If you'll remember last season, Justified started things off by introducing a bad guy early and then settling into a few standalone episodes to let the season-long arcs develop slowly. While we reacquainted ourselves with the people of Harlan County and saw central characters grow during their own little adventures, we always knew in the back of our minds that Mags Bennett and her boys would be waiting in the wings, ready to bring a shitstorm with them.
Season 3 is shaping up in similar fashion, but it has the added bonus of Season 2 leftovers to deal with. We know Quarles (Neal McDonough) is going to be causing problems soon, Dickie and Boyd will get to continue their feud from Season 2, and the Marshal service must work on checking off the various no-gooders on its to-catch list. That's more than enough to keep us fat and happy in the early going, before the season really starts to focus on its main event. It's the same sort of simultaneous reset and continuation that The Wire did so well after its first season, and that other shows have tried to replicate. Justified has found a way to duplicate that sweet spot, and that's what makes the show so much fun to watch. Harlan County feels big enough to know we haven't explored all its dives and backroads, yet small-town enough to realize that everything's connected. We know that whatever part of the area we're dropped into each week, it's going to feel very real, because the series has a sense of place that few other shows have.
Okay, on to the episode, "Cut Ties": This week's standalone story involved witnesses who were hiding out under the protection of the Marshal service shooting a marshal—and a close friend of Art's—dead. It set up a scenario where the audience knew more than the characters on the screen, creating an hour of television so tense, our shaking hands made our glasses of bourbon on the rocks rattle like a tambourine. But even with a leg up on the law, the two-bit crooks were no match for our Kentucky Marshals.
Justified is, and always will be, about Raylan Givens. Sometimes we forget he has co-workers who take down bad guys off-screen, too. That wasn't the case last night. Art and Rachel got plenty of well-deserved time in the field as they detected a threat and responded by dividing the responsibility of protecting three witnesses between Art, Rachel, and Tim. But to me, "Cut Ties" was more of a stage for one the show's most underrated and un-discussed characters: Art Mullen, played by the wonderful Nick Searcy.
It was Art's man, Mr. Poe, who shot the Marshal and turned rat by giving up the location of a fellow witness to an unseen bad man, the same man he was in protective custody because of, for a hefty cash settlement and the promise of getting back in the game. Poe knew he was the dirty man, we knew Poe was the dirty man, but Art didn't. And we saw again that Art, who is almost always shackled behind a desk and chastising Raylan's recklessness, still has the skills that made him such a badass back in the day. Last season we saw Art in the field, apprehending a fugitive. But the guy was pushing 90, required an oxygen tank, and ran off at the speed of a crippled snail. It provided one of the season's most comical moments as two gray-haired played a game of cops-and-robbers with live ammo. This situation was much different. In addition to sporting a sweet '80s-era George Michael beard, Poe still had his wits about him and wasn't afraid to pull the trigger.
But what Poe didn't have that Art did was smarts. Just like Raylan was able to dupe Fletcher Nix last week with that tablecloth trick, Art was able to look at odd chair impressions on a rug and the history of Poe's navigation system to deduce that Poe had a scheme cooking. And just to show he wasn't merely smarts, Art deftly disarmed Poe with the same old self-defense tricks he learned as a young buck. To summarize, do not mess with Art Mullen. He may be past his prime, but his waning days are still way above most people's best.
In a lot of ways, Art was the Raylan of his time. We know Art gave his superior plenty of grief in his day, and was a bit of a legend in the field. Art represents one of Raylan's possible futures, and there's no doubt that Art sees a lot of himself in Raylan. That has to play a part in their fantastic relationship, which is full of both respect and disagreement; Art understands where Raylan is coming from, and sees his insubordination as karma for his own past. You gotta love Art.
Boyd, meanwhile, is still bent on sticking Dickie with sharp objects... or is he? In the beginning of the episode, we thought Boyd had a shiv ready to puncture the wily Bennett boy, but in the end, Boyd just wanted information on the whereabouts of Mags' money. What kind of man is so insane that he would bear his swastika tattoo in front of a bunch of brothers lifting weights in a prison gym? A man who is considering the future of himself and his girl, a future that requires a lot of money to live comfortably. Getting pummeled by a gang of inmates and thrown into solitary seems like a complicated way to get close enough to Dickie, but Boyd's never been one for simplicity or sanity. He's also in love and well-versed in self-sacrifice, so swollen eyes and few ounces of blood spilled on the prison floor are nothing. I wouldn't go so far as to call it romantic, but to a woman crazy enough to date a charming madman, it probably is.
All of this leads us to Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson, a.k.a. Bubba the shrimp man from Forrest Gump), who got the best villain introduction since... well, Quarles. This is the second time in recent memory that we've met a series villain while he's butchering meat (Game of Thrones' Tywin Lannister was carving up a stag when we first encountered him), and let me tell you, it's quite effective. I fear this man. He holds Mags' cash, so you know what means... BOYD AND LIMEHOUSE COLLISION COURSE! This is going to be fun. Don't I say that every week?
– What I love about Dickie is that he's very aware of the situation he's in. When he has Raylan tied up like a butchered pig, he's all swagger and smart-alecky. But when Boyd has him alone in a cell with no one to save him, he's a squirming, sniveling creep, desperate and willing to do anything to avoid physical harm. I don't think I've seen an actor born to play as many parts as Jeremy Davies, (Justified, Lost, Solaris, Spanking the Monkey). He is nothing short of amazing.
– How much of a past do you think Raylan and Lady Marshal Karen Goodall (Carla Gugino, who played another Elmore Leonard character, Karen Sisco, in the short-lived series Karen Sisco) have? And how great was their re-introduction? Raylan: "Goodall?" Karen: "And here I thought you'd be more surprised at the 'Assistant Director.'" I don't know what's in the water in Harlan County, but it must be full of vitamins that encourage zingers.
– One complaint about the season so far: All the in-car scenes really look like they're shot in a stationary car in front of a screen with a moving background.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom