For a show that seemingly began as a series focused on the exploits of Raylan Givens (the impossibly charming Timothy Olyphant), a womanizing, trigger-happy lawman returning to his post as a U.S. marshal in his Kentucky hometown, Justified, in its captivating and deeply compelling second season, offered up not one, but nearly a half-dozen of the most well-written, brilliantly inhabited and complex female characters on television. In most conversations, the talk inevitably centers on Mags Bennett, the charming yet brutal momma bear of the homegrown, villainous Bennett clan, who become the largest thorn in Raylan's side as the season progresses. There's good reason: Margo Martindale's hypnotic, terrifying, and startlingly human portrayal of a powerful backwoods queen exiting her kingdom was, for me, one of the great pleasures of watching television in 2011.
Martindale's weed-growin', moonshine-makin' mother superior is far from the only memorable female character the show introduced. In fact, after the final remnants of the first season are momentarily put to bed in season opener “The Moonshine War,” the second season's main storyline is kicked off by the appearance of Loretta (a strong Kaitlyn Dever), a precocious 14-year-old whose father runs a grow house for the Bennetts. It's a tragic truth, however, that the Bennetts are a nervy bunch, and by the end of the first episode Loretta's father drinks up a poisoned jam jar's worth of Mags's famous moonshine. Having already birthed two merciless criminals (Jeremy Davies's Dickie and Brad William Henke's Coover) and one crooked cop (Joseph Lyle Taylor's Doyle), Mags takes her role as mother figure to Loretta as nothing short of a consolation chance at redemption.
The congenial war between the Bennett clan and Raylan is the strongest storyline in a densely plotted season, climaxing with the entrance of Black Pike, a billion-dollar mining company that seeks to buy up the land around their biggest Harlan County mine, sending Rebecca Creskoff's crimson-haired negotiator to protect and secure their interests. It's a David and Goliath story, but Mags, her kin, and the community aren't the simple, scrubbed-down, God-fearing miners of Barbara Kopple's Harlan County U.S.A. Well, yes, there are a few of those kind-hearted folk too, but the locals are also perverts, aggressive drug consumers, criminals, and murderers. On the other hand, it's telling that the show casts Creskoff's brazenly flirtatious modern businesswoman as the face of Black Pike, and yet the company remains forever shadowy and unknowable.
The discrepancies between occupations and passions, and sometimes the lack of said void, are of particular interest in Justified, beginning with how Raylan's passion for personal justice figures into his position as an agent of public justice. (An extension of this can be seen in his condemnation and abandonment of his aging crook of a father, played by Raymond J. Barry, and his struggling relationship with his father-figure-cum-boss, Art, very well played by Nick Searcy.) Indeed, Justified could even be labeled a coming-of-age saga, as Raylan seems to be growing out of his idealized vision of himself as Wyatt Earp, a cowboy with the hat and boots to match, into a man in service to the law, able to contemplate settling down with his ex, Winona (Natalie Zea), and give his beloved Aunt Helen (a very good Linda Gehringer) some peace of mind.
The only thing that seems to be truly blocking Raylan's maturation is his complex and genuinely enthralling relationship with Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins in a breakthrough performance), his childhood friend who has since grown into a deceptively becalmed and cunning criminal. Boyd and Raylan are two sides of the same coin: Whereas Raylan's slow, uphill push toward adulthood seems to be heading toward its climax, Boyd is unable to settle his demons, even with his dead brother's widow (and Raylan's ex-lover), Ava (Joelle Carter), by his side. Raylan and Boyd are unable to shake one another, not helped by Boyd's part-time stint as a bodyguard for Creskoff's negotiator, nor Raylan's inability to quell his suspicions about Boyd's doings, even when he's completely clean. If the Bennetts constitute Raylan's most immediate antagonists, Boyd is something like his Professor Moriarty, though with a down-home twang and a propensity for homemade explosives.
Boyd's presence grows in menace as the season proceeds, but they find themselves with similar goals by the end, or at least similar immediate goals, namely the eradication of the Bennett clan. This rivalry—Creskoff's negotiator knowingly and correctly surmises it as a “love story”—makes for high entertainment, but series creator Graham Yost, working with a gaggle of talented writers and directors, not to mention producer and source-material author Elmore Leonard, looks toward the bigger themes of classic westerns, though admittedly more in the vein of Clint Eastwood than John Ford. Community, in this season more than the first, is a cumbersome facet, not only in terms of the Bennett clan and their place as community leaders in Harlan County, but in Raylan's office and in the gathering of lowlifes Boyd takes under wing. For Mags, the betrayal of community, however, is nothing compared to her betrayal of family or, in the case of Loretta, perceived family, and her attempts to atone for the way she's led her boys astray spur grim ends. If nothing else, Justified boasts a superior ability to detail the need to outgrow your roots and the dangers of abandoning them completely.
A great deal of Justified details the differences between the hilly rural area and the suburban area of Kentucky (though the series was largely shot in Pennsylvania and California) and Sony's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of the show's second season highlights these differences lovingly. Textures and colors are astonishing, especially when it comes to the interiors and exteriors of the various homes and hovels that the Bennetts inhabit. Denim and flannel, ragged wood and rusted metal, weathered aged faces and youthful visages—everything looks clear and crisp. Black levels suffer a bit, but they aren't distractingly bad, and the few instances of noise and banding are similarly ignorable. The audio is similarly very good, though by no means flawless. On occasion, dialogue is momentarily overtaken by crisp sound effects (such as gunshots) and music, though for the most part the mix keeps dialogue clear and out front while the rest stays on the low end. Overall, this is a strong, admirable transfer.
The deleted scenes and outtakes here are enjoyable enough, but none of the deleted scenes lend much insight into how the show's storylines are built and streamlined. There's some solid, interesting stuff being talked about in terms of casting in the "Clans, Feuds and Apple Pie" featurette, and the roundtable discussion will likely hold your attention despite it not being all that helpful in giving any unique ideas about how the producers and creators look at production or post-production. Sadly, the on-set featurette is almost completely useless. BD-Live and previews are also included.
Sony handles the second season of FX's exemplary neo-western series beautifully in terms of technical transfer, but skimp out on anything resembling an insightful extra.