I’m on vacation next week, so I probably won’t be posting any thoughts on the Justified season finale (which I have not yet seen) right after it airs. So “Coalition” is as good an opportunity as any to give some almost-final thoughts on what has and hasn’t worked this season.
The episode, really, is an almost perfect example of the season’s strengths and weaknesses. It was fantastically written, with the kind of dialogue that would make Justified a pleasure just to close your eyes and listen to were the performances not so visually compelling too. (“Do I look like a Van Halen fan to you?”) It was suspenseful and thrilling, with that satisfying Elmore Leonard sensation of schemers circling one another more tightly just before the climax. The show remains one of the hours of TV that give me more sheer satisfaction than almost anything I watch in a week, on an episode by episode level. And yet I don’t think this season, as a whole, measures up to last year.
The easy answer as to why is, “No Mags Bennett,” but that’s not altogether it. Margo Martindale was great in the role of a career, but above all, the story of the Bennetts was the story of Harlan, expanding its world, laying out its personal and social history and giving a sense–often most eloquently expressed by the villain–of what made Harlan’s people distinctive. Season three has built Harlan’s world up even more, particularly by introducing Limehouse and his crew, but it’s been pulled in so many directions that it lacks the focus that made season two greater than the sum of its parts.
In theory, I see how the design of this season works. Having set up a vast number of characters in Harlan, the third season sets them in motion, pursing plots and counterplots–and Quarles, as the carpetbagger, gives an outside nemesis that helps define the specific world of Harlan in contrast. He’s like an invading alien spaceship; he may not unite all of Harlan against him, but he does help provide a sense of what makes Harlan Harlan. (Hence, “Coalition.”)
Despite excellent work by Neal McDonough, though, I have to wonder if there was a way of building a season like this–i.e., about alliances and counteralliances in Harlan–without the Detroit angle altogether. I say this knowing that there’s been almost nothing bad in this season at all (the possible exceptions being the elusive Winona thread and Quarles’ dissolution from smooth operator into monster). Perhaps it’s a high-class problem, but the issue instead is that there’s been so much good–the Limehouse introduction, the sheriff race, Ava’s elevation to queenpin, Dickie’s sad, aggrieved pursuit of his mamma’s money–that the season has felt pulled in too many directions at once.
Note too that my list there didn’t even mention the show’s protagonist; Justified has a fantastic bench but that can be as much a challenge as a strength sometimes. However, that’s a good thing for the show overall, as we look to season four. It’s not that Justified has no more stories to tell–far from it–but that it would be great if it found another compelling macro-story like the Bennetts’ next year. I’m still enjoying the hell out of Justified, and the upside of my quibbles here is that there’s so much good to work with: there’s nothing wrong with Justified that can’t be fixed by the many, many things that are right with Justified.