Apparently, the A. V. Club will be migrating from DISQUS to Kinja this summer (2017), which may mean that all old comments will vanish, so I’ve moved my reviews of The Shield to The Solute. You should be able to find any review here simply by searching under the episode title, or by going to the last page of “Other Media”–the reviews have been backdated so as not to clutter up the entire damn front page with my writing. A few of them have not been posted yet; I’ll post those (on pivotal episodes, characters, or just ones I happen to like) throughout the summer on Thursdays. Although I’ve had more to say since I wrote these, I will edit them minimally. They reflect who I was in 2013 and 2014; where I have additional thoughts, I’ll add them in the comments. First up: how it all began, a six-part reflection on the series as a whole.
Part Zero: It’s Not Great Yet
The Shield is the greatest drama in the history of television. Welcome to all of you who’ve never seen it, and welcome back to all the fans and near-fans who’ve seen the whole thing.
SPOILERS FOR THE PILOT ONLY
For those of you who are seeing this for the first time, a warning: the first episode, in fact the first six or so episodes, don’t reveal to you how great this series will get. Partly that’s because you need to follow this story to the end to get its impact, but mostly because in the first half of the season, and especially in the pilot, this is too much like any other cop show. (Until the last minute, anyway; and how great is the fakeout of having Reed Diamond appear second in the opening cast list? He was better know than any actor here except CCH Pounder, he’d been on Homicide, Terry is clearly being set up for a larger arc, and then, BLAM.) The characters are too close to what we’ve seen a hundred times before: Claudette is too much the Sassy Black Woman, Dutch is a split between Tech Nerd and David Caruso (his opening line is just not something he’ll ever do again), and Vic is too flatly cocky. (“Just tell me it wasn’t great” is not right for his relationship with Danny.)
But it’s the pilot, and things are gonna get way better; the characters deepen and the story gets going. And as I’ll write about in the next part, no show ever did story, the sense of every action having consequences, better than The Shield. So stick with it. My recommendation: watch to the end of this first season (“Dragonchasers” was the turning point for me), and if you are at all engaged with what you’ve seen, keep going, because it just keeps getting better.
Part One: Story and Structure
But most important of all is the structure of incidents. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality….Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character; character comes in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. (Aristotle)
Nobody expects to lose. Nobody expects to die. (Clark Johnson)
SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE SERIES BEGIN HERE
The Shield is the greatest of all TV dramas because no other show was so successful at telling one story, something that began in the first episode and ended in the last episode, throughout its entire run.
The most essential morality of drama is that actions have consequences. What you do matters, and no action can be taken back. The last moments of Vic, alone in his cubicle, separated from everything and everyone that gave him meaning, aren’t the result of a thematic choice; it’s not something Shawn Ryan is trying to say about the LAPD or authority or America; it’s the result of what he did. In drama, people act based on their morality, and that collides with other people who act based on their morality, and there are consequences from that, which leads to further actions, which leads to a conclusion which must be, as Aristotle sez, both surprising and inevitable.
Almost no TV show tried to do this, because TV is a medium that is in some ways great and in other ways horrible for long-form storytelling. Great, because you can set things up over time, put the pieces in place over hours and hours, and then make the payoffs inevitable and believable. But horrible because actors quit, or want to stay on (Ryan has talked about being torn between doing what’s necessary for the story and being responsible for people’s employment); writing staffs change; details pile up and have to be remembered and dealt with; and most of all, because the network wants you to keep going on and producing money for them, hopefully forever, so the long-form series has to keep resetting and convincing us all that nothing has changed.
Holding to that rule, actions have consequences, is simple to state and hard to do in the medium of television. The Shield held to it more than anything else I’ve ever seen. Its power doesn’t come from its inventiveness (like, say, Lost or The Sopranos), but from its discipline, the way it stuck to the actions and their consequences. I don’t watch The Shield and think “gosh, that was a unique way to tell a story” or “hmm, that was a fascinating use of waves as a symbol” but rather OHMYGODWHATTHEFUCKISGONNAHAPPENNOW?
Among other shows, Buffy and Angel told great stories over the course of single seasons, and held the seasons together thematically (and Angel’s finale “Not Fade Away” is second only to this one; Lost tried for one story from beginning to end and failed, but it gave us all five great seasons on the way to the end, and I’ll always love them for trying; Breaking Bad may well be the only drama that comes near to what The Shield did. And I will get around to The Wire and Deadwood and I would be fucking thrilled if they changed my mind, promise.
If there is a single moment that made The Shield great, it was FX Networks’ President John Landgraf telling Shawn Ryan (during the second season, I believe) “you’re writing a three-act tragedy here.” Ryan then had the opportunity to work towards an end, but even more importantly, he had the opportunity to let things change, and change irrevocably.
The three acts of The Shield:
one, Situation: seasons one and two (everything through the money train robbery. Watch how everything follows as consequence from that.)
two, Reversal: season three through five (there’s a neat trick here: the three seasons are actually Reversal, Restoration, Reversal. Season three reverses the good fortune of the money train; season four brings everyone back together; and then season five is a reversal that comes from Vic killing Terry.)
three, Recognition: seasons six and seven, as first Shane, then Ronnie, then finally Vic are brought into confrontation with everything they’ve done.
That third act, by the way, is so necessary for the morality of the show, for actions having consequences. It’s not enough that the characters suffer because of their actions; they have to recognize that they are the cause of their own suffering. The death of Lem was one of the most shocking things ever broadcast; but what made it so powerful was the way we saw the remaining members of the Strike Team deal with it: Shane’s enormous guilt, Vic clinging to his self-righteousness, and most interestingly, Ronnie’s absolute pragmatism. It’s where Ronnie really became one of The Shield’s great characters, and he’d stay that way to his final, Oedipus-screaming moment.
It’s the relentless focus on action that draws us closer to the characters, that makes possible the catharsis of pity and terror. It’s not so much that we know why Vic or Shane or Claudette or Ronnie or Dutch do what they do; we know why we would do it. That is what it means to sympathize, to identify with a character. We don’t judge them, because their decisions would be our decisions. (Note, by the way, that it has nothing to do with whether the character is a good or a bad person, social or antisocial, racist, sexist, pacifist, violent, whatever. The ungodly power of drama is that it can make us identify with and feel for people we would otherwise judge. Brandon Nowalk is correct in observing this is a show you feel above all else.) To take one of so many examples: the torture of Guardo in season six, the most horrifying and visceral and powerful torture scene I’ve ever seen. You know why Vic does it, you know why Shane can’t stop him and you can’t stop either one of them. I didn’t want it to happen and I knew it would happen: pity and terror. A good enough definition of tragedy is a story where if we made the decisions the characters did at the beginning, we would have to act as they did at the end.
Furthering the greatness is that The Shield isn’t just about the Strike Team; other characters have their stories too, and they play out through all seven seasons: Corinne leaving Vic; the rise of David Aceveda; Claudette’s illness; the marriage of Shane and Mara. And there are other stories that last for an episode, and others that last for several episodes or a single season. This is, of course, something that a lot of TV series have done, it just felt more elegant here than anywhere else. Also, all these stories are played with as much care and attention to drama as the main story, and (here’s where the elegance comes in) all those stories come together in the final season, especially the last six episodes. (My rule is never to watch anything from those episodes unless I have the next six hours blocked off, because I always watch through to the end.)
There’s a simple rule that The Shield follows that I’ve seen done almost nowhere else, especially in this age of TV: after the second episode, and not counting “Co-pilot” (which I think we’ll all agree to not count, more on this later), there are no flashbacks, no editorial cutaways. There’s an occasional closing musical montage, but other than that, everything is absolutely linear. Every single thing we see happens after what we saw before: no backstory, no retcons, no justification. It’s one of the many ways that the style of The Shield backed up the story.
Part Two: Style and Performance
You got to be naturalistic. You got to be naturalistic as hell. (Quentin Tarantino)
Drama, in The Shield, is about action in crisis; it’s what you do at the most intense moment, when your action determines the rest of your life. (How you act every day is your personality. How you act in moments of crisis is your character. We often speak of a display of personality, but we talk about character being revealed.) The writing (“the structure of incidents”) is what makes those moments, but then they’ve got to be played and filmed. David Mamet remarked (in a memo on The Unit) that it’s the writer’s job to be dramatic, and the actor’s job to be truthful.
The Shield developed a style of filming and performing that was perfectly unified with its storytelling, and it held that style from nearly the beginning all the way to the end. (So if you’re looking for time-lapse shots of Los Angeles, symbol-loaded dream sequences, time-scattered narratives, or episodes with no dialogue for half an hour, forget it.) William Friedkin is a good point of comparison (and Walter Hill is a good point of contrast, as he’s a great director with a style antithetical to The Shield’s). The best term I can come up with for it is “heightened naturalism.”
vandermonde made the excellent comment last week that the style of The Shield was throwing him/her off; it was a style that was only associated with spying, making you feel like you were in the room looking over someone’s shoulder. That’s exactly right. The Shield was shot entirely with handheld cameras, almost always right there with the performers, and sometimes incredibly close. It’s the visual grammar of spying, of eavesdropping and surveillance. It was something that involved not just the skills of the directors, but of the entire crew, and they developed it over time. (It’s really towards the end of the first season that the style becomes very fluid and natural.)
It’s a style that mimics our looking. The pans, the quick zooms, the blurring of focus, all imitate our eyes turning to look, focusing in on something, losing track of it and refocusing. It puts us there, even when we desperately don’t want to be there. There’s a scene that really emphasizes this for me, because it’s out of place: in the seventh-season episode “Petty Cash,” Craig Brewer films Corrine in a park waiting for a bag o’ $; he makes the camera swoop and circle around her as she gets more and more nervous. It’s a great cinematic move (and would fit in with one of Brewer’s films or something by Scorsese or Paul Thomas Anderson) but it doesn’t work here, because no person would do that. It broke, just for a moment, the feeling of being there and watching.
Surveillance is one of the themes of The Shield, the question of what is watched, who is watching, and who isn’t. It’s played out most often in the interrogation rooms with the Amazing Disconnectable Cameras. The floor plan of the Barn, with its balcony, huge open space in the center, and windows everywhere, also creates a lot of opportunities for surveillance and the directors and camera crew constantly exploit this. It starts in the pilot, with Aceveda turning off the monitor, and continues all the way to the finale, with a last scene of Vic and Claudette in the interrogation room, Vic looking at photos, Claudette looking at Vic and then Vic realizing Claudette is looking at him. (And the theme continues, with Vic charging out and Claudette setting the arrest of Ronnie in motion with just one look at Dutch.)
Another element of style that The Shield had was the extreme close-up, pulling you into a face or two from what felt like inches away. And my God, fucking well nothing I have ever seen in the history of film or television had the faces that this show did. The Passion of Joan of Arc is the only competitor, and the style of The Shield has the same effect: you’re too close to the faces, coming in at the wrong angle, you’re in this incredible intimacy with them, closer than you’d be to anyone but a lover. Think of Aceveda’s face as he’s raped, and after in the bathroom; think of Dutch, crying in his car, checking to see if he’s being watched, and then crying again; think of the awful moments between Forrest Whitaker and Gina Torres. Think of the incredible expressiveness of CCH Pounder or Walton Goggins; think of the last moment of season 2, played out entirely on the faces of the Strike Team. Think of Corinne opening the door in “Parricide” and the look on Mara’s face. (I was sure Corinne was dead then.) We could all go on, example after example, the main cast and the supporting players. (Big ups and shouts to casting directors Barbara Fiorentino and Rebecca Mangieri on this one.) And again, it’s about the theme of surveillance, of watching people when they’re not meant to be watched.
It’s a style that makes you look, makes you witness, and gives you nowhere else to look. This is not a show that gives you a chance to step back (I’m riffing off of remarks ElDan made last week); it pulls you into the action. There are so many scenes where I (and others) have the reaction I do not want to be watching this but we have to. We can’t look away to something else (when there are only two faces on the screen, there is no something else) and we can’t shift our attention to aesthetic appreciation. That is part of the rule of drama, in fact it’s part of the morality of drama; the characters have to contend with the consequences of their actions, and we have to witness them doing so.
Many many actors on The Shield, particularly guest performers, have mentioned how the style forces you into a different kind of acting, a much more theatrical style, simply because you never know when a camera is pointed at you. (On the season 4 commentaries, Glenn Close articulates really well how she had to adapt to the show.) You have to be in character all the time, and it’s part of what gives the show that feel of heightened naturalism.
Evaluating acting is necessarily a more subjective thing, but every time I revisit The Shield, I can’t get over how good the acting is, simple, forceful, and natural. And it’s not just the main cast, who kept getting better and better as it went on; it’s not just the big guest stars, it’s just about everyone who got in front of the camera. (I am so pissed that Nigel Gibbs, who so effortlessly embodied Assistant Chief Phillips, is doing goddamn insurance commercials now as Worried Homeowner #1.) Zodiac is the only other thing I’ve seen where everyone on camera looks like they should look and acts like they should act, and that’s 1/30th or so the length of The Shield.
The acting is never overacting. I never saw the actors in the big moments, only the characters. And the acting was big when it needed to be but it can also be so subtle: think of Dutch’s heartbreaking “take that back!” to Claudette in season 2 (with his height, gawkiness, and complete unguardedness to the audience and the other characters, Jay Karnes is the only actor I’ve ever seen who compares to Jimmy Stewart). Or think of maybe the most devastating beat of Vic’s confession, as Chiklis stands up and looks down at Laurie Holden, finally accepting what he’s done; that gaze is nothing we’ve seen in all seven seasons. Or Shane breaking down and confessing to Mara in season 6; Walton Goggins falls apart in all directions and Michele Hicks shows not only great acting, but great reacting, as she realizes what he’s saying, and what it means for both of them. Or even the resolve in the single look from CCH Pounder, closing the door on Dutch as she goes in for one final shot at Kleavon (Ray Campbell, another fantastic actor who did so much for this show). . .one more moment where the acting, the story, and the style all came together. (I don’t think I’ve ever cheered so hard at anything televised before or since.)
None of this would work, none of this would matter, without the story, “the structure of the incidents,” setting it all up. Remove that and all you have is overacting shot with nervous cameras. (Is there any world except Idi Amin’s Uganda or Farmington where the word “naturalism” belongs anywhere goddamn near Forrest Whitaker?) In this show, though, it’s not; it feels exactly right for what the characters are doing. What made The Shield such a unified work of art was that the story justifies the style, and the style expresses the story; this is a world where the style and performance, both grand and intimate, matches the explosiveness and devastation of the actions of the characters.
Part Three: Ownage
WERE TALKING ABOUT TWO DIFFERENT KINDS OF MOVIES HERE THE FIRST KIND IS SHIT LIKE TAKEN AND LAW ABIDING CITIZEN IN WHICH THE UNCUT OWNAGE ON DISPLAY IS HELD BACK BY SOME INFERIOR SHIT WHICH MAKES THE MOMENTS OF OWNAGE THE DRAW SO ITS WORTH SITTING THROUGH SOME FLATLINE SHIT FOR THE REDLINE SPIKES OF OWNAGE BUT IT AINT GONNA LIKE MAKE MY TOP TEN OR ANYTHING SO I CAN SEE YOU DISAPPOINTED WITH THOSE SO WELL CALL THOSE OPTIONAL
BUT THE SECOND KIND IS SHIT LIKE CRANK 2 AND THE PROPOSITION AND THEY ARE NOT OPTIONAL THEY ARE STONE COLD CLASSICS IN THE REALM OF OWNAGE AND SOME OF THE GREATEST MOVIES EVER MADE AND I WILL BROOK NO MOTHERFUCKING DISSENT ON THAT SHIT FROM YOU OR MY FATHER OR THE PRESIDENT OR DWAYNE THE ROCK JOHNSON OR ANYBODY ELSE (ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER)
When people say that Dickens exaggerates, it seems to me that they have no eyes and no ears. They probably only have notions of what things and people are; they accept them conventionally, at their diplomatic value. (George Santayana)
Those who employ spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy. (Aristotle)
Men immobilized by tires, doused in gasoline, and set on fire. Faces burned and smoking on stoves, twice. Amputations of arms and feet. People straight blown the fuck up by grenades. Torture by chains followed by a shot to the head and brains splattering the wall. Men smashed in the head with irons. Blood and tissue left on a street from a man dragged to dismemberment. Prostitutes strung out on meth with rotting teeth. Mouthrape at gunpoint. Broken collarbones, drug use, rapes, beatings, junkies. And so forth. The Shield owns more, and more intensely, than any other film or TV show I can think of; I believe ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER once calculated the average time-to-ownage ratio as being just under three minutes.
For those of you who are new to the AV Club, ownage can be classically defined as when one character quickly and absolutely dominates another character. The most obvious way to own is (to paraphrase Tasha Robinson) to murder someone’s ass to death, but you can own someone through action or even verbally. (“Dragonchasers” has The Shield’s most subtle moment of ownage; if you’ve already seen it, watch for it about halfway through the episode. “Own by getting owned” is the idea here.) But the defining aspect of owning is dominating someone, hence the use of “own.” It damages; if you get owned, it’s not a fucking teachable moment (something Aaron Sorkin, who can write dialogue but not action that owns, has never understood). In the classical sense, ownage can also be defined as abrupt and extreme reversal.
On a pure level of filmmaking, The Shield came up with some extraordinary stuff. Once the directors and camera operators got proficient with the style, they could shoot fights with an immediacy that made you feel what the characters were feeling; when you were shocked, it’s because the characters were too. It began with the bullet under Terry Crowley’s eye (great ownage, as ElDan noted last week, is always specific–the Iliad describes an arrow going through a warrior’s right nipple), and continues: think of the sad last moments of Kern Little in season 5; think of the absolutely astonishing fight between Shane, Tavon, and Mara in season 3 (Brian White sold the shit out of getting clocked with an iron; he looked like 3/4 of his brain just shut off); think of the last stand of Shane and Mara in “Possible Kill Screen.”
One reason for the violence is simply that this is a story about a violent world. The violence is part of the texture of The Shield as much as the overblown light and decaying buildings of Los Angeles. (When ICE moved into the story in season 7, Michael Chiklis remarked on the strangeness of working in buildings that didn’t smell like piss.) Storytelling relies on a deal between the storyteller and audience: if you trust that I will tell you a story worth telling, I will trust you to witness everything I show you. Part of the strength of this show is that it makes you feel its world. The Shield is more extreme in its violence and in its texture than most shows, but from what I’ve seen (especially after three years on the Mexican border), it’s not more extreme than the reality it portrays.
The violence puts a lot of people off The Shield; I’ve heard (I’ve read) people describing it as “extreme” (in the Mountain Dew sense) and “gratuitously violent” and “always trying to shock,” and I’ve just never gotten that. All those terms imply that we see something violent, we’re shocked, and that’s it. Half the programs on CBS (Zebop pointed this out last week) seem to exist for this purpose, and on all those shows, the violence gets a nice predictable scare from the audience, and then it’s resolved neatly into a story of “bad guy gets caught by team by last commercial” (to be fair, in some cases, this might even take two episodes), repeat next week. These shows provide thrills without the risk of discomfort. But on The Shield, the violence is almost always there because of a cause, it always has consequences, and those consequences can go to places that are truly terrible, not just monstrous.
A digression here: I can best demonstrate how much The Shield owns by looking at another show that also told an absolutely linear story, was incredibly violent and wonderfully filmed, but is, in the end, a lesser work: 24. Recently, Ryan McGee made a simple, effective distinction between plot and story: plot is what happens, story is why it matters. (The plot of Breaking Bad concerns an RV, lab equipment, methylamine, drug dealers, cancer, a car wash, so forth. The story concerns a man, step by step, destroying his own humanity.) 24 was a great example of writers who were blocked from telling a good story by the necessity of making a series without any real consequence for its characters. The show had to keep going on, so Jack Bauer had to keep doing the same kind of things (and America had to keep suffering the same kind of attacks) without anything changing. (More than one interrogator has stated that anyone who did the kind of things Jack did all the time would either be or become psychotic.) So instead of a story (the story was pretty much always Jack fights evil; Jack gets betrayed; Jack owns), the writers constructed plots that were fantastic ownage-generating machines.
One of the things I see when I go back and watch 24 is how good the actors are (especially Kiefer Sutherland), how committed. (And, dammit!, Shoreh Agdashloo would have just been amazing on The Shield.) But the problem is, no matter how good the actor, the performance can only be so good without a good story to perform; Sutherland did so much with his face and his voice, but Jack is still doing the same things. I was really glad that, however clumsily, the writers of 24 started moving towards telling an actual story in the last two seasons, bringing in a sense of moral conflict (largely through Agent Hotness) and a sense of what everything Jack had done had cost him. If there was a way that the writers could have done in the second or third season what they did in the last six episodes, 24 would have owned so much more.
It’s because of the story, the attention to consequence and reversal, that The Shield could come up with moments of ownage that didn’t involve violence at all, but were even more devastating. I’ve mentioned a few throughout these posts, and so have other fans in the comments, but my favorite moment of ownage, probably my favorite moment in the whole series, belongs to Corinne in “Parricide”: “that is my price. And you have to pay some kind of price!” (I love the way her voice breaks on that line. This is not remotely easy for her, but she has to do it. I’m pretty sure that’s what courage is.) Again, what makes it work is that it’s not gratuitous, any more than Shane blowing up Lem; it’s a moment that she’s been moving towards for over 80 episodes.
With its extreme moments of emotion and its respect for probability, The Shield is melodrama, in Sidney Lumet’s (God rest ‘im) definition: a story that begins with realistic behavior and ends with extreme behavior. He also defined it as a story where, at the beginning, people’s actions are determined by their character, and at the end, their actions are determined by the plot. (These comments come from the commentary track for Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, so if you’ve seen it, you know exactly what he’s talking about. If you haven’t seen it, hey, you’re most likely a Shield fan, so you’re gonna love it.) Again, characters on The Shield don’t do extreme things for the sake of being extreme; they’re driven to it because they have no other choice.
Melodrama, in Lumet’s sense, is pretty darn close to Aristotle’s definition of drama. (The 1800s, with dramas of quiet arguments in small rooms, really changed our definition of theater and made a split between drama and melodrama.) What makes it work is the attention to probability, and that’s where The Shield took advantage of its setting and of being a TV series. The setting meant that extreme acts were simply, and necessarily, part of the everyday world. Being a TV series meant that the writers had time to build dramatic situations, build them even more, pay them off with extreme ownage, and then show the consequences of that over multiple episodes or even years.
Nothing better demonstrates The Shield’s strength of storytelling here than Aceveda’s rape. It’s filmed in about the most horrifying-and-still-broadcastable-on-basic-cable manner, shot from below, close to Aceveda’s perspective, but still allowing us to see Kurt Carceres’ face. And if that was all that happened, I’d agree that it was done for shock value. But it’s an act that has a cause (Vic jamming a bong in Carceres’ mouth a few scenes earlier; ZoeZ caught this) and it’s an act that has consequences, in his marriage (Camilla Sanes’ reading of the line “did you. . .suck?” brings all the horror back in a single moment, and extends it; his relationship with a prostitute in season 4 that is both scary as all hell and perhaps heals him a little), in his career (that darn picture keeps resurfacing through the rest of the series), in his morality (Aceveda kills one rapist directly and has the second killed, and that has consequences with Antwon), and in his drive for power (Pezeula really should not have used the phrase “the dick is up your ass” with Aceveda). The Shield’s relentless sense of consequence, by the way, leaves me thinking that this part of Aceveda’s life isn’t necessarily over at the end of the series, any more than I think of Julien as a happily straight married guy.
The necessary paradox is that the greatest acts of ownage don’t exist on their own; works that try to be nothing but REDLINE SPIKES OF OWNAGE usually don’t own at all. The greatest acts of ownage are those that are part of a larger story. It’s the ability to take the most extreme acts and fit them into a coherent, probable story (and a coherent, probable world), one where each act has a past and a future, where each act has causes and consequences, that makes The Shield a great work (and a moral work) of ownage; the distinction that ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER and Aristotle make between what is optional and what is not optional is the difference between ownage as an end and ownage as a means.
Part Four: Morality
So maybe that–the often-horrifying lack of emotional distance–is what we talk about when we talk about [The Shield]. What [Shawn Ryan] seems to want more than anything else is to put viewers in the middle of these intense, emotional moments, to make them sympathize or empathize with people who can be terrible to each other in one moment and surprisingly loving in the next. . . (Todd van der Werff, not writing about The Shield)
I found a story in the Los Angeles Times describing the corrupt officers of the Crash Unit of L.A.’s Rampart district. I realized these guys were very bad. And they were very effective. And thus was born Vic Mackey and the Strike Team. (Shawn Ryan)
Dramatic works are meant to be acted. They are about commitment and its consequences. (David Mamet)
Drama works by making us empathize with the characters, not by judging them, explaining them, or even understanding them. It works by putting us in the place of the characters. This is done by simply presenting the action. At each moment, we see the choices of the characters, so we are in their place. We see what they choose, and if the drama follows some level of probability, we will understand that choice. And if the drama follows the rule that actions have consequences, that will lead to further complications and choices. And this continues until we get to the end of the action.
It’s important that the choices have some moral dimension to them; if you have choices where the morality is clear, it’s not a drama but an adventure. (“Do I kill Lem?” is a moral question. “Red wire or blue wire?” is not.) The Shield created great drama because it had such a populated moral universe; there were characters of all kinds of morality, which created all kinds of collisions and possibilities for drama. I watched The Shield (both in original broadcast, and catching up on DVD) concurrently with The West Wing and The Sopranos, and found myself finding the latter two lesser shows for a similar reason: both of them had largely empty moral universes. Everyone in The Sopranos clusters around Unenlightened Self-Interest, or gets pulled towards it; everyone on The West Wing (especially in the Sorkin years) Serves The Greater Good. Neither show generated anything close to The Shield’s level of drama.
Characters on The Shield, in contrast, came in all varieties of morality and their collision made for the drama. Looking at Aceveda, Claudette, Rawling, and Kavanaugh, you can see four authority figures trying to do the right thing, ranging from Aceveda’s continual trimming and tacking to advance his career (“doing the right thing” for him is entirely a political strategy) to Kavanaugh’s fanaticism (but he’s the only one of the four who has a chance at bringing down the Strike Team). Kavanaugh perfectly embodies the classical figure of Nemesis, the daimon called up by your hubris, and the action makes it clear that he turns into a monster in the process of battling a monster. (“You won’t do this. You don’t have the stomach.” And Forest Whitaker loads a perverse kind of pride into his reply: “I didn’t use to.”) Claudette and Rawling are somewhere in between, each trying to do the best job they can with the materials they have, and we can see both of them as truly noble figures in the world of the Barn, without ever seeing them as somehow above everyone else or impossibly good. (Claudette’s story, and where it ends, makes clear the price she pays for all of this. At her funeral, how long do you think it’ll take before Dutch loses his shit and starts bawling? Over/under is 90 seconds.)
The other characters display their own range of moralities and loyalties, and the action brings the characters to their limits of morality. Dutch’s insecurity and brilliance were forever in combat with each other; we could see him learn his limits of corruption and involvement with serial killers. (Dutch may have grown the second most in the series without ending up in jail or dead.) Lem was just not cut out for the Strike Team; it’s not so much that he’s a good person, but that he’s instinctively a good person. He doesn’t know how to scheme the way Vic or Ronnie or even Shane does. Shane, less committed to the public good than Vic (you always felt Shane was in it for the thrill) but just not able to handle killing a cop, or a friend. Both (and Vic) play against Ronnie’s pragmatism, his acceptance without torment of what needs to be done (think of that amazing beat, in “Animal Control,” where Vic tries to call off the hit on Shane and it’s Ronnie who keeps it going, all done in the quietest of exchanges). Ronnie’s fate comes off to a lot of us as the most painful, because he was absolutely the one who should have gotten away with it. (A Ronnie-headed Strike Team would have been at least as profitable, and with a higher survival ratio, because Ronnie would never fall victim to self-righteousness, he knows when to cut and run, and his tragic flaw–loyalty–wouldn’t be important if he was in charge.)
Mara is one of The Shield’s most important characters, because she genuinely competes with Vic for Shane’s loyalty (and genuinely wins it), and for the simplest of reasons: she wants a family with him. Her character was defined by what’s just about her farewell line, “all we ever wanted was to be with you.” (You realize that’s the moment when Shane decides to kill them.) Corrine may be my favorite of them all (with her huge eyes, sympathy, and the world’s slowest burning don’t-fuck-with-me moments, she’s the human Fluttershy); you can see her grow in strength through seven seasons until she can finally, finally break with Vic. (I hope she did. Her smile in the last moments of “Family Meeting” suggest she may be at peace. But these characters are so convincing we know things could always go differently.)
Vic isn’t anything so simple as a sociopath; someone as smart as Vic but purely evil would have realized what was coming a long time earlier and bailed. Vic really has levels to his morality, from lowest to highest: uphold the law; protect the innocent; serve the team; serve your family; serve yourself. He’ll try, he will use all of his resources to do one until it conflicts with something higher, and then he’ll pursue the higher principle just as much, and anyone who was protected by the lower principle gets trashed. Vic’s original sin is thinking you can live this way, thinking that all you do can be separated. In the end, you wind up losing–you wind up destroying–everything but yourself and your photographs. (Tragedy, by definition, happens to more than just the protagonist.)
One more character, who is absolutely necessary to The Shield’s world: you gotta have Billings. In a world where everyone is so damn intense, you have to have someone who is just trying to get through the day. (“Whatever’s between zero and the city-mandated minimum? We’ll call that the Billings.”) You have to have someone who plays for lower stakes. On Alias, it’s Marshall; on Lost, it’s Miles; on Breaking Bad, it’s the absolutely wonderful Saul. In the best Shield tradition, Billings’ who-gives-a-shitness doesn’t make him stupid (can anyone except Claudette play Dutch better?) and it doesn’t make him a bad person. It’s one more aspect of his humanity.
James Ellroy’s novels have a similar moral universe. (They also share a similar focus on action over introspection; more on this shortly.) Like The Shield, Ellroy assumes corruption and violence as a given, and then finds moral conflicts and drama among corrupt, violent characters. Almost all dramas instead label the corruption as evil, and have characters who fight it. Neither Ellroy’s novels nor The Shield are tracts against corruption and violence; instead they explore the consequences of action within that world.
What makes The Shield a drama is, as Mamet said, the commitment of the characters and the actors. Characters in a drama don’t achieve consensus with some clever dialogue and a resolve to be nice; they don’t refuse to change because (as my avatar would say) “but it’s haaaaaard.” They act and collide with each other, and there are consequences, and we feel them.
Donald McCarthy remarked that The Shield is about more than moral ambiguity, it’s about shoving the consequences of that moral ambiguity in our faces. And many many people here and elsewhere have noted how The Shield makes us root for a bunch of dirty cops committing crimes. Of course it does; these are exactly the things that drama is supposed to do. It puts us in the place of the characters, and makes us see the consequences (not judgment) of their actions. We’re as exhilarated as they are (as pw exclamation mark noted) by how they continually get away with things, and we’re as shocked as they were when they don’t. (Go to the seventh-season reviews on the AV Club at the time of broadcast: look at the comments to see how many of us thought Vic would find some way to work everything out. I did too.) Our sympathies naturally rise and fall with the characters’ actions; we end the story in pity and terror, because we feel that could have been us.
It’s a morality of empathy and consequence, not a morality of judgment. Drama makes us feel what the characters are feeling; it makes us confront the choices the characters have to confront. Todd van der Werff’s quote above was about Girls and Lena Dunham, but it applies just as well to The Shield, and to all great storytelling, although I cut the last phrase “. . .even as she invites us to keep a certain distance and judge these people for all they don’t know.” The Shield never invited us to keep our distance, and it recognized what people didn’t know, but never invited us to judge them for that. To the extent there is judgment here, it comes from the consequences, and it comes from how the characters feel those consequences (a three-year desk job with good pay and benefits would be a pretty good deal for most of us, but not for Vic), not from what Shawn Ryan or Kurt Sutter or anyone else thinks.
That’s why, more than any other show, it’s necessary to talk about the whole motion of The Shield. “The show” isn’t going to judge the characters, so the whole story has to play out to see the consequences, and therefore to see the full revelation of character. Morality is bound up in the very form of the story. (Macbeth wouldn’t be much of a play if it ended after act two, and The Great Gatsby is just the 1920s Entourage if you skip the second half.)
The “lack of emotional distance” on The Shield is “often-horrifying,” sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes exhilarating, and a hundred other things; it is the purpose of the drama. Once you start empathizing with people, you can’t tell where it’s going to end up; part of the bargain we make with storytellers, is to accept that we might get really uncomfortable; we might feel something that will make us forever changed. (Maybe the difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment tells us ahead of time “I might scare you for a minute but that’s all; I promise not to really disturb you.”) That is the power of drama: it makes us live in a bigger world, makes us know things and feel things that we would otherwise be distanced from, by ignorance or judgment.
Conclusion: the Purpose of the Drama
Far back in the impulses to find this story is the storyteller’s belief that at times life takes on the shape of art and that the remembered remnants of these moments are largely what we come to mean by life. (Norman MacLean)
Drama is one of the older art forms, predating television series and novels by a few thousand years. It’s one of the (more on this later) simpler forms–get some people together, draw a line for a stage and maybe some cushions for the audience, maybe even some snacks, you’re good to go. And it’s one of the most affirmative and humanistic forms, because it’s based on a fundamental assertion that what we do matters. Our actions, our choices, make a difference, and no action is ever lost or forgotten. The Shield scared the shit out of us, it terrified us, it broke our hearts, and made us laugh and gave us moments of triumph and disturbed us with things we still can’t forget, but the thing it could never do, that no great drama can ever do, was depress us. It couldn’t make us feel unimportant, because drama is based on the importance of human action.
Again, what makes us identify with the characters, makes us feel pity and terror, is that we see their actions, we see the consequences, and we see the choices they have to make. More than anything else, what made The Shield so great was that the creative team understood what else they needed to do to make us identify with the characters: nothing. Everything in a drama that is not action weakens our identification with the characters. Every time there is a moment that calls attention to the style, no matter how beautiful or meaningful, you’re a spectator, you’re not with the characters. Every time there is a judgment on the characters, you’re a spectator, you’re not with the characters. (Judgments on The Shield were always done by other characters, and so were always actions by other characters.) Every time there is a “character moment,” the character isn’t facing a choice, so neither are you. Every time the show says something about America or institutions or the justice system, you’re not with the characters. Every time there’s a flashback, you’re not dealing with consequence, so you’re not with the character. You might very well understand the character better, but that’s the thing: you’re understanding someone else, not feeling the action as something you would do. (The goal of some artists seems to be to understand the characters better than the characters understand themselves.)
Since everything that isn’t action weakens our identification, The Shield threw out everything that wasn’t action. uselessbeauty noted that The Shield “perfects the storytelling mode of endless rolling crisis and how our characters maneuver their way through it.” Without sacrificing probability, the consequences kept on coming, the characters kept getting confronted with choices, and so did we. The style and performances kept us right in the action, and there was no rest once the plot got going, which was usually just after we saw “Walton Goggins” on the screen.
The three-act structure of the story creates both a maximum amount of conflict but also creates a unified action for the entire series. (The Shield kept to the other two classical unities of time and place as well.) A lot of commenters have noted that Vic and the Strike Team go somewhat straight after the money train robbery; another way to say this is that they don’t really initiate anything after that. The second and third acts of The Shield (seasons 3-7) are all about reaction to what happened in the first act. Shawn Ryan made a decision not to complicate the story by adding more characters and situations (Mara, Billings, and Tina are the only major permanent additions to the cast); this allowed him to use the remaining five seasons to play out all the consequences of the first two in a fairly realistic way. Again, this keeps to the rule that drama shows the consequences of the action, and introducing new actions only distracts from the consequences of the original action. (A drama should have a beginning, middle, and an end, not a beginning, middle, then another beginning, and a middle to that, then start the end but, hey, why not another beginning. . .) Vic, alone at his desk at ICE with nothing but the buzz of air-conditioning and a few photographs in the next-to-last moment of the series, is the last consequence of the first action. (Ryan initially planned to end there, but added the last shot of Vic taking his gun and leaving. The last line of the last script: “Vic Mackey heads into the night, destination unknown.” It’s a first action, but of another story.)
It’s that last act (seasons 6-7), the recognition, that’s the most powerful, and necessarily so. It’s where the characters are really brought into conflict with themselves. Recognition is where the characters see what they’ve done, and have to deal with it; and given the way drama works through empathy, it’s where we have to deal with it. The moments before Shane kills Lem are so devastating, as he (and, again, the audience) realizes there’s no other choice; but it’s even harder to see Shane have to deal with the guilt and knowledge of this, and see the series of events that destroy everyone get under way.
The most powerful confrontations and moments come in those last two seasons: Vic’s breakdown at the hospital, the actually quite graceful exit of Forest Whitaker, Shane’s confession to Mara, Shane confronting Vic (and Shane’s written confession), the blown assassination of “Animal Control,” the cascade of ownage in “Parricide” (almost every scene in the last half of that show is bigger than the one before), and maybe most powerfully, most classically of all, Vic’s confession to Olivia. After three years, after all his evasions and everything he’s done, that is the moment, at the end, when he truly owns it, in all senses of the word. Vic may have sat down at that table as a good cop who did some bad things and finally got too far in over his head, but the man who stands up from that table is a killer, a dealer, and a thief under cover of authority. Here, even though we’ve seen everything Vic has done, here we are in Olivia’s place, because it’s never been laid out to us this way before. Here is where we, along with Vic, along with Olivia, truly recognize who Vic is. (Laurie Holden said that when she played that scene, she felt she was in the presence of evil.)
The Shield’s successor is Breaking Bad, for a lot of reasons we can recognize: the antihero as protagonist, the strong stories, the unified action, the maximum ownage. Obviously, full judgment can’t be made until Breaking Bad concludes, but one episode into the 5th season (as far as I’ve gotten), Breaking Bad is still in second place, and I think it’s partly because Breaking Bad is only one act. The trajectory of the show was set about four episodes in, and it has continued: Walter increases in power as he decreases in humanity. It’s not a tragedy but a supervillain’s origin story. Flashbacks, which would be so out of place in The Shield, work fine in Breaking Bad, because they establish a key element of the origin story (as Joseph Campbell or Stan Lee could tell you): the superhero or supervillain’s powers are already there, he or she has to awaken to them, not create them. Walter White was always a brilliant, prideful man, and he denied that for decades. Now he is letting himself (as Nietzsche would say) become what he always was. But with eleven episodes left, I don’t know how much reversal (let alone recognition) we’ll get. (Although what’s in the trunk hints that something really bad is on the way.)
There’s a tendency, even among fans of The Shield, to underrate it. (I’ve read a lot of “I love The Shield, but. . .” comments on this site over the last five years.) I think this comes from misunderstanding how dramas work. Drama is in a lot of ways a subtractive genre; it works by throwing out everything that isn’t action, by removing everything that keeps the characters from being universal, by not having any further complications after the beginning, and doing all of this to the extent allowed by probability.
Just about all the great shows in this new Golden Age of Television, don’t follow these rules; for lack of a better term, I’ll call them novelistic. (The Sopranos and The Wire both come to mind.) Novels are not about action so much as they’re about consciousness; they are absolutely the best genre for rendering another person’s perception of the world. Novels can do just fine with having a maximum of detail with a minimum of action; of course the Modern Library could name as the best English-language novel ever Ulysses, 800 pages devoted to 18 hours in Dublin where really, nothing much happens. (For the record, I fucking love Ulysses and you will find me every June 16th in an Irish pub or a bookstore reading the end of the “Ithaca” chapter.) The Wire and The Sopranos do really well when you apply the standards of novels to them; they are both huge works that use a wide range of techniques (cinematic, literary, dialogue) to detail the workings of American institutions or to show the inner life of their characters. From watching the whole run of The Sopranos, and from what little I’ve seen of The Wire (I’ll be watching the whole thing soon and commenting the shit out of it, promise), both of them are way past The Shield in terms of depth of character, in detail about American life, and in The Sopranos, in symbolism and thematic unity.
These novelistic shows tend to the particular, and are often incredibly, meaningfully, exactly detailed in their particularity. They can tell us a lot about our particular time and place, but drama moves towards the universal. (A lot of our “prestige dramas” are prestigious exactly to the extent that they are something other than dramas.) Once upon a time, a man did a bad thing and thought he was still good; he got away with it, and lost everything else. That’s The Shield, and although the story plays out in the Los Angeles of the 2000s, the story itself, in its essence, could take place in medieval Europe or imperial Byzantium or contemporary Central America or 500 years from now in whoknowswhere.
The purpose of the drama is not to reveal truths about society and institutions, although it can; it’s not to provide a diagnosis for its characters, although it can; it’s not to provide a set of symbols and themes that can be analyzed for an academic journal, although it can. The purpose of the drama is to make us feel what the characters feel, to feel their choices and the consequences, to (in Steve Hyden’s words) make us care. The Shield is our greatest drama because it did that, created an extreme yet believable fictional world, and within that, created the great catharsis of pity and terror, mercilessly, better than anything else on television.
The Shield was one of those works, like The Godfather, where so many different talents and circumstances came together and the alchemy of creation made something extraordinary. There was Shawn Ryan’s simple, original idea as well as his respect for the tradition of cop shows and the rules of drama; an inventive writing staff (ranging from could-work-for-The Wire Charles Eglee to try-switching-to-decaf Kurt Sutter); a network president who backed up the choices; a camera crew and directors who realized a unique style; and the most astonishing ensemble cast I’ve ever seen. All of this made something far more than you’d expect even from that description. We’ll have other great shows in our lifetime (I have no doubt Breaking Bad will finish strong, and as long as cities are mismanaged, David Simon will have something to say) but I don’t think we’ll ever see any drama as unified and powerful as The Shield again. And if that isn’t love, then I guess I’ll just never know.
Next: “Our Gang”/”The Spread”