As I wrote when putting it in my top 10 list of best shows from last year, Justified’s approach to storytelling is old hat at this point. The first half of every season is mostly made up of one-off, case of the week episodes that pepper in the overarching seasonal plot throughout. The back-end then slowly shifts the balance, and by the last few episodes, Raylan Givens’ collision course with the heavies floating around the fringes of Harlan County comes into sharp focus. It’s a structure that a lot of basic cable dramas follow, placing the narrative requirements of each episode somewhere between the procedural comfort of network TV, and the meticulous, novelistic planning of HBO.
It makes for a delicate operation, wherein the writers are building a house of cards out of a deck they made themselves. The real trick is in how deftly you weave the far-reaching groundwork into each standalone episode, making the ultimate payoff both unexpected, and well supported given the buildup. At its best, you get something like Terriers, which mastered the chemistry beautifully during its one, and only season; at its worst, you get season six of Dexter, where everybody figured out the late game twist three episodes in, and no one had any fun afterwards.
What separates Justified from a lot of shows that use this playbook, is that it’s figured out ways of experimenting from within the confines of a familiar structure. Four seasons in, what could be (crudely) described as a cops’n’robbers show, is still one of the most unpredictable, yet reliably great things on TV. Sure, every season Raylan faces down a different faction vying for control of Harlan’s drug trade, and the drug of choice seems to change with the players, but the subtle tweaks each year create a distinctive feel. Season one introduced us to the show’s take on the formula, and season two tuned it to perfection. Season three saw the show stretching its legs creatively, seeing how many factors could be thrown into the melting pot. It occasionally came close to spoiling the stew as a whole, but the ingredients themselves were still delectable.
Season four continues Justified’s trend of playing around with the rules, but only one episode in, it already looks like we’ve got a fantastic year ahead of us. The show has grown Harlan County into a rich, unique setting, but the more engrossing each new nook and element is, the odder its sudden introduction into the tapestry can feel. Taking that concern to a comical extreme, the premiere opens with a new plot literally falling out of the clear blue sky, as a little corner of Kentucky suburbia, circa 1983, gets a surprise visitor. “It sure as shit ain’t Santa Clause,” remarks a stunned, hen-pecked husband, staring at a drug-packing parachutists, who’s load, bones, and brains have spilled out onto the street, following a hard landing. D.B. Cooper, this guy wasn’t.
What does that have to do with present day Raylan? Not much, initially. He’s too busy taking on odd jobs for old (intimate) friends, this week chasing down a state line-crossing con. Like the parachutist, the fugitive is something of a failed imitator, as he forgot that Omar Little’s rule number one for sticking up heroine dealers is to not get caught. Among the show’s most valuable strengths has been its ability to flesh out the person Raylan’s chasing, from a target into a character, in record time. This week was no different, both for the bounty, and the pair of teens that make Raylan’s quick cash-grab more complicated than it initially seems. After busting open a titular hole in the wall at the vacant Givens family home, the two happen upon a marked bag that we saw in the flashback.
The teens are chased off by the arrival of Constable Bob Sweeney, who is already my favorite new addition, and not just because he’s played by Patton Oswalt, and-how-weird-is-that? Taking one of the most authentic voices of geek comedy and sticking him into an Elmore Leonard novel was an inspired bit of casting, but its complemented by even more inspired characterization that has Oswalt playing more strongly against type than usual. It’d be easy to make Sweeney the bumbling Robin to Raylan’s Batman, and to an extent he is. Police lights can’t make a rickety station wagon anymore authoritative than it first appears, and his pocketknife looks awfully inadequate compared to Raylan’s Glock, no matter how quick on the pull he is.
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