For two seasons, Art Mullen has served as reluctant keeper to Raylan, serving as a by-the-books lawman burdened with keeping a modern-day gunslinger in line. He describes it as “penance” for a former life to Bill Nichols, an official in charge of overseeing the Witness Protection Program, though both muse about the days of saloon doors and Wyatt Earp, when a different code applied. Yet as much as Raylan has frustrated Art over their time together—a relationship that frayed perhaps to the breaking point last season, when Raylan was covering up Winona’s evidence tampering—we got a sense in tonight’s solid episode of how Art was able to indulge his underling’s excesses for so long. Because out in the field, we discover, some darker improvisation is sometimes required.
Art’s old-school interrogation (read: beating) of a protected witness who had followed Nichols (and eventually killed him) in an attempt to sell other witnesses’ addresses was the most surprising element of “Cut Ties.” We’ve seen Art leave desk duty before, most memorably in last season’s “Blaze Of Glory,” where he engaged in a slow-speed foot chase on an air strip. But the circumstances here are more life-or-death: First he pays a visit to the witness, Mr. Poe, to ask questions about Nichols’ whereabouts, then later comes to the conclusion, thanks to a GPS navigator history, that Poe had been following Nichols around. Concluding that the names and addresses of other witnesses had already been compromised, Art slips into the role of torturer quite easily, like an old habit. No need for phone books when a fist to the face will do. And when he threatens to kill Poe if he doesn’t get the information he needs—detailing to Poe precisely how he’s going to arrange the scene to make it look like self-defense—Poe believes he’d go through with it, and so do we. This is a side of Art we haven’t quite seen before, someone who’s willing, like Wyatt Earp or Raylan Givens, to get his hands a little dirty.
By contrast, Raylan goes about his business more subtly, by thinking a step or two ahead and quietly attempting to defuse a potentially ugly situation. The logic is clear: If Boyd was so intent on killing Dickie for shooting Ava that he’d be willing to risk jail-time by assaulting a federal officer in a federal office, then he’d surely go after Dickie if they were under the same prison roof. Raylan’s arrangement for Boyd to get out of jail—arguing, convincingly, that this was more a dust-up between friends—anticipates trouble, but Boyd, slippery character that he is, arranges a stint for himself in solitary confinement to get to Dickie anyway. Though Raylan’s intervention doesn’t ultimately pay off—Boyd gets to Dickie, albeit to leverage his advantage in a different way—it’s another example of him using his instincts and trying to affect outcomes that don’t involve his gun leaving its holster.
Much like last week’s episode, “Cut Ties” does some more table-setting for a season full of new characters to fill the chasm left by Margo Martindale’s departure. To that end—and to the delight of Karen Sisco cultists—Carla Gugino makes an appearance as Assistant Director Karen Goodall, a marshal service muckety-muck who has something of a past with Raylan and who comes on board to deal with the witness protection crisis. It’s not the splashiest turn, but Gugino’s character returns to the Elmore Leonard fold with a savvy/sexy performance that suggests some trouble for Raylan at work and at home. I suspect that Karen Sisco fans got significantly more out of her appearance than the many who missed that show in its brief run on ABC, but Gugino continues to fill out Justified’s ever-growing stable of veteran character actors.
The final scene also offered Season Three’s Big Bad #2 in Limehouse, a Harlan County heavy played by Mykelti Williamson, who was previously in creator Graham Yost’s Boomtown with Big Bad #1, Neal McDonough. Where McDonough got an entire episode to assert his sinister presence, “Cut Ties” leaves only the final scene to Williamson’s Limehouse, who shares with Mags Bennett a down-home recipe for getting his point across. With Mags, it was apple pie; with Limehouse, lye. Turning Boyd’s demand for Bennett money into a segue to Limehouse, the keeper of the cash, is a brilliant tactic. We trust that Boyd can outsmart the likes of Dickie, but Limehouse presents a far more imposing obstacle, someone as rooted as Mags in Harlan business and culture, but with some muscle behind him, too.
There were some complaints in the comment section last week about “B+” being insufficient for such a fine start to Season Three, but I’d advise against getting too persnickety about it. These early episodes have to do quite a lot of gruntwork—the set-ups that will (or won’t) pay off later—and it seems obvious to me, as it did with Breaking Bad early in seasons three and four, that more transcendent hours will come down the line. For now, I’m happy to see how gracefully the writers have integrated new characters and overarching stories into sharp episodic payoffs—last week with Fletcher Nix and Emmitt Arnett, this week with the leaks in the Witness Protection Program.
• The trouble with crime shows like Justified is that any domestic drama is bound to seem less exciting by comparison. And that’s one of the chronic issues facing the Raylan/Winona relationship at this point; put it in the context of a straight drama, and maybe the writers could develop the uneasy bond between two people facing parenthood with a degree of uncertainty and mistrust. But for here and now, their problems seem less consequential than they might otherwise.
• Line of the night candidate: Boyd to Raylan, after he asks for advice on the Winona situation: “Well now, Raylan, you’re talking to a man who’s sleeping with his dead brother’s widow and murderess.”
• Dumb technical question: Do some Navigation systems keep a record of everywhere a car goes or just addresses entered into the GPS? I had thought the latter.
• “You have the right to remain silent, so long as you can stand the pain.”