Rich Copley: 'Justified' is in its prime, with great acting and fine writing

Carla Gugino 
plays Raylan's old flame, who shows up in the second episode.
Carla Gugino plays Raylan's old flame, who shows up in the second episode.

If you assault a law enforcement officer, you will go to jail. That fact is reinforced in the third-season premiere of Justified.

In the episode debuting Tuesday, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) goes after deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) in the marshal's office in Lexington. But a few days later, Raylan visits Boyd at the jail and tells him he has thought better of the situation.

At the time of the fight, Raylan tells Boyd, "I couldn't see that you weren't assaulting a federal officer. You were just havin' a dust-up with an old buddy."

It's the depths of those ties to the days before Raylan was a lawman and Boyd was trying to become the crime king of Harlan County — and the chess game being played in these scenes — that tell us Justified is still at the top of its game in its third year.

We are starting to see a more humanized Raylan in the season premiere. He has been shot in an attack to which we are not yet privy, but we are quickly reminded that as last season closed, he and his ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea), were expecting a baby. Now they are getting all domestic, looking to buy a house and settle down: Should they get two sinks in the master bathroom?

While nursing his wound, Raylan is assigned to desk duty. But this is Justified, and this is Raylan, so we know that won't last long.

Pretty soon, he's being drawn into this season's central story: The Detroit mob has come to set up shop in Harlan, aiming to control the pill pipeline between Florida and Kentucky, directing a portion of the action and most of the profits back to the Motor City.

Heading the action is Robert Quarles (played as a silver-haired devil by Neal McDonough). We probably aren't going to warm up to Quarles the way we did to last season's beloved villain Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale). But by the end of the third episode, I'm fairly certain, we're going to love to hate this guy.

Quarles is confident he will have no trouble controlling Harlan, but that means controlling Boyd.

Quarles and Boyd are on a collision course, and the big question is, where will Raylan end up in all of this?

With a number of complex relationships to navigate, the season is poised to give Olyphant another good shot at an Emmy nomination. Raylan and Winona's domestic bliss gets early challenges when the couple find themselves at gunpoint. Then, an old flame of Raylan's shows up in the second episode. (In a fun twist for Elmore Leonard fans, she is Marshal Karen Goodall, played by Carla Gugino, who played Leonard heroine Karen Sisco in a short-lived ABC series. We are quickly told that Goodall has not always had that last name. Hmmm.)

As Boyd, Goggins gets back into delicious line deliveries and takes control of almost every scene he's in. Joelle Carter is very much at home as Ava, another of Raylan's old flames, who is now Harlan's crime queen on Boyd's arm. Zea has acquired some warmth as Winona, which might make fans more comfortable with her and Raylan.

But the strength of Justified is its writing: The story is definitely going somewhere, although we can't say where. That's why we'll go along for another ride.

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