The case-of-the-week A-plot of “Cut Ties,” the second episode of Justified’s third season, doesn’t have much meat on it. It’s another episode set mostly in Lexington and featuring a lot of characters we’ll never see again, but it nonetheless manages to further complicate the power struggle brewing in Harlan. An old marshal friend of Art’s (Nick Searcy) comes to town to check on his clients in witness protection, only to be tortured by one of them into giving up the location of another witness, and later executed. Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) teams up with Art, Rachel (Erica Tazel), and Assistant Director Goodall (Carla Gugino), a woman Raylan knows from Miami, to catch the killer and protect the compromised witness.
At first glance, Justified can seem a lot like any other action show, where expendable characters are introduced just to be shot, and the bad guys are killed without much consideration. To a certain extent, that’s true, but the show also has a tendency to let the consequences of its various deaths fester, weighing the characters down until coming to the fore in unexpected ways. Most obvious is Raylan’s killing of a Miami mobster in the series pilot, which plays out as a typical bad-ass TV lawman exacting justice, but the consequences of which have served as the setup for the entire series. We also saw Mags Bennett coldly dispatch Loretta’s father in last season’s premiere, an act ultimately mirrored by her suicide in the finale.
Art’s arc this week offers a good demonstration of this process in a nutshell: We’re introduced to his friend, only to watch the friend die shortly after. Art makes little to no outward display of grief, but it’s clear something is eating at him. In the past we’ve seen him mostly as the administrative foil to Raylan’s cowboy, but here Art’s on a mission. He hunts down his friend’s killer with shrewd efficiency, and once he’s sure he has the right guy, he quickly turns to torture and death threats to obtain the information he needs. The waters that once separated Art’s ordered approach from Raylan’s gunslinging are sufficiently muddied in the process.
Meanwhile, Rachel shoots and kills a nameless bad guy who comes to kill the compromised family in witness protection. It’s all very routine, but a conversation between Raylan and Rachel hints at the untold consequences killing a man may have on her future. For now, Rachel merely shrugs it off, but Justified continually finds subtle ways to suggest that these deaths never simply go away; this is something Raylan knows all too well, even if he can’t get Rachel to talk about it.
As was the case last week, the episode’s highlight comes early on in a short scene between Raylan and Boyd (Walton Goggins). Raylan visits Boyd in prison and they share a hilarious exchange regarding their respective love interests: Raylan expresses the doubts he feels about himself for wanting to buy a house with his ex-wife, and Boyd points out that he’s not the best person to judge such things, considering he’s shacking up with his dead brother’s “widow and murderess.” We learn that Raylan is arranging for Boyd’s release, stating that their fight was a mere dust up between two old friends. The irony is that Boyd quite deliberately attacked a federal marshal in order to be imprisoned alongside Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies). Raylan’s friendly gesture is also a ruse: The two men are well aware of the other’s games, and know well that the understanding is mutual.
It turns out, however, that Boyd’s aim isn’t revenge. Last week I mentioned that, in context of Harlan County, Boyd’s blood feud with Dickie isn’t based on a whole lot. Sure, Dickie shot Ava (Joelle Carter), but Ava shot Boyd’s brother, and Raylan shot Boyd himself, neither of which seem to weigh too heavily on Boyd. Instead, the entire incarceration, from the fight with Raylan to the prison brawl, was a ploy by Boyd to scare Dickie into telling him where the Bennetts stashed their money. Never the bravest of men, Dickie quickly confesses that the money is being kept by a Harlan County native ominously named Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson), a name that seems to cause Boyd a great deal of worry.
The impetus behind Boyd’s concern is revealed in Limehouse’s subsequent introduction. The episode finally cuts back to the hollers of Harlan, where Limehouse prepares a side of beef while speaking to a kid who, in his role as night watchman, failed in some unknown task. Limehouse explains to the kid that he has two choices: settle the score by enduring the pain of lye eating through the back of his hand or promise never to fail him again, and by doing so forever be in Limehouse’s debt.
The introduction borders on being over the top, but it finds just the right amount of restraint to work. We don’t see Limehouse mutilate the poor kid. In fact, we don’t see him hurt anyone, other than the side of beef he’s butchering. But as one of Limehouse’s men brings the back of his hand into view, we see the long-healed but grotesque scarring that lye clearly left behind. The shot is legitimately frightening while at the same time injecting a little subtlety into the scene. The scar not only suggests Limehouse’s brutality, but also creates a sense of history; this is something Limehouse has been doing for a while, and whatever operation he’s running is part of the Harlan County mythology.
Last week I worried that Quarles (Neal McDonough) was too cosmopolitan a villain to fill Mags Bennett’s well-worn boots, but the introduction of Limehouse provides a quick and effective counterbalance. With the Bennetts out of the game, there will clearly be a power struggle in Harlan, and Justified has already set up three major players with Boyd and his small band, Quarles and the Dixie Mafia, and Limehouse. While season two provided something of a slow burn as tensions grew between Raylan and the Bennetts, the power struggle of season three promises something a little more chaotic.
• We know that Boyd isn’t exactly proud of his neo-Nazi past, but he’s also unafraid of displaying it to his advantage. In the prison yard, he saunters up to a group of black inmates and asks to use the weight set, stripping off his shirt to reveal his swastika tattoo as he does so. Boyd is left bloodied and bruised as a result, but it also lands him in solitary confinement, and, along with a well-placed bribe to a guard, gains him access to Dickie’s cell.
• Raylan and Goodall clearly have a history together, and there’s enough sexual tension between them that it seems inevitable something will happen. Instead, Raylan is quick to make a display of his love for Winona (Natalie Zea) in front of Goodall. He may simply be overcompensating, but I think Raylan’s desire to settle down with Winona is entirely genuine. It’s not his feelings that he doubts; it’s himself for feeling them.
• Speaking of Winona, I’d really like to see her do something other than hang around Raylan on his off time.
• Boyd has proven himself quite adept at playing the angles in Harlan County, and despite his rocky history, he seems to be establishing a place for himself in the community. But now he has to do commerce with a local African-American community led by a decidedly unforgiving man. Whatever Boyd’s gift for oratory may be, he may find his skinhead past difficult to explain in the near future.
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