PASADENA -- The most complicated love-hate relationship on television is about to get even messier.
Boyhood friends and grown-up enemies Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder -- the characters at the core of one of TV's best dramas, Justified -- will find that their emotions have deepened and become much more directed when the series returns for its fourth season next week (Wednesday, Jan. 23 on Super Channel).
"There's one line that Boyd's never said in the previous three seasons that he says this season," said actor Walton Goggins, whose performance as backwoods-Kentucky crime boss Crowder stands as a singularly brilliant achievement in current TV drama. "It's really interesting to me, and an indication as to where they've kind of come in this relationship -- Boyd looks at Raylan at one point, and he says, 'Raylan, I don't like you.' And it's the first time he's ever really kind of said it that way. Over the course of their relationship, Boyd has seen their friendship as one thing and Raylan has seen it as something else. But at the end of this season, they may see it the same way, and that is that they don't like each other."
For those who haven't yet sampled Justified -- which, by this critic's thinking, has been TV's best drama for the past three seasons -- here's a brief rundown: based on a short story by author Elmore Leonard, the series follows the crime-fighting exploits of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), whose shoot-first attitude has forced his bosses to banish him to his home state of Kentucky, where in addition to such mundane tasks as serving warrants and transferring prisoners, he tries to put a lid on the unique brand of drug trafficking that occurs in hillbilly country.
A central figure in the drug trade is Boyd Crowder, a childhood schoolmate and former coal mine co-worker of Raylan's who has followed in the Crowder-family footsteps and become one of rural Kentucky's most dangerous criminals.
Justified, which is produced for U.S. cable's FX network, airs in Canada on Super Channel (Showcase owns second-run rights to the series and is currently airing Season 2 on Tuesdays).
The series has featured some stellar guest-star performances, including an Emmy-winning turn by Margo Martindale in Season 2 as the matriarch of a rival backwoods crime family.
In Season 4, however, the focus is on Raylan's effort to solve a 30-year-old cold case and Boyd's struggle to maintain his illicit businesses when religion, in the form of a charismatic tent-show preacher, comes to Harlan County.
"We stumbled upon something, an old story I'd heard of that's nicknamed 'The Bluegrass Conspiracy,'" series creator Graham Yost told TV critics gathered here during FX's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles. "I knew that it involved someone whose parachute didn't work and he landed somewhere in the South -- I believe it was actually Tennessee -- with a lot of cocaine on him.
"So that (idea) sparked something in us, and we thought it would be interesting to play that out -- what could have happened 30 years ago that would have an impact on events today, and of course, it ties into Raylan's family and and Boyd's family... so that's what kicked it off. We really thought that would be a fun thing to try this year instead of just doing another 'big bad' (villain)."
As the show's idiosyncratic hero, Olyphant -- known to many TV fans for his portrayal of another conflicted lawman, Deadwood's Sheriff Seth Bullock -- said he's thrilled by the challenge of playing a character created by Leonard.
"The fun about the game that we seem to play with this character, (and) the trick when you're playing an iconic character, is you can only go so far," he said. "So the key is to try to figure out how to throw rocks at that guy and how to make the situation complicated enough that the character remains a mystery and remains interesting. That's the trick, because without that, it just looks bored. And I can't tell you what a lovely thing it is to be in the thick of Season 4 and still find the job so terrifically interesting and entertaining and engaging, not only as an actor on the show, but as an audience member and a fan of the show."
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Starring Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, Nick Searcy and Joelle Carter
Wednesday, Jan. 23