Justified is quickly transforming itself into the little TV show that could. After an entertaining if inconsistent first season, it delivered a second season that finally developed a voice for the series and a unique brand entity that managed to separate Justified from all of the other crime thrillers/cop shows on television (of which there are an extraordinary number). After winning an Emmy and taking a season hiatus, we wondered if it could continue impressing into season 3. Last week’s season premiere was a resounding “yes!” and episode two, “Cut Ties,” says that Justified may be on the way to its best season yet. With three interweaving tales that incorporate a dark and tense stand-alone story (hooray for Nick Searcy carrying much of the episode on his shoulders) as well as the continuing stories of Boyd Crowder’s hunt for Mags Bennets money and Raylen’s new life with his pregnant ex-wife, this episode struck the perfect balance between keeping me enmeshed in this wonderful outlaw world and giving me an entertaining self-contained story.

The episode begins with Winona and Raylen (though Raylen isn’t aware of the schedule) trying to sell her old house that she shared with the now AWOL Gary. When Raylen arrives at the Marshall’s office, he finds Art conversing with an old colleague who’s in town doing some work for Witness Protection (witsec for short). Shortly after the Witsec agent visits a woman in protection, he is murdered by a man it later turns out was one of the witnesses he was in charge of protecting. This causes an agency firestorm and one of the many agents brought into work on the case is an apparent old flame of Raylen’s named Karen Goodall (played by Carla Gugino in what I can only assume is meant to be her Karen Sisco character with the name changed for copyright reasons since that’s also an Elmore Leonard based production). The Marshall Service is spread out trying to protect possibly unsafe (now that their security has been compromised) witnesses and Raylen and Karen are sent out to try and find a man who might know something about it. Art ends up going to protect a man named Terry Powe (Band of Brothers‘ Frank John Hughes) that happens to be the man who killed the Witsec agent. Art is able to put it together that Terry killed his friend thanks to Terry’s GPS and (later) a call from Raylen saying their contact gave Terry up. They discover that Rachel is at the house of the person in witness protection that Terry has sold out, and Rachel takes one of the goons down while Art and Raylen kill the other.

Dickie carried much of the myth arc side of the episode as it is now clear that he intentionally got himself sent to jail with the sole intention of getting his hands of Dickie Bennett (or was that his plan?). The episode doesn’t make it entirely clear but my money leans this way that when Raylen informs Boyd that he’s ensured that he’s getting out of jail in 24 hours, it’s Raylen intentionally cock-blocking Boyd from getting his kill. So, Boyd ad-libs a plan to get himself thrown into solitary confinement where Dickie has been hiding out in fear of Boyd. After intentionally pissing off some black prisoners with his nazi tattoos and getting the holy hell beat out of him, Boyd makes it into solitary where (with the help of a dirty hack [Oz slang for a guard]) it turns out he didn’t want to kill Dickie. He just wants Dickie to tell him where Mags hid the rest of her money which it turns out Boyd hadn’t stolen like Raylen believed. It turns out a man named Ellstin Limestone (Forrest Gump‘s Mykelti Williamson) who’s a criminal leader with a vicious streak and a penchant for burning people’s hands with lye like he’s freaking Tyler Durden in Fight Club.

Nick Searcy had some major screen time last season in the episode about the bank robber who was Art’s Great White Whale, but for the most part, he’s been one of the unsung heroes of the cast. Well, Tuesday, he was front and center, and he nailed it. It turns out that Art was a lot like Raylen in his early days, and we saw some serious flashes of it in this episode when he went to town on Terry Powe to try and save the witness that Terry had ratted out. Channeling his inner Raylen, he knocked the guy around a little bit and threatened to kill him if he didn’t talk. While it was certainly strange to see Art calling an audible like that (since he normally plays it so close to the rules and is supposed to be Raylen’s conscious), it made for compelling and morally ambiguous TV. I don’t think that Art would have had it in him to kill an undefended guy like that, but Nick Searcy did such a great job of evoking the moral outrage that Art would have felt against a rat who sold out the same man who had been protecting him for years that you had to applaud his performance. Mykelti Williamson also made an instant mark with his time at the end of the episode and he should make a compelling foil to the criminal enterprises of Boyd Crowder.

This season is really shaping up to be something special. Unless you count Arlo or potentially the more amorphous Miami Cartel leaders as Big Bads in Season 1 (which I don’t since I feel that role clearly went to Bo Crowder), this season could be the first with more than one Big Bad and both Boyd and Raylen will have their own major villain to contend with (Quarles for Raylen and Limestone for Boyd). While I certainly hope that Raylen and Boyd cross paths as often as possible, they both seem to be contending with fairly titanic forces of villainry so I’m ok with whatever direction Graham Yost and company decide to take the show in. I just want to see more of Nick Searcy because after tonight, he proved that he could give as good a performance as anyone else in the cast and that he’s still a force to be reckoned with in his own right.

Final Score: A-