Before any smart ass feels the need to remind me of this, I’m aware that I’m almost a week late with this post. I’ve been a little busy  if you didn’t know already. It’s a shame because after the unexpectedly strong second season, Justified has jumped to the top of my favorite TV shows currently on the air and I wanted to see if it could carry the emotional momentum of the Bennett clan stories even though 3/4 of last season’s villains were dead by the end of the season finale. Well, if the third season premier, “The Gunfighter,” is any indication of the directions the show is going to take this season, then this has the potential to be even better than last season. With a great guest appearance from Dexter alumni Desmond Harrington and the introduction of likely season Big Bad in the form of Band of Brother‘s Neal McDonough, the fiery Mags Bennett may be gone but her passing has been eased with some fantastic additions to the series cast. This was an episode that hit the sweet spot of Justified plot structure by standing on its own as a self-contained adventure while simultaneously laying the tracks for some great stories down the road.

The episode picks up three weeks after the shoot-out at the Bennett homestead left Doyle sniped through the head, Dickie in jail, Mags dead via suicide, and Raylen with a gunshot wound. His injuries are still affecting his performance and his health problems aren’t helped when Raylen and Boyd have a glass-shattering fight in the Marshall’s office over Raylen arresting Dickie which results in Boyd going back to prison. Ava has been left in charge of the criminal enterprise in Boyd’s absence and after Devil and Arlo try to usurp her power through a massive weed deal (which fails hilariously), Ava is forced to put Devil in his place after he bristles at taking orders from a woman by smacking him in the face with a frying pan. As to crimes under the purview of the U.S. Marshalls, a longtime thorn in Raylen’s side due to the man’s connections with the Dixie Mafia is finally forced to face poetic justice for his crimes when one of his superiors (Neal McDonough) decommissions (via head shot from a concealed pistol) him for failing to come up with the money he owed the Dixie Mafia when his heist involving Dexter‘s Desmond Harrington is intentionally sabotaged by the Dixie Mafia just to prove a point. Raylen shows a quick sign of his ultimate bad-assery by outsmarting Harrington when he ambushes Raylen and Winona despite Raylen’s injuries and decreased reaction speed.

I’m a big fan of Desmond Harrington’s Quinn on Dexter. I always thought there was so much more chemistry between Quinn and Debra than whatever character they had shipped Jennifer Carpenter with that season (god I really need to start Season 5 and eventually 6). His character on Justified, Fletcher Nix (who sadly it appears will no longer be around even though it looked like Raylen didn’t kill him) couldn’t be any more different than the sauve and well-kept Quinn. Nix was a slob and talked in this southern mumble that was almost hard to understand, but Harrington completely sold the performance. Neal McDonough seems to be another fantastic addition to the cast as the collected man from Detroit (whose name will eventually be revealed to be Quarles). After two redneck (but brutally efficient [well Mags anyways]) villains, it could be fun to have a fish out of water villain, and Quarles seemed to be eating up the rural details of this particular stretch of Kentucky. My only concern is that he seems so mechanically villainous at the moment that he won’t have the depth that made Mags so memorable.

Last Tuesday’s episode also gave plenty of opportunities for our two female heroines to shine. I’m on the record as not being especially crazy about Joelle Carter’s Ava Crowder, but for the first time since the series pilot, Ava showed the sort of backbone and fiery resolve that the script constantly beats us over the head of her possessing but we almost never see. When she took a frying pan at 100 mph to Devil’s face, it was a resounding moment of feminist strength, and perhaps the opportunity to see her come into her own running the Crowder crime family will make her grow on me (though previews I’ve seen seem to hint that Boyd is getting out of jail soon). Natalie Zea also had significant screen time. She’s pregnant with Raylen’s child, and she and Timothy Olyphant have developed such a natural and enjoyable chemistry that it’s far easier to root for Raylen and Winona than it was for Raylen and Ava or Seth Bullock and Alma Garret.

I could go on about how awesome it was to see Jere Burns (Breaking Bad) again as recurring villain Winn Duffy, but he survived the massacre at the Dixie Mafia office and it appears we will be seeing more of him in the future. Justified began as a guilty pleasure program that I could simply watch and turn my brain off and enjoy the pulpy action and dialogue. While it’s still not the most intellectually demanding program on the planet, it’s managed to find a unique voice and there is truly nothing else like it on TV. It’s a neo-Western and a neo-noir crime thriller all rolled into one. I’d probably never read a real Elmore Leonard crime novel, but I’m more than happy to watch one every week on TV.

Final Score: A-