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Justified Season Three Review

on Mon, 04/23/2012 - 00:00

During its first two seasons, the FX drama Justified steadily developed a narrative style that was sweepingly epic, Biblical in tone and Shakespearean in execution. Season three is an extension of such classical storytelling as US Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens faces off against a new villain in his hometown of Harlan County, Kentucky, while the ghosts of past actions continue to haunt him. If season one centered on the phrase “the sins of the father will be visited upon the son,” and season two explored whether one is capable of change or tragic victims of their own design, the third installment of Justified might best be summed up with the adage “you reap what you sow.”

The saying holds equally true for Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) as his Old West gunslinger mentality persists in undermining his personal life as much as it does for Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins)—the figurative Cain to Given’s Abel—as he attempts to rise to the position of criminal kingpin of Harlan County. Even newly transplanted Detroit junior mobster Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough) is not immune as the horrors of his youth dictate his present day actions. As for the second major newcomer to Justified, Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson) is the leader of an African American community of slave descendants that settled in the region after the Civil War and still strives to uphold the hundred-plus year goal of keeping the outside world from invading his enclave.

In addition to the infusion of new blood, the third year of the drama is also a continuation of its sophomore effort as the consequences of that season ripple through the Justified landscape—most notably the question of what happened to Mags Bennett’s stashed-away three million dollar fortune—and many recurring characters from past installments likewise make appearances throughout the thirteen episodes. With so many characters populating the proceedings and a multifaceted storyline filled with numerous subplots, the playing field becomes a little crowded as the season progresses, but all of these potential kings, knights and pawns are intimately connected nonetheless as they “reap what they sow” and scheme their way through Harlan County.

“Life is a kind of chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events that are, in some degree, the effect of prudence, or the want of it.” - Benjamin Franklin

The behind-the-scenes craftsmen of Justified have the uncanny knack of maneuvering the differing components of the show’s narrative as if they were chess pieces in a Grandmasters Tournament. Thus while the initial moves on the Justified chessboard may appear haphazard to the untrained eye, they ultimately form an ingenious strategy of checkmate as the various conflicting elements of the season intertwine and resolve themselves in the end with the efficiency of a Gary Kasparov. This keen ability is not strictly confined to the writer’s room of the show, however, but embedded in the personas of the major characters as well. Many adjectives can be uttered to describe Justified, but the analogy of a life-and-death chess match between brilliantly gifted players may be the best epitaph for the drama both onscreen and off.

“During a chess tournament, a master must envisage himself as a cross between an ascetic monk and a beast of prey.” - Alexander Alekhine

According to Wikipedia, “Chess strategy consists of setting and achieving long-term goals during the game, while tactics concentrate on immediate maneuver.” By that definition, Ellstin Limehouse is a strategist. From the moment that underling Errol (Demetrius Grosse) oversteps his authority and secretly interferes in the growing turf war between Boyd Crowder and Robert Quarles, Limehouse slowly begins to manipulate the key members of Harlan County into positions that best serve his own agenda. Using the overabundance of information at his fingertips, Limehouse then plays both sides of the board by equally assisting Crowder and Quarles in their struggles against one another, bringing them together in the end with pinpoint accuracy. It is a lesson in strategic gameplay that Bobby Fischer would envy, and enjoyable to witness as the proceedings slowly generate steam.

Ellstin Limehouse has a simplistic goal, however, of merely “to keep people to leave us the hell alone.” Boyd Crowder, meanwhile, has his eyes on a more ambitious objective. “We will protect Harlan,” he tells his small gang of fellow criminals. “We will control every aspect of crime within its boundaries.” With such a broad agenda, it should be no surprise that he is not the master strategist of Limehouse. Instead, Crowder is forced to react to events rather than instigate them but does so with the skill of a master tactician. When Robert Quarles purchases the services of corrupt Sheriff Tillman Napier (David Andrews), for instance, Boyd Crowder sponsors his own candidate for the position in the upcoming election. When Napier attempts to compromise his opponent in a drug dealing sting, Crowder recruits the County Clerk to exploit a loophole in Kentucky’s election laws. No matter what his enemies throw at him, Boyd Crowder proves a worthy opponent as he continuously outmaneuvers their efforts.

“However hopeless the situation appears to be, there yet always exists the possibility of putting up a stubborn resistance.” - Paul Keres

If there ever was a statement that summed up Robert Quarles, it is the above quote from former Soviet chess champion Paul Keres. Saved from an abusive father by Detroit mob boss Theo Tonin (Adam Arkin) at an early age, Quarles quickly became the heir apparent to a Motor City criminal empire. When childhood trauma inevitably leads to atrocities of his own, Quarles is exiled to Kentucky rather than permanently banished from Tonin’s organization. Raylan Givens later convinces Tonin’s son Sammy (Max Perlich) to cut ties with him, but Quarles intimidates his way back in nonetheless. Regardless of how many setbacks Robert Quarles experiences in Harlan County, as well as how unraveled he becomes as the missteps mount, he still finds a way to survive and put up “a stubborn resistance” until the very end.

Theo Tonin eventually sends a team of hitmen to kill Quarles—a mission that is interrupted by the US Marshal Service—and one of them tells Raylan Givens afterwards, “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Dixie Mafia thug Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) utters the exact same phrase when Boyd Crowder decides against “putting a bullet” in Quarles due to a higher bounty for him being taken alive. “One hundred thousand dead, two hundred if Sammy gets a chance to talk to him about putting a gun in his face,” Tonin tells Duffy. “If you know Bobby like I do, you’ll settle for the hundred.”

“First restrain, next blockade, lastly destroy.” - Aron Nimzowitsch

Then there’s Raylan Givens. In many ways the main protagonist of Justified is nothing more than a pawn during season three of the FX drama. On at least two occasions Boyd Crowder enlists the Deputy Marshal to either clear his name or eliminate his adversaries. Even the endgame of Ellstin Limehouse includes Givens intervening and arresting both Crowder and Robert Quarles after Limehouse has manipulated them into disadvantaged positions. But while Raylan Givens shows restraint during the early segments of the season—he merely throws a bullet at Wynn Duffy while uttering the line, “Next one’s coming faster”—and blocks Robert Quarles’ efforts of framing Givens for murder during the middle section, it is the unrestrained Old West lawman of yore that emerges by the end. In order to elicit information from Duffy in the finale, for instance, Givens plays a one-sided game of Russian roulette and pulls the trigger of his firearm every time Duffy answers incorrectly. As demonstrated in previous installments of Justified, an angry Raylan Givens is a Raylan Givens intent on destroying his opponents, and season three is no different.

“There just isn’t enough televised chess.” - David Letterman

“I’m going to finish what you started,” Ellstin Limehouse tells his right-hand man Errol. “And you’re going to be right there, on the front line, to watch all that you have created come to a head.” The statement is as much of a warning in regards to the pitfalls of “reaping what one sows” as it is a summation of the series itself. In many ways the third season of Justified digresses from its successful formula of the past by inserting a plethora of separate storylines into the proceedings rather than one overarching main narrative, but the writers still manage to meld these disparate plots into a cohesive conclusion with the grace and elegance of a champion Grandmaster. David Letterman is accurate in his observation that television is lacking when it comes to chess—instead of the board game, however, the medium needs more of the intricate combination of style and substance that is known as Justified.

Anthony Letizia (April 23, 2012)