“I’m not getting you two killed!”
The pilot got me curious, “Dragonchasers” hooked me, the second season just kept getting better and better, but that last shot is when I knew I was seeing one of the greatest works of art of my lifetime. Let’s just slow down and look at it again: Ronnie, Shane, and Lem at the abandoned apartment complex, surrounding a big pile of money. They are not happy. Vic joins them, happy as a kid trapped in some kind of store (unpainted furniture, probably), and then he starts looking like all the rest. It’s one of my favorite single images in all of film or television (and the use of “Overcome” doesn’t hurt at all). No spoiler at all here: on the night of the broadcast, I saw it and said: “this. . .is not gonna end well.”
Part of what makes it work, and it’s something we keep seeing on The Shield, is its universality. Four men in a dark, remote place, and the treasure they stole: it could be on The Shield, it could be film noir, it could be Shakespeare or Spartacus or Seneca or Jack London or a Western or a Noh play. Compare it to another great visual moment on The Sopranos: the cut from Tony eating microwave-reheated ziti in front of the TV to Furio eating homemade pasta by candlelight. (Honestly, this is the first thing that came to mind, probably because it’s been discussed a lot in the days of the AV Club.) It’s a great moment, no doubt, but it’s great because it’s set in a very specific American context, with a history of immigration and consumerism worked in. The Shield, at its best, goes to places that are eternal.
The money train robbery itself is, surprisingly, one of the calmer action sequences on The Shield. (This is a remarkably quiet episode, with the ambient noise dialed down, fitting for a story that’s all about conspiracies and a procession of firings all day. Even the beating of Julien is much quieter than the blanket party in “Dragonchasers.”) It’s done in medium and long shots (the use of an industrial space here is worthy of Michael Mann and Heat, especially the shot of Shane and Lem arguing next to a bulldozer), and the quietness is probably because, at least in part, it comes off perfectly. (The unspoken rule of heist films is “perfect plan goes to shit in action.”)
It is intensely gripping, though, on the level of character, as Shane, who has been goading everyone else toward the robbery for most of the season, tries to back out at the last second, because things have turned violent. He can’t, though, because by that time Vic and Ronnie have been following the plan and are already on their way; backing out then would get them killed (one more way in which events have their own momentum and force your hand). The shootout and aftermath lead to another great moment from Lem with a wounded Armenian (“I don’t want that blood on my conscience”) and another inspired bit of fast thinking from Vic (“Neither do I”) as he comes up with a way to save his life and divert attention away from the Strike Team. (We’ll find out next season if it works.)
If you want to understand the character of Vic Mackey (and if you want to understand how The Shield defines character through action), look at the last moment between Vic and Aceveda. Vic has pulled off the robbery, he’s rich right now with literal blocks of cash, and he still won’t take a hit as a cop to save Danny. It’s another chance to admit he’s evil, when he could just (again, literally) cash out and save another cop, and he won’t take it. (So fucking brutal when Aceveda answers Danny’s question of “who’s looking into that?” with “right now, nobody.” Everyone knows she got burned on this, and there is no one who cares.)
Vic and Aceveda continue to scheme here, and their alliance falls apart; there’s no way either one can use the other now. Vic’s moment with the Chief reminds us that for all his badassery, Vic always answers to someone (he’s a vicious, smart dog but always on a leash), and Chiklis always plays him that way. Meanwhile, with his jump ahead in the polls, and his last-minute primary victory, Aceveda’s move last episode to offer the Strike Team and himself up as a sacrifice looks a lot less noble. Did he know, or expect, or want, his play to frontfire (opposite of backfire) like that? I don’t know, but I think he realized he had nothing to lose (he’s out of his job no matter what), so he might as well preserve his brand as The Last Honest Cop in Farmington™.
Elsewhere at the Barn: ElDan described the Strike Team as “realistically dickheaded cops,” and that applies even better to Frank Grillo and Matt Carboy as Jackson and Carlson. There’s no attempt to invest these characters with any depth; they’re simply representatives of a code, and exactly the kind of cops we’ve all dealt with at least once. It’s necessary that they be like this, because they make us (and Julien, and Danny) understand that there’s no arguing here, no room for sympathy with a gay man (which makes them something different from Vic): the gay cop is someone who cannot count on other cops to save his life. The problem is just that simple and just that impossible. (Shawn Ryan has said that there was no way for a cop in south central LA to be out in the early 00s.)
It’s nice to see here, even more than in last week’s episodes, what the Barn can do when they work together on the murder of Claudette’s ex. Dutch dials back his grandstanding, Claudette shows us her range of emotion (so much warmth when talking to her daughter, and in her silent “thank you” to Dutch at the end) , Vic shows his knowledge of gangs (the way that Central American gangs take over power from black gangs is a theme that runs all through the series), and Tavon really shows how much he belongs on the Strike Team. (That’s a great shot of him palming–OK, thumbing–the bullet; we can see it, Vic can see it, and we can see that Lops can’t see it, and it flows exactly from the shot before, one more great and invisible moment of Shield artistry. Chiklis’ reading of the line “oh, this is gonna be the one” is just as brilliant.) Watch also the shot near the beginning of Shane at the door next to Corinne’s reflection; this is a technique The Shield often uses to shoot two people in a conversation without using shot-reverse shot. And, of course, “Cletus. Van Damme.” is one of the moments when comedy becomes truly sublime. (It’s the pause that does it. Shane has the reflexive manners of a Southern gentleman.)
Looking at the second season entire, it’s been about the questions of “what do I want? And what can I live with?” reflected in the characters of Vic, Aceveda, and Claudette. Characters are trying to change in this season; in fact, the last episodes show all three engaging in some kind of moral action and moral commitment. (Vic to Corinne: “you’re gonna be taken care of. You and the kids.” A rare moment where Vic puts Corinne first.) What we have not seen yet, what we shouldn’t see at this point, is the consequences of those choices. It’s exactly the right ending for the beginning of the story; you’ll notice that those three characters experienced a change in fortune, Vic with a full retirement fund, Aceveda on his way to the City Council, and Claudette on her way to the head of the Barn. Now, as that last shot promises, everything is going to change.
–end of Act One–
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
It’s not just the series finale that’s the greatest ever: The Shield consistently created great season finales. (The exception is the season 6 finale, but that isn’t really an ending: it’s the only season where the next season begins immediately after the end of the preceding season.) There’s a neat (deliberate? I have no idea) pattern in that odd-numbered seasons end in catastrophes and even-numbered seasons end in portents of catastrophe.
Season 1: the family is gone. Vic alone.
Season 3: the Strike Team falls apart. Vic alone.
Season 5: Lem dead, Vic swears vengeance, Shane alone.
Season 7: Vic alone.
Season 2: the big pile of money. No one is happy.
Season 4: the party in the bar, and the Internal Affairs officer walks in. No one notices.
Season 6 (if you want to include it): the blackmail box. However, I still see seasons 6 and 7 as three short seasons, and if you do that, the endings go back to a pattern of alternating catastrophe and portent. The first short season ends with “Chasing Ghosts” and the fight between Vic and Shane (catastrophe) and the second ends with “Animal Control” and the botched hit on Shane (portent: “They tried to kill me tonight. . .and they think I’m too stupid to realize it.”)
The finales, this one included, become so much more powerful in the context of the entire series. We have to watch to the end of season 3 to see how the whole season is contained in the last shot of “Dominoes Falling.” We have to watch to the end of the series to see how season 4 fits in; it’s an unusual season in that it’s the only season where things come together rather than fall apart. (I’ve called it the “restoration” season between the two reversals of seasons 3 and 5.) Most important, we have to watch to the end of the whole series to see how this is the last moment that the Strike Team initiates; from here on out, although there are still choices and consequences, they are responding to the fallout of their earlier actions. There are two events that define Act One of The Shield: killing Terry and robbing the money train. Now the consequences begin, and no matter how strong your moral commitment is or how smart you are, they cannot be escaped. That’s what makes this a tragedy.
The Shield’s pilot ended with one of the biggest shocks on television that side of Lost, and the writers kept finding ways to beat that. Shock, though, is not what makes The Shield great. What makes it great is that the writers (and actors, and directors, and crew) accepted the shocking actions and never tried to walk it back, never tried to reset things after the shocks. They took the shocking moment and asked “what is the plausible and necessary thing that happens next?” instead of “shit, how do we get back to normal now?” Arguably, the fourth season is one long walk-back, but that works because (minor reason) it takes a whole season and (major reason) things don’t go back to the status quo ante, they go straight into the final reversal of season 5. (Monica’s warning at the end of 4 and Vic’s chance at early retirement at the beginning of 5 become so much more powerful because of that.) As with everything The Shield does, it’s simple to say and hard to do: once you have a game-changing moment, after that, you have to change the game.