Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 3, Episode 13 of FX's "Justified," entitled "Slaughterhouse."
"Justified" is a very smart show, but the smartest thing it did all season was on display in Tuesday's Season 3 finale.
The intelligent decision revolves around what the show didn't do, rather than what it did. Don't get me wrong, the wrap up of the Quarles/Limehouse story was entertaining, but that's exactly the point. Rather than try to equal last season's exceptionally poignant finale in which Mags Bennett finally drank her own apple pie, "Justified" went in a very different direction at the end of Season 3.
What with the spurting blood, the quests for vengeance and the money pouring out of strange orifices, the final sequence at Limehouse's slaughterhouse could have come from a show called "Spartacus: Harlan Hellions" (and remind me to pitch that show to FX someday). The shock on Quarles' face after his hand was sliced off was priceless, as was the line about him being "disarmed." Between that an the pun about the "piggy bank," it was a comical, yet very Elmore Leonard-esque end of the road for Detroit's most demented gangster. Though very efficient and disciplined on a story level, "Justified," like the novelist on whose works the show is based, appreciates weirdness on its own terms, and thus, the black comedy of the Noble's Holler scenes fit in perfectly with the show's air of gently sardonic amusement.
Having said all that, when I compare Seasons 2 and 3, it's not hard for me to choose a favorite. Season 2's storylines spun a relatively complex web, but Mags herself provided a through-line for everything that happened. All roads led back to the canny and unpredictable matriarch of the Bennett clan. There was a progression and a unity to Season 2 that was just incredibly pleasing, and of course, Margo Martindale's performance remains indelibly stamped on all our memories. Mags' time on the show -- and her exit from it -- won't soon be forgotten.
So as I said, it was wise for "Justified" not to try to retrace Mags' footsteps. Robert Quarles was a very different kind of antagonist, and he was brilliantly played by Neal McDonough. Every time we thought we knew how sick this guy was, there was another horrifying revelation about him, and his abduction of the campers was genuinely suspenseful, because by that point, we knew he wouldn't have had a second's remorse about killing the whole family. That giant baby had terrible, terrible things in it.
It was also wise for the show to add to the fabric of Harlan even further with Ellston Limehouse and his crew; just as Dickie Bennett was a welcome holdover from Season 2, I'd be very surprised if Mr. Limehouse and his knives didn't make a some return visits in Season 4 (at least, I hope Mykelti Williamson does). "Justified" has done a very good job of expanding its world over the past few seasons, and there's a lot of enjoyment in seeing old faces and getting to know an array of well-conceived new characters.
But there's a danger in all of that too. I'll be blunt and just say that, in Season 3, "Justified" assumed I have a better memory than I actually do. Maybe it's just me, but I found it somewhat difficult to keep track of who knew what and who had dealings with whom, and as the season progressed, all those deals and double-crosses multiplied. It was a lot to keep straight, and my brain didn't always do a great job of recalling all the ins and outs among Boyd, Dickie, Limehouse, Limehouse's henchman, Quarles, Wynn Duffie, various hookers and Raylan himself.
By the time Phantom Helen popped up, I was just thinking, "Please, don't let her make a secret side deal with someone to steal something from someone else." All I'm saying is, by the end of the season, there were a lot of puzzle pieces to fit together, and tracking all those elements occasionally got in the way of the further development of the lead characters and prevented me from enjoying the show's more laconic, atmospheric charms.
Still, it's not the end of the world if the complexity of the dealings among various characters tripped me up at times this season. Assuming I'm smarter than I am is not exactly something I usually hold against a TV show. I still derived a great deal of pleasure from Season 3, and I'm certainly glad to have watched it. One thing I'm very sure of at this point: Executive producer Graham Yost and his writers could (and should) give a master class on how to write wonderful dialogue.
So many shows have trouble wrapping information the audience needs in dialogue that is actually a pleasure to listen to, but "Justified" makes it look easy. When there is expositional information in a scene, it's usually embedded very deeply in conversations that are embellished and filled out in any number of pleasurable and entertaining ways. It's one thing to love language as Leonard clearly does in his novels, but it's another to bang out 13 scripts each year at the quality level that "Justified" regularly pulls off. Individual scenes not only have that Leonard-ian love of conversation, they also work as lines of dialogue said by actors. It must be very difficult to pull all that off, but the dialogue on this show, which is among the best on television, doesn't reflect that struggle. So many conversations this season went down like a nice Kentucky bourbon.
So here's where things stand at the end of Season 3: Boyd Crowder is more or less in charge of nefarious doings in Harlan, but, unbeknownst to him, his cousin Johnny is anything but an obedient second-in-command. It seems likely that he and Limehouse will have further dealings in Season 4, possibly as Johnny tries to take over. Dickie Bennett is still out there, mad as hell and pretty broke too.
Winona and Raylan appear to be permanently done, and though I'm sure Raylan will try to be a daddy to his boy (at least a better daddy than the one Raylan had), I do wonder if there's space in the Marshal's life for a new love interest next year. I liked the bartender character, but she appears to be more of a fling than anything else. It might be interesting for the show to try another flavor -- new love and romance, Raylan-style -- when it returns.
Of course, some things never change, and Raylan will remain Raylan. He's more alone than ever, it would seem; despite everything his dad Arlo has done over the years, it must be particularly awful to ponder the fact that his daddy tried to shoot him. But, like the show he stars in, Raylan didn't wallow in self-pity. It's not his way.
Look forward to seeing you next year, Raylan. Give that man a hand!
A few final thoughts about the season finale:
- Please let Wynn Duffie continue to be part of "Justified." Wynn's increasingly horrified reactions to Quarles were among Season 3's high points, and Jere Burns is just a delightful presence on the show. "Justified" appears to have a soft spot for survivors, so let's hope Wynn and his inevitable motor home remain among the living in Season 4.
- I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Limehouse's slaughterhouse wasn't regularly inspected by the USDA or anyone else. Do you think the way he prepared meats was really up to code? But I'm guessing gov'ment inspectors don't often attempt to visit Noble's Holler.
- Whoever styled Jeremy Davies' hair this season deserves not just an Emmy, but a Nobel Peace Prize. All season long, I loved Dickie Bennett's batshit, crazy-rooster hairdo.
- "Justified" does so many things well, but it does not especially use Tim and Rachel well. I was really hoping both would get more to do than they did in Season 3, but there was so much else going on that they really didn't get much screen time (especially Tim). I like both actors (Jacob Pitts and Erica Tazel) a lot, so my fingers are crossed that we see more of them in Season 4.
- Ava has become a pimp for real, but it wasn't pretty to see her beating up that prostitute. Still, her actions all season long certainly have reflected the road she's been on since she decided to stay with Boyd. (And that begs the question, with Ava around, does Boyd really need Johnny?)
- And in closing I'd like to renew my campaign to get Jackie Earle Haley on "Justified." Because that would probably be awesome, wouldn't it?
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan