One of my favorite shows, “Justified,” returned for a third season last night with one of the strongest season premieres I can remember.
The FX drama, the story of deputy U.S. marshal Raylan Givens as he deals with drug dealers, killers and other lowlifes in his home state of Kentucky, ended a strong season two with Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) getting shot as he brought down the criminal empire of Ma Barker-ish Mags Bennett. Last night’s premiere began with Raylan still recovering from gunshot wounds and on desk duty.
Raylan, as droll and funny as he is sharp-eyed and dangerous, is more than a little rusty, but he’s willing to engage in a brawl, at the U.S. marshals office, with Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), his longtime friend and antagonist.
Boyd shows up and gives Raylan grief about how the deputy marshal didn’t turn over to Boyd’s homicidal care Dickie Bennett, son of Mags Bennett, who had shot Ava (Joelle Carter), Boyd’s girlfriend (who also has a thing for Raylan).
Punches are thrown, windows are broken and Boyd is carted off to jail. But why would he want to be incarcerated? We find out at the end of the episode.
Meanwhile, Ava and Boyd’s meth-head crew try to find a buyer for the marijuana they stole from Mags Bennett but discover they’ve screwed up and it’s next to worthless. This leads to a good scene in which Ava administers some frying pan discipline to a gang member who refused to obey the jailed Boyd’s orders.
And also meanwhile, Raylan considers setting up housekeeping with his ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea), who is pregnant. Throughout the episode, Raylan doubts himself and underperforms. Getting shot took a lot out of him, and even though he handles a new menace at the end of the episode, you have to wonder if his crisis of confidence will continue.
There’s fresh bad guys this season in Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough, a familiar face from many TV series as well as the “Captain America” movie), a super-smooth and lethal killer who is new to Kentucky and seems to be ready to take over the Dixie Mafia.
Last night’s “Justified” had some great moments, from the back-and-forth between Raylan and Boyd to the cool menace of Quarles to the wry observations of Nick Searcy as Art Mullen, Raylan’s boss.
It’s still very early in the season, and Mags Bennett and her addled brood made strong villains last season, maybe too strong for any successors to possibly top. But I’m wondering if Quarles and company — not to mention Boyd, Ava, Winona and the rest — won’t give a shaken Raylan his greatest challenge yet this year.