“Have you ever killed something before?”
Although he didn’t write the script (Glen Mazzara gets credit), director David Mamet’s influence is all over “Strays.” Mamet doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves for his ability to stage a good action sequence (check out Spartan or the early shot here of Vic outside the house). He also brings in major (Clark Gregg, Rebecca Pidgeon) and minor (Margot Farley as the drug runner we see just before the credits, Dominic Hoffman as Louis, and best of all Lionel Mark Smith as the homeless guy–you can really hear the Mamet cadences with him) players from his regular ensemble. You hear the Mamet influence most of all, with actors picking up on his self-interrupting, repeating rhythms (Vic to Lauren: “Are you safe?” Lauren: “Oh yeah, he’d never. . .yeah.”) The major action of “Strays” is, of course, something Mamet has been directing, writing, and occasionally acting all his life: two characters, in a room, talking. (A gentle, quick example, outside the main event: Lauren and Vic in the motel room, two people who care for each other but who are mentally somewhere else, with someone else.)
Mamet, Mazzara, Gregg, and Jay Karnes all get some incredible power from scenes that, formally, should have no dramatic impact. (Pidgeon is great too; she gives her most naturalistic performance in these scenes.) Faulks has been caught, the evidence is against him, and he confesses, so in terms of advancing his story, there’s nothing. Instead of an interrogation, the rest of the scenes are close to a Socratic dialogue, with Faulks in the role of Socrates and Dutch as a pupil. (Often, the conversations take the form of Dutch posing alternatives through questions and Faulks rejecting them; Plato used this form a lot, especially in his Socratic dialogues.) Faulks seems to awaken a genuine curiosity in Dutch by searching for “the thing” that drives him to kill; here, Dutch wants to understand killing, and understand Faulks, not just use understanding as a means to solve puzzles. Karnes plays Dutch more openly than ever, spending more and more of the episode reacting rather than acting as it goes on; he becomes radiant in the beautiful, scary last moments of the conversation, as Faulks describes the literally transcendent experience of watching someone die (“and in that moment. . .” “. . .you see the face of God.” “No. Well, yes, but that’s not the thing.”) Mamet goes in for the beyond-close-up here, sometimes giving us only one eye of Gregg or Karnes. I felt that when Faulks shuts things down, it’s because Dutch actually came close to how Faulks feels with the single word about “the thing”: compassion.
Then Dutch goes home and kills a cat.
The Shield is so fucking merciless at times; we’ve just had another horrible scene with Corrine and the children, with Matthew flailing away at his parents and the about-to-be-diagnosed autistic Megan silent on the couch, and then we get something so much worse. The danger of empathy is that you might become the thing you’re empathizing with (it’s the key theme of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, another source point for modern detective fiction, and it’s played up a lot in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal as well as Michael Mann’s Manhunter) and here Dutch turns himself into a killer to see what it’s like. Dutch’s reaction afterwards is tricky; whatever it is, it’s not the action of a man who just saw the face of God. (It feels a little like David Cronenberg’s NOT Paul Haggis’ Crash, which is about sexual transcendence through violent injury, and ends with a similar non-epiphany.) For a show with so much violent death, this moment has an outsize impact. We can get how being on a cop drama might be hazardous to your health, but shit, we don’t expect the cats to get it too. (The longshot of the cat falling to the ground is the deadest thing I’ve ever seen on TV.)
To riff off of Donald McCarthy’s point, The Shield doesn’t just throw the consequences of moral ambiguity in our faces, it also throws the consequences of empathy in our faces. The Shield mode of storytelling puts us in the place of the characters, it doesn’t invite us to analyze or judge them, so we can feel Dutch’s curiosity as he picks up the cat, his intensity, and his horror, as much as we felt Aceveda’s triumph last week. Dutch comes off so many times as the nice guy of The Shield (for those who think of this show as a male power fantasy, please note that I’ve found Dutch to be the character most people identify with), which is another thing that makes this moment so hard to take. At no point does it feel out of character, it’s an act born of the same intensity that makes Dutch a good detective. As ZoeZ said, no quality on The Shield’s characters cancels out any other quality. The writers never felt the need to let us think this was Det. Holland Wagenbach, Cat Murderer in the beginning, this act was something that developed from who he was. Characters on The Shield grow, and change, in sometimes wonderful and sometimes horrific directions.
Change continues as the Strike Team further fractures, with first Vic and Shane pulling farther apart. Mara gets exiled from the Strike Team’s clubhouse in a great confrontation with Vic (remember that the first time we see her, she’s already in the clubhouse, and an episode later, she tells Vic not to come to Shane’s home when he’s not there). Vic says that Mara will be gone in year and Shane will be thanking all of them. Great Shield shot from Lem to Vic to Lem to Shane, tracks him out the door (Shane’s more hurt than angry), and then back to Vic. Lem isn’t buying it, tries to get Vic to back down, and then he brings up Terry. Vic, thinking as fast as ever, blocks Lem’s question with a reveal of Tavon, one secret exposed to keep another secret hidden. (“You need to stop questioning me if you want to keep this team together”; in the end, Vic uses every justification, every event around him, to further his own power.)
Shane goes home, and he and Mara get married. If there was ever a moment that shows how these two crazy kids are right for each other, it’s the way Mara goes along with it so eagerly. (Note: “right for each other” is not the same as “good for each other.”) Vic isn’t happy about this (remember, Shane said he’d be there), but then the next fracture has Lem and Ronnie pulling away. Next episode, Vic wants some money train cash for his children’s therapist (now Vic wants Owen back, but nope. Chasing him away from Corrine has consequences), and it’s Shane who’s in favor of it. (More great camerawork going between Shane and Lem, always keeping Ronnie in the middle.) Lem and Ronnie vote against it, Vic accepts, but it’s bad vibes all over the clubhouse and Lem closes “Riceburner” with a Shield mantra: “we did the right thing. We did the right thing.” Last season, we saw in “Scar Tissue” just how loyal the Strike Team members were to each other; now they’re farther apart than ever. So many consequences (from killing Terry, from the money train, from Vic’s need to control, from Matthew and Megan’s autism) and secrets are piling up and they are forcing everyone’s actions, and driving them apart.
The one happy moment for the Team: the plan to dump the money on O’Brian worked; when O’Brian gets hauled in he winds up riffing so many lies to Dutch and the Treasury agent that he lets the truth get through unnoticed. (Not sure if it was part of the Strike Team’s plan to see O’Brian go free at the end, with Dutch and Treasury Guy tracking him. Vic looks, at the least, not happy.) The Vic/Aceveda relationship continues to go well; watch how Aceveda instinctively believes Vic over anyone else in “Riceburner,” and how Vic and Aceveda side against Shane to exploit Louis’ money-laundering operation in “Strays.” One of the never-not-fun things about The Shield is the fluidity of Vic and Aceveda. If their agendas collide, if one of them sees a way to advance by bringing down the other one, too bad; but if they’re after the same thing, they’re the most professional and friendly couple this side of Dutch/Claudette.
The other stories in “Riceburner” are pretty forgettable; anyway, I’d forgotten them. The pursuit of two $10,000 chairs (the street value drops every time) is mainly an excuse for the Taylor/Danny banter (nice shot of the chess players on the chairs, though); the hunt for Charlie Kim is the sort of thing this show did a lot better last season in “Inferno.” Mainly this episode makes me wish Daniel Dae Kim could have stuck around, as he perfectly played a Korean version of Aceveda despite some clunky dialogue. It would have been fun to see those two collide for several more episodes or seasons, but Lost started in the fall and took him away. As it was, The Shield couldn’t even spell his name right. The comparative slowness of “Riceburner” (and we need to be speeding up, with the end of the season in sight) makes me lean towards rooks28’s argument that this should’ve been a 13-episode season. I’d argue for the same plot in 14 episodes, with most of the trimming coming here; it would mean we could’ve skipped a line like “if the yellows can bring the green.” (Sigh.)
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
How Many Cats Does Dutch Have in His Freezer? became The Shield’s version of What Happened to the Russian? on The Sopranos or What in Fuck Was the Deal with _____________? on Lost; all mysteries that consumed the fan base right until the end, and all mysteries that the creators either didn’t care about, or thought they’d resolved. Shawn Ryan was standing just off-camera when Dutch dropped the cat, and yelled “you’ve been cheated!” at him. There will be little feints in this direction for the rest of the series, but Ryan intended this to be as far as Dutch will go in trying to get in the heads of killers. (He will fail, quite spectacularly, with Kleavon next season; and then use Kleavon in season 7 to learn about Lloyd.) What that moment is about is that there is in fact no big revelation, no face of God looking back when you kill, and that’s how Karnes reacts in that final shot. (Let’s not tell anyone who hasn’t seen the series. God knows that is one disturbing shot a few episodes down the line of Dutch and the kitten.)
A few more details: all my complaining about “Riceburner” will be well and truly blown away by the next three episodes, as everything comes crashing down. Vic and Aceveda’s plan to exploit Louis’ car dealership pays off next season, with a series of bugged cars that becomes a major plot point. Also “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and we can all agree that any kind of plot manipulation justifies that. We also see, in “Strays,” Lem toying with a bullet, which is just an amazing, disturbing, effective bit of foreshadowing.