There was a time when "Justified" tried to run away from the whole idea of it being a 21st century Western, but when you call your season premiere "The Gunfighter" - and pit your Stetson-clad hero against another man who's fond of showing off his quick-draw skills - you've essentially given in to what's been obvious to everyone all along.
It's a trope of Westerns (particularly the Gregory Peck film that lent its name to this episode) that everyone wants to test the fastest gun there is, and also that eventually every gun slows down. Raylan got shot in last season's finale, and the show doesn't forget that. He's getting older, and at the moment is limited by the injury, and seems ripe for the shooting by Fletcher "Icepick" Nicks, who comes across like a dark funhouse mirror reflection of Raylan. Nicks wears a distinctive (albeit smaller) hat, and tends to place himself in situations where he invites people to give him an excuse to shoot them. But where Raylan's code has some degree of honor to it - with rare exceptions like Tommy Bucks, he'd much rather not kill his opponents - Nicks is cheating all the way, because he likes killing, and he likes creating the illusion of being the fastest and the best.
But the thing about Raylan, like most of the great Elmore Leonard characters (including Boyd Crowder), is that while he's tough and physically capable, he's also smart. He beats Nicks not by powering through his injury, but by realizing that he can use Winona's decorative tablecloth to his advantage. Leonard villains often spend much of the story talking about how a climactic confrontation is going to go, and it virtually never turns out the way they predicted, but this seemed a particularly clever deviation on the part of both Raylan and the writers.
In addition to Nicks, we meet the first of the season's major new ongoing villains in Neal McDonough as a character who at this point in the scripts was referred to as "Carpetbagger."(*). Carpetbagger, like Raylan, is a thinker. And, like Nicks, he's a bit of a cheat, using the special rig to conceal a Derringer in his sleeve and kill Arnett and his secretary. (If Raylan's a gunfighter out of a frontier town, Carpetbagger is an urban killer like Robert DeNiro in "Taxi Driver," who used a similar rig.) Like many characters from Leonard books(**), Carpetbagger hails from Detroit, and he carries himself as a man who is much smarter, smoother and more ruthless than these Kentucky hicks. And based on how he quickly he moves in to take over the local branch of the Dixie Mafia, he has reason to be just that cocky. (On the other hand, his plan to have Nicks take out Raylan is less successful, but Raylan's a lot smarter than Arnett.) McDonough was the best part of Yost's "Boomtown," one of the standout performers in the Yost-scripted "The Breaking Point" episode of "Band of Brothers," and he again rewards his once and future boss's faith with a charismatic performance. This guy is about as far from Mags as you can get, but he makes almost as memorable a first impression as Mags did with her glass full of apple pie.
(*) The character does have a real name, and while the show isn't intentionally keeping it a secret, it doesn't come up in any of the four episodes I've seen. When I asked Graham Yost about it at press tour (for an interview I'm going to publish after next week's episode), he said that names just don't come up all the time in organized crime, and that this guy doesn't throw it around willy-nilly.
(**) Today saw the publication of Leonard's newest novel "Raylan," which is partially inspired by the Mags Bennett story from season 2 and at times features story elements and characters whom Leonard invited Yost and his writers to "strip for parts" in writing season 3. I asked Yost whether fans of the show should wait until the end of this season to read the book; he thought on it for a few moments before ultimately suggesting the two are different enough that it's okay. But if you want to remain completely unspoiled for anything coming up, you can wait. Raylan was a supporting character in Leonard's "Pronto" and "Riding the Rap," but this is the first novel where he's the unquestioned lead, and I'm looking forward to it.
And even as we're meeting Raylan's newest antagonist, we can't forget the existence and majesty of Walton Goggins as Boyd. Goggins and Timothy Olyphant have such chemistry at this point that I'm happy to just watch them shoot the breeze(***) as they did at the start of their meeting at the Marshals' office. That scene just crackled with some of the episode's best dialogue, and with the bond between the two performers.
(***) At the "Justified" press tour session on Sunday, Goggins says he approaches Raylan/Boyd scenes as if the two men really love each other, and that he was surprised to learn that Olyphant takes the exact opposite view. I can see both sides of that debate, I think.
I wondered at first what was going through Boyd's usually sharp mind when he took a swing at Raylan, then smiled enormously when we got to the end and realized he had done it as an excuse to get close to Dickie and finally got some payback for him shooting Ava.
"Justified" is a show that does action well, but as cool as it is to see Raylan outdraw an opponent, or Tim to hit the apricot from long distance, I take the greatest satisfaction from watching the characters - good and bad, old and new - think their way out of predicaments in unexpected ways.
Some other thoughts:
* Color me extremely happy that this Dixie Mafia story means we're going to be seeing a lot of Jere Burns as Wynn Duffy. Burns is at a stage in his career where he pops up in small roles in dramas (say, as Jesse's rehab counselor on "Breaking Bad") and always makes a strong impression, even if it's just by reacting (as he does marvelously here when he watches the Carpetbagger kill Arnett and Yvette). I also like how Raylan's concern over keeping his word to Wynn played as a counter to all of Nicks' promises to his potential victims.
* I'm also always happy that Jeremy Davies remains in play as Dickie, and of course he and Dewey have somehow become prison buddies.
* Ava survives her own gunshot wound, and has very quickly taken to being Boyd's wartime consiglieri as well as his lover. We know Ava doesn't back down - you can try asking her dead husband if you don't believe me - but it was still fun to watch get Devil and Arlo in line by showing Devil the business end of a frying pan.
* As I noted in my pre-season review, "Justified" has done such a good job building up the world around Raylan (albeit more in terms of the bad guys in Harlan than his fellow Marshals) that the show is plenty compelling when he's not around, as opposed to the way "Dexter" tends to flounder whenever Michael C. Hall isn't in a scene. One of those less-than-riveting "Dexter" supporting players was in this episode, with Desmond Harrington playing Icepick Nicks. Still not sure how I feel about the accent he used, but beyond that, he worked in a deliberately self-conscious, theatrical way, where Nicks is a guy who is very aware at all times of how he presents himself to the world.
* While Yvette is trying to set the trap for Raylan by pretending to be dissatisfied with her job, she mentions that her father used to wear the businessman's Stetson, which is the model Raylan wore in the books, and which Elmore Leonard will still insist he should be wearing on the show. (It's seemingly his only complaint with the series.)
* The green screen work in the driving sequences has not improved, it seems. I'm okay with that, as I'd rather that money go to guest stars like McDonough and Burns.
* Yost says the writers often struggle to come up with excuses for Raylan to be involved in what's going on in Harlan, and the idea that he's searching for Mags' ill-gotten fortune is one of the more plausible ones they've used.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com