For 2013’s best-of-TV list, The A.V. Club’s TV writers got together to discuss the shows that got us talking the most over the past 12 months. We’re unveiling those shows, one per publication day, culminating in our picks for the top three of the year. Don’t forget to vote for your favorites of the year in our  readers’ poll.

Four seasons in, FX’s Justified continues to be one of the most consistently entertaining and tense shows on television, a showcase for terrific performances and dialogue. To discuss the success of the show's fourth season, two writers rewatched the excellent 11th episode
“Decoy” and discussed what made it—and the season—come together so well.

1. The show became about Raylan vs. Boyd again. “Decoy” did many things well, but its most important accomplishment was something Justified needs to do every so often: Bring Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens and Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder back into opposition. The central narrative of the season was the hunt for Drew Thompson, the mythical D.B. Cooper of Harlan County, whom both men saw as a means to secure their future. However, for most of the season—except for a sojourn into hill-people country—they were outside each other’s orbit. Boyd got engaged to Ava and wound up in conflict with Harlan’s power players, while Raylan was preoccupied with freelance work and his impending fatherhood.


However, once Drew’s identity was revealed and the goal became getting him out of both men’s home territory, the action turned into a chess match between the two old enemies. It was fantastic to watch them work against each other, independently figuring out the best roads out of Harlan and then returning to their old high school to discuss the astronaut that led them to see it as an escape route. The show’s rarely looked better than in that scene—gorgeously directed by Michael Watkins—showing both men in the stairwell, so similar yet on completely different levels. Boyd evokes their history to a mobster with a callback to a line from the pilot: “We dug coal together.” “Decoy” reminded viewers that these two are intertwined in ways few others understand. And sooner or later, that will always catch up with them.

2. One of the other marshals finally got a story. Justified has never fallen into the Dexter trap of assuming that the mere existence of ancillary characters means they have to be given their own subplots, and that’s especially true of Raylan’s sparsely used fellow Marshals Tim (Jacob Pitts) and Rachel (Erica Tazel). This year, the show finally found a story for Tim that intersected with the latest madness unfolding in Harlan, as he quietly investigated the criminal activities of Boyd’s new enforcer Colton (Ron Eldard). Tim and Colt’s shared military service gives them a bond as primal and complex as Raylan and Boyd’s Harlan connection. Their Iraq memories fuel their climactic showdown in “Decoy,” as Tim believes he has driven into Colt’s IED trap.


Tim’s phone call to Colt, in which he pretends to be researching a story that features this precise situation, is a master class in layered storytelling. Both men know exactly what’s going on, with each using the charade as a way to scope out the other’s position. But they also maintain the fiction because it offers a rare opportunity to discuss openly wartime horrors that only they can comprehend. Plus, like all great Justified scenes, their conversation is riotously funny, as when Colt demands to be played by a young Gerard Depardieu in the movie and suggests his character could beat up a couple Rangers. Tim retorts that this isn’t a fantasy, because, like Raylan, he’s willing to play along with lowlifes to get what he needs, but he never lets Colt forget who’s in charge.

3. The mystery had a good answer. And then there’s the man they were all looking for, Drew Thompson. This turned out to be one of the most mixed parts of the season, because the eventual reveal—slow and steady Sheriff Shelby Parlow (Jim Beaver) was Public Enemy No. 1—came across as an unnecessary twist to many viewers. Choosing to orient this season with a mystery approach rather than a big bad was a new choice for the show, and it had some good moments, but it also produced continuity questions that made it more difficult to maintain the level of investment hoped for in serialized storytelling.


However, once the fuss of the reveal was over, it turned out to be surprisingly perfect—largely due to the fact that it allowed Beaver to prove his continual awesomeness. He pulled out all the stops to escape and continued to stick up for a prostitute friend, but when the time came, he admitted he was done running, even if everything he said to Raylan had just enough uncertainty to be a potential con. He even tied into Raylan’s complicated father issues by trying to evoke good memories of the late Arlo, only for them to be shot down right away by Raylan’s black-and-white worldview. This approach may not work as well with a lesser actor, but it’s evidence that the show still knows how to both play a long game and get the most out of its abundant guest-star roster.

4. The show found its true hero. When the fourth seasonfirst introduces Patton Oswalt’s Constable Bob Sweeney, he’s a joke, a lifelong loser and wannabe cop who has his “Go Bag” with him for whenever the proverbial shit hits the fan. It’s not difficult for Raylan to manipulate him into helping with some ethically dubious side work, but Bob is ultimately sharp enough to realize he’s being used. Constable Bob can be the season’s comic relief, but he still has to be someone the audience can take seriously as a person. He just needs the right opportunity to prove his mettle.

That chance comes in “Decoy,” when Bob is interrogated by the mafia thug Yolo, whose painfully gimmicky attempt at a hip nickname plays as more indirect mockery of the poor constable he’s about to torture. Yet Bob obstinately refuses to reveal what he knows about Drew, with even that tenacity a mere prelude to Bob puncturing Yolo’s femoral artery. It’s a moment of triumph, and Raylan himself tells the surviving henchmen that they underestimate Bob at their own peril. As poignant as that line is, the more significant moment comes earlier, when Raylan arms a seriously injured Bob but refuses to give a gun to Drew. Raylan knows the difference between lawmen and criminals, and he knows just how much Bob belongs in the former category.


5. A new spin was found on out-of-town threats. The Detroit Mafia continues to loom large over Harlan, although its manifestation is notably different this year from season three’s larger-than-life psychopath Robert Quarles. With mob boss Theo Tonin left as the unseen master of organized crime, Mike O’Malley’s Nicky Augustine takes personal charge of the Drew Thompson search. Unlike Quarles, Augustine has no interest in matching Boyd’s flowery rhetoric, dismissively observing that he needs Google Translate to understand what the man is saying. He appears to be the sort of ruthless, no-bullshit operator who might just succeed in the criminal quagmire of Harlan County.

That façade crumbles midway through “Decoy,” as Augustine taunts Ava over what she must have done to end up running a brothel. This technically qualifies as a mind game, but compared to the manipulative virtuosity of the show’s regulars, Augustine’s words represent the bullying of a bored idiot. Ava douses him in brandy and threatens him with a lighter, but Nicky is too bullheaded to realize just how much he has overestimated his own power, which neatly foreshadows his eventual fate. Justified is never short on insight into the nature of criminality, and Augustine’s descent from powerful to pathetic is so subtle that he doesn’t realize he’s been outmaneuvered until the bullets start flying.


6. And the town itself became the center of the show. All of these points are tied to the same thing, which is what season four did better than any prior season: It reminded viewers how much of a character Harlan County is. The saga of Drew Thompson began with a bag pulled out of Raylan’s childhood house, and as it continued to unfold, it revealed how he was tied to Boyd’s family empire, Art’s white-whale case, and Harlan’s very economy. Season three suffered slightly from Quarles’ carpetbagger status, but Drew had been part of this community for 30 years, and it took people who knew the world to find him and get him out. “Decoy’s” final shot, of Rachel and Drew riding out on the 5:30 p.m. coal train, proves just how simple and yet complex this place is—a solution no out-of-towner would think of, but that Harlan residents have been setting their watch by for years.

It was fitting that “Decoy” was about trying to get out of Harlan, because the season ended with its central characters realizing they’re not. Raylan sits and stares at the tombstone with his name on it, and Boyd stands in the house he and Ava will never get to own. It’s a melancholy ending for the show, and a welcome reminder of how, for all the wordplay and action, Justified takes its story seriously.