"Justified" just aired its second episode of the season. I interviewed Graham Yost about where we are at this point with our heroes and villains, and I have a review of this episode coming up just as soon as I need a spot...

"I have not been myself, Boyd." -Raylan

"Cut Ties" is a good signpost for the evolution of "Justified." On one level, it's the exact kind of episode the show was doing early in its first season — and even early in its second (albeit with Mags and the boys running around in the background — and the main case with Art investigating the murder of an old colleague was actually quite good as those standalone stories go.

But what Graham Yost and company have recognized over the years is that even a good standalone case isn't necessarily going to cut it on its own with what the audience wants. So even as Art was avenging a buddy and showing how the old-school Marshals conducted business(*), we also spent a lot of time on Boyd and Dickie in prison, got to meet this season's other major villain in Mykelti Williamson as Ellstin Limehouse and got a bit of Elmore Leonard continuity wish fulfillment with Carla Gugino's appearance as a Marshal bearing a strong resemblance to the one she used to play on "Karen Sisco."

(*) And, in the process, suggesting that at least part of his discomfort with how Raylan conducts business stems from remembering when he was young and quicker to solve a problem with his fists or his gun rather than his brains.

As with Stephen Root's appearances as Judge Reardon (a spin on the lead character from Leonard's "Maximum Bob," whose TV adaptation Leonard hated), Gugino's role as the mysterious Agent Goodall (whose married last name isn't what Raylan knows her by, and whose first name is never uttered, despite Tim Olyphant's best efforts to slip a "Karen" into the dialogue somewhere) is the show working around copyright a bit. Sony owns the rights to Raylan Givens, but not the other stars of the Leonard canon. But that can't stop "Justified" from featuring characters who are evocative of the others. And if you can get an actress who once played one of those characters in an underrated, short-lived TV drama, why not? I like the idea that Raylan and Karen used to work in the Miami field office together and hooked up after he divorced Winona. (Compared to most of the men Karen has been involved with on the page and screen, Raylan's a prince.) And I was glad to see Gugino slip easily back into a role she owned for 10-odd episodes back in 2003. Though Raylan is still moving at half-speed from the gunshot wound, it was a pleasure to watch him and Goodall move like a well-oiled machine to take out Little Joe's guards.

The only downside to this being such a busy — and relatively Raylan-light — episode is that Gugino never got all that much to do. I wish that they had saved her appearance for a different story, maybe something akin to season 1's "Long in the Tooth," which is probably the best of all of the show's standalone episodes. (It got dinged at the time because it followed two similar, less interesting procedural hours, but I don't think there's anything wrong with doing the occasional episode that's just a pure, concentrated Elmore Leonard-style short story.) Maybe she'll be available again, though. She does, after all, have access to her own jet.

And I can't say that there's another part of "Cut Ties" that I'd have wanted to eliminate in favor of more of the Givens/Goodall duo.

As mentioned above, I loved seeing Art take lead and bend the rulebook into an unrecognizable new shape in his interrogation of Poe. Art's the only one of Raylan's co-workers to come fully alive as a character. Some of that comes from him being more frequently in conflict with our hero (and surprisingly sympathetic in those scenes, given that we should love Raylan and view Art like every frustrated lieutenant in every formulaic cop movie ever), some comes from Nick Searcy's performance and some comes from the fact that his spotlight episodes (both this and last year's bank robbery story with the low-speed foot chase) tend to feel more lived-in.

Beyond that, we got to spend a lot of time watching Boyd circle around Dickie in prison, forced to accelerate his plans because Raylan offered too quickly to kick him loose.(**) As with the reveal at the end of the premiere that Boyd got himself arrested to get close to Dickie, I was pleased to once again learn that Boyd's plans are more complex than they first appeared. While he certainly wants revenge on the man who shot Ava, what Boyd needs right now is Mags' hidden fortune, and if he can scare the location out of Dickie, so much the better. I love watching Walton Goggins and Jeremy Davies work together and am glad that Dickie is the last Bennett standing (for now).

(**) Do you figure Raylan realized Boyd had an ulterior motive for getting locked up (if not exactly what it was) and became all magnanimous to foil him, or was he being completely genuine — albeit unintentionally inconvenient — in his sentiments? I prefer to think it was the former (more fun that way), but one never knows.


And speaking of scares, Mykelti Williamson gets his own dramatic introduction this week as Limehouse, who doesn't have the expensive suits or polish of Neal McDonough's character but makes nearly as strong an impression in a single scene. What sold Limehouse's lesson to the terrified kid was that final glimpse of one of Limehouse's more trusted henchmen with a badly-scarred hand that was surely once dipped in lye and boiling water and vinegar. Limehouse doesn't make empty threats, and his peculiar motivational tactics appear to work. He's not someone Boyd Crowder is going to easily move.

Some other thoughts:

* Note that when Goodall and Raylan go to Little Joe's hotel room, she uses a telescoping combat baton much like the one the J-Lo version of Karen Sisco used to tussle with Isaiah Washington in "Out of Sight."

* Yost dips again into the "Band of Brothers" casting pool to get Frank John Hughes (who was one of my favorite characters in that miniseries, Wild Bill Guarnere) to play Poe. I always like that guy, and wish he worked more.

* When Art and Bill are talking about the good ol' days in Art's office, they mention Bass Reeves, one of the first African-Americans (if not the first) to be made a U.S. Marshal. Like Art says, hard to imagine Denzel or someone of his status hasn't tried to play the guy in a movie.

* The show continues to do better by Art as a character than either Rachel (who got an unmemorable spotlight episode last year) or Tim (who mainly hangs back, complains about Raylan and occasionally uses his sniper skills), but I appreciate that when either of the younger deputies kills someone, it's treated with gravity. Killing doesn't particularly trouble Raylan, except for the bureaucratic inconvenience, but it's been implied that Tim has a drinking problem tied to all the men he's shot, and though Rachel's mostly doing okay at the episode's end, it's also clearly not just another day at the office for her.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com