Justified: Cut Ties

Oh Justified. Whenever I’m having a bad day (I’m looking at you, Oscar nominations), you’re always there to pick me up. So long as the bad day I’m having is a Tuesday.

And that’s all the introduction you’re gonna get. Sorry. Just the way it is. Maybe if you hit “Continue Reading,” we can get past all this.

Hooray! It seems we got past all of that. So on to Justified.

Now, I was all prepared to write a nice, formal review of “Cut Ties.” The episode tells a great standalone story, gives ample screen time to Art and Rachel, and tells an engaging story while dropping in some tantalizing tidbits of the big, season-long arcs to come. It wasn’t the most spellbinding episode the show’s ever done, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t great.

And then that final scene happened.

That ending scene where we first meet Limehouse is just incredible. I’ll go ahead and put this out there- this review is mostly going to focus on that one final scene. It was so astonishingly tense and frightening and made me so full of questions and ideas and anticipation for next Tuesday’s episode that I feel devoting an entire review to it is only natural.

So let’s get to the scene already. Three men in a worn-down smokehouse. A young man sitting nervously at a table. An older man silently keeping guard. And a burly, brutal figure (Limehouse, our second major villain for season three) butchering a side of bacon while explaining to this young man that, as a criminal working in his enterprise, he’ll be trained like a dog and if necessary he’ll put down like one.

First of all, the visuals on display here really allow Limehouse to stand out as the dominating figure. The man keeping watch looks older and lankier, and the young man is always sitting down or in a submissive position. This allows Limehouse, who already towers over the other two actors, to be the only one with any real action onscreen. When he effortlessly grabs an entire side of bacon and starts carving into it, there’s a sense of unease because of just how much physical and psychological control Limehouse has over this whole situation.

Second, the actual action in the scene (or lack thereof) builds an ungodly amount of tension. From the beginning, we know the young guy’s in some kind of deep trouble, but we’re not sure what any of the details are. We know he’s going to get some kind of punishment, though. And focusing so much on the knife and the butcher work allows both the young man (and by extension, the audience) to imagine a thousand horrible endings that all involve that knife and are all far more graphic than anything a TV show could produce.

The lye scar works the same way. We hear a description of just how Limehouse would go about scarring a hand with lye. Later, we see a nasty burn scar on the older guy’s hand that was clearly brought about with lye . By never actually seeing the process, our minds fill everything else in with the most horrific imagery imaginable.

There’s no violence whatsoever in this scene (unless you count the bacon), but that makes everything so much more tense and establishes Limehouse as a much more interesting and complicated villain. He’s not just a guy who runs crime and kills people. He’s a guy who runs crime by having complete control over the people around him, and all in a genuinely scary way. It all ties back into the story about dog training- just from this one scene, we can see that Limehouse is a character who thrives on manipulation (and not just of family members, which is something we’ve seen on Justified before).

Now for my last point, let me pull an example from a very different show. At the end of episode two of Alcatraz, we find out that Lucy, a character who has very little action or conflict throughout most of the episode, is actually a time-traveler. It’s a twist designed to raise anticipation about the next episode. But what questions does it raise besides “why was she time traveling?” All it really does is bring up a new question with information no one could have had in the first place, and then the whole thing’s weakened by the character herself being poorly-written.

Now take this last scene in Justified. It’s not a plot twist. It’s not really that new or different in any way. It’s just setting up a new villain in a simple and very well-executed way.

And just introducing a new, interesting character builds up so much more anticipation than any plot twist could. In the half hour after Cut Ties aired, a million little questions popped into my head. Questions like:

  • What kind of crime does Limehouse specialize in, and how many of those creepy, lye-branded followers does he have at his disposal?
  • Boyd and Ava already know Limehouse by name (as evidenced in the scene where Boyd gets out of jail)- as a Harlan resident, does Raylan already know him too?
  • And do Boyd and Ava know him personally? From how they talk about him, he almost sounds like some kind of Harlan urban legend.
  • Might Dickie know him? We know Limehouse and Mags have some previous agreement- could Dickie use that to his advantage?
  • Will Quarles (the other new villain this season) and Limehouse have any kind of interaction? Will they each try to seize control of Harlan through their own separate wheelhouses, or will they team up to create one super-villain?
  • And this last one isn’t a question, but still- Mykelti Williamson is a large man. He’s shot in a way that makes him as physically imposing as possible. You just know that at some point this season he’s gonna have an all-out fistfight with Raylan. And. It. Will. Be. Great.
Anticipation for the next episode of ANY show comes from the show having a strong foundation and from the unexpectedness of what could be built on that foundation. Not just cheap plot twists thrown in at the last second.

And with that, I think I’m about done with this week’s trip to Harlan County. Thanks for indulging me as I spent this whole review talking about the episode’s last five minutes. Hopefully you loved it as much as I did.

See you all next time!

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11 responses to “Justified: Cut Ties

  1. I don’t watch hardly any TV but I’ve heard great things about this show. That’s good that you have a show you love so much. I’m watching Alcatraz right now and that’s about it, but I’m not in love w/ the show yet. I’m trying to catch up on Downtown Abbey soon which is right up my alley as I love period dramas.

    • Thanks for the comment! I’m not a huge period drama guy but I’ve heard really terrific things about Downton Abbey- I’m planning on giving it a shot once I finish Luther and Sherlock (so much British TV, so little time).

  2. Adam, although I don’t watch TV (except through the internet if I’m really interested), your analyses of what works in a scene and for a story is priceless. As a writer and editor, I will be keeping an eye on your posts to help me express my points to writers in the future.
    Thanks and I hope you don’t mind being a resource.

  3. Ohhh I love Justified! I’m actually from Harlan, KY where that takes place. There aren’t as many bazookas as the show would lead one to think, and no one as awesome as Timothy Olyphant saving the day but other than that it pretty much captures what Harlan is.

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