“We’re gonna talk about this later too.” “Yeah.”
Strange to talk about two episodes that begin with an exploding van of ammo as being slow, but in The Shield, that’s what these are. The consequences of the money train robbery are just beginning, with feet getting chopped off all over Farmington (and shipped overseas to Margos), Armenian Stanley Tucci (I know his name is Armen but that’s what I keep thinking) setting the Strike Team up for a murder charge (Lem says “we didn’t kill anyone!” as if that matters), and the strong possibility that some of the stolen cash was marked (since none of the marked cash has been in circulation for three months, I’m guessing that’s true). Without ever emphasizing it, we’re seeing that the Strike Team’s actions have gotten a lot of people killed, and they don’t care; all they see is that the suspicion isn’t anywhere near them. Unlike the first two seasons, where the major characters were all immediately part of the story, here the action and consequences are happening somewhere else, in cases that are briefly mentioned, in the Treasury Department, in Greece; all these little details are like dark clouds way off on the horizon.
Back at the Barn, Claudette gets well and truly outplayed, with Aceveda turning her into Farmington’s Assistant (to the) Regional Manager, and you can see why almost immediately. Claudette is all about what she wants to do, wanting to see statistics and implement reforms, and Aceveda is all about who he knows, exchanging favors and greasing his contacts. What we get to see in these episodes is that Aceveda’s way is how things actually get done, including getting Danny back to the Barn. (Claudette, on the other hand, still thinks and acts like an outsider.) She also hasn’t yet learned the value of keeping some moves secret (in keeping with the episode title, she isn’t playing tight) and Aceveda scoops her Decoy Squad idea. (Again, though, he’s the one who can actually make it happen.) His closing move (in “Blood and Water”) of making her in charge of daily operations at the Barn makes sense from both a character perspective (Aceveda has Michael Scott’s attitude; he just wants credit for cleaning up the Barn without making any enemies while doing it) and from an audience perspective (we are not going to be denied the pleasure of seeing Claudette become Vic’s boss).
Tiny tiny tiny spoiler alert: Mara will be back, and she is one of The Shield’s great characters. Already we get a sense of her independence (great touch that she first appears in the private space of the Strike Team clubhouse), her commitment to Shane, and her unwillingness to take crap from anyone. (Be fair, saying you’ll put a down payment on a car and then backing out is a dick move; note that Shane does come through, and Mara is willing to give the car up.) There’s another great touch in that Vic showing up chez Shane/Mara at the beginning of “Blood and Water” is shot from her perspective–some asshole banging on the door at 2am, talking fast, and telling your boyfriend he has to leave now. Vic just assumes Shane will go along, and assumes Mara would make coffee for him; it’s a fast, revealing outside perspective on Vic. And the scene near the end with Vic and Mara is pure storytelling joy, as Vic runs into a woman he just can’t charm. (Mara’s little speech about “I’ve seen that smile before” and Vic’s Dutchesque reaction are terrific.) As written and as performed by Michele Hicks, there’s this real toughness about Mara, the sense of a woman who came up in the world through a difficult life (her one line about family hints at that); it’s something that Evangeline Lilly was continually going for in Lost and never got there. (Ashley Judd in Heat did it really well, though.)
There’s a theme in both these episodes that Vic’s control is still there, but it’s beginning to slip. He can still think faster on his feet than anyone else (a good example is the way he gets around a warrant by claiming Kern tipped him off; another is the way he distracts Tavon from the money train discussion), but he keeps running into people who have their own agendas, and they doesn’t include him. In the “Breakpoint”/”Inferno” discussion, ZoeZ made the absolutely necessary distinction between The Shield and Breaking Bad: The Shield’s characters all have a moral agency, whereas Breaking Bad’s characters all exist as followers or enemies of Walter. The Shield is a story of moralities in conflict, not a story of a bad man who brings everyone down. We’re seeing that separate moral agency in play here: Shane and Mara have a private life together, and Vic isn’t invited; Kern’s climbing his way back (just like Vic said he could) and he doesn’t feel the need to obey Vic any more (love how Vic is the one appealing to Kern here; Vic needs to earn Kern’s trust back); it takes some real effort to bring Diegur on board as Vic’s new drug dealer of choice (nice little callback with Kern to “Dawg Days”); Aceveda isn’t an ally or even an enemy any more, just the guy who tells you to fill out the forms (and it’s gonna be Claudette who will Vic’s real boss, starting next week); and Corrine has decided she can go back to work, and Vic can be the one to change his schedule. (Somehow that moment is even more devastating than the end of season one; Corrine’s not leaving any more, she’s left, and she’s starting to make a non-Vic life.) Vic just keeps getting owned all through these episodes, and at the end, even though he’s avoided disaster, Aceveda nicely adds up all the ways he’s apparently failed.
Continued never not funny: Dipshit Shane. On using Cletus van Damme for renting the storage unit when he’s already given the name to Armenian Stanley Tucci: “it makes Lem laugh,” also his continual use of the phrase “it’s pre-owned!” and bringing in his drawl when posing as a white supremacist. These episodes also have some wonderful low-key Dutch/Claudette chemistry, with their dismissal of the guy who sets up the bullet trajectories (“First crime scene, son?”–guess what kid, there is no such thing as CSI: Farmington), right down to Dutch’s line “nah. You’ll never leave me.” (When you have CCH Pounder on your show, you damn well give that lady some reaction shots.) And although it’s very much a separate story, Julien taking revenge lets us see Michael Jace at his absolute scariest, deep in prayer before he takes down Carlson; somehow his self-control makes him even more horrifying.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
In some ways, this is the most ambitious season of The Shield. A lot of commenters have noted it’s the bumpiest of the seasons, nothing like the fast escalations of seasons 2 or 5. It has slower patches and waits longer before it gets to the driving final episodes. It works, though, and it works within the context of the entire series. One reason is that no other season sets so many plots in motion at the beginning; in these two episodes, we get introduced to Shane and Mara, the return of Margos, where the money train cash is and that it’s been marked, Tavon’s rise in the Strike Team (snif), Matthew’s new tutor, and Claudette colliding with Aceveda. Within the three episodes after that, we’ll have the Decoy Squad, the Cuddler Rapist, the Shane/Mara/Tavon fight, Aceveda’s rape, and Matthew’s new school. It’s going to be necessary to go through The Shield’s longest season to work all of this out, 15 episodes instead of the usual 13, but it does happen.
Another reason for the slowness at the beginning is the nature of the main plot. Season 2 introduced Armadillo in the first scene; five minutes in, we knew what the threat was and that plot took off and drove the next eight episodes. (One of the best pieces of Shield storytelling was the subtle way the money train plot started up in the background of the Armadillo plot, so that when Armadillo got killed, we shifted over to the money train with no loss of momentum.) The main plot in season 3 is all about the money train stash and how it fractures the Strike Team, and that plot has some elements that have to stay hidden for the first episodes; there’s no way we can start with the Strike Team finding out that the cash has been marked. (That’s the point where the season really accelerates.)
The fracture of the Strike Team is already under way with the Shane/Vic/Mara conflicts, and the way Vic thinks he can do whatever he wants with the money train stash. (Vic still takes risks that he shouldn’t, because he still thinks he can be a large-scale criminal and a good cop all at once. The rest of the Team isn’t buying that.) It’s so Shield that the plot of the money train stash isn’t driven by greed; there is never a sense that someone is going to take all of it and run. Rather it’s about the way each member of the crew can be made vulnerable and put the others at risk, and it’s something that will be with us to the end of season 5. (This element will escalate severely with Mara’s pregnancy; with Vic getting divorced, Shane is the only member of the Team with attachments. Lem will call Shane on this soon.)
The Claudette/Aceveda relationship here is really well done, but that becomes clearer after the whole series is over. Taken on its own, season 3 can look like a way to keep Claudette locked in place as a detective, but when she does become captain of the Barn late in season 5, season 3 looks more like she just hit a necessary obstacle on the way up. Claudette just doesn’t have David’s mad political skillz (one of the accomplishments of The Shield is that I have a lot of respect for David without ever liking him) and it’s necessary and believable that she wouldn’t come to power too quickly.