“Lied to me?”
When it’s on its full game, there is no television as intense as the last episodes of a Shield season. Noel Murray described the storytelling as “turn the screws, and turn them a little more, and turn them a little more, and back your characters into impossible corners and see how they can possibly get out.” What we get in the best end-of-season runs of The Shield is an objective or a confrontation that’s coming clearer and closer, and obstacles that keep coming up in the way. Things are going faster and faster, and there are more problems to deal with. So we get Ronnie with a plan to make the money train robbery happen, and then the shipment gets moved up, and they have to find it, and it’s going to be the last one (forcing it to happen now or not at all), and then Vic isn’t on board, and then he is, and just when things can’t get any crazier, Vic gets arrested. (If there are any of you out there who have started watching The Shield and haven’t gone all the way to the end, all I can tell you is that this is not the most intense season ending they ever did.)
When Vic says at the end of “Breakpoint” “money train’s our safety net,” we can see not just great storytelling, but great storytelling that can only happen on a television series. After 25 episodes, we have believably come to a point where stealing who-knows-how-much cash from a bunch of homicidal criminals with a plan that has to be thrown together in a single day is actually the safe choice. Even if we don’t agree, we are right there with Vic and the Strike Team and we know why they’re going to do it. There’s no way this could be believable in the first season, or even halfway through the second. A lot of us have been remembering David Mamet’s advice in storytelling that Shawn Ryan follows–“backstory is bullshit”–but another rule Mamet has and Ryan uses is that the storyteller must always answer the question “why now?”
Another story almost smuggled in this season (I had never really seen it until now) is the arc of Vic and Claudette. The first season saw them as fellow cops, but not with the same style, and both accepting that if not exactly comfortable. But starting with the clash over Tio and then Armadillo, continuing with the end of “Coyotes,” and drastically escalating with Claudette’s conversation with the Chief, they are becoming absolute antagonists. It’s not one of the main plots, but it’s there, and we can see how it’s a necessary consequence of the main plot. The Shield doesn’t let its characters escape the consequences of each other’s actions; in that way, it’s the story of the community of the Barn, not just of the characters within the Barn.
There is some fantastic sound design in The Shield, and once again, all done so we might not even notice it. In the apartment raid to get Frogger in “Inferno,” we hear the voices and thrown garbage before we see them, and when the Strike Team crashes into the apartment, the sound of music comes in on the track and we can understand why Frogger & Co. didn’t take off. (That raid is another great, quick Shield action sequence, hampered only by a bit too much exposition from Tavon at the beginning. I can assure you there’s less of that in later seasons.) And Brandon Nowalk can sneer at the scene in “Breakpoint” at Vic’s house with Corrine and the kids all he wants, but the layering of sounds there (voices, alarms, a song, a phone ringing, screams) is almost musical–it’s not creating a sense of dread but a steamrolling feeling of panic. (The trailer for A Serious Man did something similar.) It’s one of the most viscerally awful moments this season.
In a commentary, Shawn Ryan quotes I-can’t-remember-who as saying that The Shield has the best third-act-outs in all of television; that’s the scene just before the last commercial (not the last scene of the show). (Technically, they’re usually fourth-act-outs.) “Breakpoint” has an incredible one, and another great action sequence: killing Jeffrey. It goes fast, and the sound mix is extra loud, with only one unusual shot (the overhead shot of Shane getting blown off his feet), and the last, fast image of Jeffrey dead, head askew. It’s like a modern Weegee image, and props to Lee Haxall for giving us just the glimpse before the cut to black. (The medium-long shot after the commercial break of Lem pacing is also great, and painful, and reminds us of how fundamentally decent Lem is.)
Although a lot of people see it as frenetic, The Shield proceeds at a slower pace of cutting than most shows. (CSI was underway in the early 00s, and that brought the Simpson/Bruckheimer/Bay/Tony Scott editing style into television.) What makes it a fast show is the camera motion; watch for the triangular move near the end of “Inferno,” moving from Vic below to Aceveda above (same relation as in the pilot, but now they’re nearly allies) to Claudette below, the one who is really in opposition to the other two. Most of the impact of the images has to be done by staging and framing; there’s another great moment in “Inferno” when Vic says to Corrine “I’ll reschedule” and the camera holds on him leaving, and then focuses on her. It’s a reaction shot without a cut.
Looking at the two single-episode cases, Evette and Jeffrey are two people who start out looking like victims and turn out to be something else. Shawn Ryan’s view of the world isn’t liberal; it’s authoritarian, in a way that’s as old as tragedy. I don’t see any sense here that the people of Farmington are good, or bad, or victims, or venal; just that they come in all forms, and because of that, they need to be policed. (The classical view is that if men were angels, they would have no need of government, and we are not angels.) There are people like Evette (and her mom) and Jeffrey in every city; there are also people like Julien’s wife and Tavon’s informants, and there are people like Dante, who, no matter how criminal, is a father who just wants to be there for the birth of his son. (The actor playing him, Rosero, absolutely kills it in 20 seconds of screen time, one more addition to the deep bench of The Shield’s supporting cast.)
There’s a larger issue in storytelling here that I can only touch on, not answer fully, but it comes back to ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER’s comment on the pilot that ON THE WIRE THE SYSTEM FUCKS YOU OVER. ON THE SHIELD YOU FUCK YOURSELF OVER Everyone on The Shield, minor or major character, has agency. Everyone makes choices. The weakness of this view is that it doesn’t see how our society and its inequalities drastically limit some people’s choices and leaves them open for others. But the idea that “everyone makes choices” is necessary for a drama, and The Shield is always a drama first.
Finally, (70s funk riff starts up), who’s the Farmington dick who’s the sex machine to all the chicks? (three property managers as backup singers: Tavon!) Who’s the cat who won’t sell out when garbage gets thrown all about? (Tavon!) You’re damn. . .right. They say this cat Tavon’s a bad motherf (shut your mouth!) Just talkin bout Tavon. (We can dig it!) He’s a complicated man, and no one understands him but Lemansky. . .
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
On the rewatch, seeing Kern just about breaks my heart every time. Sticky Fingaz gives him a lot of pathos instead of a gangsta’s swagger (there’s a little bit of Fredo Corleone in his performance, and Mr. Fingaz, if you’re reading this, I don’t compare actors to John Cazale unless they deserve it), especially in this episode, especially if you know his fate. He’s like the thug version of the sweet-young-girl-goes-to-Hollywood story; instead of ending up getting gangbanged for porn movies and ODing on cocaine, Kern gets some modest success, loses it, and winds up getting shot dead as part of a power play by Antwon Mitchell, and fucking left to die by Vic.
When Shane asks Kern “owe you for what?” we can get a sense of the overall morality of The Shield. Kern is appealing to the promise between him and Vic, and in the end, Vic is just using him and will cast him away, no matter what nice things Vic says at the end. Of course, this being The Shield, Vic does one immoral act (betraying Kern) in the service of a moral act (getting out of the drug trade). The problem with refusing to honor your promises, refusing to see people as more than instruments and discarding them when you have to (no matter how good your reasons are), is that eventually you run out of people you can do that to. And that’s exactly Vic Mackey’s fate. (You can hear just a little bit of “lied to me?” in Ronnie’s “you told them. . .all of it?”)
One of the things that shows up in many, if not most, tragedies is escalation because of miscommunication. When people become fearful, their world gets smaller; they see the worst in others and shut themselves off, and they will act against others without knowing what the other person is thinking. We can see a little of it here with Vic jumping to a divorce action against Corrine (such a good moment by Cathy Cahlin Ryan at Vic’s apartment; she plays instinctive revulsion instead of the deep rage of “Parricide”), and we’re going to see it again with Shane and Lem. We also see in these episodes the continuing theme that Vic is genuinely trying to go straight and leave behind his world of complicity with dealers and crime. It’s the nature of tragedy that he can’t.
Next: “Dominoes Falling”