“He can hit and miss. You can’t miss once.”–Nate (Jon Voight) in Heat
Tom Doolie wrote an excellent long comment on the morality of The Shield, arguing that it holds to a “ticking time bomb” attitude towards police–that what they do to get information is justified: “It’s just presented as a given that the pros know when someone’s guilty and when further lives are at stake.” It should absolutely be read by anyone who’s seen the whole series; it’s posted here at the end of the comments on the series finale, so spoilers abound.
I don’t see the show this way, nor do I have much interest in the parallels with the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and for a simple reason: I do not see The Shield as the story of four cops who commit crimes. I see it as the story of four criminals who work as cops. There are indications right at the beginning that we should see them this way; they are already dealing when we meet them, the pilot closes with Vic gunning down a cop, and of course, Aceveda calls him “Al Capone with a badge.” (The criminal is Vic’s essential identity in that line; Aceveda doesn’t call him “Joe Friday with a record.”) The Strike Team (especially in these first three seasons) is like Dudley Smith in the last three novels of James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet (The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz)–they are managers of a city, containing and dealing with crime, and using that to gain power and money for themselves. (This is why “Co-pilot” felt so wrong, as it tried to return the four to “good cops who stepped over the line.”) As the series moves on, and especially in this season, we’re seeing the consequences of their criminal activity and how they have to deal with that. (When Vic jams someone into a barrel of oil, he’s not doing it for any other reason except to save his own ass.) We’re also seeing (more on this shortly) the ethical challenges and actions of the non-criminal cops, and that’s much more about the morality of policing.
As for our criminals: many of us have noted similarities between Heat and The Shield–the LA setting, the importance of action (Tom Sizemore sez that Heat, and really all of Mann’s films, is about the moment when you have to decide, and that decision will determine the rest of your life), but the one that’s so striking this week is Mann’s understanding of what living outside the law is like. (Again, not for nothing is it called The Life.) One such understanding is the risk that those you love pose to you (and the risk you pose to them), all conveyed in Heat’s stone-brilliant line “you want to be making moves on the street, have no attachments, have nothing in your life that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat coming around the corner.” Another understanding is that when you commit a crime, there is a huge apparatus out there, made up of the LAPD, the Treasury Department, the Armenian mob, the FBI, the not-as-dumb-as-you-wish-he’d-be Dutch, the ever-psychotic Margos, and others and they will not ever go away, they are out there and waiting for you to fuck up.
All things considered, the Strike Team did pretty well in terms of Not Fucking Up, but that doesn’t do it. You have to be perfect to get away with this. Looking through the season, I can only find three mistakes, all believable: they didn’t realize the money was marked; Mara took the money; and Vic gave away one word (“Smogjumpers,” the name of the bar O’Brien visits). That’s enough to bring everything crashing down around them. (That the Treasury Dept. has a mole is a fourth element, but that’s not the team’s fault.) This is one of the basics of storytelling. The story has to be plausible, and the more mistakes and twists you add into the story, the more you risk plausibility. When we criticize a story as being “too twisty,” that’s what we mean.
Look again at Vic saying “Smogjumpers,” and you can see how well The Shield structures the incidents (Aristotle’s phrase, again), how much it gets from a single action. Vic shouldn’t know that detail, which tips Dutch that Vic is–somehow–involved. (Perfect acting by Chiklis and Karnes; The Shield is, in the best sense, a comic book, all bold outlines and strong action, and in that moment, you can see the thought balloons over their heads, ? over Karnes and !!! over Chiklis.) Vic has a respect for Dutch that goes back to “Dragonchasers”; he knows that all Dutchboy needs is one clue to bring you down. Dutch goes to Aceveda, but Dutch doesn’t respect Vic’s mad criminal skillz the same way Vic respects him as a detective; Dutch thinks Vic might be shielding the robbers, but not that he did it himself. Aceveda puts the word out that someone might be moving cash, visits Shane about the Cletus van Damme storage locker, and now the Team has to move the cash. All of this set in motion by one little mistake.
For all the problems with pacing this season, these two episodes are masterpieces of storytelling craft, as they accelerate and finish off a story that’s been going on all season. Not only that, but that story isn’t the one in the foreground; there’s been another story going on all season and it’s only now we really see it. “All In” ends with most of the money train stash going into the furnace, but what these episodes are about, and what the entire season is now revealed to be about, is the breaking of Lem.
Lem has been nervous all season, from the stress of the money train coverup and the fracturing of the Strike Team, but in these two episodes he commits (he commits, he’s the necessary player in both) two violations. This is where the old morality of The Shield comes in play; one of the things Lem does isn’t even a crime, but both go against something very deep. You can see (Kenneth Johnson is so fucking good here; he plays Lem as in constant pain, especially when he’s standing by the furnace with the poker; he’s simultaneously cringing and ready to swing) that something breaks in Lem and leads him to torch the money train cash.
First, the team has to get rid of O’Brien’s body, and Lem is the one who knows where to burn it. This scene is what The Shield does best: desperate acts. You can hear panic in Chiklis’ voice–the bodies will be discovered in a matter of hours, so he has to stay a fugitive, forever, and you hear utter anguish when Lem says “goddammit, I know where to do it.” It’s one of the most shocking moments on the show when they burn O’Brien; in the old morality of The Shield, the violation of a corpse is much worse than the violation of a suspect’s civil rights. Burial is one of the oldest and most deeply human activities; there’s evidence of burial rituals from 50,000 years ago, even some evidence of Neanderthal burials that go back over 100,000 years. It’s something we did before we wrote, before we cultivated, before we domesticated animals; before all that, we made a promise to each other that we would not let each other die unnoticed. (Joan Didion, someone who also understands old moralities, writes about this brilliantly in the little essay “On Morality.”) The Strike Team, and Lem, violates that, and to save their asses, they have to. They destroy O’Brien’s body and no one will ever know what happened to him, not a friend, not a family member. It feels like more than a crime, because crimes go against the laws of society; this feels like it goes against what it is to be human.
Second, Lem has to lie to Tavon, telling him that he hit Mara (hit a pregnant woman, for fuck’s sake). Lem was Tavon’s friend from the beginning (note how these episodes build on almost three years’ worth of previous events), he was always visiting Tavon in the hospital, there was trust there and now Vic gets him to use that trust against Tavon (against a guy who was just in a coma). Tavon, twisted again, crying at the end of the scene breaks our heart, and it breaks Lem’s too on the way out the door. There is nothing Vic won’t use to protect himself, but here, it backfires on him. That scene feels like it finally destroys Lem and sends him on the path to burning the money.
Fun fact: Chiklis is incredibly funny on the “All In” commentary; in the hospital scene, when Vic says “though Mara did have some bleeding for a couple of days” Chiklis says “I’m going to hell.” And he relates that the day before they shot the final scene, he told him wife (small boy voice) “I have to fight Kenny tomorrow and I’m scared.” Kenneth Johnson is a big dude (now, there’s your Jack Reacher) and I find it completely believable that he can carry three guys into a wall.
Meanwhile (this is The Shield, so all this is going on and there’s still a “meanwhile”), Claudette gets into some moral conflicts of policing. But first she gets to do some work with the Decoy Squad again (fantastic beat of jurisdictional fuckup in the “Fire in the Hole” teaser, as Walon and Vic collide–“no you get out of here!”). Nicki Micheaux brings it, again; she shows how Trish has accepted what happened to her because of Claudette, and she shows how that means she doesn’t forgive Claudette. CCH Pounder gets some great reaction shots here, and the wonderful scene in the mirror as she rehearses and changes her voice. (I’m a total sucker for scenes where actors change characters as we watch; check out The French Lieutenant’s Woman and A History of Violence for some great examples.) The sting works, and we get one more great supporting performance by Mo McRae, playing him with an exact mix of evil and professionalism. (He coerces 8-year-olds into having sex; also, he’s clearly concerned with framing and color values.)
It’s in “All In” that things get very tricky for Claudette, as she pursues first a murder, but then it spills into a case of a public defender who’s been an Oxycontin addict for three years. In Shield style, the moral dilemma is set up here in the clearest of terms: pursue this case and “criminals will go free” (in Dutch’s words), and Claudette will be incapable of leading the Barn. This is where we see the real moral debate over policing, not with the Strike Team. What gets demonstrated here are the limits of Claudette’s approach; she will absolutely, always, follow her conscience, and that will limit her ability to actually do anything. Dutch is wonderful in these scenes, and he shows how loyalty works among cops: he tries to talk her out of this, and he won’t defend her position to Aceveda, but he won’t stop her either. This is still in the realm of actions where you stand by your partner.
Additional greatness: the opening of “Fire in the Hole,” in the Mackeys’ burned kitchen; it’s a neat piece of everyday surrealism to see the burned surfaces with foam dripping everywhere. Another great effect comes at the end of the episode, when Vic closes the furnace door and the image goes almost completely dark; The Shield used lighting and objects within the scene to create visual effects like this. Another classic Shield scene is in the Strike Team clubhouse in “All In” when Lem reveals that Tavon is talking. The dialogue in this scene bounces from character to character, everyone getting one line or just one word before someone else jumps in, and every line reveals something to someone. Another bit of revelation: Dutch told Julien that Claudette is dating a contractor (oh man, the look between Claudette and Dutch is priceless) and Julien wants the contractor to do work on the destroyed café. (Again, Julien has come to learn how things get done.) In that storyline, we get more banter between Taylor the Fence and Danny; this story never came off as funny or as interesting as it should, although I fully intend to call my single-malt “three-oh” from now on.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
If you see the Strike Team as criminals, then the four members split up neatly in terms of how conscious they are of being criminals. Lem believes he is a cop until his dying breath. Ronnie has always known that he is a criminal. Shane begins by believing he is a cop, and comes to recognize (again, the exact, classical word) he is a criminal in season 6; Vic only recognizes it in the very last scene, if indeed he recognizes it at all.
So much of the end of season 5 (the final reversal) gets set up here (the first reversal). Lem burning the money tells the rest of the team something crucial: the extent of his conscience. They learn that Lem is completely capable of doing something destructive to all of them because he feels it’s the right thing to do; they will all remember that in the final hours of season 5. The shot of Lem by the furnace with the poker, facing Shane with gun drawn, is an absolutely heartbreaking piece of foreshadowing, because here Shane will put the gun down. (We also get a moment of Lem watching birds.) Maybe Shane remembers that exact moment in the second before he drops a grenade in Lem’s lap.
Claudette is really the focus of The Shield’s moral investigation into police, not Vic or the Strike Team. Her rise throughout the series keeps hitting walls because of her conscience, and more importantly, because of her commitment to it. If there is a message in the series about the ethics of police work, it’s her line in the sixth season: “the truth may not lead us down the path we want, but it’s the only way to fix this place.” The Shield may have started with an old-school cop whaling on a pedophile with a phone book, but it ends with the good cops running the Barn. The righteous path is long, imperfect, and it destroys good people, but in the long run and on balance, it works.