A hero is often only as interesting as his villains, and gunslinging "Justified" hero Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) has been fortunate - for his audience's sake, if not for his own - to be given such a memorable rogues gallery.

In the FX drama's first season, Raylan - a US Marshal with a strict moral code and an abnormally high kill rate - was forced to return to the part of Kentucky in which he had grown up, and was pitted against his slippery old pal Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), Boyd's crimelord father Bo (MC Gainey) and even Raylan's own ruthless dad Arlo (Raymond J. Barry). It was a great collection of bad guys: all tied to the past Raylan has spent a lifetime trying to escape, all well-drawn, all impeccably cast. (Goggins was so indelible that he was given a reprieve when Raylan was supposed to kill Boyd at the end of the pilot.)

Raylan's season one opponents were so colorful and emotionally resonant that I worried season two (it debuts tonight at 10) - in which Bo is dead, Arlo is under house arrest and Boyd isn't trying to cause any obvious trouble  - would be an inevitable let-down. But darn it if "Justified" showrunner Graham Yost and company haven't found a way to equal - if not top - that bunch, while at the same time building on the lessons they learned in the first season.

Our big bad this time around is legendary pot farmer Mags Bennett, played by Hey It's That Girl character actress Margo Martindale. (You might know her as Dexter Morgan's pal from the records room, or the neighbor on "The Riches," or Hilary Swank's mom in "Million Dollar Baby," or...) Though Martindale's characters aren't always sweetness and light, she's not the first - or 50th - actor you'd think to pit against Raylan Givens, but it's an inspired choice, and a great character. Mags acts the part of the humble, friendly backwoods gal who just happens to grow a little pot, but she's really a cold, calculating businesswoman who won't hesitate to order one of her three sons - including Jeremy Davies from "Lost" as Dickie, the crazy one - from putting a hurt (or worse) on someone acting against her interests.

Because Mags isn't as overt in her evil, and because she knows Raylan from childhood, he has to step more cautiously around her than usual, but that works well for the story. As much fun as it is to see Raylan slap leather and gun down a bad guy, Olyphant and the writers have made him a very smart man as well as a lethal one. As with all heroes based on Elmore Leonard books, some of Raylan's most compelling moments involve him just thinking about the latest mess he's been handed.

And the early stages of season two feel thankfully messier than the comparable portion of season one. After a terrific pilot episode, "Justified" stumbled a bit with too many disposable, standalone episodes in which Raylan dealt with bad guys totally unrelated to the season's main plot. Some of those episodes were quite good, but overall there was a sense of marking time until the story arcs kicked in, and the season's second half was unsurprisingly much stronger than its first.

Yost has acknowledged that mistake, and while the three new episodes I've seen all have some kind of standalone plotline, those stories are always surrounded by ongoing problems for Raylan. The Bennetts are prominent each week, Raylan has to deal with his rekindled feelings for ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea, much better-used than last year), make sure Arlo's not finding ways to cause trouble from inside his house, etc.

And then there's Boyd. I don't want to give away too much about his storyline, but the character remains ever a chameleon - this year, Goggins somehow finds a way to make his body seem much smaller, and his accent becomes even more pronounced - which means that no one trusts him. He insists he's done with crime, yet as Raylan puts it, "The more you say it, the less I believe it."

There's always the danger in a TV villain becoming so popular that the writers keep him around past all good narrative sense. (To pick out a very different kind of show, there were several seasons of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in which wicked vampire Spike was allowed to hang around for no good reason except that the fans and writers all loved actor James Marsters' performance.) Boyd's not there yet, thankfully, and his quest to better himself in spite of everyone's skepticism neatly parallels what's going on with Raylan.

(In case you missed it, I recently interviewed Goggins about this show and "The Shield," and I think it's a very good read. Smart, articulate, fascinating guy.)

Last year, Raylan racked up a high body count, and while that's a fundamental part of the show, the writers are always conscious to make him pragmatic rather than trigger-happy. So when he faces off against a particularly unsavory bad guy in the season premiere, he explains that though his first impulse is to just shoot him, "I am doing my level best to avoid the paperwork and the self-recrimination that comes with it."

Raylan's mix of steely confidence and self-aware humor fits Olyphant like a glove - it's actually an even better role for him than Seth Bullock on "Deadwood" - and it's just as much fun to see him out-talk the bad guy as it is to out-draw him.

And when the bad guy's as well-written and performed as Raylan himself, so much the better.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com