In two seasons, Raylan Givens, the hero of Justified, has emerged as a sort of Central/Eastern Kentucky James Bond.
Played by Timothy Olyphant, the sexy lawman is never too far from danger, always has to contend with the beautiful women who cross his path and has a boss who doesn't care much for his methods.
When that boss, Chief Deputy Art Mullen, played by Nick Searcy, dressed down Raylan at the beginning of last week's episode, it was a reminder of many of M's scoldings of 007.
And like Bond, Raylan has had to contend with some formidable villains — although none has been seen stroking a fluffy white kitty.
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This season, Raylan has stared down Mags Bennett (Actors Theatre of Louisville veteran and Secretariat co-star Margo Martindale) and her boys, whose enterprises start with harvesting marijuana and get more serious.
Mags ended this season's opening episode with one of the creepiest scenes in recent memory: She and her son Dickey (Jeremy Davies) got together with this sad sack they'd been tormenting the whole episode, under the pretense of a peace offering. In fact, he drank their moonshine from a tainted glass, and as the poor soul quickly and painfully expired, Mags softly told him it was his comeuppance for going against the family but that she would take care of his 14-year-old daughter and that he would see his late wife soon. That probably didn't make his final moment any better.
A few episodes later, frustrated with son Coover's latest bone-headed move, Mags took a hammer and pulverized his hand.
Martindale should get an Emmy nomination for the scene in which she gave a fiery denunciation of mountaintop-removal mining at a meeting held by a relatively minor-league bad gal this season, Carol (Rebecca Creskoff), the coal company spokesperson — a femme fatale who couldn't get Raylan into bed. Then, in the very next episode, Mags sold out her community to the mining company when she got her price for the mountain, a move that grossed out even the sleazy coal company rep.
Justified has had an interesting dance with mountaintop removal, initially putting the bad guys, the Bennetts, against it and the law in defense of the coal companies, although last week's episode seemed to more firmly cast the practice as an evil.
Mags is now at the center of a revenge plot. Raylan shot and killed Coover, who had kidnapped the aforementioned 14-year-old after she discovered that the Bennetts killed her father.
As we steer into the final few episodes of this season, it looks as if we are building toward a finale that could rival last season's final bow, which was energized by M.C. Gainey's turn as nasty Bo Crowder, a ... well, a word we can't say in a family newspaper.
But we can say he was more than willing to sell out anyone, including his son, Boyd, for his own interests.
And Boyd has been the omnipresent wild card in Justified since we met him yelling "Fire in the hole!" as he aimed a rocket launcher at a Lexington church.
Brilliantly played by Walton Goggins, Boyd started last season as Raylan's nemesis of the most complex kind, having grown up with Raylan and worked in coal mines with him until they gravitated to opposite sides of the law.
In fairly short order, Raylan put Boyd behind bars, but he was out soon under the spell of a religious conversion — or was it?
During an interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air last season, Goggins wouldn't say whether the change was real.
It seems we found out for certain last week: Boyd has returned to the warpath, wanting to wrest control of Harlan County from Mags and the Bennetts and return it to Crowder hands. Will that put him at odds with Raylan, or oddly on his old friend's side?
That's why we keep watching.
Even more than in season one, the strongest selling point of Justified this season has been the characters' shifting values and loyalties. Raylan has even gained more humanity, going rogue and showing some vulnerability personally and professionally.
From the beginning, Justified had a great hero. But a story's greatness is defined by its antagonists as well as its protagonists. By that measure, Justified is poised to take its place among the greats.