Season two of Justified might be the single greatest television season ever made and everyone deserves to know it.
You see, ranking television series – or seasons of television series in this case – is not like ranking water purity in U.S. cities, university pre-med programs, or GDP. We have metrics for these things. And while maybe not necessarily perfect, the presence of qualifying criteria and concrete data in these examples limit the extent to which we can argue the results.
Ranking a television series on the other hand has far more in common with rating a wine: It’s palette-dependent, and therefore largely subjective. Some people like reds, others like whites. Some people like comedies, others like dramas. Some people prefer Bordeaux’s vineyards… you get the picture.
People who rank things – subjective things – tend to come off as pretentious. “I’m cultured, and what I like is more important than what you like.” “My palette is more advanced than yours.” “I took Italian Cinema of 1947 in college.” No one wants to hear it. Hell, I’ll play devil’s advocate just to argue with you… because you sound kind of douchey.
That is precisely why I won’t sit here and tell you that I can offer up, definitively, the best season of a television series ever (and it never ceases to amaze me the number of people who claim they can). But if I were to point out that “the second season of Fargo is an all-timer,” you’d have to watch, right? Or if I told you that Breaking Bad’s fifth season belongs in the pantheon of great television seasons; It’s dually nonthreatening to your own opinion while also letting you know that it’s damn good.
Well, season two of Justified ‘might be’ the single greatest television season ever.
Justified, a television drama largely based on the short story “Fire in the Hole” by Elmore Leonard, premiered on the FX network back in 2010. Part gallows humor, part hillbilly-noire, Justified combines witty, convincing, and often amusing dialogue with the criminal dealings of the Dixie Mafia and southern crime bosses, and of course, the U.S. Marshals who are after them.
Season one told the story of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), now re-assigned from his post in Florida back to the Kentucky Marshal Service in Harlan County, Kentucky. Throughout those thirteen episodes, we were introduced to most of the series’ key players: Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), Raylan’s sardonic boss; Winona (Natalie Zea), his sultry ex-wife; Ava Crowder (Joelle Carte), his on-again, off-again love interest; and of course, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), Raylan’s childhood friend turned white supremacist turned religious convert turned all-around enemy of the state.
Season one was good. Though far from great, it served its purpose as an introductory visage to Elmore Leonard’s Harlan County locale that would become the backdrop for Justified’s six seasons. One of the larger problems with the first thirteen episodes was the mostly micro, occasionally (mostly near the end of the season) macro narrative focus. Raylan spends the better part of the first eight or nine episodes outsmarting your standard “criminal of the week” ala Law and Order. Missing an episode here or there is forgivable because the majority of one episode’s plot won’t carry over to the next. In the absence of these serialized elements, it rarely feels like Raylan and the Marshal Service are ever working toward anything substantial until the writers finally introduced “the bad guy” Bo Crowder (Boyd’s father, played by M.C. Gainey), who would squabble with Raylan for the final third of the season.
Despite the oft uneven delivery system, the first season still had its moments (like the episode “Long in the Tooth,” featuring Alan Ruck as a one-time money launderer for the mob racing for his freedom toward the Mexican border). And in all fairness, it probably wasn’t until after we had finished the series’ later installments that we could go back and share these criticisms of season one in hindsight. Beginning with the second season, and continuing throughout the rest of the series, Justified became a serialized drama with macro plot elements – most commonly through the introduction of some sort of enemy crime organization, “big-bad,” etc. with whom Raylan could spar with over the majority of each 13-episode slate. Because each new major antagonist was contained within the boundaries of an individual season, and because each new villain was truly inspired and memorable (to the credit of the writers and casting crew… except for Michael Rappaport – that was a biiiiig mistake), every season projected its own character, its own ambiance, its own mood. This sharp contrast between Justified’s installments made each individual season all the more unique – the second being chief among them.
2011’s Season two began largely where the first left off. When last we saw U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, he had just survived a shootout with the remains of now-deceased crime kingpin Bo Crowder’s gang, as well as a pair of Miami drug runners. The first new episode, “The Moonshine War,” picks up in the immediate aftermath of that firefight, following the departure of Raylan’s once and future friend (Goggin’s Boyd Crowder) in pursuit of lone surviving drug runner Pilar (Alexandra Barreto). Boyd’s plan to execute Pilar in retribution for the murder of his father is foiled by Raylan, who rightly points out that Boyd had planned to kill the old man anyway. After delivering Pilar to Miami and tying up some loose ends with both the drug cartel and the authorities there, Raylan returns home to Harlan, Kentucky and Justified gets down to new business.
Raylan’s first new case concerns Jimmy Earl Dean (“Never trust a man with three first names”), a sex offender accused of harassing a teenage girl. It’s a serviceable enough standalone storyline, but its primary function is to introduce us to Dean’s employers, the pot-farming Bennett clan, who figure to be the biggest thorns in Raylan’s side this season. The Bennett brothers—eldest and wisest son Doyle (Joseph Lyle Taylor), twitchy Dickie (Jeremy Davies), and dopey Coover (Brad William Henke)—wouldn’t be much of a match for Raylan if not for their mother Mags. As played by veteran character actor Margo Martindale and inspired by real-life “queen of the mountain bootleggers” Maggie Bailey, Mags is perhaps the most malevolent crime-family matriarch to hit the small screen since Livia Soprano.
Throughout the course of the season, the Bennett clan members get involved in a wide range of corrupt affairs, from monopolizing Kentucky meth trade routes to secretly buying up local properties through the threat of violence so that they can then turn around and re-sell them to an encroaching oil company called “Black Pike” for a fortune. Apart from her family’s criminal enterprises, Mags herself also becomes fixated on one Loretta McCready (played expertly by Kaitlyn Dever) – the teenage daughter of a local pot farmer raising his crops on Bennett land – whom Mags selfishly claims as her own after dispatching her daddy with a lethal dose of poison she hides in her famous “apple-pie moonshine” in the season’s opening moments. When by chance Raylan’s path crosses with Loretta, the latter’s uncertainty regarding the whereabouts of her father puts him on the trail of the Bennett’s after sensing something isn’t right in their Kentucky holler.
The first few episodes also find time for old friends, including Raylan’s boss Art Mullen, his wife Winona, and his now-ex Ava, who finds herself playing host to an unlikely houseguest as the season progresses. Boyd once again claims to have renounced his outlaw ways, though his true motivations are as inscrutable as ever, and it remains to be seen what role he’ll play in the big picture.
And while Goggins would cement himself as one of the series’ true centerpieces throughout the following years, it was really the clash between Olyphant’s Givens and the Bennett matriarch Mags that steals the show here. Rayan’s hair-trigger temper may make him the ideal television antihero, but it’s his dry-county wit that solidifies his status as a classic Elmore Leonard character. With “Mags,” it’s Martindale’s ability to wear so many different guises throughout the season that made her performance truly stand out. From harmless shopkeeper to sweet mother figure, from fierce community protector to fiery crime lord, Martindale covers it all here – even if Mags is inherently only one of these things.
Justified’s second season includes several top-tier performances that were met with Emmy nominations, including Olyphant (Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series), Goggins (Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, Martindale (Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series), and Davies (Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series). Martindale went on to win the Emmy for her portrayal of “Mags Bennett” at the 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards. And while not officially recognized by Emmy voters like some her of co-stars here, Dever’s introduction to the series as Loretta (a standout role she would continue to reprise throughout the remainder of the series) is itself deserving of praise.
You could make the case that as many as four installments from the second season belong on the list of the show’s ten best episodes, but it’s really the overall quality of Justified’s 2011 run that makes this season memorable. From the introduction of Mags and her boys in premier, to the dark and savage killing of one of those closest to Raylan, before finally closing the book on this TV masterpiece at Mags’ kitchen table in the finale, the Bennett family story arc was always as viscerally exciting as it was emotionally rich. Impressive storytelling, unforgettable performances from its actors, and sheer consistency from hour-to-hour marks the second entry into the Justified catalogue as not only the series’ best, but also one of the finest efforts in television history.