Justified is such a fleet and enjoyable series that it's easy to overlook its cleverness and ambition. Over the course of three seasons, creator Graham Yost and company have expanded on author Elmore Leonard's source material to tell the story of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens's (Timothy Olyphant) escalating war with a variety of criminal factions over control of Harlan County, Kentucky, while gradually deepening and varying both the thematic implications and the narrative structure. Justified has, so far, avoided the "more of the same" stasis that can infect long-running shows because each season manages to be slightly less distinctive from the last.
The fourth season's first couple of episodes imply that Yost and his team are combining the narrative structures of the first two seasons: a crime-of-the-week procedural folded into a guiding season-long arc. The season premiere opens, jarringly, with a flashback that shows a man in a parachute falling to his death in a suburb on Christmas Day 30 years ago. The importance of that fall, and of the bag in the man's possession that manages to get walled up in Raylan's father Arlo's (Raymond J. Barry) decrepit old house in the present day, is the mystery that appears to drive the plot that will presumably unite the season's smaller self-contained stories.
From there, the episode unfolds in a series of crisp, sharp vignettes that are graceful reminders of everyone's whereabouts while introducing new sidekicks, babes, and baddies. Raylan has taken up with the gorgeous owner of the bar he lives above, and he's moonlighting illegally as a bounty hunter to scrape up more cash in preparation for the child he's expecting with his once-again-estranged former wife. The pursuit of one such bounty is the superficial narrative concern of the episode, but it mostly exists to allow Raylan to discover that hidden bag and to introduce us to Constable Bob Sweeney (Patton Oswalt), a childhood friend of Raylan's who's revealed, in the tradition of the series, to be capable of both grand egocentric idiocy and vicious cunning.
Raylan soon teams up with his long beleaguered boss, Chief Deputy Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), to track down a person who may or may not be involved with Arlo's bag, but again this is mostly a superficial bait and switch that exists as a framework to highlight a promising array of new villains: Preacher Billy (Joe Mazzello) and his wife, Cassie (Lindsay Pulsipher), who may be using a traveling tent show to horn in on Boyd Crowder's (Walton Goggins) enterprises, which enticingly suggests the potential for a showdown that could pointedly play on Boyd's own discarded past as a hypocritical born-again Christian; Colton Rhodes (Ron Eldard), a former military police operative recruited as Wade's new right hand; and Randall Kusik (Robert Baker), a brutal bare-knuckle brawler who has a closer relationship to Raylan than he knows.
This season may be heading toward a decisive reckoning between Raylan and Arlo, which might, perhaps, reveal Justified's grand design to be rooted in a son coming to terms with his father's unchecked avarice. Raylan's cocksureness has always been undercut by an implication of self-loathing (it's why a man this polished and handsome passes, still miraculously, as an everyman), and the series has gradually inched Raylan closer to the explicit acknowledgement that he courts the trouble with which he frequently finds himself embroiled. The show's dark humor lies in the subtle assertion that the essential peevishness of Raylan's torment mirrors the frequent absurdity of the varying crooks' pursuits. Justified presents a hall of mirrors of self-delusion and self-entitlement—a comedy of errors in which a number of self-consciously aspiring movers and shakers can't see beyond the tip of their penis or the handle of the suitcase holding a whole lotta dough.
The writers dole out all of this exposition in such a short period of time with confidence and panache. By this point the actors have a familiarity and chemistry with one another that grounds the more outlandish conceits in a humanist reality. Raylan, though the lead, could've been a thanklessly dull compass to guide viewers through the more interesting eccentrics, but Olyphant has a humility and sense of humor that distinguishes him from many of pop-culture's stoic or self-consciously studly lawmen. Goggins, in what's probably the most contrived principal role in the series (that of the razor-sharp psalm-spewing hillbilly mobster), is simply extraordinary—his eyes alive with contempt, outrage, and deceptive tenderness. And the rest of the cast, including Searcy as well as Joelle Carter, Erica Tazel, and Jere Burns, hit succinct character beats that complement a dense and continually evolving work that's essentially a parody of the self-entitlement of the American Dream—a theme, incidentally, that's at the center of almost all of Leonard's writing. Justified is the strongest, liveliest, and most tonally accurate adaptation of the writer's work to date, and the latest season bracingly suggests that isn't likely to change anytime soon.