One of the pleasant surprises of last year’s new crop of cable shows returns with its Elmore Leonard-derived sensibilities intact, along with the obligatory, albeit mostly welcome, sophomore-season additions. When last we saw U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), he had just survived a shootout with the remains of now-deceased crime kingpin Bo Crowder’s gang, as well as a pair of Miami drug runners. The first new episode, “The Moonshine War,” picks up in the immediate aftermath of that firefight, following the departure of Raylan’s once and future friend, white supremacist turned religious convert Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), in pursuit of lone surviving drug runner Pilar (Alexandra Barreto). Boyd’s plan to execute Pilar in retribution for the murder of his father is foiled by Raylan, who rightly points out that Boyd had planned to kill the old man anyway. After delivering Pilar to Miami and tying up some loose ends with both the drug cartel and the authorities there, Raylan returns home to Harlan, Kentucky and Justified gets down to new business.
Raylan’s first new case concerns Jimmy Earl Dean (“Never trust a man with three first names”), a sex offender accused of harassing a teenage girl. It’s a serviceable enough standalone storyline, but its primary function is to introduce us to Dean’s employers, the pot-farming Bennett clan, who figure to be the biggest thorns in Raylan’s side this season. The Bennett brothers—eldest and wisest son Doyle (Joseph Lyle Taylor), twitchy Dickie (Jeremy Davies), and dopey Coover (Brad William Henke)—wouldn’t be much of a match for Raylan if not for their mother Maggs. As played by veteran character actor Margo Martindale, Maggs is perhaps the most malevolent crime-family matriarch to hit the small screen since Livia Soprano. Inspired by real-life “queen of the mountain bootleggers” Maggie Bailey, Maggs makes an immediate first impression by dispatching a potential threat with a lethal brand of apple-pie kindness. The Bennetts are relegated to the background of the next couple of episodes, in which Boyd’s dimwitted lieutenant Dewey Crow makes his less-than-triumphant return. As the crime family angles to fill the void left by Bo Crowder’s death, however, their prominence will likely grow as the season moves along (though Davies, in particular, is a spice best used sparingly).
The first few episodes also find time for old friends, including Nick Searcy as Raylan’s sardonic boss Art Mullen, Natalie Zea as his sultry ex-wife Winona, and Joelle Carter as his on-again, off-again love interest Ava, who finds herself playing host to an unlikely houseguest as the season progresses. Boyd once again claims to have renounced his outlaw ways, though his true motivations are as inscrutable as ever, and it remains to be seen what role he’ll play in the big picture. (Series creator Graham Yost has said that the second season will be more heavily serialized than the first, though the first three episodes are just about perfectly balanced between the macro and micro plots.)
Olyphant remains the straw that stirs the drink. Rayan’s hair-trigger temper may make him an ideal FX Network antihero, but it’s his dry-county wit that solidifies his status as a classic Elmore Leonard character. The author himself evidently agrees, as Leonard is reportedly so taken with Olyphant’s performance that he’s writing a new book simply called Raylan. Justified’s rich vein of gallows humor, convincing sense of place, and twisty hillbilly-noir narratives are all selling points, but it’s Olyphant’s devilish grin that seals the deal.