One of the last things I ever expected to see on an episode of Justified was Patton Oswalt taking a swift kick to the crotch, yet roughly two-thirds of the way into “Hole in the Wall,” that very image was laid out before my eyes. It’s not just that Justified rarely cottons to an easy, gonad-kicking style of comedy (not to say it’s totally devoid of humor, but the laughs usually come packaged in little asides or quick snippets of snappy dialogue), but also that this particular groin hit comes smack in the middle of a tense shootout. Circumstances involving Raylan Givens, the aforementioned Oswalt as Constable Bob Sweeney, a hardened thug (Chris Chalk, courtesy of Homeland), a couple of dumb young crooks, and several firearms typically end with Raylan either cleverly defusing the situation or cutting it short with a handful of bullets, yet in Justified‘s fourth season premiere Patton Oswalt takes a hit to a sensitive area and then stabs a young woman in the foot.
This isn’t the only instance where “Hole in the Wall” opts for the funny bone, either. Earlier in the hour, we learn that surprising a drug-addled prostitute with a bear costume is a surefire way to receive several gunshot wounds, and that Boyd Crowder knows, deep in his heart, that it’s never too early for a Dr. Pepper.
What does all this mean for the denizens of Harlan County? Will they be living out the next several months in a parallel universe that’s slightly goofier than the one they’re used to? Will season four be remembered as that inexplicably comedically-inclined season?
Only time will tell, really. The next twelve episodes could see an increase in funny, or this could just be a lighter episode (lighter is, of course, a relative term, considering the mangled body and graphic throat-cutting that bookend “Hole in the Wall”) to ease back into the swing of things. Sadly, a part of TV criticism is having to analyze a work in tiny pieces without being able to see the whole story, and that aspect of television isn’t likely to change in the near future. And either way, it’s not as though more jokes would harm the show in the slightest- most of the extra humor in the premiere is courtesy of Oswalt, and he blends right into the show’s pre-existing rhythms with his frumpy-yet-endearing charm. While this episode may feel a bit different from previous outings, never for a second does it feel like a different show- funny or not, it’s still Justified through and through.
And, true to form, “Hole in the Wall” spends plenty of time setting up new plot threads to be woven together in the coming twelve episodes. Boyd expands his burgeoning drug empire with the addition of Colton Rhodes, an old ex-military buddy from Kuwait. Despite only showing up in a handful of scenes, Rhodes is clearly the quintessential Justified type- all the expertise of a military policeman who can size up Jimmy and Johnny in an instant, yet all the brainlessness of a killer that would execute someone over a mistaken turn of phrase without realizing it. That mix of finely honed combat experience and total lack of judgement should make for some interesting chemistry with Marshall Raylan Givens.
The second (of several) new additions is a wily young fellow named Preacher Billy, who’s introduced, surprise surprise, in the middle of leading a church service. Despite Billy never once deviating from his creepy, snake-filled sermon during the course of this scene, his overall motivations couldn’t be clearer. Like Boyd Crowder and Mags Bennett before him, Billy’s at home when he has total control over a mass of people, and at this point the “charismatic speech that leaves a whole flock of people eating out of your hand” is practically a Justified villain rite of passage. Seeing Boyd or Mags work a crowd was proof of their abilities as master manipulators and strategists, but it was also what kept them in favor with the folks of Harlan; in essence, it’s what gave them power. With Billy, it’s no different. There’s some hidden reason he’s been snapping up all of Boyd’s addicts into his congregation, and whatever it is, it’s certainly not just about saving souls.
And the final piece being added to season four is also the one with the most potential to shake things up: the mystery of the downed parachuter. There’s a reason Preacher Billy gets so little screen-time over the course of the premiere- while he’s a new villain being thrown into the mix, he’s not the star villain of the season (colloquially referred to as the “big bad”). There won’t be a big bad this year. Rather, season four will focus around a mystery, presumably involving a parachute, a dead guy and plenty of drugs.
As much as I enjoy heaping praise upon TV shows I like, it needs to be said that this is an incredibly smart move by Yost. How many shows get caught up in the same formula over and over again, with each passing repetition growing staler than the last? Innumerous shows have been written off by fans with a “well, the first few seasons were great, but…,” and just by showing that they’re willing to switch things up, the folks behind Justified should be given an enormous amount of credit. Plus, without a major villain to draw screen time away from the other characters, season four might allow Boyd to regain his role as a lead character crucial to the story and leave behind the side-plot filler he was relegated to last season. Plunging further into the mystery may throw either Boyd or Arlo into a makeshift big bad role, and the impact that could have on the story (with the emotional investment we already have in these characters) would be so much higher than with a villain who was brought in to run amok and be killed off after a rigid thirteen-episode stint.
If one were to look at each season of Justified as a separate Elmore Leonard novel, a little twist or two from season to season almost seems like the natural progression of things. These are individual stories being told in a series, and sometimes those stories will vary a little in terms of tone or structure. With that approach, who knows how long Justified could keep this hot streak going.