The world lost an amazing voice this year with the passing of beloved novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard. The author leaves behind a literary resume of near epic proportions, and a list of cinematic adaptations to match. One of the most recent and successful adaptations of Leonard's work has been the FX series 'Justified,' which not only derived its tale of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) from the author's short story 'Fire in the Hole,' but the series' success and ability to convincingly adapt a very specific Leonardian world prompted the raconteur to write the novel Raylan – portions of which will be used as story threads in the series' upcoming fifth season. But any discussion of Leonard cannot be done without a conversation on legacy, and in an inadvertent but heady tip of the hat, the fourth season of 'Justified' happens to be about just that.
For the past three seasons, 'Justified' has placed problems directly in Raylan's way, or simply on his radar, and given him cause to confront and sometimes eliminate those problems. As the series has become more and more serialized, however, the stories it aims to tell have become gradually more and more complex, and manage to interweave the various character arcs with one another in ways that are more multifaceted and involved than simply pitting the law against the lawbreaker.
Perhaps 'Justified' is particularly attuned to telling that brand of story, since most of its characters don't necessarily fit into the black and white, good guy or bad guy mold. Which is why starting season 4 off with a mystery that began 30 years prior to the current storyline, and thereby shifting away from the seasonal Big Bad – a role last filled by Neal McDonough's frighteningly sadistic and perverse carpetbagger Robert Quarles – allows the story to focus more on an assessment of where Raylan is headed, now that he's about to be a father, and where Boyd Crowder's (Walton Goggins) criminal empire is going, after his encounter with Quarles, Wynn Duffy (the amazing Jere Burns) and the Detroit Mafia in season 3.
That season ended with the appropriately titled 'Slaughterhouse,' which saw many of the additions and subtractions to the show's roster take a backseat to the emotional impact leveled by a confession from Raylan's father, Arlo (Raymond J. Barry), in which he stated he had killed a "man in a hat" to protect Boyd. Of course, that statement was loaded with meaning, as Arlo had recently taken Boyd on as surrogate son of sorts, and the confession's detail of having shot a man in a hat, suggested he (onset dementia or not) had intended to kill his own son to protect his much more suitable surrogate one.
That's a lot of detail to recall before diving headlong into a mystery that begins in the early '80s, when a man believed to be a fella named Drew Thompson and his bag of cocaine fell from the sky, but Graham Yost and the rest of the 'Justified' writer's room manage to make it consistently pay off in surprisingly affecting and gratifying ways. Season 4 eschews its normal villain-in-Harlan storyline for something altogether different, compelling, and unexpectedly fantastic, by, in part, examining the notion of legacy, as Raylan, Boyd, and many other denizens of Harlan County attempt to take steps toward the future, but inevitably find themselves digging up the past. And in doing so, these characters come to various conclusions as to who they are, and how it is they will be remembered.
It's the kind of story where gravestones in the front yard of a vacant house wind up being subtle, thematic bookends, while in true 'Justified' tradition, longstanding grudges (familial and otherwise) go unresolved, but not unspoken; relationships are destroyed, just as others seem to be renewed; and when push comes to shove, the good guys choose the lesser of two evils, knowing full well that the lesser evil will one day have to be dealt with as well.
Season 4 starts off strong with 'Hole in the Wall,' a title that is as literal in meaning as it is reminiscent of Wild West outlaws – which is convenient, as much of the episode finds Raylan chasing down murderous bail-jumper named Jodi Adair (Chris Chalk) with the help of the season's most welcome addition in Constable Bob Sweeney – played to perfection by the hilarious Patton Oswalt. Meanwhile, Boyd is slowly drawn into an increasingly unfriendly battle of wills with snake-handling preacher Billy St. Cyr, played by 'Jurassic Park' and 'The Pacific' alum Joseph Mazzello, and his sister Cassie (Lindsay Pulsipher, 'The Rambler' and 'True Blood'). As always, Boyd is joined by cousin Johnny (David Meunier) and his ladylove and partner-in-crime Ava (Joelle Carter); but this time around, he also welcomes an old army buddy, Colton Rhodes (Ron Eldard) – whose struggles with drug addiction wind up putting him on a collision course with the criminally underutilized marshal Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts).
The season builds on the Drew Thompson mystery by sending Raylan on a few entertaining lead-building adventures, exposing more of Harlan's unpleasant underbelly, and revealing that Thompson has been in hiding in plain sight from the little-seen Detroit gangster Theo Tonin, after shooting him in the eye on a South American runway decades earlier. Meanwhile, Boyd's feud with the preacher builds to a surprising crescendo sooner than expected, and his efforts to expand his oxy empire not only acquaints him with Tonin's ambitious and ruthless right-hand man Nicky Augustine (Mike O'Malley), but also sees Boyd fall in with some of Harlan's supposed criminal elite – who aren't nearly as intelligent and resourceful as they think they are.
Despite the apparent heavy plot, season 4 avoids making it seem oppressive – rather, the search for Drew Thompson works in the background, as the storyline generates considerable steam by centering more and more on the character's personal lives, and how their actions carry powerful, oftentimes damning ramifications for them. There's even time for two bottle episodes of differing quality. 'The Bird Has Flown' first pits Raylan against the jealous and violent-tempered husband of the woman he's seeing, and then against his own broken heart. It's Raylan on the losing end of things, but the episode also manages to give the delightful Erica Tazel something to do, while hinting at a relationship between her and Raylan in the future. As fun as that one-off is, however, 'Money Trap' features the return of Jodi Adair in an often-goofy episode that does little beyond set the table for the season's affecting climax.
It's not often that a series, which so effectively utilizes colorful adversaries to set the plot in motion, can change things up with such success, but 'Justified' season 4 certainly proved it can be done. That's not to say the season is free of conflict; in fact, it probably has more than its fair share. But where it differs is in making that conflict count and shape the characters in an emotional way that will force lasting change in the season(s) to come. There is a flurry of fantastic episodes wrapping up the entire storyline – the best among them perhaps being the viscerally intense 'Decoy' – but for sheer resonance, it's hard to see the finale 'Ghosts' being topped any time soon.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Justified: The Complete Fourth Season' comes from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment as a three disc set of 50GB Blu-ray discs. Each disc heads straight to the top menu, where you can choose to watch the season in its entirety, choose specific episodes, or view a variety of special features that include interviews and commentaries.
'Justfied: The Complete Fourth Season' comes with a fantastic looking 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer that gives the image a painterly quality, highlighting the golden hues and earth tones that typically make up Harlan County and the rest of Kentucky visited by Raylan and the rest of the 'Justified' cast. Those colors play into the feel of the show in very subtle ways, giving it a grounded feeling, despite the often spectacular, larger than life personalities constantly on display. But the picture isn't hindered by the vibrant color palate; instead, it serves to accentuate and draw out things like fine detail in faces and clothing textures, or the incredible detail available in the long shots of Harlan's dense forests where the "Hill People" live. Granted, most of the phenomenal fine detail is most noticeable during close-ups, and there are a few scenes here and there where the focus appears to go a little soft, but overall, this is a package that delivers great detail more often than not.
Contrast levels are terrific; the image features plenty of full-bodied black elements that never effect the fine detail, and shadow delineation is even and precise throughout every episode of the series. There is a great deal of depth in most every scene, and the effect is an immersive experience that truly feels like a long-form story being told in the unique setting of Harlan County.
This is a very nice image that utilizes color and detail in an interesting way to evoke a true sense of place, while delivering a strong, clear picture throughout.
With its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, 'Justified: The Compete Fourth Season' sounds remarkably close to some action movies of recent memory – even though the series technically has its heart in the action flicks of yesteryear. At any rate, the mix here does a tremendous job of making sure the thick, accented dialogue of these characters is precise and easily understood. There's an amazing, low-key scene between Ava and Boyd wherein they discuss the fate of Ellen May (Abby Miller), and the actors settle into a terrifically layered cadence with their speech that feels so genuine, it's a shock to find out neither actor actually talks that way. But the mix here does an incredible job of bringing such vocal nuances to life.
But this is an action series, as much as it is a drama, so things like punches, explosions, and gunfire matter. As such, the mix is more than up to the task as each of the abovementioned sounds is represented here with great assurance and zeal. LFE kicks in a just the right time to accentuate stuff gettin' blowed-up real good, while gunshots ring out with deadly precision. Most of the sound effects come from a front loaded mix, but there are plenty of occasions where the sound comes through with full force on the rear channels. There is a noticeable amount of imaging and directionality going on as the sound field seems to expand during heavy action sequences.
This is the kind of audio mix that highlights the best of what the series can do, without overshadowing the softer, quieter moments.
'Justified: The Complete Fourth Season' is a strong contender for best in the series. It may take a while to sink in, but the sentiment from Raylan's troubled, contentious relationship with his father – which is accentuated by his burgeoning fears of becoming a father himself – resonates long after the season has ended. It may lack an enigmatic baddie like Mags Bennett, but season 4 makes up for that by putting the focus on the program's primary characters in a way that illustrates how much they have changed, and how much of them has stayed the same. It's a storyline that elicits a surprisingly strong emotional response, while still maintaining the outlaw sensibilities that make it great. The season also has terrific picture and sound, and a host of fantastic special features. 'Justified' usually comes highly recommended, and this one is no different.