Going into the third season of FX’s Justified, the question likely to be on the minds of fans is, “How can this show top its second season?” It’s too soon to tell, but having screened the first few episodes of Season 3, Justified is back, for better or worse. So far, I’d say for better.

Justified is developed by Graham Yost and based on the short story Fire in the Hole and other works by crime novelist Elmore Leonard. The series stars Timothy Olyphant as an oftentimes shoot-first/ask-questions-later-type of U.S. Marshal named Raylan Givens. The first season had him returning to his home county of Harlan where he now works and deals with the crime that falls into his jurisdiction. Drugs seems to be the recurring theme among a lot of the crime in Harlan, whether it be marijuana, or in the case of Season 3, prescription drugs.

Minor spoilers ahead (assuming you're caught up on Season 2!)

With the excellent Mags Bennett story (and fantastic, much deserved Emmy winning performance by Margo Martindale) wrapped up by the conclusion of Season 2, the show is forced to move forward without her. However, while Mags may be gone, her legacy, which includes the aftermath of Season 2 and a fair amount of weed, carries over into Season 3 a bit as the characters' stories pick up. The season opener has Raylan recovering from his gunshot wound to the abdomen and working on a case that requires the cooperation of his once friend, now (mostly) nemesis Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). In addition to reintroducing us to the series and the characters, the season introduces us to an excellently creepy hitman and a number of other villainous-types. A later episode delivers Carla Gugino’s character, who used to work with Raylan, to the series.

It takes a few episodes to really begin to see exactly where the story is going in Season 3, but that’s typical for a slow-boil drama like Justified. Winona’s pregnancy, which was revealed at the end of Season 2, seems to be nudging her relationship with Raylan forward. Whether that's a good thing or not, likely depends on how people feel about the relationship. There's a part of me that thinks they make sense as a couple, and another part of me that sort of prefers the idea of a more available Raylan. I'm completely on the fence on that one at this point and the start of Season 3 did little to push me in either direction.

Meanwhile, Boyd’s involvement in what’s going on in the third season feels a bit detached from everyone else, but that’s not a complaint. As a semi-villain who doesn’t fall into the category of cut-and-dry bad-guy, some context for his motives needs to be established, and the start of Season 3 seems to be doing that as we see him eventually finding his footing in Harlan once again.

For those of you who are looking for action, or more specifically, violence, you’ll find plenty of intense moments at the start of the third season. While watching the episodes, it occurred to me that Justified is a series that rarely draws its weapon without the intent to fire. I mean that almost literally, as it seems rare that guns are drawn in this series, in a scene that doesn’t soon feature at least one person getting shot. And yet, somehow, the show doesn’t rely on that to remain good, nor is ever all that predictable. We’re always kept on the edge of our seats, while bits of humor are used occasionally to cut the tension.

Season 3 offers numerous jaw-dropping moments in addition to rebuilding the story from a relatively new place, as new characters and new challenges are introduced. Where it’s going, it’s impossible to say or even to predict at this point, but one of the things I’ve come to love about the show since getting caught up on the first two seasons recently, is how each episode builds on the story while also delivering a measure of satisfaction that makes the season’s journey as fulfilling as its conclusion. Whether Season 3 can live up to the standards set by the series’ second season remains to be seen, but it sure does get off to a great start. Raylan Givens is back.

Justified Season 3 premieres Tuesday, January 17th at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on FX.

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