Season Premiere — Justified, “The Moonshine War”

There was a lot to love about Justified‘s first season, but one of the things I found most impressive about those 13 episodes is how easily and quickly the series created the world of Harlan, Kentucky. Harlan is certainly a unique place and from very early on in the pilot episode, the series presented those quirks and little bits of charm, dirtiness and grime. And even though the stories in season one where fairly narrow in their scope with the Crowder and Givens families, there is still a great sense of place here.

In that sense, season two of the series picks right up where the initial run left off. “The Moonshine War” might present itself with a very ominous title that suggests a whole lot of bad stuff, but it’s actually a fairly subdued episode that is long on atmosphere and world-building and short on the shoot ’em-up setpieces that came so regularly at the end of season one. On the most basic levels, this is a table-setting episode, one that introduces a number of compelling new characters and expands to a new corner of Harlan that we have never seen before but Raylan is so very obviously familiar with.

After quickly tying up the loose ends from last season by having Raylan fly to Miami and get things moderately straightened out with the cartel and his old office, who apparently wants him back, he’s back in Harlan trying to figure out whether or not he’s done with the people whom he tried so hard to avoid at the outset of this series. Raylan wanted to so bad to never return to Harlan and after only a few short months there, it’s gotten back under his skin like a virus. The big question now is what happens to Harlan with a Raylan completely ready and willing to be involved? Last year, it seemed like he was an outsider still trying to gain traction in his old stomping grounds. Now, he’s fully embrace his place within Harlan’s past and its future and it looks as though the town might not be ready to feel the same way.

“The Moonshine War,” in its world-building and character introductions, is a fairly standalone, close-ended episode about a known sex offender trying to continue his horrible ways against a young local girl. The plot is introduced and concluded within this one episode, Timothy Olyphant gets some great one-lines in the pursuit of this criminal even though Raylan doesn’t have his gun and thus has to rely on Erica Tazel’s Rachel as his weapon of choice. In the end, as usual, Raylan gets this bad man and another criminal is off the pot hole-ridden streets of Harlan. In theory, this could have been like one of those season one episodes that pissed people off to an extremely surprising degree. I haven’t checked the comments sections on HitFix or the AV Club, but I’ll be interested to see if anyone was disappointed that this episode had little shooting, little Boyd and didn’t immediately scream MYTHOLOGY.

But of course this episode is actually all about the series mythology. “War” introduces us to the Bennett clan, a family that’s been making moonshine and doing all sorts of related wrongdoings in Harlan for a very, very long time. Their corner store serves a front for their nefarious activities, but they’ve gotten their paws stuck so deep into the backbone of the town that everyone pretty much knows what they do and how they do it, but there isn’t a lot of force coming down on them to stop.

Margo Martindale stars as the matriarch of the Bennett family Mags, and she’s supported by three degenerate relatives (I think they’re all sons, but I don’t fully remember) played by Jeremy Davies, Joseph Lyle Taylor and Brad Henke. They’re a dysfunctional, but effective group that knows how to intimidate and torture the father of the missing girl for trying to fix the insular problem with outside police help. As we learn very quickly from Mags and her boys, they don’t like anyone going for outside help, no matter what the issue. If there’s a problem, they’ll fix it and they’ll fix it right. All the actors fit right into their new roles and the series’ overall tone. Martindale is always fantastic and her Mags mixes the perfection combination of force, intelligence and compassion. And of course, Jeremy Davies is always fantastic. His Dickie character certainly has bits of Daniel Faraday in there, but there’s definitely a sense that this white trash kind of guy is very, very intelligent underneath all that messy attire.

And because Raylan spends the entire episode with a gun, it allows for Olyphant’s work to look even more impressive. Raylan is fully at home in the Bennett’s corner store and when he’s questioning Coover and Dickie outside their dump of a house and that’s a testament to Olyphant’s work. It’s easy to be a tough guy standing behind a firearm, but Olyphant makes certain that we believe Raylan is just as influential with his words as he is with a gun. We can totally see the slightly different personas that Raylan takes on, from legitimate member of the law enforcement to a more relatable guy when conversing with criminals he has a personal history with. We saw that a lot last season with Walton Goggins’ Boyd but it’s nice to see that comfortability Olyphant has with this world isn’t just within the context of that relationship.

Moving forward, it’s clear that the Bennetts are going to be a major problem for Raylan and he’s probably going to be even more problematic for them. Now that he’s fully invested in staying in Harlan, it will be interesting to see if the vibe of the town continues to impact him and possibly impact the way he does his job. I think he still certainly knows what to do in each situation, but his complicated relationship with Boyd — who is barely seen here — might carry over to the town’s other citizens. And no matter what happens, it’s going to be awesome to watch Justified continue to develop this compelling and off-kilter world. I am so glad to have it back.

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