Justified creator and executive producer Graham Yost understands that he's no longer welcome in Harlan County.
It's not that his Emmy Award-winning series, which returns this week, portrays the Eastern Kentucky town as a haven for merciless criminals. And it's not that the California locations doubling for the Appalachians don't look quite as mountain-y as Kentuckians would like.
No, Yost drew the ire of Harlan — and Justified fans across the country — when he killed off Mags Bennett at the end of last season.
"They just loved her so much," Yost says of the crime boss matriarch, played by Margo Martindale. The character, which won Martindale an Emmy, was at the center of the second season of the FX drama based on Elmore Leonard's short stories about Raylan Givens, a deputy U.S. marshal based in Lexington but originally from Harlan.
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After watching her family crime business crumble around her at the end of last season, Mags took a drink of her lethal concoction, called "apple pie," setting the stage for a new bad guy to drive the third season's drama, which begins Tuesday.
This time, the villain is Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), a sinister, fair-haired member of the Detroit mob who comes to Lexington in an effort to take over Harlan County.
"I liked the idea of the carpetbagger — and that was our nickname for him before we landed on the name Quarles — especially a criminal, coming to Kentucky thinking he's going to show these backwoods people how crime is really done," Yost says. "We'll see how well that goes for him."
As in previous seasons, contending with this year's nemesis will be one of Justified's numerous story lines.
In unfinished business from last season, Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) and Winona (Natalie Zea) are preparing to welcome a baby, and she has to consider life with a man in as much perpetual danger as Raylan. Then there are office politics with Raylan's boss, Art (Nick Searcy), and colleagues: by-the-book Rachel (Erica Tazel) and aggressive Tim (Jacob Pitts).
A notable shift between Justified's first and second seasons was that the first year focused more on self-contained procedural episodes, and the second year addressed the primary story lines. Yost says that was a natural progression for a new series — and an evolution viewers can expect in the third season.
"We were given a suggestion by the head of FX, John Landgraf, before season one," Yost says. "He said, for the first half of the season, you want more stand-alone episodes because people are still sampling, and you don't want people tuning in feeling like they're lost.
"So there's that: You don't want to scare off an audience by being too serialized. At the same time, you want to reward your loyal audience. So the balance we struck in the first season, we started by introducing story lines in the beginning that would play out later in the season — Raylan and his ex-wife, Raylan and his father, Raylan and Boyd — and then let it jell up in the last run of episodes."
Yost says that last season, the primary story was more present, even in episodes designed to stand alone. That's what the audience can expect this year, he says. As season three progresses, the serial story line will become more all-encompassing.
Also like last season, story lines familiar to Kentuckians — mountaintop-removal coal mining, the interstate pill pipeline — will figure in the show. Yost says OxyContin will re-enter as a story line, and there will be a dose of rural Kentucky-style politics, with a race for sheriff as a subplot.
But don't expect to see any authentic Kentucky landscapes as a backdrop.
Yost says everyone involved in Justified would love to film in Eastern Kentucky, but "we'd have to have unprecedented success in terms of viewership and be a real cash cow to be able to afford that. That is something that we would love to do. It's just not cheap."
In its second season, Justified saw a 15 percent increase in total viewers. An average of almost 2.2 million watch each new episode; that audience increases to almost 4 million each week when DVR viewers are included.
Yost said that because the series did not start out shooting in Kentucky, it's less likely to come here. "It usually works the other way," he said. He cites HBO's True Blood, which filmed most of its first season in its Louisiana setting and now gets there only for a few weeks a season.
Most of Justified is filmed in California, with the rural town of Green Valley, north of San Francisco, standing in for Eastern Kentucky in exterior shots.
To try to keep a level of authenticity to the plots, Yost — who can pronounce Versailles correctly, by the way — says he and some of the show's writers and designers have made research trips to Eastern Kentucky. Leonard's researchers also have taken trips to the area. (On Tuesday, the day of Justified's season premiere, Leonard will release a new novel, Raylan, based on the lead character.)
When Justified was being readied for its debut in 2010, Yost said, part of his intention was to create a crime drama outside the major coastal metropolises of New York and Los Angeles. Two years later, he says, the only downside of that plan is not being able to film here.
"It's a very rich backdrop for stories," Yost says. "We're doing an Elmore Leonard show, and we're trying to stay true to his spirit, with interesting characters and funny, scary, dramatic stories.
"Could you do that anywhere in the country, in someplace like Santa Fe? I'm sure there are five, six seasons of stories in Santa Fe. Certainly Breaking Bad has found that in Albuquerque. But this is our world, and we love it."
The show's Harlan roots are a perfect setting for the real centerpiece of the show: the relationship between Raylan and his frenemy Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins).
Boyd's presence is in large part an answer to why Yost killed off Mags.
"We have a resident bad guy: We've got Boyd," Yost says. "To keep accumulating bad guys would be more mouths we have to serve."
The relationship between Boyd and Raylan needs attention because they always seem to be on unstable ground, he says. Their Harlan roots have nurtured that tension.
"One of the things that I remember when I was down in Harlan talking to people about the stories is they said they like the fact that when Raylan would see a bad guy, if he knew him from the past, they'd shake hands and say, 'How ya doin'?' even if they're on opposite sides of the law," Yost says. "There was that sense that this isn't personal. This is just the job.
"Is that specific to Eastern Kentucky? I don't know. It seems like if you tried to set that somewhere else, it wouldn't ring as true."