'Justified' season premiere review: 'Dexter' actor helped launch what may be the best season yet

Justified began its new season on Tuesday night with a sweet episode titled “The Gunfighter” that demonstrated a gratifyingly renewed focus on keeping the storytelling closely aligned with the series’ source material, from novelist Elmore Leonard. And the more Justified hews to lean, Leonardian crime-story plots, the better—stronger, wittier—it becomes.

And so, while the action began a scant three weeks after last season ended, and while there hangs heavily in the air the question of what to do with all that “Bennett weed” that Margo Martindale’s Mags left behind with her death, the best parts of the season premiere involved the show’s best villain — that would of course be Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder — and some new characters.

Chief among the latter is Desperate Housewives’ Neal McDonough as a steely, murderous businessman from Detroit (Elmore Leonard’s homeland) named Quarles. McDonough is a veteran of Justified producer Graham Yost’s fine, underrated series Boomtown, and he’s looking like the season’s new big bad, bursting with false bonhomie and packing a cool retracting pistol up his sleeve. MINOR SPOILER ALERT FOR THE FOLLOWING DETAILS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN TUESDAY’S JUSTIFIED.

Cooler still was Fletcher “Ice Pick” Nix, played by Desmond Harrington: Quinn from Dexter. In a very nice performance utterly unlike anything he does on Dexter, Harrington let his hair get all bed-heady and spoke in a mumble-mouth drawl as he set up his favorite sadistic game: He lays a gun on a table, and has someone count down from 10. At “1,” you’re invited to reach for the gun, but that’s when Ice Pick earns his nickname: He pulls out an ice pick, stabs your hand to the table, picks up the gun, and shoots you.

We saw it work once; then we saw him try it against Raylan.

I was happy to see Natalie Zea so prominent throughout the hour as the now-pregnant Winona, and happier still to see Raylan finally acting kinda-sorta like a grown-up, telling her, “Maybe we should start lookin’ for a house or somethin’.” Indeed you should, Marshal. That woman has put up with too much of your shenanigans to continue visiting you in a motel room. Oh, and I think “Felix” is a lousy name for the baby, Winona — stick to your metaphorical guns on that one.

Everything about this tight little hour locked into place. The opening-scene fight between Raylan and Boyd worked well on its own and set up Boyd’s entrance into jail so that, among other things, he could be near the man he wants revenge upon, Dickie Bennett (a Jeremy Davies who gets more gloriously high-strung-hillbilly with each scene). And Joelle Carter’s Eva, her cold-bloodedness now close to approaching that of her man Boyd, was as firm as a frying pan in her dealings with the creepy Devil (Kevin Rankin, all-time Hall of Famer for Friday Night Lights). I’m really pleased at the way Justified deftly moved Eva away from Raylan as a love interest and is plumbing Carter’s gift for playing meanness these days.

I’ve seen a few more episodes of Justified, and I can tell you, things only get better. Just wait till you meet Mykelti Williamson’s ornery Elston Limehouse. (Williamson is another Boomtown alumnus.)

What Justified continues to capture so well is the mood of Elmore Leonard’s early thrillers, like Fifty-Two Pick-Up and The Switch and Split Images: Nothing is overwrought; everyone resists mannerism; the violence in his stories is quick, quiet, and brutal — the kind that can strike you as being true and realistic even though the actions are utterly beyond your experience. How much better can popular entertainment get than that?

What’d you think of the Justified season premiere?

Twitter: @kentucker

For More: ‘Justified’ star Timothy Olyphant talks season 3

Justified EP Graham Yost talks the season 3 premiere

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