Most TV series feel the need to up the ante in their second season, to prove the first one wasn't a fluke. Justified proceeds with such assurance, however, that it can maintain a cool, witty serenity that only enhances its tough-guy drama. Timothy Olyphant's Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens and his ever-present wide-brimmed white headgear two different people addressed him as ''you and your hat'' in the season opener exude a quiet confidence that's backed up by the show's propulsive storytelling. By now, if you didn't know this series was based on characters created by the coolest cat in thriller prose, Elmore Leonard, you'd assume someone was ripping him off really well.
The second season began, in fact, with a nod to the author by titling the premiere episode ''The Moonshine War'' the name of an unrelated 1969 Leonard novel.
Thank goodness Walton Goggins is still around as the grinning bad man Boyd Crowder; even better, Boyd's dropped much of his born-again piousness yet remains a devious rascal. But having dispatched last year's major villain Boyd's daddy, Bo in a crackling gunfight, Raylan has a new nemesis of an utterly different sort. That would be Mags Bennett (Secretariat's Margo Martindale), a backwoods big-time pot grower now looking to take over Bo's market for meth dealing. Mags is as ruthless as her son Dickie (Lost's Jeremy Davies) is thickheaded. She has two more sons, neither of them any less mean or dense.
All of this makes a fine setup for a season of simmering violence and all sorts of Raylan shenanigans, beginning with his persistent pursuit of his ex-wife, Winona (the rapturous Natalie Zea). I like to think the producers heard me when I said Raylan needed to cut loose from the slatternly Ava (a sly Joelle Carter), who's now more intriguingly reunited with Boyd. So in addition to lots of suspense and shooting, Justified is ripe with under-covers action as well.
On Feb. 16, there's a near-stand-alone episode involving Raylan and Deputy Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts) transporting a pregnant prisoner when the task ''goes south,'' as folks tend to say on this show. We learn from Raylan that snipers use the term ''the apricot that's where the brain stem meets the spine. Hit a fella there, he ain't gonna pull a trigger.''
All of which just makes you itch to see who's gonna pull the trigger first. A–