WELL. For those who are just starting out, we have just concluded the least exciting, least plotted, least conflicted, sleepiest, most scattered season of The Shield. If you’ve been watching this as a way to relax before a nice comfy nap, you might want to invest in some chamomile-mint tea, because things are gonna get a smidge more intense from here on out.
For all our praise of the characters, plot, and morality of The Shield, let’s remember that we get some action sequences and beats that fucking own. Gilroy’s offscreen shot behind Vic’s back, the riot breaking out in front of Claudette and Aceveda (so much menace there, and such a sense of the space to move getting smaller and smaller, and the payoff of three figures isolated in a frame-within-the-frame), and the best: Danny and Julien in the killing box as flashes of the gunshots go off above. The environment itself has turned hostile and there is nowhere to hide.
The sets are so necessary to The Shield: here, the junkie father’s apartment and the abandoned building where the last two killers are hiding are the standouts, but the cockfighting ring, even Gilroy’s girlfriend’s apartment, are exactly right. They convey information about the characters, and the camerawork makes us see what the characters are seeing. (The close-ups of needles jammed into flesh like a pincushion, and the junkie’s “yesssssss,” are more disturbing than the entire Saw franchise put together.) The Shield has the verisimilitude of Michael Mann’s great L. A. films (Heat and Collateral) but emphasizes the grime and the grain rather than Mann’s lush surfaces.
A great running joke in these two episodes is Vic’s continual amazement and worry about Dutch’s talent and commitment; give him the slightest detail and he’s off solving another damn puzzle. It’s emphasized by the staging, too–Vic is often standing (with all that contained intensity) and Dutch is sitting, sprawling really, just off the phone with that goofy-ass smile of his. (It helps that Karnes and Chiklis are such a physical contrast–the Laurel and Hardy of The Shield.) It’s something we’ve seen in “Cherrypoppers,” “Dragonchasers,” and here: Vic actually has a lot of respect for Dutch (or at least, as geoffzilla says, for his skills).
Two more standouts in the cast in these episodes: Walton Goggins, as always, just throws himself into his characters with no restraint; fantastic as he is as Vic faces down Gilroy, asking for the chance to prove his loyalty and kill that fucker, he’s even better in the cockfighting scenes, just pure joy. (Slight but exact character beats: Lem has a problem both with cockfighting and with working as bounty hunters: “can’t we just once do what we’re supposed to do, and then stop?” Shane has a problem converting pesos to dollars.) I don’t get people who say that Cathy Cahlin Ryan can’t act, or have any problem with Corrine as a character. She is absolutely convincing as a devoted and overworked mother who just wants to know why the hell she has to take her kids and go hide in a motel.
As ZoeZ notes, Vic just treats her like this is no big deal–gosh, you’re safe now, what is the problem? Vic compartmentalizes; his love for his family is separate from the ownage of his work, but in the world they can’t be separated. Ally yourself with Gilroy and one day he’s gonna be in your kitchen, and a gun will be in your daughter’s room. Hide your wife and kids in a motel, trash your house looking for that gun, and guess what? They’re not gonna be there when you come home, no matter what you won.
The callback at the end of the season (Aceveda meets the press intercut with Vic Mackey, the first time on the job, the second time alone) doesn’t feel like forced symbolism, it feels like something real, and it’s entirely on the strength of the acting. Benito Martinez plays Aceveda as just maybe a little wiser; in any case, he’s playing a man who learned something. And Chiklis, clawing at himself like he wants out of his skin, and right the fuck now, is extraordinary. (So is the Coldplay track that accompanies it. I can’t say I like everything they’ve done, but they have a few songs that are great, and in their emotional strength and directness, perfect for this show. They will be back for the best montage this show ever did later in the series.) On The Shield, everyone pays.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
Something that comes across strong in these episodes that plays through all seven seasons are the shifting alliances in the Barn. When you start playing outside the rules, it comes down to personal alliances and trust, and when those go, you look elsewhere. Vic and Aceveda are never quite full antagonists. They’re two pragmatists who are looking to survive or get ahead, and they’ll use or shoot down each other as necessary. There isn’t the kind of emotional bond in their relationship that we see with (for example) Vic and Shane, so the relationship isn’t as resonant. But the lack of an emotional bond means there are many more plot possibilities for how Vic/Aceveda plays out, and through the series, they play so many of them. Vic and Aceveda are allies, enemies, spies, collaborators, competitors, and critics of each other all through the series. (As we know, one of their funniest periods of alliance starts up in the next episode.)
Going through the series, I enjoyed every single beat of the Vic/Dutch relationship, because the writers (and the actors) never went for anything easy or obvious. There aren’t as many opportunities to put the two together (there’s no major way they can use each other to further their goals except by solving cases) as Vic/Aceveda. A lot of people have imagined the endgame of The Shield would be Dutch Brings Vic to Justice, but I think that would be too easy, and Vic and Dutch are even less of antagonists then Vic and Aceveda. What happened made much more sense, that Dutch is one of a team that is working against Vic at the end.
I always saw them as two guys who could have been friends but who kept having to knock each other out of the way. As I’ve argued before, Vic has more respect for Dutch than vice versa, and we really see that come into play in season 3, as a single slip by Vic puts Dutch on the trail of the money train robbery. (Both Chiklis and Karnes play that moment brilliantly; you can see the thought balloons over their heads, with a giant question mark over Karnes and a SHIT! over Chiklis.) And in true Shield style, that moment comes into play later, when Dutch tells his suspicions to Kavanaugh. When Dutch starts seeing Corrine in season 4, there’s even more opportunity for clashes, and story, and revealing more character (Vic’s “you’re kidding me!” when he finds out is both a great callback to Dutch finding out about Vic and Danny and one of the funniest moments of the whole series). The last beat of the two together, after Ronnie has been hauled away in the series finale, is so damn strange and powerful (and a great example of David Mamet’s definition of great acting: invent nothing, deny nothing): Dutch just looking at Vic. If I had to give words to his look, it would be “you know what? I almost feel sorry for you. But you and I are done.”
A lot of commenters have pointed out that Claudette and Aceveda (and to some extent, Dutch and even Danny) tolerate Vic when they could commit and get rid of him. Again, though, none of them are really Vic’s antagonist; none of them take destroying Vic as their one overriding goal. That role will fall to Kavanaugh, who is Vic’s true Nemesis: the demon he calls up through his actions. Claudette and Aceveda have other goals and are willing to use Vic and to compromise with him; it’s Kavanaugh who is absolutely unrelenting, and we see the price he pays for that. (pw! correctly notes that only the Strike Team can defeat the Strike Team, but it’s Kavanaugh’s fanaticism that raises the pressure to the point where they do it. Eventually it would happen, but it happens when it does because of Kavanaugh.) This is a world that is necessarily done in shades of gray, and in gaming out costs vs. benefits. That is very much the price of survival in this world, and ours too.
Oh my yes, this season finale throws forward to the series finale in some interesting ways; of course both end identically, with Vic, alone, putting on his gun but not his shield, throwing on his jacket and heading into the night. (Also in both episodes, we see that everyone else’s life is going on without him: here, it’s Claudette and Dutch heading for dinner and another case; in the series finale, it’s Tina’s one-year celebration and the sirens going by the federal building.) There’s also a rhyme in both finales as Gilroy, and then Vic take the walk of shame through the Barn. I had forgotten Gilroy’s near-last words to Vic (“I’m not like you.” “Not yet.”), and it’s one more warning for Vic: you live this way, you end up like Gilroy, no matter how smart or tough or lucky you are, no matter how much you own. And he does.