elevator – and probably gotten himself killed (he’s not even close to the top of his game, thanks to that pesky gunshot wound from last year’s finale). Raylan’s ultimate standoff with Nix is a thing of beauty, with the newly pregnant Winona (Natalie Zea) wearing just the right expression of carefully managed terror, Nix not wasting much time gabbing, and Raylan coming up with a satisfyingly elegant solution. (Also elegant, though unrelated: Boyd’s little plan to maneuver himself into the same pen as Dickie, with whom he has a serious beef. Well played.)

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It’s not perfect. Last season’s most diminished player was Ava Crowder, who got demoted from newly independent, name-taking badass to Boyd’s girlfriend/accomplice. “The Gunfighter” doesn’t do much to solve the Ava Problem; she’s literally back to making dinner for lowlifes, which may be the point, but since we haven’t spent much time with Ava doing anything except helping Boyd out and directing invective at Raylan, it’s hard to get a bead on her motivations.

If Yost and company can get her back on track, and maybe even if they can’t, Season 3 should have no problem hitting the highs of last season, and maybe actually exceed them. It’s still one of the most entertaining, exhilarating hours on TV.

Simon Howell