I’m short on time again today, but I wanted to put down a few short thoughts on last night’s Justified.
If you were to say that Justified had one weakness in its first two seasons (primarily in its first, though), it would be how the series handled the supporting characters who work with Raylan in the Marshalls office. Art, Tim and Rachel are all portrayed by fine actors and when given solid material, they’ve been able to make the characters seem fairly formed. After next to nothing in the first season, Graham Yost clearly made it a directive to establish these characters and the office a bit more in the early goings of season two. But after a while, it seemed like Yost and the writing staff stopped caring about the Marshalls office and moved on to the season’s big villains. Art had more to do than Tim and Rachel, but his role was certainly diminished as the focus turned to Harlan and the Bennett clan.
It’s sort of odd that Justified has been able to integrate all sorts of great villains, both big and small, into the narrative, but struggled to make characters who were part of the story from the beginning that engaging or deep. Yet now, here we are at the beginning of season three, and the writers are trying to make it work again. “Cut Ties” is an episode that doesn’t really rely on Raylan (more on this in a second), and instead focuses more tightly on Art. And although Art is already the most developed of the Marshall characters, episodes like this, especially at the beginning of the season when the long arc is clearly on the slow-cooker, are an easy, smart way for Justified to deepen its already-fantastic world.
“Cut Ties” focuses on Art using a fairly easy device in that an old work friend of his gets murdered by a dirty WitSec candidate, but simple is good in this case. Nick Searcy brings a lot of grizzled charm to the role anyway and giving him the lead position on the week’s case is an effective way to show just a little more about Art as a person. He’s not a lame, incompetent boss character like a lesser series would use to play foil to Raylan. Instead, we know that Art is actually fantastic at his job (and it’s usually Raylan being the incompetent one) and the way he quickly outsmarts and then intimidates the devious Poe was very well done and well-played by Searcy.
The series tried a very similar approach with Tim and Rachel last season and was less successful, but perhaps Yost and company have figured out that the best way to let these characters develop is to separate them from Raylan a little bit. In those episodes last year, Raylan was right there with Tim and Rachel and I’m guessing the audience was too fixated on what he’d do, making the supporting players still pale in the comparison. That’s just a thought, and perhaps we’ll see that from Justified in the coming weeks.
One of the really interesting things about this season and this episode is how much focus there is on characters who aren’t Raylan. He’s clearly still the main character and he has all sorts of complicated problems going on in his personal life,* but the series is now full of so many compelling secondary characters and continues to bring in even more of them, that Raylan no longer needs to dominate the action. Art had his fun little plot and this episode also spent a good deal of time with Boyd in prison and introducing Carla Gugino’s barely-veiled Karen Sisco and Mykelti Williamson’s Limehouse. Boyd plotting in prison and Limehouse’s intro were much better than Karen’s place within the episode, but the series’ commitment to establishing dozens of characters in this world is great in the short-term and particularly useful for the series’ long-term health. After two episodes, I still miss Mags and Margo Martindale quite a bit, but I appreciate how hard the series is working to make me quickly care about the slew of other dangers out there for Raylan. And of course, building up all these other villains only makes it more satisfying when Raylan takes them down at the end of the season.
*I have to say that the scene with Raylan unloading all his Winona-related problems onto to Boyd was absolutely tremendous. I could watch an entire series that only centered on the two of them sitting in a room, talking to one another. If Yost needs to save some money on the budget, he should ABSOLUTELY consider a bottle episode that starts there. It would be the best thing ever.
Ultimately, whether if it is an episode built around Art, Tim or Rachel or the introduction of new villains, Justified continues to do solid work in making sure this is not a series built around one compelling lead character and a whole lot of less important or interesting supporting players. Too many contemporary series fall victim to this, but Justified’s ability to rise above it goes a long way in making the series one of the best there is.