There aren't many shows on television that make it look so easy, but FX's Justified moseys through each episode as if it ain't no thing. Last year's second season marked a heel-clicking leap in quality for the series as it found its footing and identity, and it owes a large part of that success to Emmy-winner Margo Martindale, who played the season's Big Bad, momma Mags Bennett. She won't be back this season, so you'll pardon my shakes for being worried that Justified might lose some of the sparkle from its spurs without Mags and the rest of the Bennett clan.
With Season 3's excellent premiere "The Gunfighter," that fear was strung up like a polecat that snuck into a perfume parlor. Justified has become one of the leanest shows on TV by not wasting characters or even a single word, and with the return of old friends and introduction of new faces, there was no mourning Mags' absence, a testament to how well this show develops its characters and how quickly the actors playing them squeeze into their skins. You get the feeling that Justified's cast excels because they're having so much damn fun.
"The Gunfighter" started after the events of last season's finale, with a hole in Raylan's side and the dust settling after the fall of the Bennetts. We're not used to seeing Raylan (Timothy Olyphant, as good as ever) like this, unable to shoot straight and resigned to making sure his paperclip supply is stocked. While I do believe that Mr. Raylan Givens is strong enough of a character to spend a whole season behind a desk and still make it interesting, it wouldn't make sense to holster the show's biggest gun. So Raylan, after some persuasion from Tim, got out, and wouldn't you know it? Trouble found him.
This season, "trouble" wields an ice pick/has eyes the same color as Kentucky bluegrass. Fletcher "The Ice Pick" Nix (brought to life by Desmond Harrington) is a perfect example of a character the Justified writers can just draw up, and he instantly becomes one of the coolest sons-of-bitches you ever did see. How awesome was he, even if he did leave a lousy (hollow) tip for the pizza-delivery man? (And how awesome was Raylan's move with the tablecloth?) But Nix isn't even a bad guy who's going to be used all season long. No, our Big Bad for Season 3 is Quarles (Neal McDonough), a Harlan newcomer with a sweet sleeve gun. McDonough has always been a recognizable face, but as Quarles, he brings the perfect kind of new blood to a show that just lost one of TV's greatest single-season performances. McDonough doesn't have to try to outdo what Martindale did in Season 2 as Mags Bennett. Nor does Quarles have to be Mags in a suit. The best thing Justified could do was go in a different direction, and it appears to be doing that with Quarles, who's essentially a big-city foreigner with no ties to or respect for the yokels of Kentucky. He's going to be a villain we love to hate all season long, and also one who's competent enough to lower Harlan's population one sleeve-gun bullet at a time. This is going to be fun. And we haven't even met the season's second Big Bad yet!
Of course, it's not just bad guys who have a tumultuous relationship with Raylan. Back at the office, Raylan and Art (Nick Searcy)—one of my favorite relationships on the show—aren't exactly chummy these days, due to the fact that the bossman caught his best Marshal and his girlfriend/ex-wife tampering with cash evidence. I can't wait until those two get friendly again, because the tension is almost too much. They still respect each other, but Art is acting like the disappointed dad, and Raylan is acting like a man who knows he done wrong. But if came down to it, we all know Art would have Raylan's back. He saved his ass at the end of Season 2, if you'll recall.
Raylan and Winona (Natalie Zea) are doing much better with a baby on the way and Gary out of the picture. They're having pregnant sex and Raylan is even joking about poking his baby in the forehead (so good). But how is being an expectant father going to change Raylan's style? And how often can we expect Winona to chastise Raylan for reckless behavior?
And let's not forget about Boyd (the irreplaceable Walton Goggins). The Season 3 promos had us believing that Boyd and Raylan would be partnering up and blastin' fools side-by-side, but the fisticuffs in the Marshal's office told a different story. Boyd's assault on Raylan landed him in jail, and wouldn't you know it? There was Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies), weed-wacker haircut and all, in the same cell block (and with Dewey Crowe!). You bet your ass Boyd was crazy enough to plan it that way. Nothing comes easy with Boyd, and if he has to stay a few extra nights at the Iron Hotel to get back at the hick who shot his girl, then so be it. Maybe he can make a few new friends along the way.
"The Gunfighter" was a statement episode for Justified, letting everyone know that even without Martindale and the Bennetts, FX's best series has dug in with its heels and has plenty of mojo to live a long life. Fantastic return. No other series emulates its protagonist like Justified. Like Raylan Givens, the show is brimming with confidence and making it look easy. Justified is one of television's best.
– There were so many great scenes in the episode, but Fletcher and Raylan in the elevator was a work of genius. I can't imagine Fletcher won't be back in some fashion, but don't expect it anytime soon.
– Ava. With a frying pan. In the kitchen. The struggle for power between Ava, Devil, and Arlo over the leftover weed is going to be fun.
– How long can we expect Boyd to stay in jail? He's got to get sprung soon, right? And how will Dickie be used if he's wearing an orange jumpsuit all season long?
– I still think the show needs more Tim (Jacob Pitts), the sharp-shooting Marshal who can go toe-to-toe with Raylan in a war of words. I nearly lost it when he said Raylan could go back to the office and do "the pee-pee dance."
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom