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'Justified' Mines an Embarrassment of Riches as Season 2 High Point Approaches

by Maureen Ryan, posted Apr 5th 2011 3:00PM
'Justified' (10PM ET Wednesday, FX) has created a big problem for itself: Its excellent second season isn't even over, but I'm already wondering how it'll create a character as compelling as Mags Bennett when it returns next year.

It's definitely a high-class problem to have, and who's to say Mags won't stick around beyond season 2? (Here's hoping.) But at least we know that 'Justified,' which won a Peabody Award and got a much-deserved renewal last week, will get a third season in which to further explore Harlan County and the life of deputy U.S. marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant).

For fans of Mags and the woman who plays her, the extraordinarily versatile Margo Martindale, Wednesday's episode of 'Justified' is a particular treat, though it'd be hard for the show to top last week's outing, which should have been titled 'And the Emmy Goes to Margo Martindale.'

I'm not going to spoil what happens in Wednesday's episode -- this is a show that places a great deal of emphasis on good manners, and giving away what goes down in Harlan would not be polite. But last week, Mags offered to throw a party, and what transpires during and after her shindig makes for an outstanding hour of television.

In addition to giving more excellent material to Martindale, who can effortlessly command an operatic scene, like last week's meeting with the coal company, and then easily transition to smaller but no less powerful confrontations, the episode masterfully pulls together many of the story lines that have been percolating all season long. Wednesday's outing almost feels like a season finale, but the show will have four more hours to fill up after this week. That's another high-class problem to have, and I have no doubt that 'Justified' will come up with creative ways to follow up one of its finest episodes.

Martindale's mischievous, cunning Mags has provided a solid anchor for the season, but one of the most satisfying things about the show is the ways in which 'Justified' has continued to build up the rich, complicated worlds in which Raylan finds himself. The tale of Mags and her sons almost constitutes a backwoods 'King Lear' (but however deep the ties of family go, she'd never trust any of her boys with the keys to her kingdom, and that may the tragedy of her life). Harlan is also home to Mags' ward, Loretta, who's played with wonderful, watchful subtlety by Kaitlyn Dever, Raylan's crotchety father and his wife (Raymond J. Barry and Linda Gehringerin), Raylan's charismatic frienemy, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) and various miscreants from Raylan's past.

Then there's a whole other crew at Raylan's workplace in Lexington, and if I have a couple of minor gripes about the season, they have to do with the embarrassment of riches in the show's cast and a couple of episodes that appeared to have shorter-than-normal running times (I understand that once in a while, episodes come up short, but I selfishly want to spend more time in this world, not less). Between the Harlan stories, the weekly cases and the doings in Lexington (where Stephen Root as an idiosyncratic judge is always a welcome sight), there hasn't been a ton of screen time for great supporting actors such as Jeremy Davies, who plays Mags' son Dickie, and Jacob Pitts, who plays Deputy Marshal Tim Gutterson. And it seems like the show has had to stretch credibility a bit at times to keep Raylan and Boyd in each others' orbit, but I'm willing to let that slide, given how terrific the actors are together.

Goodness knows this cast can step up when called upon to do so -- Erica Tazel proved that in an episode featuring her character, Deputy Marshal Rachel Brooks. And Nick Searcy, who plays as Raylan's boss, Chief Deputy Art Mullen, is a continual treat, whether he's giving Raylan one more raised-eyebrow look or commiserating with an aging criminal who totes his oxygen tank to bank robberies.

Art understandably feels betrayed by Raylan's recent shenanigans regarding a bag of cash in the Marshals' evidence room, and though events in Harlan will no doubt continue to loom large this season (as 'Justified' creator Graham Yost indicated in this interview), Raylan's is facing some high-stakes decisions in almost every area of his life.

And that may be season 2's greatest accomplishment: It has believably ramped up the stakes Raylan faces without becoming overwrought or unbelievable. 'Justified' still has the light touch it has had since the show's pilot, but the dualities pulling at Raylan -- between sanctioning lawbreaking and catching lawbreakers, between wanting to stay in Kentucky and wanting to be anywhere else, between truth and self-preservation -- have gotten every more difficult for this basically decent character to bear.

And yet the evidence of Raylan's fraying nerves have supplied some of the show's most comically satisfying moments (Boyd, in last week's episode: "That was quite a speech you made in there." A grouchy, hung-over Raylan: "Well, thank you. I stayed up all night working on it.").

The fact is, Raylan doesn't know quite what to do: He wants to leave Harlan forever, but he can't, because the streak of orneriness that runs through that region is what made him the man he is. He can't help having a measure of respect for Mags, who is independent, fiercely loyal and unwilling to be railroaded -- just like Boyd and Raylan.

Because Raylan doesn't really know what to do with his life, I never quite know what 'Justified' will do next. I can't think of a better justification for continuing to tune in.


Note: The preview clip below is a little spoilery regarding Wednesday's episode.




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Joan

Seems I'm all alone in this: I find Mags sinister and repulsive. When her mask slips, Mags is cold, selfish, calculating, smug. Margo Martindale is just fantastic in portraying her, able to slip in and out of the mask of folksy matriarch, showing us the sullen, venal brute beneath that surface. My dear folks would have called "ole Mags" for the bitin' sow she really is. By the way--what a genius bit of casting, hair-trigger Coover actually looks like her more than the other two brothers, and Dickie mimics her false bonhommie (sp?) Love this show, it is just wonderful. It reminds me in a lot of ways of the "Jesse Stone" tv movies that Tom Selleck has done for some years now--also a top drawer novel adaptation.

April 26 2011 at 1:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
DR

Agreed on the overall excellence of the show, but I can't say that it's never become overwrought or unbelievable. The whole subplot with Winona stealing the money was "Landry kills a guy" unbelievable, from a character point of view.

April 07 2011 at 1:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to DR's comment
Joan

I didn't like the evidence theft plot either, except for one important thing: it shows why Winona really dumped Raylan, not the reason she told herself about his dangerous job, blah blah. Winona's a showboat, a lightweight, and very materialistic. She thought that oily tacky charlatan second husband was a freaking step up from Raylan. Law enforcement isn't usually highly paid, is it?

April 26 2011 at 1:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Skinny Black Girl

I haven't LOVED Justified this season. I had high hopes for Raylan/Winona's reunion and am disappointed with the direction its taken. It's starting to become more and more obvious why they divorced to begin with. Winona's a bit of a...well..bitch. I don't recall her being so whiny and irrational last season either, but whatever.

However, when the focus is away from Winona, things improve. I do love the quirky Bonnie/Clyde dynamic of Ava and Boyd. I commented on my own blog that I almost see them as a younger version of Helen and Arlo. Mag Bennett is an incredible character. She won me over in the season premiere. All of that chilling sinister charisma is just awesome. Last week's episode was good, so I look forward to seeing what happens tonight.

Great write up, Mo!

April 06 2011 at 3:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Skinny Black Girl's comment
cgeye

I just don't trust her taste in men other than Raylan. A real estate agent/scam artist? Really? If she had a decent sense about money before, she lost it living that craazy life with the trappings of success. The theft of one bill was like, OK, what is it to be bad -- but the whole thing? AND going to a bank to check it, when if they found it as counterfeit means her getting grilled by the Feds? It's like she had a nonsense seizure, which I could even forgive, until she pulled Raylan into it. WTF?

I worry about her playing coy, after Raylan saved her ass. I know, I know, she could be going through something heavy connected to her other husband, and women shouldn't be the appendages of Raylan's plot, but that's how they're writing this, and it kinda sux.

Last night's episode rocked to the proportion Winona wasn't it, and that's: Sad.

April 07 2011 at 3:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Melanie Egan

Phenomenal second season.

April 06 2011 at 1:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Brandon

Dear Maureen,
I don't know how you will take this, but you are one of the few writers I still enjoying reading on this site. That being said, I would love for you write on Justified every week. I know we have only 4 episodes left, but I hope that's not too much to ask. I'd rather read about Justified, and shows like it, than countless reality shows and reality stars crying for attention. Thank you.
Brandon

April 05 2011 at 10:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
JT

While I still pine away for my beloved Deadwood, seeing Bullock..I mean Givens has made Justified a great substitute.

April 05 2011 at 7:50 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Pseudo 6-Man

I've been looking forward to this episode from the second last week's ended. Justified has done such a wonderful job developing each and every character with Raylan, Boyd and Mags being just the tip of the iceberg. That's what makes me confident that the show will remain strong with or without Mags, there is no reason to believe that the next villain wouldn't be similarly deep and impressive. Still I'm going to enjoy every minute of screen-time that Margo Martindale gets, it is rare that a show gets a villain who is that interesting. Now I can't wait for tomorrow so I can see what goes down at the big ‘ole whoop-tee-do.

http://pseudo6man.blogspot.com/

April 05 2011 at 7:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Alex99

As good as this show is, it warrants a weekly recap. I wonder why it doesn't get one?

April 05 2011 at 6:09 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
buster44

Justified has been so good this season that it has almost mended my "Terriers" broken heart....almost......

April 05 2011 at 4:26 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to buster44's comment
George Otwori

I agree this show will never be TERRIERS. I keep Rewatching the whole season each month and still I keep finding big nuggets of great moment i missed. Justified at times for me is a struggle to watch being that i'm an elmore leonard fan. The only that feel like his work in this show with the exception of scenes strips from his novel is the dialogue. So I'm hoping for a payoff the size of Terriers did in its last two episodes.

April 08 2011 at 12:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joan

Yup, Terriers was awesome--Rockford Files for the 21st Century. Donal Logue shows how it's done: busted up, climbing back, loving and letting go of an ex, and a whole lot more scary than Jim Rockford. Yes, Justified is my Terriers rebound, too!

April 26 2011 at 1:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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