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The Gunslinger Returns: An Advance Review of Season Two of FX's Justified

Lawman Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is back with a bang as the gripping second season of FX's taut drama series Justified kicks off tonight.

In the time since we last caught up with the beleaguered Raylan, this taut series hasn't lost any of its luster or its off-kilter nature. Season Two, which launches tonight, begins with "The Moonshine War," which picks up exactly where we left off at the end of last season as Raylan, Boyd (Walton Goggins), and Ava (Joelle Carter) attempted to fend off fire from the Miami drug cartel's hitmen.

The action picks up moments later to reveal just how the three manage to live to tell the tale. But rather than sweep last season's plotlines under the rug, there are consequences to the shootout in Bulletville and to Raylan professionally. Will he be held accountable for the death of Bo Crowder? Will he stay in Harlan or return to Miami? Will he choose his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) or Ava? Will Boyd choose the path of vengeance or of godliness?

Fortunately for us, these questions loom over the action of the electric second season, which effortlessly sets up new adversaries for Raylan and the U.S. Marshal Service in the Bennetts, a Harlan County clan of pot growers who rule the county with an iron first.

Or make that an iron fist in a metaphorical velvet glove.

Heading up this operating is Mags Bennett, the matriarch of the clan, played to perfection by Margo Martindale, who plays Mags as a combination of feudal lord and tough-love matron. Her front might be the rundown local store that . operates while cooking up some mean moonshine (or as she calls it "apple pie," 180-proof, cut with some cider, cinnamon, and vanilla for good measure). Mags is ruthless, duplicitous, and above all else, dangerous.

There's also some bad blood between the Bennetts and the Givenses, a fact that's hinted at in the early episodes. Whatever passed between Mags and Arlo has the potential to ignite once again, especially as the vacuum of power left by Bo's death means that someone will likely try to step in to fill his criminal shoes in Harlan. Not a good thing, considering the amount of bloodshed that the Crowders brought to the table.

Mags isn't in this business alone. While she remains, um, distant from the sort of blood-letting that her particular operation entails, Mags isn't above getting her hands dirty when needs must, as we see in the season opener. But she's also the kind of woman who has the reputation for "helping" the locals with their glaucoma troubles. Her enforcers are her sons, played ably by Lost's Jeremy Davies, Brad William Henke, and Joseph Lyle Taylor, the latter of which plays Doyle, a local sheriff as crooked as they come. (Special praise is due for Davies, whose limping, conniving, sadistic Dickie Bennett is a nasty piece of work. This is a gripping portrayal miles away from the endearing genius of Daniel Faraday and there's a wounded animal nature to Dickie's savagery.)

While I don't want to spoil too much, I will say to keep your eyes open for Kaitlin Dever's Loretta McCrady, one of the most spirited and clever character to appear on Justified. Following in the footsteps of the characters played by Winter's Bone's Jennifer Lawrence and True Grit's Hallie Steinfeld, Loretta is another kick-ass teenage girl who doesn't suffer fools gladly and is more than capable of making her way through this world alone. When her father (the always fantastic Chris Mulkey) vanishes, she's taken under Mags' wing. But this girl knows how to fight her way out of a tough situation and something tells me that Mags may have underestimated this pint-sized brawler. (Witness the way in "The Moonshine War" that she takes out the triple-named sex offender harassing her in the grow shed and you'll see what I mean.)

And then there's Boyd Crowder who has one hell of a transformation at the very tail end of the third episode that must be seen to be believed. Boyd ends up in a profession very much suited to his, uh, unique skill set but one can't help but feel that he's looking backward instead of looking forward. With Raylan watching his every move with as much intensity as Boyd's new-found god, something has got to give before long. And once you reawaken that dragon, there will be hell to pay.

All in all, Justified returns with its swagger, precision, and character intact in its second season. Olyphant is once again at the top of his game with a character that he was born to play and the thwarted friendship between Raylan and Boyd remains at the heart of this crime drama. This is an Elmore Leonard-ian drama with all of the quirkiness, violence, and memorable characters that such a description entails. Season Two, off to an electrifying start in the three episodes provided to press for review, promises to delve even deeper into the mindsets of the characters in Lexington and Harlan as the tension mounts for what's likely to be a major brawl between the Marshal Service and those Bennetts. Me, I just can't wait for the inevitable explosions.

Season Two of Justified premieres tonight at 10 pm ET/PT on FX.


Unknown said…
This is one of the best shows on television. Top notch acting and stories. I'm looking forward to another great season.
Hadley said…
So happy that Justified is back and happy that season two started with a bang (heh, heh). Love Mags and her sons (hurray for Jeremy Davies!) and can't wait to see where their storyline goes.

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