A review of tonight's "Justified" coming up just as soon as we settle on a safe word...

"Kill the Messenger" was as long as last week's "Shot All to Hell"(*) and had zero fatalities, but it was a much more satisfying, cohesive episode overall.

(*) I haven't heard back from FX on whether these are two anomalies or if, like "Sons of Anarchy," extra-long episodes are about to become a trend for "Justified." If it's the latter, I'd have an easier time accepting here than I did on "Sons" (where the episode length was one of several reasons for me to drop the show altogether), because A)It's not as much time being added and B)The two episodes at this length so far haven't felt padded. I think the lighter tone here helps, as a lot of the most easily cut material on "Justified" tends to also be the funniest stuff. UPDATE: After writing this review, I did hear back from FX, and was told that these are, indeed, anomalies, and not the new regular running time.

With a lot of the show's deadweight characters made actually dead — I cannot overstate how relieved I am to be done with Lee Paxton — "Kill the Messenger" was freer to focus on the parts of the season that have been working, and find ways to improve the parts that haven't been.

Take Ava. To this point, her time in prison has been treated more as an obstacle for Boyd to overcome than an Ava story in its own right. And even though the manner in which she got moved to the new prison was sketchy as hell (sketchy enough that I imagine Boyd will find a way to undo it before the season's out), her new circumstances felt like a genuinely interesting plotline, not just because it gave Joelle Carter more to do but because it was so tied into what was happening with Boyd. Yes, all the maneuvers with Lee and Mara and Mooney were an attempt to get Ava out of jail, but they became such a bog that the connection felt severed. Here, Boyd's feud with his old white supremacist pals was more viscerally related to Ava's plight — and, in a very clever move that brought even more of the episode and season together, it also finally gave the Crowe family some purpose.

The Crowes haven't really worked as some kind of free-floating menace to Boyd and/or Raylan. Despite Danny's mad dog tendencies — here turned unfortunately more literal than ever, as he barks at Allison to assert his dominance — they're not really threatening to anyone with an IQ higher than Dewey, and the supposedly clever Daryl hasn't demonstrated much of a plan beyond taking over his cousin's business. The early parts of "Kill the Messenger" even acknowledged how ineffectual they've been, with Raylan kicking them out of their rent-free home with ease and Wendy trying to convince Daryl to pack up and move back to Florida. But as new members of Boyd's army — at least until Daryl inevitably finds a way to go back to war with him — they'll do quite nicely. They have their uses (Daryl's got a strong left hand, for instance), and it turns out Dewey isn't the only funny member of the clan, as we saw with Danny's bafflement over Carl's sexual solution to their problem. (And also his inability to pronounce "consensual.")

And even though this was an episode dominated more by the crooks than the marshals, the scenes with Raylan and company were fantastic. Given how the last episode ended, I can't imagine a better teaser than that nearly wordless sequence of Art waiting at the bar for Raylan (listening to Watermelon Slim's "Please Take This Cup") and deciding that the only retort he felt comfortable making was a hard right cross to the face. Great silent acting from both Nick Searcy (as Art searched in vain for something to say following the punch) and Timothy Olyphant (as Raylan recognized that this was about the least he deserved as punishment), and Raylan's shiner kept paying off throughout the episode, whether it was Tim and Rachel inquiring about it or Raylan and Allison being surprised by their matching black eyes.

The later scenes with Raylan and Rachel, and then Raylan and Allison, also did a nice job of unpacking exactly where our favorite gunslinger is emotionally right now. Rachel hasn't had much to do this season (and Graham Yost has said that we shouldn't expect a lot more from either her or Tim until the final season), but there's definite professional chemistry between Olyphant and Erica Tazel — not the kind where you would expect Raylan and Rachel's constant jokey flirting to transition into the real thing, but the kind where you believe these two genuinely respect and care about each other. Raylan's story this season has been in large part about the negative side of our hero, and the guilt he's feeling over betraying Art and shutting out his partners is a big part of that. We know Raylan can be heroic, but also that many of his best moments arise from less-than-heroic motivations, and Allison pegs him perfectly when she suggests that he wouldn't hesitate before rushing into a burning building to rescue people, but "Thing is, I think you're the one setting the fire."

Lots of excellence all around. I still don't have a sense of what the end game of the season will be about, but all the deaths last week led to a leaner, meaner and more fun installment of "Justified" tonight.

Some other thoughts:

* FX is pre-empting the show next week to avoid too much competition with the Winter Olympics. For those of you who are annoyed with this, it could be worse: "Archer" and "Chozen" are off this week and next week for the same reason.

* Graham Yost is, again, doing weekly post-mortems with Entertainment Weekly, and last week's interview shed some additional light on the death of Jean Baptiste: Edi Gathegi wasn't happy with the part and asked out. These things happen from time to time (see also Mr. Eko on "Lost"), and are a reminder that creative decisions on even the best shows aren't always part of a master plan.

* Jimmy's been working as one of Boyd's henchman since early in season 3 and has never amounted to much more than an extra body, and on occasion the guy in the organization who gets stuck with the worst details. Carl, on the other hand, has only been around for a handful of episodes and already feels like an interesting character — maybe not somebody who requires his own storylines, but someone who adds extra color to the scenes that he's in. Good work by the writers and Justin Welborn on a character who could've just been another guy standing to the left while Boyd gives menacing speeches.

* On "Heroes," James Kyson (who was then going by James Kyson Lee) rarely got much to do but seem befuddled by Hiro's latest antics, but I liked him a lot as the Korean half of Boyd and Wynn's new drug connection. Very confident, and a good potential foil for Boyd down the road, depending on how this story shakes it beyond Boyd's feud with Johnny.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com