The public has no idea what justice costs the men who perform it. (James Ellroy)
And. Here. We. Go.
FX has signed off on all the actors. The Strike Team has been fully assembled. Everyone in the main cast has a role to play. Ronnie has, like, complete sentences. Stories that were in play seven episodes ago get resolved and others get taken farther. The Shield is now on its full game, comrades, and hang the fuck on for the next 70 hours or so.
In “Dragonchasers,” the actors now have control over their characters, and the writers have control over the story. Michael Chiklis has said that when the screenplay isn’t well written, he feels, as an actor, he has to indicate more than he should. In this episode, though, the incidents are all exactly in place and the actors don’t need to make any points, and we get the best acting of the series so far (and it’s gonna stay at that level). Everything comes through without being emphasized–Corinne’s confusion, Shane getting duped, Julien just exploding with rage (on the rewatch, you just get sick with dread when you know what’s coming), Connie’s self-loathing (Jamie Brown is so fantastic). One more detail, though, worth catching, because it shows you the level at which The Shield plays: watch Chiklis in the observation room. (Not the gag with the remote, which is brilliant.) Everyone else is having a blast, but Vic stays absolutely dead serious, because he knows that Dutchboy is on to something. Vic gives just a little hint of a smile when Shawn from Rockford (Shawn Ryan’s reference to himself) breaks.
Of course, it’s Jay Karnes who flat-out blows everyone away in this one. (And he’s another example of how acting on this show gets subtler over time–compare him here to “Cherrypoppers.”) He conveys things with just the slightest change in expression, even in stance. Watch his smile in the break room, held just a little too long as he catches a clue no one else does; watch him after he reads the whiteboard, considering his options and then realizing the play is just to sit down and listen. (When Claudette says “Dutch,” and he waves her off, it’s the subtlest moment of ownage possible. He won the whole game right then, and his next move is just “tell me more.”) Watch him walking out of the interrogation room, absolutely exhausted, and then the final, shattering moment in his car. Either Karnes or the writers or Nick Gomez was smart enough to include an action in that moment: he breaks down, looks around to see if anyone’s watching (the theme of surveillance is all through this episode), and breaks down again. (Fun fact: Claudette’s little cheering motion and bop on the head to Dutch was improvised, and it was equal parts Claudette celebrating Dutch and CCH Pounder celebrating Karnes.)
Another impressive thing about the writing (the structure of incidents, again) is that Dutch has to go against all his instincts to win this one. We’ve seen, in “Pilot,” that he can role-play with suspects, but there’s none here; he has to be himself, and in the most naked way. We’ve seen, in “Cherrypoppers,” both his tendency to bully suspects and his need to be the boss; here he has to let himself be bullied, and let other cops do their job. It’s his job to keep Shawn from Rockford from leaving, it’s the Pasadena PD’s job to find the bodies. Shawn from Rockford takes the Dutch role, using psychological insight to bully the interrogatee, and he pays for it. (“You could have left. Instead you chose to stay here and show off.”)
Nick Gomez works in The Shield’s house style seamlessly (he’ll be back in season 3); the direction never calls attention to itself. (Watch for the smallest zoom-in on Shawn from Rockford just before he fully confesses.) One thing that gets used a lot is the shot with something obscuring it, whether it’s a body or some architecture in the way. One way that The Shield continually places us in the action is by understanding that we don’t get a clear view of everything if we’re actually there. (Omniscient perspective is almost never part of this world.) Another element of style we get is coming too close to the action; the blanket party and the withdrawal are more horrifying because we are literally right in Julien’s and Connie’s faces for them.
The Shield’s full-tilt charging through stories works to bring us closer to the characters, too. Compare Dutch in “Cherrypoppers” to Dutch in “Dragonchasers”: in the former, we get him 1) blowing up at a suspect, 2) blowing up at Danny, and 3) apologizing to Danny, 4) admitting how much he wants to catch the killer, and 5) receiving the offer of a grilled-cheese sandwich. Nothing bad there, but it’s still conventional, and it doesn’t add anything. (We already know how obsessed Dutch is.) Then look at the end of “Dragonchasers”: 1) Dutch breaks down in his car. That’s it. And that’s the ending we all remember, and it sounds like it’s what hooked a lot of us into watching this show. Storytelling isn’t just about show-don’t-tell, it’s also about show-what-we-need, and then don’t distract us.
“Carnivores” really shows how The Shield is a different kinda cop drama. (Action-Adventure Drama and Legal Procedural Drama left for the day.) Cop dramas are almost always focused on the cops vs. the criminals. This isn’t a moral distinction; the cops might do good or bad things but their objective is clear: get people into jail. But The Shield plays a wider field; law enforcement really feels like a distant second or third to what the Strike Team does. “Carnivores,” and many episodes of The Shield, feels more like a workplace drama where the workplace is all of Farmington, and Vic’s objectives are more those of a manager: he has to deal with a hostile takeover by the Fruit of Islam, reschedule with an outside contractor (the guy who will get the drugs through customs), get one of his top earners (Rondell) out of the way because he’s just not producing anymore, evaluate the potential of a new employee (Tio), and, oh, use some of his resources to get Matthew into a school for autistic children. (Of course Vic’s first instinct isn’t to say, well, fuck it, and find another school. His first instinct is to try and find blackmail material. That’s so Vic.)
Another way that “Carnivores” stakes out a separate territory for The Shield is that it (Raymond Chandler’s description of Dashiell Hammett) “gives murder back to the people who commit it.” There isn’t a big investigation, there isn’t a great series of clues and deductions because most murder isn’t committed for the benefit of detectives like Dutch who “just like solving puzzles.” As roktober noted last week, most murders are done by stupid, shortsighted people for stupid, shortsighted reasons. Dealing with it is part of the everyday life of cops. (Again, it’s a workplace drama.)
Finally, for those of you who are just starting The Shield, remember three words: “admit you’re evil.”
SPOILER FOR SEASON 6 BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
“Dragonchasers” aired two weeks (I think) before Buffy’s season 6 finale, “Grave,” and the stories had a common element: two men, who people don’t often realize are heroes, win by just standing there and taking it. One of Joss Whedon’s great themes is how our heroism derives from our humanity (think of the line he gives Bruce Banner in The Avengers), and it was so great to see it played out in two different realities: sometimes the most heroic act is to let yourself be hurt. Sometimes you catch a killer that way. Sometimes you save the entire world.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
“Dragonchasers” and “Carnivores” pick up on many things that came before, and set up many things that will come back later, both in terms of character and direct plot. Shane, of course, always has trouble with the hotties; I always felt that when Shane says of Mara “she’s the first woman I’ve been with who’s better than me,” he had to be thinking of Tulips. (Of course, Tulips will be back next season, and so will Connie, snif.) We get the serial killer plot paid off, and we’ll see, next season, where Dutch’s arrogance over winning a case will lead him. We also see a foreshadowing of next season’s Mackey/Aceveda alliance; we get a little hint of Lem’s relationship with Tigre. We introduce Tio, who will be back next year. We see just how far down Julien’s self-hatred is taking him (I don’t know which is more disturbing, the blanket party or his suicide attempt). And we get further fraying of Vic’s marriage (I just realized, watching this again, he never actually denies that Connie’s child is his. Hmmm) and we see here, and in next week’s episodes, what Diro says in season 6: “we can’t protect those we love from the consequences of what we do.” Again, this is what The Shield was truly best at: everything counts, everything has a past and a future, and not in any kind of thematic or vague way. What you do in the now means some specific thing will happen later.
“Admit you’re evil” is Tiresias showing up to warn Vic. There’s his hubris: his belief that with everything he’s done, he’s still a good person. And this moment will come back again and again; really the first moment was in “The Spread,” with Shane reminding Vic that “we killed a cop!” and Vic denying it. We’ll hear it next week, from Gilroy: “WHAT DID YOU JUST DO?” “Nothing you haven’t done.” We’ll hear it in the hilarious exchange with Army in the fourth season (“You made us look guilty!” “YOU ARE GUILTY!” and the Strike Team’s why’d-you-go-and-bring-THAT-up reaction). We hear it in Monica’s near-warning to Vic at the end of the fourth season, and Vic’s chance to take early retirement at the beginning of the fifth. (He could just admit he’s evil, and walk. Nope.) We hear it in Lem’s agreement to jail time; we hear it in Shane’s defense of killing Lem, as Shane says: I have done evil, so you could keep believing that you are not evil. We hear it in the quiet, absolutely amazing moment (one of the best in the entire series) at the end of season 6’s “The Math of the Wrath,” where Ronnie tells Vic: I knew about Terry, and you should have told me because I could have protected you better. We hear it all through the last episodes as Ronnie tries to get Vic to just cut and run. And most devastatingly, we see it happen at the end of “Possible Kill Screen,” all sins confessed, as Vic stands up and owns it. (It’s comparable to Clint Eastwood in the last 15 minutes of Unforgiven.) He admits it. He has been asked to admit his evil, and after so much time, he does:
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done to me?”
“I’ve done worse.”