“I gotta work with the people here.”
Rather than the relentless drive to the finish of seasons two and three, the fourth season of The Shield slows down in these episodes. There are definitely crises on the way (the asset forfeiture program may get shut down) and crises that suddenly blow up (Aceveda brokers a deal between Antwon and the DEA) but we’re largely dealing with the fallout of the major collisions in “Back in the Hole.” It’s a different tempo but not a less compelling one, because these episodes deal so well with what it means to be part of a group. Groups have rules for who’s in and who’s out, they have their own cultures and rituals, and they have their own history.
The Strike Team is back to doing what it does–kicking the shit out of anybody in their way (Vic closes “A Thousand Deaths” by saying “I’ve got eight months of catching up to do with you guys”) and some of it is spectacular, in the literal sense, including a Russian who straight blows himself the fuck up rather than talk (great, classic Shield staging to put him in the background for that, and another example of a character who will go farther than anyone else). There are strong scenes of the Team just hanging out in a car or their clubhouse, just chatting with each other and smiling; it’s the kind of thing that works so well on a long-running TV series, with actors who really have known each other and worked with each other all this time. (Even jokes are things that define a group.) There’s also good moments showing how Army is not fully part of this team, like the scene in the car early in “A Thousand Deaths”–we see Vic explaining things to Army, in particular why he should trust Smitty (the Strike Team’s tech expert of choice. Army isn’t impressed), and we cut to Lem and Ronnie in the back, listening and evaluating–to Army’s great line “don’t ‘bro’ me” to Shane.
Army is a kind of apprentice member, along for the ride but not given full privileges. He doesn’t have the Strike Team’s history with each other, and in fact there’s a lot he doesn’t know about them. He and Shane are still due to take a polygraph test in a week’s time, as part of Rawling’s strategy for cover. Lem reminds Army that with the Strike Team, “you’re either built for it, or you’re not,” and there’s a brilliant edit there. It’s a great idea to have Lem be the one to explain that to Army, but it’s made even more effective by having the last shot of that scene hold on Lem. If the last shot holds on Army, it’s about him processing that statement, but by keeping our gaze on Lem, it’s reminding us of Lem’s history, and that Lem is the one who isn’t built for the Team.
When Rawling jumps the polygraph from “next week” to “right now,” it sets off a series of people looking at Army, Vic rationalizing, Shane going to full-Goggins charm, and Army refusing it. Not surprisingly, the Team is pissed (so is Rawling, more on this shortly)–“you made us look guilty!” To which Army responds perfectly “you are guilty!” Picking up on a point MRobespierre2 made last week, Army is willing to admit what he’s done, at least to himself, whereas the Strike Team is now following Vic’s lead and Vic’s style of get-away-with-it-and-then-never-look-back. It’s what Vic did with Terry, it’s what he did with the Money Train, and it’s what he does with Army here, letting him go and letting him do it quietly–he remembers all too well what happened at the end of last season. Army is willing to not be part of a team if necessary, and that makes him very different from Vic, Shane, Lem, and Ronnie. It’s interesting that Army learned that in, um, the army; he’s come back from Iraq with lessons in how teams can throw away the people in them to save the team.
That’s something Rawling knows too (her lashing out with “IT’S TOO LATE!” is both shocking and revealing–we realize how much trouble she knows she’s in). When she says she’s been taking one for the team for twenty years, and “when are they gonna take one for me?” there’s so much loaded in that line and in Close’s delivery. The Shield, as ever, keeps the plot moving forward, so this is really all we get of Rawling’s history, but we know how insanely difficult it must have been for her, and we know when she threatens to leave and let her bosses explain “how you lost one of LA’s two female police captains” that she knows her value to those bosses is largely for public relations, not that she has any kind of actual support. Rawling has her own team working for her, but she really doesn’t have any kind of team supporting her, and there’s a difference.
In Rawling’s story, “A Thousand Deaths” begins with the asset-forfeiture program about to be struck down, and her efforts to keep it going converge with the search for Carl and Scooby’s killers. This sends the plot and the show into its broadest range yet, in space, in ethnicity, and in history. Follow the bouncing ball: Assistant Chief Phillips wants to show that the killing of Carl and Scooby had nothing to do with the program (as for Rawling, “however it breaks, it breaks”), which leads the Strike Team back to Pitarrio, with Lem giving the heroin back to him, and Emolia (his girlfriend) as the damsel in distress, the eternal weak spot of Vic Mackey. That leads to a Nigerian who’s, oops, already dead, which leads to a shootout in Long Beach (neat staging, where we can see Shane against a wall and a gunman on the other side of it, camera right), which leads to a line I’m pretty sure we’ve never heard in interrogation before (“I am tired now. I am going to take a nap”), which leads to a Russian who may have killed Carl and Scooby “over a speeding ticket?” says Rawling, which leads to a confession from the Nigerian that even seems to be disgusting Vic, which leads (in “Judas Priest”) to a Russian crime organization, which leads to the aforementioned guy blowing himself the aforementioned the fuck up, which leads to JP–Jason Porter–the owner of the ring from “String Theory” and Antwon’s half-brother (I love how quickly Rawling puts together the story of how he and Antwon share the same mother) and translator, which leads to the reveal that yes, it really was Antwon behind all this. (This all happens in less than 55 minutes of screen time, considering all the other plots in these two episodes. I’ve seen three-hour movies where a lot less happens.) Antwon had Carl and Scooby killed out of revenge, but also as way to bring in the Russians–“need ‘em in your corner if you want to play outside the States.” These two episodes drive the plot forward, but like season three with the Armenians, they also give a sense of how LA, Antwon, and the police all fit into a new global order of crime. It’s a wider view than The Shield has ever taken, and it works. The expanded view is part of what makes this season so different.
With the asset forfeiture program in jeopardy, Rawling has to start dealing with, or at least talking to, Aceveda. He wants to change the program so that people can’t be made to give up their property without a conviction, instead of doing that with just an arrest. Rawling notes that’s gonna cause delays of up to a year. (It’s perfectly in character for Aceveda, and for The Shield, not to emphasize that he’s supporting the principle of presumption of innocence and the 5th Amendment.) In “Judas Priest,” Rawling appeals to him to sell the program, and to get the credit for putting away Antwon–“you get to hang your mayoral hat on a big success.” (A wonderful little look from Benito Martinez there–always approach Aceveda through his ambition.) That’s all going to get derailed by another chunk of the past, though.
Juan, Aceveda’s rapist, shows up, and with a dead grandmother and a mother in Mexico, Aceveda’s lost most, if not all, of his leverage, and Juan is ready to tell the world about the dick-sucking-like-a-cell-bitch if Aceveda doesn’t get him out of prison. In the best Shield style, there is no time for Aceveda to do this by pulling strings, it has to be done before his transfer, later this week. That, and his ambition, leads Aceveda to deal with Antwon. Anderson only gets more powerful in prison; he’s such a physical actor, like everyone else is on this show, that confining him to a chair just makes him seem stronger. The way he smiles is so effective here–it’s the smile of someone who knows you want something from him. Aceveda sets up a deal between Antwon and the DEA, keeping him in protective custody in exchange for giving up his suppliers, and Antwon mentions “the broker’s fee for you.” That “fee” is gonna involve Juan. Oh dear.
Aceveda has always been out for himself. He’ll support cops beating suspects covertly, doctor crime statistics, make himself a hero, support civil rights, fight crime, whatever’s necessary to get ahead. (Martinez has said the key to how he plays Aceveda is “he’s Richard the Third.”) That leaves him without a community. This may not be fair to him, because if he does have a community, it’s the citizens in general, and we don’t spend much time with them on The Shield. He’s definitely outside the community of cops, no matter how many times he puts on the uniform, and that leads to the scorching ending of “Judas Priest,” as the deal with Antwon goes wide. For Rawling, Vic, and Phillips, there can be no deals with a cop-killer; those are the rule of the group. Phillips is more pissed than we’ve ever seen him (Nigel Gibbs plays him so professionally and calmly all the time, so that moment is striking; he uses a line about “bedmates” with Rawling, and the camera holds on him long enough that we can see he immediately regrets it), Rawling is enraged, and we close out on a moment equal to the end of The Godfather in its visualization of self-exile, with Vic’s pronouncement “you’re not a cop. You never were,” the nameplate reading COUNCILMAN DAVID ACEVEDA and the rack focus to Councilman David Aceveda.
Among the cops, Detective Steve Billings has been in the background all season, taking Claudette and Dutch’s cases at the beginning, making the occasional joke, but otherwise not being much of a presence. It’s in “A Thousand Deaths” (the title is a misquotation from Shakespeare: “Cowards die many times before their deaths/the valiant taste death but once”) that he becomes a real character, deciding not to stop the robbery at the car wash (there’s a shot with the same staging as the Long Beach house, with Billings against a wall and the action happening off to the right) and to phone in the tip anonymously. There’s a neat little moment where we see both sides of Dutch–the bad liar and the great detective–as Claudette calls him out on relationship with Corrine and then he deduces that Billings was at the car wash, one right after the other.
Billings made a smart decision, not to come out of cover and go after at least two gangbangers, all probably armed, but now he knows there’s no way to justify it. This community won’t accept that, and he reminds Claudette and Dutch of the history–Julien still hasn’t gotten back everyone’s trust for not revealing he was gay. (The past is all over these episodes–Joanna, the wife of the Cuddler Rapist, has been getting threats, appeals to Dutch, and winds up putting a bullet into Danny; we also get Taylor the Fence back for a scene.) Billings also knows he doesn’t have the history with the Barn here that everyone else has; he isn’t fully a member of this team. David Marciano plays this scene so well, going through all the changes of Billings, from stonewalling to pleading. It’s a scene shot with a certain amount of distance to it; the camera is more curious than intense as Claudette and Dutch agree to keep his name out of it.
Of course, Billings isn’t the only one keeping secrets, and isn’t the only one who gets those secrets blown. For me, one of the funniest moments in the entire seven seasons of The Shield is Michael Chiklis’ “you’re kidding me!” when Corrine reveals she’s been sleeping with Dutch; it’s the sound of someone being hit with an object that came flying out of another universe. Almost as funny is his shift, seconds later, to “you didn’t tell him about the money I gave you?” (great choice in where that line is placed–Vic is too shocked to think of that at first, but almost immediately his protective instincts kick in. It’s another moment that deserves a comic book’s !!! over his head.) There’s some good expressive camerawork in the fallout: when Vic confronts Dutch in the bathroom, the camera keeps level and mostly isolates them (Vic’s line about Dutch being taken off Carl and Scooby–“weren’t you primary on that?”–is a weak hit, and Dutch seems more embarrassed for himself than anything else); when Dutch apologizes to Corrine (his “I am sorry” is equally weak) the camera stays at Dutch’s height and gives us a shot of him cornering Corrine. (Cathy Cahlin Ryan, mostly through her voice, lets Dutch and us know how much she’s been betrayed; we know through the history of the show how much she’s been lied to.) It creates the sense that he’s now a threat; it’s fascinating how Jay Karnes’ height can be a weakness in one scene and a threat in another.
It’s in “Judas Priest” that things blow up in this plotline. Dutch is getting pretty much constantly harassed by the Barn (“you’re the distraction keeping them from thinking about dead cops” says Claudette) and he’s getting no help from Billings, and starts fighting him in the parking lot. Once again, because The Shield has a unified style, and because that style is based on witnessing, it can shift through tones as fast as life does. That scene starts off as almost embarrassing for Dutch, shifts to comic as the Barn comes charging out, then shifts to a genuine confrontation as Dutch inadvertently clocks Vic and starts yelling at him (Vic, again, wasn’t expecting either of those things), and then Claudette yells “two of our own are dead,” and that snaps everyone back into the main plot. We get a great moment to witness everyone’s faces. The best thing about that line is it’s only six words long. If there’s nothing more that needs to be said, every additional syllable diminishes the impact.
The parking lot scene is a new moment for Dutch; it’s the first time he’s openly confronted Vic and on Vic’s terms. Before, Dutch has worked behind Vic’s back (right in the first episodes, when Aceveda used him to interrogate Shane, and again during the money train), and even when he confronted Vic, he always tried to mark himself as more intellectual than Vic. (Last season’s line “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is a good example of this.) Like all Shield characters, Dutch is flawed, and his flaw is the kind of passive-aggression often found in intellectuals, the kind who see actual aggression, verbal or physical, as beneath them. (Dustin Hoffman’s David Sumner in Straw Dogs is the archetype for this character.) Here, though, he gives that up and is ready to throw down with Vic (which, let’s be clear, would have ended very, very badly for Dutch.) And it’s after that that he’s able to go to Corrine and genuinely apologize, admitting what he did and why he did it, and so powerfully saying (really, the whole speech is one of The Shield’s great moments) “well I’m not afraid any more.” Drama isn’t simply about who we are; it’s about potential. It’s about who we can be. That scene is a reminder that there is such a thing as moving on from who you are to who you can be, but you can only do it if you own who you were. Dutch and Army can do that. Now we’ll see who else can.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
Next week, we’re going to get a couple of great moments that show how Dutch has earned a level of respect in the Barn–an overt one at the beginning and a subtle one at the end. (When Vic suggests everyone go out for beers, he addresses Dutch.) More than that, I don’t think Vic ever pranks Dutch again. Granted, he’s gonna be kind of busy from here on out, but there’s a strong feeling here that Dutch has gained Vic’s respect. (Beating the shit out of each other is one of the ways heterosexual men show respect, community, and even affection for each other, which is one of the reasons Fight Club exists.)
This is not only the season of restoration on The Shield, it’s also the season of community; it pays the most attention to the Barn as a whole, how it relates to the Farmington District, how it relates to the LAPD and the DEA, and even how the One-Niners relate to the world. It makes the final reversal that begins next season (arguably, it’s already begun) even more effective, because as we move into the late stages of a tragedy, community matters less. The story is going to narrow to individuals and their actions; anything outside of that has a function in the outcome of the story, but that’s not where our focus will be. We don’t, for example, understand ICE in season seven with the detail that we understand the asset forfeiture program here, and we shouldn’t; Olivia Murray is not as prominent a character as Rawling (I mean that almost literally, in that she’s onscreen a lot less), although she’s just as essential.
One of the great unanswered questions of The Shield is “how does the picture of Aceveda’s rape surface?” I’m pretty that it went through his partner, now deceased. I think if Juan had it, he would have used it by now; that Juan doesn’t use it here makes me think the other guy held on to it and intended to sell it or blackmail Aceveda with it later. If Pezeula’s intelligence operation was thorough, he would have come across it. Two weeks ago, MRobespierre2 and DoctorMemory raised the fascinating possibility that since Vic confessed everything in “Possible Kill Screen,” that picture may still be out there and Aceveda might still be vulnerable.