‘Justified’ – ‘The Moonshine War’: Get off the pot

“Justified” is back for another season of gun-slinging and terse banter. Last week, I published interviews with Natalie Zea and Walton Goggins (the latter I strongly recommend, particularly if you also loved “The Shield”), earlier today I posted my general review of the start of season two, and now I have some specific thoughts on the premiere coming up just as soon as I sit facing the door…

“I don’t know why they give us guns.” -Raylan

The complaints about the early part of “Justified” season one had less to do with execution than ambition. A number of those standalone episodes were quite good (the dentist episode was, outside of the pilot, the closest the show came to a pure distillation of Elmore Leonard), but in reading your comments there was often a sense of, “Is that really all they’re going to do?” By the time we met Arlo, Boyd and Bo got out of prison, etc., the series became more complicated and simply richer than those early episodes, and it seems like Graham Yost and company have learned that lesson well.

“The Moonshine War”(*) did not lack for ambition. It starts with an extended coda to the season one finale (including the return of Matt Craven as Raylan’s boss from the pilot episode), introduces our new big bad in Mags Bennett and her three sons, provides a relatively standalone story involving the creepy sex offender with three first names, and puts Boyd in a very interesting place(**) to cope with what happened to his daddy and his flock at the end of last season.

(*) Named after an old Leonard book, and with a story credit to Leonard himself, who’s going to be telling his own version of this season’s big story arc in an upcoming Raylan Givens novel.

(**) I ommitted some parts of the Goggins interview in that transcript because he kept turning the discussion around to things I had seen in the first three episodes. When the subject of Boyd’s new/old profession came up at the end of our discussion of how Boyd’s voice and posture keep changing, Goggins said, “It”s like Boyd Crowder went to not the bottom of a well, he went to a bottom of a mine. He had to go someplace that kind of reflected where he was personally. And it”s like his 40 days and 40 nights in the desert. And he”s just in a spiritual turmoil. And he doesn”t really understand any of it. He”s just trying to be known. He”s looking for nothing and that”s dangerous. So his voice would reflect that.”

That’s a lot to squeeze into 40-plus minutes, but it all works comfortably together, along with more of Raylan’s ongoing struggle to find ways not to kill people – not so much because he thinks it’s wrong, but because the events of last season convinced him that it’s a giant hassle most of the time.

The sex offender plot gave Raylan a specific problem to solve within the context of the hour, and also an opportunity for him to do his usual wry Dirty Harry thing – “I’m going to ask you one question: do you know how a firearm works?” – but unsurprisingly the hour’s most memorable parts involved this year’s new villains.

How freaking fantastic is Margo Martindale as Mags? She’s so aw shucks backwoods gal, even as Raylan keeps pointing out what an influential criminal she is, that it’s startling to get that moment in her final scene where Walt realizes Mags has poisoned him. And even there, it’s not like Mags suddenly turns eeeeevil – she’s still being all mother hen, but her matter-of-factness about the poison, including her plan to raise the girl herself, actually makes the whole thing more chilling. I can’t wait to see more of her, and of Jeremy Davies, Brad Henke and Joseph Lyle Taylor as Mags’ troublemaking sons.(***)

(***) I like that the eldest son is a cop in Harlan. Seems that every time Raylan thinks he’s cleaned up that department, there’s some new crook with a badge.

Ava only appears briefly in the “Bulletville” aftermath sequence, but we get a good bit of Winona at the episode’s end, as she and Raylan can’t help falling back in bed together yet again. If Natalie Zea’s going to be a part of the show, then I’m glad they’re actually using her, as opposed to early last year where she barely seemed present at all. I’m not sure I necessarily prefer Raylan with Ava or Winona – or with either one, since the character is fundamentally a loner – but I do like Zea, and the way that Winona knows Raylan well enough to talk to him in ways that other characters won’t.

A very strong return for one of last year’s best new shows.

What did everybody else think?