“You see a better way?” “No.”
The first season of The Shield moved in fits and starts; it had an episodic feel with a few longer plots mixed in, tried a lot of things, and rallied in the last few episodes for a strong finish. The second season, though, started strong and builds on it with every episode. The Shield isn’t the only show to embrace serialization, but there’s a difference: on other shows, the story takes the form of a meandering river, with twists and turns and bends, and each turn opens up new possibilities. (Alias, Angel, and to some extent Lost did this.) Stories on The Shield, though, are tightening spirals: every turn closes off possibilities and drives us toward some kind of necessary, ultimate conflict.
Breaking Bad does this, too, but there’s a difference there too: it often took several episodes, sometimes half a season or more, to put things in place, and then floored it through the last episodes. That makes for some incredible television, but The Shield’s approach is different: it takes off in the first scene of the season and just keeps going from there. “Greenlit” has a great two-scene moment in Shield-style storytelling: we get a scarred Armadillo showing up to pass Vic a message through Danny (oh shit he’s back) and then in the next scene we find that Armadillo was behind distributing drugs to schoolchildren (oh shit shit he’s already back). And, of course, Vic’s plan to use Navarro as leverage against Armadillo gets shot down, or more accurately gets shivved, in a way that’s about the darkest joke possible. (It reminded me of a similar moment in the almost forgotten Night of the Comet.)
Shield storytelling is about overt conflict, not implied or sublimated conflict: Connie will become a junkie again if she goes back to being a hooker, and she keeps doing riskier things for more money; David’s wife asks why he isn’t doing everything he can to protect the children of Farmington. David’s reaction to go all-out at that moment is great, and points to a perpetual problem with the criminal life, especially when you try and lead it as a cop: someone just might come down with a conscience. Vic’s almost anguished reaction (I was ready for him to say “you’re killing me, Smalls!”) to David’s “we’re gonna do the right thing” is hilarious and priceless. The story keeps moving characters into positions where things are just that simple, and nowhere near easy.
Switching metaphors, The Shield sometimes works like a great light-heavyweight boxer; there’s a lot of brute force here but the stories also weave and feint and take you off balance, the better to land a punch to the guts. The investigation into Jeannie’s disappearance feels that way–I get it, Claudette still cares and Dutch doesn’t. But it turns out Dutch is too instinctively a detective not to follow up on all the clues there (the shot of Jeannie in Echo Park is almost surreal; when she stands up, it looks like slow motion), and the result is fucking devastating. It also follows up on the forever theme of The Shield: your actions have consequences, always. Dutch’s “I wish you could have known your brother” is one of the most brutal things we can see on a brutal show; even more than his we’re-all-animals speech, it gives a sense of what the job can do to a person.
You can see the commitment to action-is-character right away, in the reaction to Vic’s money train idea: Vic all enthusiasm for it (you wonder if this is what Vic was like before he killed Terry); Shane backing Vic, and in a combination of bullying and sentimentality with Lem (both attacking Lem’s masculinity and talking about Vic’s kids); Lem worried (as at the end of season 1) about going outside the law (“where’s the good?”); and Ronnie, straight-up pragmatic, thinking only about the score. It’s a nice touch that Vic has his doubts, like he realizes this might be too much; it’s a flat terrifying touch when he says to Shane “keep him away from the action, watch the door, you know the drill.” (Holy. Fucking. Shit. Did he say the same thing to Shane when they planned killing Terry?)
Scott Brazil (God rest ‘im) does a fantastic job directing “Homewrecker”; there is so much you can learn in the 45 minutes of screentime here. The opening exploration of the shelter uses limited resources to create something that’s Fincher-level in its dread; the opening also sets a slower pace for this episode than most. Shots are a little longer, dialogue has more pauses, and there are more silent passages (including an amazing single take panning between Claudette, Dutch, and Vic) right up until Connie’s phone call, and then everything accelerates. (Vic charging through the Barn and Strike Team members getting up to follow him is like a fast, short version of the beating scene in Full Metal Jacket.) What follows is a fantastic action sequence by anybody’s standards: watch how quickly and effectively Brazil establishes all the spatial relationships of the apartment complex, and how he uses another eternal Shield theme (surveillance) to give us shots of characters watching each other. The killings of Connie and Mike are done so fast and brutally and still absolutely believably. And then Brazil slows down again, giving us a beautiful, painful tableau of Dutch and Claudette as Lou leaves the interrogation room. (CCH Pounder is so good, even shots of Claudette listening are powerful.)
The death of Connie was one of the most surprising moments for me and I’m still not sure why. You can read it as telegraphed (“junkie going straight” is on the level of “cop one week from retirement”) but somehow it didn’t feel that way. My guess it’s that, like Michael Mann’s best films, The Shield doesn’t treat people as plot devices but as people; there’s a depth to Jamie Brown’s performance (and in Michael Chiklis’ reactions to her) that makes her feel like a real person. (Something about her eyes and her coloring reminds me of Danny, too, and I suspect that’s not a coincidence.) She also gets a story in these episodes (which means we see that she wants something); we can see that her need for money leads her to taking bigger and bigger risks. There’s also the speed and brutality of her killing that hurts. (Good to see Matthew Glave, so effective as a major asshole on ER, show up here as a full-on murderer; him leading Connie out of the bedroom with a john’s sense of entitlement was a great moment.)
Wow, we get so many sides of Danny in these episodes, from the unbullshittable cop reminding Julien that his evaluation could have been a lot worse, to a victim of harassment and making a forced apology, to her “this isn’t working for me anymore” goodbye to Vic. That last one is great, because there’s no drama in it, she’s just realizing that Vic’s relationship with her exists entirely at his convenience.
Continued never not funny: Worried Ronnie Gardocki (“was that ‘you’ in a plural sense, or ‘you’ in the singular sense?” Dialogue is the weakest element in The Shield, but that is some Coen brothers/Arrested Development-level awesome there) and Aceveda taking shit from subordinates and kids.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
Aceveda in uniform looks about as uncomfortable and out of place as, say, Vic in a business suit.
In the Strike Team’s reactions to Vic’s money train plan, we see the origins of the splitting that happens in seasons 3 and 5. Lem’s weakness, in terms of Strike Team morality, is on full display here–it’s not that he thinks the plan is too risky, it’s that his first thought is to, y’know, be a cop and arrest bad guys.
Shawn Ryan mentioned that an abandoned season 2 plot was “Dutch’s nervous breakdown,” and you can see the beginnings of it in “Greenlit.” (It’s a perfect character choice that Claudette’s reaction is “should I be worried about you?”) That would have been interesting, but I prefer the direction they chose for Dutch, where his increasing serial-killer obsession leads to strangling a cat in “Strays.” (There’s also a nice touch in that Dutch’s nearly last line in the whole series calls back to the Jeannie case: “the streets of Los Angeles are literally paved with dead bodies.”) There’s a vicious side to Dutch that a lot of people have picked up on, and it’s a smart choice on the part of the writers that none of the characters is too sympathetic.
Next week we’ll get another installment of The Shield’s recurring spinoff, Everybody Fucks Vic (we were talking about it last week). Not much to add to that discussion, except that Danny’s line “this isn’t working for me anymore” is the epitaph for all of Vic’s relationships with women. And Danny will be part of it the longest. (Next week, too, we get to see how readily Vic will sacrifice Danny when he has to save himself; someone made the excellent point that Vic will do that to anyone when the time comes.)