FX treats its hit “American Horror Story” not as an ongoing drama series but a collection of miniseries, all operating under the same title, and often using the same actors, but as different characters, in different settings, exploring different corners of the horror universe.
FX’s “Justified,” which returns tomorrow night at 10, is clearly not an “American Horror Story”-style anthology. The hero is always Timothy Olyphant as 21st century gunslinger Raylan Givens, the setting is always the cities and hollers of Kentucky, and there’s now an enormous cast of characters who continue along with Raylan.
Yet watching the first two episodes of “Justified” season 4, I couldn’t help feeling like “Justified” showrunner Graham Yost is using an approach to each season that’s a distant cousin to what’s happening over at “American Horror Story.” “Justified” will always be a show about the fastest gun east of the Mississippi, but each year the show reinvents itself in the kinds of stories it tells about Raylan and friends.
Season 1 was almost a dark action comedy, the story of an anachronistic U.S. Marshal operating by a very strict, public, violent moral code, and the way he ends up irritating so many cops and crooks along the way. Season 2 was a gothic crime tragedy, the downfall of the great and terrible Mags Bennett and her hillbilly criminal empire. Season 3 replaced Mags with an army of colorful criminals operating at cross purposes(*), and came closest in spirit to the quintessential works of Raylan’s creator, novelist Elmore Leonard.
(*) Raylan’s not quite a superhero, but he comes close at times, and it’s often the third installment of a superhero series (like “Spider-Man 3”) where the villains begin to multiply exponentially.
Yost could have tried to up the ante on season 4, either by adding even more villains, or else going for some kind of biggest bad of all (Billy Bob Thornton? Ian McShane?). Instead, he goes in a different direction altogether — and one of the few crime genres Leonard himself has never really bothered with — and turns the new season into an extended mystery.
We open with a flashback to the early ‘80s, where a quiet suburban cul de sac is disrupted by the fatal crash landing of a parachutist carrying bags of dope with him. Thirty years later, Raylan discovers that his father — senile, bone-mean, incarcerated crook Arlo (Raymond J. Barry) — had something to do with the falling man, and that other criminals are beginning to look into the situation.
Raylan doesn’t suddenly swap his Stetson and service weapon for a deerstalker cap and magnifying glass, but the cold case provides a new kind of unifying element for the series, even as it continues to tell stories about Raylan outsmarting thugs and his sometime-nemesis Boyd Crowder (the absurdly charismatic Walton Goggins) trying to build a criminal empire in their childhood home of Harlan County.
There’s room for plenty of old friends, like the continued delight of Jere Burns as Dixie Mafia executive Wynn Duffy, as well as the introduction of new ones. Some of this year’s early additions include comedian Patton Oswalt doing his thing well in an unlikely setting as Constable Bob, a kind of second-rate Harlan cop who has to supply all his own equipment; Ron Eldard as ex-MP Colton Rhodes, whose ease with violence proves useful to his old pal Boyd; and Joseph Mazzello (the former child actor who dazzled in the Yost-produced HBO miniseries “The Pacific”) as Billy, a revival tent preacher whose arrival in Harlan troubles Boyd both because he’s cutting into the local drug business, and because his schtick reminds the chameleonic Boyd of his own time as a born-again minister of sorts, which ended in tragedy during season 1.
But all of it ultimately goes back to Raylan, and the sleuthing isn’t the only thing that’s new for our hero. This is Raylan in a dark place.(**) He’s split with his wife Winona for the second time, even as she prepares to give birth to their first child, is living above the bar owned by current girlfriend Lindsey (Jenn Lyon, with whom Olyphant enjoys a playful, teasing chemistry) and has started to let himself go a bit. (Albeit not in any way that would damage Olyphant’s sex appeal.) His hair has gotten shaggier, he’s working odd hours at the Marshals office, and making professional decisions that seem reckless even by the standards of previous seasons. When his boss Art Mullen (Nick Searcy, the series’ world-weary soul) begins to contemplate retirement, it’s easy to imagine that his top 5 reasons for doing so involve having to supervise Raylan Givens.(***)
(**) Perhaps to illustrate his current emotional state — or perhaps because a basic cable budget only goes so far sometimes — more scenes this time seem to place in small dark rooms, and/or involving only a couple of people at a time. Even with all these miscreants running around, Raylan’s world feels very small at the moment.
(***) Though “Justified” has some ‘80s action movie in its DNA, the show is always willing to acknowledge what a pain in the rear it would really be to work alongside the cop who plays by his own rules. The show has never done a great job writing for Jacob Pitts and Erica Tazel as Raylan’s fellow Marshals, but both characters inevitably come to life whenever they’re allowed to voice (with our complete sympathy) their frustration at working with this clown.
As much fun as it was last season to watch Mykelti Williamson brandish his cleaver as wily crime lord Mr. Limehouse, or watch Neal McDonough flash that terrifying smile as carpet-bagging mobster Robert Quarles, that season ultimately didn’t come down to either of those two men, but to the haunting moment when Raylan realizes that Arlo had killed a cop he mistook for the son he’s always despised. Yost can keep bringing in superb character actors (and he does so here), but the core will always be this cop who came from a family of criminals and set out to have the most rigid moral code possible. By forcing Raylan to retrace his father’s decades-old steps, Yost is reinventing his show yet again, but he’s also going deeper into the heart and mind of the man with the big hat and gun.