Man, I've had barely any time to write lately, but I've been dyin' to talk about one of the best dramatic series on TV and how it wrapped up last week in spectacular fashion.
So, let's talk JUSTIFIED. Justified has been such a great, unique show over the course of its two seasons. For much of Season 1, the show flailed around a little bit, trying to find its legs. Was the show a case-of-the-week crime show, or was it something bigger - an epic, modern take on the Western, with a number of serialized plotlines slowly but surely building in intensity week in and week out. Luckily for fans of great TV, Justified embraced the latter style of storytelling, and quickly became one of the best serialized dramas on TV. Sure, the show kept some more self-contained episodes in the mix - but it was the overarching storylines that made the show a must-watch.
In Season 2, Justified brilliantly embraced the possibilities of long-form storytelling - and the payoff to a season's worth of build-up was evident in the finale. In fact, rarely have we seen such neatly-designed, well-bookended storytelling on television. When I think back at how the season started, and the way it ended, and the parallels between those opening and closing chapters - you can't help but appreciate the care, the planning, and the attention to detail that went into the crafting of this season.
Because while Season 2 delved deeper into the heart and history of Raylan Givens, it also set up its own new, self-contained arc, that being the rise and fall of the Bennett clan. In that first episode of Season 2, we met the character who would become one of the great and unlikely villains on TV - Mags Bennett - brilliantly played by Margo Martindale (if she doesn't get nominated for / win an Emmy for this role, it will be a crime). Mags was a big, mean, grizzled, terrifying woman. And yet she had that motherly/grandmotherly side that was always eager to sit you down for a hot slice of apple pie (though watch out, there was a 50/50 chance that the pie is poisoned). That kinder and gentler side of Mags was clear when we saw her interact with Loretta - a hard-nosed teenage girl who Mags takes under her wing after murdering her father - a rival in the drug trade - in the season premiere. For much of the season, Loretta doesn't realize that Mags and her boys (loose-cannon trailer-trash rednecks Dickie and Coover, and corrupt cop Doyle) were responsible for her father's death. But again, here is where Justified played out the arc so well from premiere to finale - with Loretta proving to be the x-factor that helped bring about the downfall of the once-proud Bennetts.
Really, Season 2 saw Justified create a much larger universe for Raylan to live in, with Harlan County becoming a living, breathing place filled with oddballs, criminals, rednecks, and runaways. After Season 1, the Crowder clan was mostly dismantled, but Boyd Crowder - played as awesomely as ever by the great Walton Goggins - was still lurking in the background, trying to figure out if he should go legit or give in to his criminal instincts. When you have as great a character as Boyd, you don't want to relegate him to a bit player. So eventually, Boyd became an integral part of the ongoing drama, setting up a three-way-dance of sorts between the fueding Crowder, Bennett, and Givens families. Of course, Arlo Givens, Raylan's scrappy, old, and crazy dad was back in Season 2 - and though he was crazier and more over-the-top than ever, his relationship with his wife Helen gave the season some of its most unexpected heart and soul and sadness.
We also got a bit more of an in-depth look at Raylan's co-workers at the US Marshall's office. In particular, his father-son relationship with his boss, Art - who had some real standout moments in S2. The dialogue between Art and Raylan is always a huge highlight of Justified, and it will be interesting to see how many indiscretions and off-the-book southern justice Art can tolerate before he severs his ties and breaks his loyalty to Raylan. Already, there relationship has been strained thanks to a number of factors - Raylan's ex-wife Winona, for one, who took center stage this season. Winona got back together with Raylan - sort of. But she also involved him in a highly dangerous robbery scheme and in the machinations of her asshole *other* ex-husband, Gary.
Winona was definitely an interesting character in S2, taking on a shadier, more femme fatale vibe than in S1, where we really sort of rooted for her and Raylan to get back together. And if there's one development in the S2 finale that seemed a bit suspect, it's the revelation that she is apparently pregnant with Raylan's baby. Now, I don't think anyone wants to see the adventures of Raylan Givens: Stay at Home Dad ... so I'm curious how this storyline will play out in S3. I can't imagine a standard pregnancy storyline working for this show, so I wonder if a.) Winona is lying about Raylan being the father, b.) something will go wrong with the pregnancy, or b.) something will happen that will take Winona - and her baby - out of Raylan's life on a semi-permanent basis. As it stands though, this was probably the one area of the episode that felt a little cheesy. That said, there are definitely some interesting possibilities that could stem from this reveal.
At the end of the day, you have to give so much credit to Timothy Olyphant for what he brings to Raylan. For me, I think the thing that changed the way I looked at Raylan was in S1, when Winona said that he was "the angriest person" she knows. Olyphant often projects a cool, almost detached demeanor - but when you look at Raylan as a guy who has a lot of rage boiling up beneath that cool exterior, that makes him even more interesting. Olyphant had a ton of great moments in S2, and we saw a lot of sides of the character. Most notably, we saw the conflict between the part of Raylan that belongs in Harlan - the country boy, the hometown kid done well, the one guy who can clean up Harlan - and the part of him that longs to get out and escape. Raylan is a character that can sort of move between worlds - but I don't know that Justified would work if the setting changed to a big city or something. Maybe it could. But for now, I hope the show finds a sensible way to keep Raylan planted in Harlan, complete with feuding rednecks, backwards-ass criminals, and scary, trailer-trash dirtbags as his main antagonists.
In any case, the S2 finale of Justified was just plain badass. The final fate of Mags Bennett was cathartic but also heart-stopping. It's a shame that Margo Martindale is now off the show, but her character reached such heights mid-season that I guess it was only fitting for her to also reach the lowest of low-points by season's end. But man, I still think the high point of the season was that episode where Black Pike held a town hall meeting for all the citizens of Harlan. When Mags got up to make her big, anti-mining-company speech, and invited everyone at the meeting to attend her own home-spun party, her "whoop-de-doo", it was just awesome. Martindale was like a freaking force of nature in that scene. In any case, it's been just a pleasure watching her on Justified this season. I wasn't sure how they could top Bo Crowder from S1 in terms of a new Big Bad, but somehow, they did in the form of Mags Bennett. And it wasn't just Mags - Dickie (an always-awesome Jeremy Davies), Coover, and Doyle - an awesome group of villains. And the growing tension, as Loretta went out to avenge her father, and that final confrontation with Loretta and Mags and Raylan - just awesome, intense, superlative stuff. As always, bullets flew and blood was spilled ... but it was those little moments that made it all work. When Raylan asked Loretta what her father would have her do (as Loretta held a gun to a vulnerable Mags), and Loretta, with tears flowing, said how she wished her father was there to tell her - that was just one hell of a moment. Similarly, the Dickie vs. Raylan confrontations, with Dickie stringing Raylan up like a pinata and going to town, were pretty brutal and intense. When Doyle ultimately had Raylan lined up in his sights, saying that he'd been saving a bullet for Raylan for twenty years ... well, that right there was the culmination of a season's worth of kickass storytelling and plotting. Luckily for Raylan, Art, Tim, and the rest of the cavalry was there to save the day and save Raylan by the skin of his teeth.
I can't wait to see where a Season 3 of Justified will take things. But I think that, with Season 3, the show has firmly entrenched itself as one of the absolute best on TV. Awesome characters, a steadily unfolding and expanding storyline / universe, and one of TV's most badass central characters. More, please.
S2 Finale Grade: A-