Season 1 of Justified began with marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) coming back home to Harlan County, Ky., from Miami. He took some detours early on–to L.A. in one episode–but the show hit a new level in season 2, in which Givens investigated the marijuana-dealing Bennett clan, whose history was knottily entangled with his own and his family’s. Season three brought in a criminal element from Detroit, but again came back to Harlan, fleshing out the African American community of Noble’s Holler and returning to Raylan’s long feud with his criminal father, Arlo.
As much as Justified has richly expanded over three seasons, in other words, its great theme has always been returning to where you came from. So it’s intriguing and promising that season four (beginning tonight on FX) kicks off with another detour–this time into the past–that connects to Harlan County here and now.
I won’t spoil the opening flashback scene, which has a reveal that deftly displays Justified’s gift for humor and surprise. But suffice it to say that it reveals a thirty-year-old crime that, by the end of the first hour, Raylan has connected to Arlo, now moldering in a jail cell after killing a cop he believed to be his own son.
The first two episodes of this season take their time revealing what this old score of Arlo’s is all about, but it seems plain where it’s leading: to Raylan, who would like nothing better than never to have to think of his father again, needing to closely investigate the old man’s doings. One of the things that fascinates about Raylan is that he’s on some level a hothead, a man who’s drawn to looking for trouble, but who also fights against that tendency, straining to defuse conflicts, emotional and physical. (To that last point: it’s interesting, as many cable dramas get more and more bloody, that this gunslinger drama finds so many creative ways for Raylan to avoid shooting people to death.)
Being unable to escape the past is a recurrent theme that this character-driven crime show has managed to keep from feeling old. Raylan has tried leaving Harlan, but he’s had to come back. He’s tried to forget his past with the Bennetts, but that past caught up with him carrying a baseball bat. And though he’d now like to forget his troubles–he’s shacked up with his new, bar-owning girlfriend–his dad’s history finds him like a bad family debt.
In the meantime, there’s plenty of surrounding story to complicate Raylan’s ongoing one. To watch the opening episodes is to realize how vast a universe Justified’s writers, building on the work of Elmore Leonard, have created in Harlan. There’s once-born-again drug dealer Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), now feeling threatened by an itinerant preacher come to town. There’s Patton Oswalt, introduced as a hapless county constable who is approximately one-tenth as badass as he believes he is. There’s the whole ecosystem of strugglers, strivers and sinners that keep the county running, from its hookers’ trailers to its revival tents.
Justified’s Harlan is ever more sprawling, yet intimate: even its citizens on opposite sides of the law feel like members of a community, almost like kin. One thing that distinguishes the show as a crime drama is its emphasis on how, in Harlan, families are like characters—the Crowders, the Bennetts, the Givenses–and everything from a criminal operation to peny-ante scamming can be a family business. That may be part of the reason why I loved season 3 a little less than season 2; Neal McDonough’s showy performance as a sociopath from up north felt like a distraction from the steadily unfolding story of Harlan (even though it was connected to that story).
Fortunately, season 4 looks like it’s sticking closer to home. Home means something to Justified; as Boyd says to his preacher-rival in the second episode, “The hubris of making assumptions about a people and a place to which you are a foreigner strikes me as a grave sin indeed.” Justified, however, is at this point no foreigner to Harlan. Like Faulkner digging into Yoknapatawpha County, or John Waters into Baltimore, or Bruce Springsteen into New Jersey, Justified shows that the deeper you get into the minutiae of your little corner–and into your past–the bigger your world gets.