“I did this.”
At the time of broadcast, I had never seen a run of television as powerfully constructed as the first eight episodes of this season. The Shield’s great storytelling ability is the way it integrates longer and shorter plots in such a way that things stay plausible, and never stop accelerating. Look at “Barnstormers,” and the way details from the entire history of the show come together: Tulips is back, and so is Marcie, and that’s a problem for Dutch because of Lanie; the Strike Team is planning to heist the money train, and Ronnie is nervous about that; and Vic has been kicked out of his house. Some of those details go back one or two episodes; some go back to last season. And every one of those details counts and collides in this episode (Shane and Tulips leaving the interrogation room just as Dutch and Stu come in is one of those moments when comedy becomes sublime–“it’s all yours, Dutchboy”), it moves so fast, it’s funny, Armadillo is nowhere to be seen and then Ronnie gets his face grilled. (Scott Winant works up a good color palette in “Barnstormers,” with muted colors in the interiors that allow some details to really pop, like Marcie’s jumpsuit or Vic’s electric stove. There’s also a nice touch in that the camera often watches people’s hands. Also, I’m guessing he told Nichole Hiltz “you were playing it kinda demure last time, could you be just a bit more openly sexual here maybe?”)
That sets off the great chase of “Scar Tissue,” barreling through the plot to get to Armadillo, which results in the possible fall of Vic Mackey. He gets saved only by a desperation play on the part of Shane and Lem: Little Pop will get himself arrested and they will smuggle a knife to him in the cage. (Great moment as Little Pop stabs Armadillo in the background.) What’s amazing (and powerful) is the way Vic stands up and seems ready to take the fall and protect his team; what’s even more powerful is the way Danny gets caught in the blowback, a good cop now on suspension to save a dirty cop. There are always consequences, and they don’t just happen to you. (Two directorial moments from Paris Barclay that show you how much The Shield integrates style and story: the brief shot of Armadillo behind a screen door, waiting, with a half a frame of negative space on the right, and then quick pan to Vic and Shane, who have no idea that Armadillo has already called the cops on himself–it’s a supervillain’s moment, something Moriarty or the Joker would do; and Vic, David, and Claudette, outside the interrogation cubicle as Claudette says “or do you want to take this to Lanie?” and the smallest pan reveals Lanie, watching.)
So funny (even a little touching) how, in “Barnstormers,” Dutch’s instincts as a detective keep breaking through his depression, and the way Claudette keeps encouraging those instincts. (In that scene in David’s office, she and David looked and sounded like two parents arguing over their smart but sullen 16-year-old.) His instincts are strong enough to even break through his brief attempt at planting evidence (more great visual humor: the static long shot of Dutch’s car, which gets maybe ten yards before SCREEEEEEECH nope, the Dutchman’s back and he’s gonna do this the old-fashioned way. And completely blow off Danny.) One thing that marks The Shield’s inheritance from Homicide: Life on the Streets was its sense of how much fun you could have with interrogation scenes. (It’s something Law and Order almost always lacked.) This one’s a classic, with Dutch reconstructing the crime and ripping into a suspect’s mind (Mike Bruner’s little flinch away from the candy bar is great), and a perfectly timed assist from Claudette to put it away. (And are we too tasteful to display some ass crack when the guy tackles Dutch? This is The Shield. No we are not.)
Last week’s discussion about Vic ‘n’ women gets a big boost here, with Emma’s line “you can’t stand anything you can’t control.” (Control–of others, and self-control–is a big theme in “Barnstormers,” involving Stu and Julien.) Vic needs to control women, and sometimes that means rescuing them whether they want it or not. (It’s a great little detail when Vic starts rifling the abuse victim’s purse. In Vic’s code of chivalry, saving women doesn’t obligate you to listen to them.) I don’t think Vic’s desire for control manifests itself as violence against women; it’s much more likely to manifest itself as violence (and using his power as a cop) against men.
Last season’s line “admit you’re evil” comes back here. After a gentle (but still ruthless) Claudette interrogation, Corrine confronts Vic with Claudette’s information, not to denounce him, but just to know what he’s doing. And Vic just keeps squirming around, trying to make it all sound like the work of a good cop on the mean streets; he even uses some of the same rhetoric that he uses with David about his arrest record. So great that Vic, so driven to control women, keeps running into women he can’t control–Corrine somewhat, Claudette and Lanie not at all.
The greatest pleasure of this rewatch has been Danny, and Catherine Dent’s performance. She is really the still center of the Barn, the character who is simply trying to deal with the world as a good person, which is not the same thing as a pure or incorruptible person. What Dent conveys so well in these episodes is not just Danny’s sense that she’s being treated so fucking unfairly, but also that no one notices. David (as ever) is focused on getting elected and only sees her lack-of-promotion through that lens, Julien’s convinced he’s got the blessing of God, Dutch is caught up in his own case, and Vic decides now “I gotta make some changes” (which lasts until Emma throws herself at him) and has no time for Danny. She doesn’t have a Strike Team to protect her; she’s just absolutely alone in these episodes, wounded by everyone else’s choices.
Between Stu, the Kusa story, Leith (your local drug dealer’s real estate agent of choice), and Bug Spray guy, The Shield sometimes feels like it should have the subtitle The Varieties of Criminal Experience. For some, crime is business, just business that happens to be outside the law, or with outlaws. For some, it’s just plain weird; for some, it’s compulsion, and maybe an ancient compulsion. The Kusa story suggests (without ever changing The Shield’s commitment to choice and action) that some actions have histories that go farther into the past than we can imagine.
In its plot and visuals, The Shield nicely integrates a lot of L. A. texture; the video mart behind Van Bro always instantly calls up the sense of place. (As does Van Bro himself, a scarred, wounded remnant of gang violence.) The hillside location of many L. A. residences also comes into play here, allowing for some great chases and some great camerawork for those chases. The story of Little Pop (Frank Gallegos, with his low-simmering rage, gives my favorite guest performance this week), out of prison (“Pelican Bay” is a name that Shield audiences are already expected to know) with no power, no future, and really no identity, calls back to Edward Bunker’s great novel No Beast So Fierce; it’s the kind of story you find in any big city now.
Miscellaneous awesome: you wanna show a guy with self-confidence? Give him an apple to eat (see also: 300); Melanie Lynskey is at her scariest in the moments with Dutch recounting the crime (“after that, she wasn’t so pretty”); a great quick Maeby-and-George-Michael moment in the parking lot with Danny and Dutch (Michael Chiklis has pointed out that Dutch is never more attractive than when he’s just totally caught up in a case); Shane with a little oh-I-am-just-so-tired-of-this police brutality (“enjoy the wheelchair, asshole”: Goggins always makes his accent slip out a little more in moments of stress. Giancarlo Esposito will do the same as Gus Fring); and I will never get tired of hearing Kenneth Johnson sing “Rich Girl.”
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
“I did this.” That moment in the Strike Team’s clubhouse, when Vic decides to take the fall over Armadillo, is almost unbearable on the rewatch. It’s another admit-you’re-evil moment, and the thing is, Vic does admit it. He even realizes that Armadillo has outplayed him here. And, at least at that moment, he’s willing to take the consequences of it, shield (hey, that’s the name of the show!) Shane and Lem, and keep Ronnie’s respect. (Would he have actually gone through with it, or tried to scheme another way out? Impossible to be sure.*) There’s a long, silent moment as he stands up that throws forward to the great silent moments in the last two episodes. (Marcie’s last scene also throws forward to the end; a confession scene, with great actors on both sides of the table, can be devastating because it brings the whole crime back. It’s an act of witnessing that makes us witnesses.)
At this moment in the story, the Strike Team is still a team, so Shane and Lem do the scheming and save Vic. (If the Strike Team as a whole has a tragic flaw, it’s the impossibility of balancing the self-interest of its members with their loyalty to each other, and that runs through the whole series.) The nature of consequence, though, is that you can take a massive hit now, or take a lethal hit later. The two men who save Vic here will be dead by the end of the series. The man whose respect Vic cherishes will end up sent to jail by him.
I don’t think, in the entire series, we ever hear Vic say he loves Corrine. As noted last week, his opening up to Mike was rooted in some genuine anguish, but it’s all about losing his kids, never about losing Corrine; he’s too much into control to make any kind of long-term (or, hell, even short-term) relationship work. (Marguerite MacIntyre is the second guest star on Everybody Fucks Vic, and her little conversation with Vic–“So you like the bad boys?” “It had its appeal, until it didn’t”–tells us all we need to know about what happens to her.) That’s another reason that Mara is absolutely essential to the story, because The Shield diverse moral universe needs on pair of lovers who stay in love to the end, and that’s Shane and Mara.
*SPOILER FOR BREAKING BAD
Walter is in a similar place at the beginning of “End Times,” and at that moment, I believe he is willing to take the consequences, even his death, as much as Vic is willing to fall. But Walter also comes up with a new scheme pretty quickly, and I could see Vic doing the same thing.