Something is different about the fourth season of Justified that makes a strong case for being the best season yet. Yes, I realize I said this a year ago about Season 3 too, but for the first time, Justified feels like its traveling to a destination, rather than just giving Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) another big bad guy to kill or run out of Kentucky. Raylan’s buxom barkeep (Jenn Lyon) was the next disappointment in his life we suspected but she was just a distraction so a bigger plot could be laid down. As was the snake charming Billy St. Cyr (Joseph Mazzello), who became putty in Boyd’s (Walton Goggins) hand. A cold case that was hidden in the walls of Arlo’s home became priority #1, but not just at the U.S. Marshal office, but for every major character.
Season 1 introduced us to the Crowder clan; Season 2 it was the Bennetts that canceled any trips to the Bluegrass state. Raylan faced not one, but two big personalities in Season 3. This season has been more methodical than the last, as promises and hopes of the future gave all of our principal players much more to work with. The first three seasons already defined who these characters are, but now they got to own them and take them to new places that pushed the story where it needed to go most–forward.
The Drew Thompson case directly affected two U.S. Marshals in particular. Raylan and his boss Art Mullen (Nick Searcy). For the latter, he sees this as the monumental case he can retire on. He’s been looking for a replacement the last few seasons, but Art is wrestling with that next stage in his life. Art starts out this season by chewing out the first guy from another district trying to shmooze his way in. He knows he has to retire soon, but doesn’t want to. He’s bought a camper to be with his wife 24/7 but is dreading every minute of it. Yet the Thompson case has given him a “Marshal Stiffy” since the day he heard about Waldo Truth. This cold case has inspired Art unlike any other case.
As for Raylan, we’ve never seen him embrace his job in Lexington. Raylan has always been good at it; he cares about the victims whether he saves them in stand-alone episodes or are pet projects like Loretta McCready (Kaitlyn Dever). He’s even shown care for the criminals to help prevent them from doing anything more stupid than they’ve already done. Remember Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman), or Hunter Mosley (Brent Sexton)? He’s never cared for a career as a marshal, he’s just good at it. But having a child on the way has changed things. He risked his job to work side deals, only to see that money stolen.
He’s obviously fond of being the cowboy to save the woman, but that’s his weakness too. He lets his guard down around them, repeatedly, whether it was Ava, Winona, or Lindsay. But becoming a father, above worrying about the safety of Winona (Natalie Zea), has him suddenly caring about the legacy he leaves at work, a job he was contemplating leaving a season ago. A promotion would mean he’d be in line to take Art’s job, and if he still cares for Winona emotionally–and that’s debatable with missing doctor appointments and sleeping with another woman–that would satisfy Winona’s requests, somewhat, and be in harm’s way less often.
Then there’s the ambition to be a better father. Raylan is thinking about how he was raised and wants to do better, despite not knowing how. Arlo was not an example for him, so Raylan could just do the opposite of what Arlo did for starters. He knows what he does on a daily basis is to fight the bad blood that’s been passed down to him, so he doesn’t want to pass it on to his kid. Even as his stubborn father was defiant on his death bed, Raylan wanted to see something good in him, so he could tell his kid that his or her grandfather did at least one good thing in his lifetime. It would have been better than telling his inevitable story that begins, ‘Granddaddy tried to kill daddy once…’
How Arlo’s death affects Raylan from this point on will be something to monitor. For Boyd, his father’s death released him, and put him on a path of self-exploration. In contrast, going up to the Hills and meeting his aunt may have provided Raylan with a reminder that he wasn’t just made of Arlo; the Drew Thompson case and his baby are the only things keeping him focused.
In the case of Boyd and Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter), the precursor to their dreams is their love. Boyd never knew he could reach a place of happiness by being selfless and devoted to Ava, and she never thought she would find a man she could trust and get it in return. Yes, they found their own (illegal) ways of getting there. Arlo and Devil were victims of their love, but it is one of the most intriguing love stories on TV today. Boyd stashed money away for an engagement ring, a house in the suburbs, and a future together. It wasn’t easy realizing those dreams, Boyd clawed his way up from the bottom, opened up to Ava and evaluates his henchmen repeatedly.
Meanwhile, Ava became Boyd’s most trusted partner. She might go to jail someday, but she is well aware of what she did to Delroy (William Mapother) and is constantly being tested with their choice to cut the loose thread that is Ellen May (Abby Miller). They infiltrated a Kentucky swinger’s club–hours after Boyd’s sweet proposal to Ava–and dealt with the Dixie Mafia’s henchmen, from Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) to Nicky Augustine (Mike O’Malley). Last week they discovered they’ve been battling Johnny (David Meunier) all along too, but they want the comfortable life, the home, that society (and the law) deems them unworthy to have. They want the American dream and Drew Thompson is the goose that laid golden eggs, the shortcut to realize that dream–if they can deliver the goods. That’s proving to be a tougher “If” than originally planned. To fail would be fatal.
Last but not least there’s Ellen May, who begins this season with a dream of a life beyond drugs and prostitution. Billy St. Cyr wound up being a false idol, but like many lost souls, she was looking for salvation and a much better life for herself. When she was sent away to Alabama, we thought she would die at the hands of Colt (Ron Edlard), instead Shelby (Jim Beaver) was there to rescue her and answered her prayers; he gave her hope her dreams would be fulfilled, until everyone found out who he really was. It’s never really crossed Ellen May’s mind to use Delroy’s murder of against Ava. That was Ava’s own self-inflicted fear that Ellen May would turn her in. Ellen May is guilty too but it was the only bargaining chip she has. Shelby wanted to use it to ensure their safety, and for certain, it’s still in play. Whatever Ellen May’s fate is, she got to feel hope and have dreams, no matter how small or misguided they were.
The acting, writing, character development, and the tight continuity are more reasons why Justified is at the top of its game–but we know that already. Ambition and dreams are two abstract things that surprisingly exist and prosper in Justified, and they are just as essential to the success of this fourth season as much as Drew Thompson’s identity and capture. That’s why this season has been the best so far.
What are you loving about the fourth Justified? There are just two episodes left and we can’t wait to see how it all turns out. Share your thoughts below and tune into FX on Tuesdays at 10/9c.