A couple quick notes before I jump into the meat of this review. First, long time readers know that I generally review TV series on either an episode by episode basis (if I’m watching it as it airs on TV) or on a disc-by-disc basis (if I’m catching it on DVD). I wanted to finish the second season of Justified, however, before Season 3 began this Tuesday and so I essentially watched the entire second season in on day on Monday. The second note of course is that ultimately that was a waste of time because I still haven’t had a chance to watch this Tuesday’s Justified or the mid-season premiere of Glee for that matter. I’m in the process of moving to NYC to start my internship and in between countless drives back and forth between Morgantown and Philippi to take my stuff home as well as getting around to cleaning my bedroom at my dad’s house for the first time since before college began, I’ve had very little Don time. Hopefully, tomorrow before I move to the Big Apple on Saturday, I’ll actually be able to find time to watch those two TV shows and maybe even some of the movies I have from Netflix. On that note, I am making time to review this second season of Justified before I forget what happens and what a great season it was.

If Bo Crowder was the Big Bad of Season 1 (though one could make a healthy argument for the Miami Cartel), then this season’s supreme villain was the superbly characterized Mags Bennett. After Raylen (with a little help from Boyd and the Miami Marshall’s Office) is finally able to settle his disputes with the Miami Cartel following last season’s finale, he returns to Harlan only to find himself embroiled in almost equally dangerous feud with his family’s old nemeses, the Bennett Clan. Pot growers and led by the ruthless Mags Bennett (an Emmy-winning Margo Martindale), Raylen is thrown back into the business of this family when a routine investigation involving a child molester harassing 14 year old girl Loretta leads to the murder of Loretta’s father by the Bennetts. Mags can poison a man without batting an eye and has no problem taking a hammer to her son’s hand for screwing up business. You’d be hard-pressed to name a tougher female villain from the last ten years. With her son as the Chief of Police for one of the smaller towns in Harlan County, Mags is almost untouchable until a feud with a local mining company and the emerging criminal activities of Boyd Crowder (who falls off the legitimate life wagon hard) threatens to destroy everything Mags has worked for. To add to Raylen’s complications (because investigating the Bennetts would be hard enough work), he is back in a relationship with  Winona (who falls down some slippery legal slopes this season) and has to solve his usual litany of cases such as escaped pregnant prisoners and attempts on his life from all sides.

One of my biggest problems with last season was that Justified didn’t seem to find its voice until the last couple of episodes when it realized that a healthy combination of neo-Western action with modern crime thriller tropes was its sweet spot. With the exception of one or two weak episodes here and there, Season 2 starts off with a specific theme in mind and never lets off til the finale. With almost as accurate an eye for rural poverty and crime as Winter’s Bone, the second season of Justified tries to paint a cultural portrait and as someone born and raised one state over from Kentucky (West by God Virginia), they truly hit the nail on the head. Hitting on so many of the issues that affect the rural poor in this nation such as strip-mining, oxycontin abuse, methamphetamine, as well as some of the positive things like a sense of community and a love of nature, this season of Justified gave such a forceful rendition of my neck of the woods that I almost no longer feel the need to call the series a guilty pleasure any more. This was simply smart and socially conscious television.

Another resounding area of success for this season was the casting. Margo Martindale was simply exceptional as Mags. Along with Livia on The Sopranos, she is one of the greatest female villains in the history of television if not the greatest. Mags was a complex role and she could transition from a sympathetic mother figure to the little girl whose father she murdered to a complete monster willing to sacrifice her biological children for her own gain. She could publicly denounce in a fiery sermon the proposed strip mine in Harlan County and then coldly sell out her neighbors when the time comes. Margo Martindale simply owned the role and remains one of the most impressive dramatic female performances in the history of TV. Kaitlyn Dever portrayed young orphan Loretta and I really wish she had more screen time. In the moments she had, she would steal the show. I was often reminded of a much younger version of Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Winter’s Bone with Loretta’s toughness and passion. There was a great monologue when Loretta is being confronted by a child molester that is one of the most impressive scenes I’ve witnessed with a child actor, and when Loretta is finally forced to accept what is really happening in her life, Kaitlyn Dever is still able to capture all of the tragic vulnerability of a 14 year old in this situation.

Lost‘s Jeremy Davies (as well as less prominent Lost alumni Brad William Henke) also joined the cast this season as Dickie Bennett, Mags perpetual screw-up of a son with a life-long limp received from Raylen when the two were teenagers and Dickie intentionally beaned Raylen in the head during a baseball game. Dickie couldn’t be more the opposite of Daniel Farraday, the nerdy and neurotic physicist on Lost, but Jeremy Davies manages to find his inner redneck drug dealer with almost no problem. Davies has really solidified himself in recent years as a premier character actor. Natalie Zea continued to impress this season as Winona received significantly more screen time, and even though they took Winona’s character in some questionable directions, Zea always kept it believable with her very natural performance. Timothy Olyphant was as effective as usual even if he didn’t do anything especially different as Raylen this season than he did back in Season 1. Walton Goggins managed to be even more memorable as Boyd this year because while seeing his deliciously over-the-top rendition of a the righteous religious vigilante Boyd was fun last year, seeing him slowly transition back to his life of crime was far more compelling.

This season seemed much more serialized than Season 1. While there were certainly still “crime of the week” episodes, the second season did a much more admirable job of incorporating more of the over-arching drama of the series into episodes so that no episode stood truly isolated from the rest of the series. It worked the best when the Bennetts were the center of attention as this backwoods but brutal crime family was endlessly entertaining and thrilling, but even when they weren’t the focal point of the episode, we were fed just enough information about Boyd’s descent to crime or Raylen’s problems with his father or Loretta’s new life living with the Bennetts that you always wanted to see exactly what happened next. With the exception of Ava who seems as vacuous and irrelevant as ever, all of the characters felt more defined and dynamic than Season 1 which led to much more of an emotional investment in the action that came down. When major characters died (and there were several), it was the increased emphasis on exploring just what made these characters tick that made all of those scenes pay off.

When Season 1 ended, I declared Justified to be my new guilty pleasure choice of programming, but if this series can maintain the high level of quality it displayed during Season 2, then it almost seems disrespectful to the writing staff and actors on this series to declare it anything other than top-tier TV programming. It’s still not quite as good as Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, but it’s edge-of-your-seat thrills and undeniable fun. I’m still mad at myself that I haven’t had the chance to watch the Season 3 premiere but I promise that will happen within the next 24 hours. I can personally promise that Season 3 of Justified is going to join Glee and The Walking Dead as the current series I review as they air (I wish The Walking Dead would return soon and that the second half of the season is better than the first half). For fans of crime dramas and smart action thrills, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not checking this show out. It takes a while to find itself but when it finally does, it became something truly special.

Final Score: A-