The Shield’s focus on plot (I mean, holy shit, the first three episodes take place on three successive days) and its unified style allow for tonal shifts that no other show could get away with. There aren’t comic/dramatic/character/elegiac episodes or scenes here, only what people do and us observing them. So we can shift from the horror of beating Armadillo to Vic Mackey utterly confeeblebaffled by doing laundry (one of the best visual gags on a series that has some hilarious ones) to a procedural beat with a Claudette to some Evil Dead 2-style comedy-horror with Dutch. (“That’s an arm.”) We also get some great action sequences out of the plotting–the shootout that brings Vic down is another brilliant piece of staging and editing. It erupts from almost nowhere (a single shot from the side is our only warning that something’s going to happen), spills into a wider space, and closes with the beat of Vic watching someone die. (Man, I do not want Michael Chiklis to be that last thing I see in my life.)
We also have to hang on for all the tonal shifts in the characters, as they can go from sympathetic, almost noble, to cranky to pathetic to terrifying in the course of a single episode. No one takes us through more of these changes than Shane in “Partners” (such a loaded title). It’s testimony to how great Walton Goggins is that every beat of Shane’s actions are believable, from betrayal to anger to sexual assault (the end of that scene, with Susan Santiago naked from the waist down and Shane’s closing line of “you don’t know what you missed, darlin’,” is one of the hardest things to look at this season; I really can’t decide if Shane would have gone through with rape) to the affection in the closing beat in the hospital. It’s commonly known that all great art teaches you how to appreciate it; The Shield teaches us to follow its characters through some really extreme places.
One of the pleasures of Shield plots is that there’s a great respect for how your brilliant plan can go wrong. pw! noted how the Strike Team and especially Vic are developing a sense of invincibility, and that goes all the way through “Carte Blanche,” as Vic escalates his scam with every scene. (Poor Aceveda just gets more and more flustered trying to keep up.) And then, OOPS, wasn’t that guy supposed to be a corpse? It’s not a case of third-act stupidity (a common mental illness among movie bad guys) but just that there are too many details for even Vic to keep track of, and too many ways things can go wrong. (Team Ryan recognizes every potential fuckup as an opportunity for plot.)
“I guess I didn’t take enough.” Vic clearly sees Joe Clark as a
bounty hunter, name of Ice warning sign for where his life could end up. There’s an aspect of being a rogue cop that is most definitely not about the ownage: you can’t count on an easy retirement. So stealing is something that’s raised one step closer to necessity, and we can see this shapes Vic’s thinking as he considers robbing the Armenian money train. The Shield’s understanding of consequence shows us how what starts as greed becomes harder and harder to escape over time. (There’s a reason criminality is sometimes called The Life.)
The Bob and Marcie story plays as the reverse of “Dragonchasers,” with Marcie and Dutch reversing roles; you can see the moment in interrogation where Marcie reads Dutch and sees just how to play him. (Dutch is way better at interrogating men than women.) Marc Vann and Melanie Lynskey are just terrifyingly effective here; Vann’s little look (“back soon, hon”) he throws Kayla literally chilled me, and I can’t imagine Lynskey in any non-murdering role after this. (Although if she gets Jon Cryer to cut off Charlie Sheen’s arm, I’d be cool with that. “You mean like on an episode of Two and a Half Men?” “Eh, that’s one way.”) Dutch’s “take that back!” in “Carte Blanche” is even more painful than the end of “Dragonchasers,” because it’s right in front of Claudette, and Jay Karnes somehow instantly turns eight years old when he does it. (His scenes haven’t been as big, but Karnes is as fearless an actor as Goggins.) That line, by the way, is Shield dialogue at its finest, simple and direct and without any attempt to be clever. “Truth is like grits,” sadly, is the opposite of that.
Although it’s just a small moment, the sick fuck with the animal-corpse fetish is part of the Los Angeles texture of The Shield, as much as the apartment complexes and interiors; there’s a great sense on this show of how cities contain people who wind up on the borders of what’s acceptable, and sometimes over the border. Being a cop means that you will meet these people more than anybody else does.
Other great little details: Benito Martinez buttoning his jacket to end a meeting always cracks me up. (“I have now dispensed the necessary amount of sympathy for you and promised to fix your complaint as per the Local Politicians Ordinance, first passed in Athens, 562 BC.”) Shaun Duke Moosekian (you may remember him from Sideways and Aron Kader (I think) as the most professional criminals you could ask for; Kader’s “I need a deal here” is really the motto for The Shield. Cathy Ryan has a great actor’s moment as she dismisses Vic by almost never looking at him. (I think it was Sanford Meisner who said acting is about verbs, not adverbs or nouns.) And the last shot of Vic in “Carte Blanche” gets repeated at the end of the next-to-last episode of The Sopranos.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
After the killing of Terry, the money train robbery is the second major piece of setup; once that happens, Act 1 is over and we move into the world of consequences. Unlike killing Terry (which, for reasons commenters have gone over, had to happen at the end of the pilot), we get to see Vic come to his decision about the money train, convince others, come up with the plan and set it in motion; we really get a sense of how smart he is and why he’s lasted so long. Some other elements of setup begin here: Tavon is on his way and the Armenian mob, not so much the Big Bad as the Relapsing Bad, enters the story here.
Noel Murray (snif) noted something about Breaking Bad that you also see on The Shield: never make things too easy for your characters. Robbing a money train (for that matter, even fooling some Armenians for a single day) involves a lot of plot elements and complications, and we get to see most of them. Where The Shield differs from Breaking Bad is that here, the Strike Team really stops initiating things after the money train. (I can’t quite say they go straight.) The rule of tragedy is that after the setup, it’s all about the consequences coming back on you, no matter what you do. On Breaking Bad, Walter keeps initiating; he deliberately digs himself further into the criminal life and creates further consequences for himself and everyone around him. What makes The Shield so powerful is that the Strike Team spends the next five seasons trying to escape the consequences of the first two. They can’t.