Few season premieres get me as excited as the ones that lead me back to Harlan County, Kentucky—the home of FX's outstanding Justified—because few things are more comforting than the plate of hushpuppies and maple syrup that goes with following Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) as he cleans up the streets and makes a mess of his life. And tonight's outstanding Season 4 premiere, "Hole in the Wall," was no different; it felt like coming home and checking back in with old friends that always have a retort for even your wittiest of barbs. But it's how the show makes viewers feel like this that proves there's something special is going on here.
I said this while writing up last year's premiere and I'll say it again this season: Justified makes great television look so darned easy. I rewind Justified more than any other show just to take in every word, every glance, and every character's every breath because it's poetry, and the best poetry feels spontaneous and effortless. The series is an entity unto itself that feels alive, with Raylan Givens as its soul. Justified is back, y'all, and it's back with a confidence that makes us feel like it never left. That's the thing about this show and its colorful characters; it doesn't feel like it's back in our lives, it feels like we're back in its life.
We always know that coming back into Justified, Raylan, Boyd, and a whole gaggle of hillbillies will be waiting for us, but what we don't know is what new faces they'll be squaring off against. Season 2 gave us mean mom Mags Bennett and Season 3 gave us the demented Robert Quarles and conniving Ellstin Limehouse. And what we walked back into with Season 4 was an ice-cold cold case and a bag of snakes. I can't tell you how excited I am for this. I LOVED Season 2, largely because of Mags' presence as the root of all the evil in that run. Season 3, while still a lot of fun, felt like a step backward; the story felt crowded with both Quarles and Limehouse—each one great enough to hold his own season—demanding attention and complicating things. Justified is so adept at crafting perfect dialogue and strengthening even the most minor of characters that I don't think it needs more than one dominant bad guy, but it can clearly handle more than just one major arc. So how did the writers address that problem in Season 4? It gave us our bad dude in the snake-juggling preacher, Billy (The Pacific's Joe Mazzello), and then thickened the stew with an old mystery surrounding a bag so important to Arlo Givens that he'd slit the throat of the county jail's library system. Friends, this is going to be fun.
"Hole in the Wall" showed off more of Justified's effortless ability to set up stories without making a big chore for us. Raylan, looking to make some extra loot for that new mouth he'll have to feed, went off the books and picked up a bail jumper for an sexy old friend he used to bang. That alone was a simple task for Raylan, but things got complicated when some teen crooks were busted snooping around his dad's house and fled before they could get caught, forcing Raylan to move his on-the-run friend to the trunk of his car, lest he be seen bending the etiquette of Marshal'ing in Kentucky. Raylan came across the bag of mystery at Arlo's house and decided to hold on to it, with the teen thieves as witnesses. It turned out to be the bag the kids were after, so they did the next logical thing and stole Raylan's car, leading to an awesome showdown at the junkyard between the two thieves and their junkman cohort, the fumbling constable Bob (Patton Oswalt), a bail jumper who was just minding his own business and trying to see his kids, and cool-as-F Raylan, looking to make some extra scratch for his unborn kid (or so he says). In the world of Justified, trouble finds trouble, and trouble had a big hootenanny right then and there.
What's amazing about that arc is that it seemed so simple but it accomplished so much without breaking a sweat. We got our standalone story about Raylan bringing in a bail jumper, we got seamless introduction to new supporting characters like Bob, and we got just enough of a peek at the season's great mystery (the bag) to make us want to immediately fire up Episode 2. And there wasn't one part that outshone the others. While other shows struggle to lay out just one engaging story, Justified told three that all came together organically and felt true to Justified's game.
Meanwhile, checking in with Boyd showed us that his Oxycontin bidness has hit a bit of a snag, with Boyd's toothless clientele choosing spiritual serpentine salvation over a pill that makes users wet themselves and drool. The multi-threading was less pronounced in this half of the episode, but it was still impressive. One of Boyd's dealers refused to pay up because he'd been turned by a snake-handling preacher who told him drugs were bad. My dear old darling Ellen May (love that whoreface) shot a furry while on drugs because that's just what happens in her line of work, and while being shamed like a dog, figured her life needed a kick in the ass—so she followed the invitation from the paper wrapping the drugs came in to a tent in the woods, where Billy the snake-juggling preacher man was sssaving sssoulsss with a sssslithering sssermon. It was a firsthand run-in with Billy's influence for both Boyd's drug business and Ava's pimping business, and therefore an affront to both Boyd and Ava.
Again, it's all the stories working together without straining a muscle, taking advantage of the tight-knit world of Harlan and the rippling effect that one outsider can splash on the shores of our familiar heroes and anti-heroes. We'll have more to talk about next week with regard to the how and the why and the what of this season's story, but for now, this premiere serves as a reminder of how Justified is at its breezy best, and why it's one of the best shows on television.
POSTCARDS FROM HARLAN COUNTY
– What's the bag all about!?!?!? It must be pretty important if Arlo was willing to shank someone else who showed an interest in it. And what does it have to do with the cocaine-holding parachuting guy from the opening flashback? "Sure as shit ain't Santa Claus!"
– I still don't like Raylan shacking up at the bar or poking the blonde bartender Lindsey. After all his troubles with Winona, Raylan deserves to be single, am I right ladies?
– That's Ron Eldard as Boyd's new muscle Colton Rhodes, and he's a welcome addition to this fantastically put together cast.
– And now the requisite mention that Joe Mazzello was the kid in Jurassic Park. That's also True Blood's werepanther Lindsay Pulsipher as Bille the Preacher's sister. The casting in this show is ridiculously superb.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom