The Perfect Villainy of 'Justified'

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Like breaking in a pair of cowboy boots, it takes a little time to settle into a season of Justified. There are new stakes to be learned, new characters to get to know, and, in the case of this season at least, the loss of Mags Bennett to be mourned. So it was exciting that last night's episode felt so comfy and satisfying, like we were really getting to the meat of the season. And much of that is owed to the menacing presence of steely-eyed freak Neal McDonough.

When McDonough, a longtime supporting actor known for Band of Brothers and Desperate Housewives, joined this season as (arguably) the main villain, it felt like a bit of a letdown. Margo Martindale was so terrific as the chief nemesis last season, so they really needed to find someone terrific to keep that fantastic momentum rolling through this season. McDonough didn't feel like that guy. Sure he's mesmerizing to look at with those sad, glowing winter-blue eyes of his, but he's just another guy in a suit. This show has a lot of guys in suits! Why do we need another one?

Luckily over time McDonough's character has revealed himself to be something far more than the sum of his clothes. Among other nasty things, he seems to get a kick out of tying up and torturing wayward rentboys. Which, y'know, we haven't seen that on this show before! And there's a startling, scary, simmering rage that we've caught brief glimpses of beneath his translucent, tranquil exterior, so it's probably fair to assume that that will eventually come roaring out in full and terrifying fury. So, can't wait for that. McDonough strikes the precarious balance between relaxed and raging really well and finds many odd little things to do within that range of feeling. The final scene of last night's episode was a shot of McDonough's character, a somewhat exiled Detroit mob heavy, driving home, or somewhere, while fiddling with a bottle of pills and dodging a phone call from his family. It sounds like a simple scene, and it was, but McDonough infused it with so much chilling anger and surprising sadness that it finally fully endeared us to the idea of him being the season's main foe. He's perfectly creepy and smug and punchable and all that, but there's also a strange sympathy working its way in, just as it should for any good villain.

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McDonough is aided in his villainy by the terrifically weasely Jere Burns, an actor who's proven himself enough in smaller roles like this and on Breaking Bad that I think he might deserve a bigger role, on Justified or something else. It was fantastic to see his mostly cowed small-time kingpin find a little of his old strength last night, getting off a wonderful line about MythBusters while also threatening our hero with something pretty brutal. This show is so clever about mixing levity and darkness and Burns is perfectly instep with those rhythms.

So basically, yay third season of Justified. It's going quite well after all. We were honestly a bit worried there in the somewhat scattershot beginning (we like Mykelti Williamson's character but they haven't really found a way to fully work him into the story, have they?), but now things are humming along. Too bad there are only a few episodes left.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.