SPOILERS THROUGH SEASON SIX’S “THE MATH OF THE WRATH”
At the end of this episode, we have a quiet, almost intimate moment with Vic and Ronnie in a car, where Vic gives an exposition dump. It’s a static scene, really only there to fill in the Hernan story. Then, so abruptly, as Ronnie says “the guy chose the life,” it turns into something very different: “Page one of Shane’s memoirs wasn’t exactly new information. It’s difficult to prove, fortunately for you.”
. . .and Ronnie smiles.
No one in all of The Shield, certainly no one on the Strike Team, smiles like he does at that moment. It’s not the cruel smile Vic gets when he has the advantage on someone (like at the end of “Kavanaugh”), it’s not the wild goofiness of Shane in “Two Days of Blood” or the simple joy of Lem in “Ain’t That a Shame.” It’s closer to the smile Aceveda gets whenever someone appeals to his political ambition, but it’s not that either; it’s the smile of a man who’s been recognized, not found out. It’s a smile that’s calm, that’s bemused without being at all superior, the smile of a man who’s wondering “did you really think I didn’t know?”, the smile of a man who, more than anything else, is at peace.
Because Ronnie Gardocki is at peace. Because he always knew Vic killed Terry, certainly since the reveal that Terry was working undercover, possibly since he heard that last late gunshot outside of Two-time’s apartment. He always knew, because he would have done it himself, and then he would go home and sleep like a baby. Listen to how Ronnie says “had to be done”; Shane has said the same thing, twice, once as an anguished cry in “Postpartum” and once as an assertion to Vic in “Chasing Ghosts.” Ronnie says it like a weather report–it’s the reality of the situation, nothing more or less.
Alone among the Strike Team, Ronnie accepts, and has always accepted; he’s not moved by guilt or self-righteousness, only by the pragmatic necessity of what needs to be done. His next line is so perfectly written and delivered: “I wish you would’ve been straight with me, instead of living a secret every day. . .I could have looked out for you better.” (Chiklis gives a great reaction shot–Vic’s thinking “why the hell didn’t I tell him? Why didn’t I deal with this guy instead of my best but least stable friend?”) Ronnie’s not saying “hey Vic, you can trust me on this,” he’s not saying “Vic, you’ll feel better if you talk it out with me. Let’s go have some General Foods International Coffee™ and share some things.” It’s not about feelings at all, and Ronnie’s not hurt or betrayed that Vic didn’t tell him; Ronnie’s stating a simple, pragmatic truth: they’re in a dangerous business and they’ll be a lot safer if they’re open with each other. It’s one more time when someone says to Vic “admit you’re evil,” and here it’s done by someone who admitted it a long time ago.
In this third act of our story, the act of recognition, what’s so interesting here is now we know there will be no act of recognition for Ronnie, because that’s already happened for him, sometime before the story began. He knew he was a dirty cop, and accepted that, and accepted what Lem, Shane, and even Vic didn’t: as a dirty cop, he would do some horrific shit, and there’s no way to make that right. So Ronnie doesn’t try; he would never balk at doing what has to be done the way Lem did, wouldn’t suffer guilt the way Shane would, or try and deny his evil the way Vic does. Two lines from James Ellroy (no surprise here) describes him perfectly: “Carlos used people and made sure they knew the rules. Carlos knew he would pay for his life with eternal damnation.” Ronnie’s concluding line in the scene “what I need to know is when we can finally leave this all in the past, where it belongs” is a scary warning, because now we can see Ronnie will do whatever is necessary to achieve that.
One of the most important things in making The Shield such effective drama is the diversity of its moral universe. Watching it against two other more critically praised shows, The Sopranos and The West Wing, makes clear the value of that diversity. For all the insight and elegance of these shows, they are morally simplistic. The morality of every major character in The Sopranos could be called “unenlightened self-interest”; on The West Wing, the dominant morality is selfless public service. However true these values are or aren’t, it quickly gets boring as fuck when just about everyone shares them. (Yes, I’ve been saying “told you so!” during the runs of Studio 60 and The Newsroom. Yes, I’m comfortable with that. I am enlightened.) The Shield has such a range of moralities in its characters, and the characters act plausibly according to their moralities: Vic’s self-righteousness, Shane’s guilt, Lem’s goodness, Kavanaugh’s fanaticism (and its limits), Dutch’s and Aceveda’s ambitions (which are not the same), Claudette’s lawfulness, Mara’s loyalty, Danny’s sense of the code of police. Now we have another one: Ronnie’s pragmatism, and the promise of more conflict–more drama–as this will run into the other moralities. (The complexity and interest of The Shield isn’t so much within the characters, it’s between the characters.)
There’s no attempt here, and there never will be any attempt, to explain why Ronnie is like this. In less than one minute, we learn what we need to know about Ronnie, and what we need to know in a drama is how he will act. That’s it. Anything else distracts from the action, and makes the drama less universal. You could imagine how other shows would give us a psychological (Breaking Bad, The Sopranos) or sociological (The Wire) background for how Ronnie acts, but every explanation you give makes Ronnie a less empathetic figure. It might make him more understandable, but that’s not the same thing. The goal of the drama is empathy; we need to know enough to make us feel why we would do what the characters would do. What we see on The Shield is an essential principle of drama, done more rigorously than any other show: no explanations, no justifications, only consequences.
About Snell’s performance: it’s about as misguided a criticism as you can make to say, as Brandon Nowalk did, “Jay Karnes and David Marciano act David Rees Snell into the background. . . . Karnes is letting you know Dutch’s reaction to every last thing that happens. It’s a full performance.” Of course that’s how Karnes acts; so much of what makes Dutch such a compelling character is that Karnes reveals things about Dutch that Dutch doesn’t know about himself. If Snell gave the kind of busy, expressive, voluble performance that Karnes does, this scene, and his character, would fail completely, because we’d be thinking “how did we not know about this before?” (Any time you reveal something in a story that already happened, you have to answer that question. It’s even more true for this kind of absolutely linear storytelling, where there’s no flashbacks or playing with time.) Snell plays Ronnie quietly, closed off, giving away so little, because that’s who Ronnie is. He’s someone who could keep this knowledge secret and no one, including the audience, would suspect anything (my reaction to this scene was one second of surprise, and then thinking “of course”), the one who always counsels the most pragmatic approach, the one who, as Kavanaugh said, leaves no traces or vulnerabilities. That’s what makes Ronnie a compelling character, and Snell gives exactly the right performance for that.
I’ve made many comparisons to The Shield and the work of Michael Mann, and Ronnie is, hands down, the most Mannly of all this show’s characters. (Snell’s tight, focused performance is very much what you see in a Mann film from actors who are not Al Pacino.) Unlike most of The Shield’s characters, Mann’s characters are highly self-aware, to the point of delivering soliloquies about themselves. (They’re close to Shakespearian characters that way.) Ronnie has the ferocious competency and practicality of Mann’s characters (tiny tiny tiny spoiler: he also wears a suit damn well), he has the most self-awareness of any character on the Team, and, most importantly, he lives that awareness. Unlike Vic and Shane, Ronnie took Jimmy McElwain’s advice: “have no attachments, allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner.”
SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THE SERIES
That’s why Ronnie’s fate hurts so damn much. The Shield is about consequence in a way that’s even deeper and more powerful than a morality of good and bad. It’s not that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished, it’s that people earn what happens to them because of what they do. And from this moment forward, Ronnie feels like the guy who’s going to survive, not because it’s right, but because that’s what should happen. Once Vic decides to kill Shane in “Animal Control,” Ronnie is the one who intends to see it through. (Vic’s appeal to call it off by saying “I’m not Shane!” has no effect at all on Ronnie.) After Shane goes on the run, Ronnie wants to start running right then and there. Ronnie’s final fate isn’t a tragedy–as I’ve argued, he’s not brought down by a flaw but by the simple mistake of trusting Vic for twelve more hours than he should have. It may be the most painful fate, though, because he should have made it. It feels like a great violation, like not just morality but causality has been betrayed.
Until then, Ronnie will be a major player, and Snell’s ability to give away nothing keeps everyone guessing. A lot of viewers, myself included, wondered if his season-seven line about Vic (“he taught me everything I know”) meant that he would betray Vic as a means of getting away. Another great, necessary Ronnie moment comes at the end of “Parricide” when Corrine confronts Ronnie and Vic: “do either of you feel the slightest guilt over what you’ve done?” Vic’s response (“I don’t think about it”) is so very Vic, and Ronnie’s silent response is very Ronnie. He’s thinking “no, but I shouldn’t bring that up right now.”