'Justified' gets better and badder

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REVIEW

THE SHOW "Justified"

WHEN | WHERE Tonight at 10 on FX

REASON TO WATCH Third-season launch

CATCHING UP The reign of Mags Bennett (Emmy winner Margo Martindale) as Harlan County's underworld CEO ended with her death, and a void opened that Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) has every intention of filling. But first things first -- like the matter of her son, Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies), who left Boyd's wife, Ava (Joelle Carter), for dead.

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WHAT IT'S ABOUT Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is recovering from a gunshot received in that final blowout with the Bennetts. He's also about to become a daddy one of these days, as girlfriend Winona Hawkins (Natalie Zea) is pregnant. That's the good news.

Now the bad: Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough) is a particularly vicious fixer from Detroit sent to Lexington to attend to the mob's local problems there; tonight, he gets a helping hand from some dude known as Ice Pick (Desmond Harrington, Joey Quinn of "Dexter") because "that's his favorite toy," as someone explains.

Another unsavory character comes into Raylan's orbit next week: Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson), boss of Noble's Holler, a remote slice of backcountry that ex-slaves took over after the Civil War.

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MY SAY The Hatfield-McCoy story line that ended the second season in a fusillade of gunfire -- along with that final fatal sampling of Mag's "Apple Pie" moonshine -- was possibly sort of a Harlan County throat-clearing; now the opera can really begin. There's a yawning power vacuum, and we all know how much nature and bad guys abhor those things.

McDonough, with those arctic blue eyes and that genuinely mirthless smile, can certainly play a peerless heavy, while Williamson's Limehouse promises a deviance that even Mags would grudgingly admire. But speaking of voids and the problems they cause, Mags was a huge fan favorite; can either of those step into the breach? That's the biggest question of the new season, followed by: What will Raylan and Winona name the baby?

BOTTOM LINE Lean, laconic, precise and as carefully word-crafted as any series on TV, there's pretty much nothing here to suggest that the third season won't be as good as the second -- or better.

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GRADE A

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