The second season premiere is a unique episode in a TV series, especially if it’s doing well. If a series goes badly and changes direction (coughwalkingdeadcough), that can happen at any time. The second season premiere of a good show has to show us that yes, we know what worked and we’re going to keep doing it, and do it better; it has to escalate. And no show started the second season better than The Shield.
Second place goes to Lost, but even it took a good four minutes to do what “The Quick Fix” does in the first thirty seconds when holy living fuck two guys get set on fire. The escalation continues from there: Vic and Mark Rolston, PI (another great face for this cast, and as good here as he was in 24 and The Departed) break in on…oops, not Corinne. Also, Shane and Lem have gone beyond allowing drug dealers to work in Farmington to full-on importing, quality control, and distribution, except, shit, “three black guys in LA at night can’t drive the speed limit?” (Annoyed Ronnie Gardocki: never not funny.) And wait, why is Aceveda being so damn chummy? The whole teaser announces “we’re back, asshole.” (A tiny spoiler, this.)
Thing is, as devastating as the opening is, it’s not for shock value; everything we’re seeing is the beginning of a story, every moment leads to something in these episodes and beyond, and fast. More than that, those opening seconds are far from the worst thing we’ll see in “The Quick Fix”; the worst thing is Mayda walking out of the darkness with a fresh band-aid on her cheek. (Just seeing how Chelsea Rendon moves is almost too painful to watch.) This show hits insanely hard, but it doesn’t rely on violence to do it.
(Another revealing moment: Dutch’s presentation at the beginning of “The Quick Fix.” Compared to “Cherrypoppers,” it’s much more of a collaborative effort, with dialogue bouncing between Dutch and Vic. The camera stays farther back, showing Dutch as part of a group rather than as a commander. We’re getting a sense of a team effort here rather than One Driven Cop.)
“Dead Soldiers” is the best episode yet, comic and rollicking until the last minutes (and I’m not gonna come close to covering all the hilarious moments here). The Vic/Aceveda alliance hits snag after snag; Vic is kind of in Gilroy mode here, working full time just to appear competent and running into Claudette’s talent, and some just plain bad luck. Does any other show find so much comedy in scheming and corruption as The Shield? (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, perhaps. It occurs to me a) there are several moments here where Vic is close to yelling “your illiteracy has screwed us again!” to Shane; and b) we have to find a way for Dutch to haul Dennis into the interrogation room, it might produce the funniest scene in all of television.)
The Shield’s relentless pacing (every scene, almost every shot, is one more tick of the plot) does a lot more that make things impossibly exciting. It makes things unexpected. We might have anticipated a Vic/Armadillo showdown, but not at the end of the second episode. We might have expected Tio to get exposed, but not for him to be killed (again, by the end of the second episode).
Another benefit of the dense plotting is that it loads almost every moment, almost every look, with subtext. (So much of The Shield takes place in the looks characters give each other, and in the question of who is watching and who is not watching.) All we need to see is a held shot of Claudette in the interrogation room for us to realize her realization: that Vic is somehow involved. And even the simplest throwaway scene (on the surface, all it does is move Dutch into the monitoring room and move Vic and Aceveda out) has three strong unspoken beats:
Aceveda: “Aren’t you working a case?” (Aren’t you keeping Lanie away from the Barn?)
Dutch: “I got half an hour before my next evil parking suspect shows up.” (I know you’re using me to keep Lanie away from the Barn, and I’m not particularly upset about it, but chill the fuck out, David.)
Vic laughs and pats Dutch on the arm. (Well I appreciate it, Dutchboy. Thanks.)
Armadillo is The Shield’s first true villain. The throughline of the first two episodes is the Barn (and especially Vic) trying everything to drive him out of LA, and absolutely nothing works. Not only that, but every move they take against him leads to him escalating, so by the end, it’s not just two gang lieutenants set on fire, it’s buildings burned, more people burned (including Tio), a child raped, and finally Armadillo himself beaten. The psychology of the scene (one scene before, Vic literally got thrown in the trash and he needs to dominate some other man) is a bonus; the scene works because it’s dramatically necessary. There are no other options. (The beating is hideously detailed: the arc of blood on Vic’s shirt, the gash on the bridge of Armadillo’s nose from that first hit with the book, Armadillo gasping “whatever doesn’t kill me” just above the stove coils, his half-gummed grin, and the fucking sound of his teeth hitting the floor.)
Also: “No sir, you’re a suspect because 19 guys who look like your twin brother killed 3000 Americans.” Such a perfectly written line, and Catherine Dent plays it perfectly: I hear anger under it, but more an admission that this isn’t fair, and this is the world we both live in, and could you just help us both out, sir? Like corruption, The Shield takes the paranoia of the Bush years as a given, and finds its story within that world; these characters are the ones who have to cope with the everyday reality of policy choices, cultural and economic shifts, and the results of propagandizing. They’re not the ones who create these things. It’s a demonstration of injustice, not a protest against it. (A few years later, Spike Lee would do much the same thing in Inside Man.)
Although The Shield holds the focus on a small group of characters, it never loses sight of the larger world, and the connections people have to it. Aceveda, of course, never forgets his campaign (“Seventeen points”); Lanie never forgets that she’s working for someone trying to take down Aceveda; Vic knows that with Gilroy gone, he needs Aceveda’s protection; even Danny and Julien are trying to negotiate with an Arab couple and a black woman. In this world, everyone answers to someone else, everyone is getting used by someone else, and the way you live in this world is by constantly making deals and forging alliances, and hoping they don’t blow up in your face and leave a body dead on the lawn.
Just for fun, more Annoyed Ronnie Gardocki: “I just leased this car!” Also, Dutch is taking Spanish lessons. (“It was holding me back from being the best detective I could.”) Claudette’s response is her who-are-you-and-what-have-you-done-with-Dutch? face. This was also the first time I saw Kristin Bell; between this and her performance in Mamet’s Spartan, I think that kid is going places. I also enjoy the implication that Vic is barely able to feed and clothe himself without Corinne (somehow, the detail that he’s eating standing up sells that).
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
We were talking about this in the comments on the pilot, but here it is: where Claudette turns against Vic and Aceveda, and she stays that way until the end of the series. Once you give an investigation to Claudette Wyms, you do not fuck with it. This goes back to something we’ve seen before, and something that plays all the way to the end: what cops ask of each other. Corruption is something that other cops will tolerate in the Strike Team, but Aceveda blows it with Claudette by making her complicit in it. That line “I don’t judge other cops” in the pilot gains more depth with every episode.
Last time we met, the eternal question came up: Corinne Mackey/Skyler White/Carmela Soprano, who do you like? I am forever with Team Corinne, both with likability (minor issue) and value as a character (major issue). In all three cases, the creators of the show wanted to do two things: have the wife be an alternate moral example to the protagonist and stay on the show. The problem is, these two things almost exclude each other. Shawn Ryan got the dramatically necessary sequence: 1) Corinne’s family is threatened by what her husband is doing, so 2) she’s outta there. It starts here and takes the better part of three years, but Corinne is always moving away from Vic. It helps The Shield a lot that unlike Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, Corinne was not a major character at the beginning, so she could not be around all the time throughout the series; one of the more effective things about the storytelling here is the way Corinne becomes more important towards the end.
“Oh. The ‘too passive’ one?” Dutch is gonna misread another suspect next week.