If executive producer Graham Yost’s original plans for Justified prove true, we’re entering the show’s second half of existence. Season 4 of a presumed 6 gets underway tonight at 10 on FX with a rollicking episode called “Hole in the Wall.” Typical of the laconic atmosphere the show has created, where gunplay and violence is almost always prefaced by cordial conversation, there’s not quite a clear picture of where this season is headed after the first two episodes made available for preview, but even in that sneak peek there were 10 things that make it look like Season 4 will keep fans of the show happy. Here they are, in no particular order (except for No. 1 — Patton Oswalt is awesome!):
1) Patton Oswalt as Constable Bob Sweeney
Even though he’s made strides in playing drama with acclaimed turns in Big Fan and Young Adult, Patton Oswalt still might seem an odd choice to star in a Southern-fried crime drama. Yet while his accent might be a bit sketchy, Oswalt is perfect casting as wannabe tough guy Bob Sweeney. Holding the unique-to-Kentucky position of constable — an elected position that pays peanuts and comes with very little real authority — Bob aches to be as tough as his high-school acquaintance Raylan Givens, who has hired Bob to watch over Arlo’s house as Raylan tries to sell it. He’s not all that different from the loser character Oswalt played in Big Fan, that hapless guy who knows just enough to be dangerous. This proves out right away as Bob and Raylan find themselves in a bad situation that Bob only makes worse. Patton isn’t in the second episode, but it seems a sure bet he’ll be back to screw things up, most entertainingly, later on this season.
2) No Big Bad
Graham Yost knew it was time to shake things up when people kept asking him who was going to be the main bad guy this year. Could it be someone to top Mags Bennett in Season 2, or creepy Quarles in Season 3? Yet instead of going bigger, badder and weirder, Yost decided to go a different route, using mystery to propel the drama this season. Through the first two episodes, this seems to be a good strategy, giving more time to focus on the series’ core characters.
3) More Raylan for Raylan
Elmore Leonard’s 2012 novel Raylan has seen much of its picaresque plot already adapted in Justified: last season’s organ thieves and Season 2′s coal-company negotiations were integral story arcs, although there were significant changes from page to screen in both cases. Now the third major storyline will make it to FX as Raylan will come across a young woman who makes her living as a card player, but gets involved with something much deeper. She’s introduced in the first episode (quite humorously), and Yost was generous enough to pinpoint her return in Episode 7.
4) Ron Eldard
Not only will this season recall Boyd’s little-referenced Desert Storm days, but it will be embodied by the terrific character actor Ron Eldard. Colton Rhodes makes a memorable entrance in the first episode, and an even more memorable mistake in Episode 2, letting you know that this guy is a loose cannon. Eldard exudes confidence and danger, but it’s obvious this guy doesn’t have it quite together as he lets on, otherwise why would he be in Harlan joining up with his old Army buddy’s fledgling criminal empire?
5) Snake handlers
Justified is great about taking on the good, the bad and the ugly of Southern life, so it was only a matter of time before snake-handlers made it into the mix. A new church has entered Harlan, saving souls and dodging venom. They’re being far too effective, causing Boyd some consternation, prompting him to worry that his drug-addicted customer base has found a different means of salvation.
6) D.B. Cooper Comes To Harlan
Well, sorta. The big mystery this season — as opposed to a Big Bad (see #2) — takes us back to January 1983 when a parachuter ends up splattered on the pavement. With him is a diplomatic courier bag from Panama and several bricks of cocaine. Thirty years later, this bag, along with an ID for one Waldo Truth, is recovered in the walls of Arlo’s house. Raylan is mildly curious at first, but it’s not long before it becomes clear this is a secret some are willing to murder to keep under wraps. (Note: Not to be that guy, but the opening scene of tonight’s episode features ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man,” which wasn’t released until later that year. FWIW)
7) Raylan Does Odd Jobs
Since he’s about to be a baby daddy, Raylan is always looking for ways to provide for his child with ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea, who is slated to make appearances this season). That means continuing his residence above a dive bar, serving as bouncer while finding comfort in the arms of barmaid Lindsey (Jenn Lyon). It also means taking the occasional off-the-book bounty hunting gig. This gets Raylan into quite a scrape in the first episode, but we’re guessing he won’t quite learn his lesson.
8) Art Comes Into His Own
The angry police chief is a well-worn staple of the cop genre, but as played by Nick Searcy, Chief Deputy Art Mullen has become far more than the guy who chews Raylan out whenever he messes up. He’s essentially on Raylan’s side, and willing to let him be who he is, but also knows when to put his foot down. We also get a bit of insight into the burdens of running a Marshals office when Art confides in a colleague all the different personnel issues he has to deal with, saying that Raylan get in so much trouble that “Internal Affairs has him on speed dial.” I’m always worried that somewhere down the road the writers are going to use Art as dramatic fodder, perhaps killing him in order to rev up Raylan into vengeance mode, so out of that paranoia, I’m going to enjoy every scene with Art I can get.
9. A Vulnerable Hero
Yes, Raylan Givens is a badass, and when it comes to gunplay, there’s no one better. But as we’ve seen throughout Justified, the 10-gallon hat does not make him invincible. Raylan often comes up against some tough customers, and he doesn’t come out unscathed. Simply put, he gets his ass kicked now and again. While this can be tiresome (I distinctly remember getting bored watching Gabriel Byrne get smacked around all through the otherwise splendid Miller’s Crossing) it just adds a layer of truth to Justified. Raylan doesn’t get knocked around much in the first two episodes of Season 4, but he does find himself in an uncomfortable situation with a belligerent bar patron who all but dares Raylan to kick him out. It’s a fight we’re not sure Raylan could win, and the hero admits as much.
10. The Return Of Wynn Duffy
Who knew back in 1988 when he was playing a perv on the popular-for-five-minutes NBC sitcom Dear John that we’d still be talking about Jere Burns in 2013? But Duffy has proved to be such a delicious character that every time he’s looped back into the Justified universe it’s cause for celebration. It’s rare for a relative marginal character to have gone through so much development, too, first appearing as a smooth-talking merciless killer, then taking a backseat to Quarles’ madness and now reasserting himself as a force to be reckoned with in the Harlan drug trade. Wherever Duffy’s arc takes him this season, the show will be all the more entertaining for it.
Photos: (top) Credit: Prashant Gupta/FX; (Nick Searcy) Credit: James Minchin/FX