Every once in a while, a role comes along for an actor or actress that can only be played by them. During the first episode of Justified's second season it was quite clear that the role of Mags Bennett, the tough matriarch of a hillbilly gang of no-gooders, was meant for Margo Martindale.
Martindale is an actor's actor, honing her skills on the stage and earning a Tony nomination for playing Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 2004. That stage experience, which doesn't allow for reshoots and multiple takes, helped her totally transform herself from her naturally pleasant and kind persona into Mags, a ruthless volcano of a woman that practices tough love and can suddenly erupt into fits of rage.
But bouncing back and forth between serene and incensed isn't award-worthy on its own. Martindale added depth to Mags by giving the audience a slight sense of danger and guile behind everything she did. Even when she was gently combing out the knots in her adopted daughter Loretta's hair, I thought Mags was just as likely to slit Loretta's throat as she was to plant a kiss on her forehead. Martindale brought that powder-keg quality to Mags, grabbing the audience's eyes and never letting go for fear that she may scold us for looking away. Or offer us some of her fine apple pie moonshine.
My favorite Mags moment came in the episode "The Spoil," just after halfway through the season. In it, Mags gives a speech at a town hall meeting asking fellow residents not to allow a coal mining company come into their county and blow off the top of a mountain. Up until then, we'd seen the other side of the story from the coal mining company's point of view, and it seemed like a reasonable deal to help the neighborhood make some extra cash. But after Mags' stirring speech, that all changed and Mags immediately became a bit of a folk hero even though we knew she was an evil bitch. Just listen to the way she says "toxic trash," and check out that awesome belt! (clip courtesy of the fine people at FX and Sony Pictures Television):
Martindale's dominating work is reminiscent of another one-season wonder from FX: Zeljko Ivanek's Emmy-winning portrayal of Ray Fiske in the first season of Damages. Regardless of the strength of the competition in the best supporting actress in a drama series, Margo Martindale has earned a nomination for her brilliant performance as Mags Bennett in Justified. And like Ivanek, a nomination isn't enough; she deserves an Emmy for her work.