“Everything that came after started with me. I’ll set it straight.”
The Shield did something in these episodes that was like a Sopranos season, where the major plot finishes in the penultimate episode. “On Tilt,” though, isn’t meditative like a Sopranos finale (meditation is never the storytelling mode here), it’s a series of characters running stopgap actions and doing damage control, and almost none of it works. Vic, Claudette, the Strike Team, Dutch, Aceveda, Corrine, the DA’s office, everyone confronts situations where the consequences are too far gone for anyone to set straight. It’s the bleakest episode of the series to date; the good fortunes that ended last season have been reversed, and then some.
Aceveda won’t back Dutch’s investigation into Vic, and Vic lets him know ‘you’re back on my shit list, with a bullet!”; the ADA is barely interested in Claudette’s investigation; Dutch separates himself from it, with Claudette’s, not exactly blessing, but understanding (more on this in a moment); Dutch broke up with Kim some time ago; the prisoner Claudette’s trying to free (amazing performance by Ray Stoney, who has the exact hopelessness of someone who’s spent most of his life inside) can’t offer her anything to help; Julien knows he can’t do anything about the prostitutes outside André Benjamin’s door (can anyone else make the line “hosed the hoes” work? If there is, I don’t wanna know), so he’ll just move them down a block, “then when someone calls with a problem, we’ll move it again”–this is no longer the idealist of season one, this is someone who knows the limits of what can be done; I’m not quite sure what’s going on with Aceveda and the hookers, but I doubt it’s law enforcement (and he’s stopped wearing his wedding ring); the whole Barn has turned against Claudette (Vic’s “that’s only because I didn’t think of it first!” is one of his most vicious and honest moments); Cassidy is coming to stay with Vic, and absolutely no one plays that like it’s a good idea; the Strike Team lost all but $195,000 of the money they stole; Lem is on his way out (and Shane is fine with that); and the Strike Team itself will be gone without him. There have been struggles and tensions in all three seasons, but here it seems every basic relationship of the show is crumbling.
Amidst all this, there are a few hopeful moments. Claudette and Dutch come back together, with a real sense of the two of them against the world. Danny will be reinstated as a full police officer. That’s almost it for hope this episode (there’s one more thing to cover). Also, DETECTIVE WAGENBACH! PLACE THE KITTEN ON THE DESK AND BACK AWAY SLOWLY. I SAID SLOWLY!
With everything collapsing like this, the Strike Team’s ownage still registers, but it feels completely inadequate against everything else. It’s not so much a Pyrrhic victory, just the sense that they got away with their lives, and nothing else. They make a huge heroin bust, and everyone’s applauding, but the focus is on Lem and Ronnie quietly shaking their heads–no Margos. Vic’s showdown with Margos is no showdown at all, as Margos drops the gun and Vic calmly, pragmatically shoots him twice. We spend some moments looking at Vic’s face–is that remorse? Like Dutch in the last shot of “Strays,” whatever it is, it’s not victory.
The theme of bleakness and isolation continue as we go into the last act, as Vic goes to the safe house and he and Stana Katic placed in isolated frames-within-the-frame. He tells her she can leave, that he–and then, wait, what? Seriously? Now we get another episode of Everybody Fucks Vic? Because she’s just so overwhelmed by Vic’s amazing Margos-killing masculinity and so thankful (the DVD chapter title for this scene is “Gratitude,” I shit you not) that she just jumps him right there? I have no explanation for this, unless Frank Miller snuck into the writers’ room and planted it in the script. If there was a more stupid moment in the entire series, I don’t remember it.
Back to what The Shield does right: Claudette. She could have a thankless, useless role; Righteous Cop on the side of the innocent is just as much a cliche as Corrupt Cop (But He Gets Results You Stupid Chief!) Claudette works mostly because the humanity CCH Pounder gives her at every moment; there’s a genuine despair in her face that we’ve never seen before when Aceveda tells her she won’t be the new captain. (It’s something she would never admit to anyone, but she wanted that job for its own sake.) It’s also because the writers never treated her as someone who just fucks people up because they needed an antagonist; she’s a person and a player in an ensemble. One of the things you can see in these last two episodes is how Aceveda is constantly trying to get her to back off; he wants to see her as captain too and knows she won’t back down. In the end, like the Strike Team with Margos, Claudette does succeed, and like them, she survives, and that’s all.
With nothing else left, the season comes down to the last scene with the Strike Team, which plays out so much like the Shane/Tavon fight, with everything going OK until Shane just can’t let it go. S.A.M. has pointed out that I underestimate the psychological depth of The Shield; there’s a strong insight here that all of Shane’s rage against Lem has actually been rage against Vic, and with Lem gone, it erupts. Vic forever and only moves forward; if Terry is a mole for the Justice Department, he kills him, and the next day it’s “Terry failed to clear the room.” If Vic sees an Armenian money train, he plans and carries out a robbery, and if that causes who knows how many people to be killed, he doesn’t look back, and if he loses all but $65,000 of the money, he doesn’t look back. Shane feels the weight of events, he feels the cost of Terry, of burning the money, and he can’t forgive, not himself and not Lem; that Vic ignores Terry and forgives Lem is an insult to Shane, and Vic can’t see that. In their fight, it’s scary the way these two know exactly what buttons to push (Shane’s weakness is Mara, and Vic’s is his family); you can see how the deeper the love, the more opportunities there are for hate. This season ends as the first season did, with Vic, a man with a badass leather jacket and a gun, alone. This time he’s lost both his families.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
That’s it for the Armenians for a few seasons. Several commenters have noted how they turn from this Big Bad in the second and third seasons to a few not-very-competent criminals in the sixth and seventh, but on the rewatch, it looks like the writers played fair. Margos was sent to Farmington to get the Armenians (whoever he didn’t kill) “back to basics”–that is, running heroin, and that went pretty badly. It makes sense that they’d move their operations someplace else, and in season 6 Diro is trying to rebuild them. One of the storytelling rules of The Shield is that it suggests a larger world without ever visiting it; our focus stays on the main characters, in Farmington.
One way to make an idealistic character work is what the show did with Claudette. Another way is to give the role to André Benjamin, and get the fuck out of the way. I wished we could have had more of Bobby Huggins’ New Paradigm mayoral campaign throughout the series, because he’s just so damn funny and kind of sweet in every moment. Benito Martinez sez that acting with him is a challenge, because when he gets the crowd on his side, he actually gets the crowd on his side, and you have to get them back. (Martinez said he almost did in the church scene in “Family Meeting,” but not quite.) Of course, his fate tells that although this is a world where ideals can survive and grow, idealists usually don’t have the same fate.
The Strike Team invites Lem to an isolated meeting at night, and he’s so worried here. Two seasons later, they invite him to another isolated meeting at night, and he’s not. The difference between the two is that here, he knows he did something wrong, and two seasons later, he knows he didn’t do anything wrong. And it’s the second meeting that gets him killed. In another repeated moment, Vic and Shane’s last fight, in “Family Meeting,” partially reprises this one. Shane was always right about Vic, and Vic was never right about Mara. This fight, so devastating, barely registers compares to that last one. (“Who you got, Vic?” is just about Vic Mackey’s epitaph.) This fight is one more step in another ongoing set of stories for the whole series–the Mackeys fall apart as the Vendrells come together. The unified action of tragedy here means a lot of events happen twice–once as portent and once as devastation.
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