“Justified” enters its fourth season firmly entrenched as one of the best dramas on television. Three solid seasons — particularly the powerful second season and the wild ride of Season 3 — signal that the series based on Elmore Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole” has the depth and breadth to keep audiences on the edge of their seats for years to come.
Showrunner Graham Yost (and Leonard as executive producer) deserves a lot of credit for building a sprawling sandbox within the rural lands of Harlan County for these fascinating characters to play in. Each season of “Justified” has largely been a self-contained confrontation between U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant at his best) and a big bad, with ancillary criminal elements on the edges. But the character development of Raylan, Boyd Crowder (the incomparable Walton Goggins), Ava (Joelle Carter) and Chief Deputy Art Mullen (Nick Searcy) rewards viewers who’ve been with “Justified” since the beginning … and who’re surely in it for the long haul.
Season 4 opens with a flashback to 30 years ago. A man falls out of the sky, dead with a big bag of cocaine. As the first two episodes progress clues about this season-long mystery, and how it relates to Raylan’s career criminal father Arlo (Raymond J. Barry), are parceled out. It begins with Arlo’s house getting broken into — while serving a jail sentence for killing a state trooper last season. Raylan is called in by a constable and old friend he’s hired to watch over the empty property. Played by Patton Oswalt, Constable Bob is another addition to the show’s amazing stable of recurring guest stars. Oswalt is quite good in his introduction and should be a lot of fun throughout the season.
While Raylan is dealing with his father’s indiscretions (and taking a side job on top of his Marshall duties), Boyd is having trouble maintaining his criminal hold over Harlan. His drug sales are down due to Preacher Billy (Joseph Mazzello), a Pentecostal preacher who’s made “saving” Harlan’s lost souls his new mission. Boyd doesn’t buy the snake-handling preacher’s benevolence, but it really doesn’t matter. He’s a threat regardless of motivations.
“Justified” is playing this season’s villains (and their plans) close to the vest, as usual. Preacher Billy is surely not what he seems, but his true reasons for coming to Harlan remain unclear. It’s part of the reason I’m a little blasé toward the character. The other being I found Mazzello’s performance (intentionally?) bland, especially in scenes with Goggins’ Boyd. Then again, it’s hard to match Boyd’s speechifying facilities.
While I wanted more from Preacher Billy — mainly in terms of charisma, but also background — Arlo’s caginess is quite welcome. “Justified” is at the top of its game when Raylan is trying to see the angles in Arlo’s machinations. And since we’ve gotten to know Arlo — unlike Preacher Billy — it’s easier to accept the urgency of this plot and how it could be more perilous for Raylan than he expects.
While both Raylan and Boyd have fought a number of battles, they both seem world-weary facing these new conflicts. Preacher Billy can’t match the force of Boyd and his criminal prowess. But Boyd has had an on-and-off relationship with faith, so this could be taking a psychological toll. For Raylan, this is just another in a long line of Arlo’s transgressions. Still, Raylan is about to be a father himself. And being exposed to this type of father figure all his life surely casts doubts about his own abilities to raise a youngin’.
“Justified” is also — as usual — juggling a number of subplots. Raylan’s personal life is as complicated as ever; a new love interest and a baby on the way with his estranged wife. An unpredictable old friend of Boyd’s comes to town. And Wynn Duffy (the amazing Jere Burns) is still lurking in the background. The show’s B-plots don’t always carry as much punch as the main arcs, but are very solid as intermittent placeholders. How all the storylines come together will determine the success of Season 4. Thankfully, each season Yost and his writers have shown ample skill for creating momentum through the various plots and characters that build to an exhilarating and earned conclusion.
10 p.m. Tuesdays on FX