Shane and Mara, Vic and Farrah, Claudette, Corrine, Cassidy, Trish, Vanessa and Julien, Tavon and Mara, David and Claudette, the cuddler rapist, Dutch and Claudette, David and Deena, and Vic and the ghost of Connie: these are two episodes that are all about men, women, and their relationships, and all the possibilities for them.
We know now who Mara is: she’s a woman who, if she sees her fiancé in a fight, doesn’t ask questions, try to calm everyone down, reach out to authorities, or even scream. Mara grabs the nearest blunt object and comes in swinging. (Great beat of physical acting from Michele Hicks as she backs up against the wall: there’s some fear, but much more than that, she’s absolutely ready for another strike.) For that matter, we know who Shane is too: he’ll instantly, almost reflexively propose to the woman he loves when he finds out she’s pregnant (how great was her reaction?) and he’ll completely mean it. Shane’s insanely impulsive, and he’s committed about those impulses.
The Shane/Tavon/Mara fight is one of The Shield’s signature scenes. The prelude is crucial, done visually and with dialogue; we first see Tavon and Mara from Shane’s point of view, with their postures friendly, and immediately we can see some deep, reflexive hatred begin in Shane. The dialogue pushes to reconciliation, and then Tavon pushes, Shane pushes back harder and SNAP. (Dialogue redacted to avoid autoflag.) Months back, ZoeZ called it “the least glamorized fight on television,” and it’s definitely one of them, but it’s more than that; it’s simultaneously the least glamorized and most exciting fight on television. We can see the damage of every blow; there’s a visual detail of bloodstains spreading all through the fight, and Brian White’s dive after Mara at the end is great, it looks like spinal reflex, not something done out of anger. (At that moment, his spine is probably the only working part of his nervous system.) We see Shane’s agony at the end, with Mara desperately trying to care for him; we see the blood sheeting down Tavon’s face and his crash, both arms bent wrong. At the same time, the fight is absolutely thrilling, with the blows coming fast and the bodies crashing into every damageable surface. (Fun fact: that wall was not supposed to be damaged.) The Shield always shows the consequences of actions, including violent actions (that’s why, in Christopher Skywalken’s words, it’s “quality story telling that happens to be violent”) but it never denies us the visceral thrill of action. Storytellers have known that violence is thrilling since at least the Epic of Gilgamesh, and used it.
Farrah shows us Vic’s desire to control women, and also how that makes him vulnerable, or at least useful to some women. All through “Bottom Bitch,” we can see how he resists her, and then winds up doing exactly what she wants him to do. (Great acting beat from Chiklis at the beginning, when Farrah first starts talking about Connie: he can show the difference between Vic not reacting and Vic suppressing a reaction.) It leads to one of the most difficult scenes yet on the series, with Vic playing pimp and jamming a gun in her mouth. (Mageina Tovah’s almost-caressing blowjob move in taking the gun takes it to the level of unbearable. Her whole performance is great, with her mood swings feeling half like calculation, half junkie behavior.) It’s one of many scenes where the violence isn’t just not-gratuitous but necessary; it shows us that Farrah can only take power by submitting herself (by any means necessary) to powerful men, and it gives force to Vic’s line “you always find ways to kill yourselves.”
Speaking of women, Vic, and control, Claudette is now running things, and running them well. Some people have objected to the Decoy Squad, and they do feel like something that belongs on a more episodic series; both these episodes have a case-of-the-week feel to them. They serve an important function, though, in challenging the Strike Team’s supremacy in arrests; they’re a genuine existential threat. In the office-management logic of The Shield, they’re a rival group to the Strike Team’s top earners; in “Bottom Bitch,” we hear numbers on their arrests. (They’re also a lot of fun, and I have no objections to anything that brings the walking charisma bolt that is Nicki Micheaux to the series.) It’s a neat running joke that Vic keeps making these little stabs at Claudette’s authority and she keeps calmly, smilingly shooting him down.
Speaking even more: Vic continues to lose control of Corrine and Cassidy; there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment where Corrine throws Owen the tutor a look as she and Vic run out the door. Whatever that look means, it’s happening without Vic’s knowledge. The closing scene of “Bottom Bitch” has Vic paying his respects to Connie by checking up on her child. You’ll notice it was shot on video rather than the usual 16mm; Chiklis asked for it to be reshot, as he felt his performance was too much in his badass-threatening style the first time through. There’s something genuinely wounded about Vic in the scene as it stands; there’s also, in the foster parents, two more people who are just plain indifferent to anyone but themselves.
Back with our other detectives, Dutch is on the track of the “cuddler rapist”; one of the things we see immediately is how much it shows rape is about power, as K. Thrace noted in commenting on “Partners.” Just from the description in this episode, the Cuddler isn’t just about violence, but making his victims accept the violence, a second violation. (We see the same thing in Vic’s pimp talk to Farrah; his voice goes sweeter after he takes out the gun, and that’s awful.) And then we get another weakness of Dutch’s psychological methods: it can work too well, he can get enough under the skin of someone to make him believe he’s guilty, and set him off to rape again. (Great, disturbing, twitchy performance by Brent Sexton there.)
In keeping with the office-management style, Aceveda has actually become his most active as a captain, now that he knows he has secure employment somewhere else; he’s still an expert manipulator of people and power, helping Javier (the politician Trish catches in the sting) right up until the point when he becomes a threat, and then sending the press after him. Even Claudette winds up admiring the skill (and vice versa–“You always were my best detective.”) There’s a Hill Street Blues vibe here, especially in “Streaks and Tips,” with the Barn at its absolute busiest (tracking two teams one case helps a lot with that) and Aceveda dealing with incidents at all levels and from all sides, including the never not funny Deena. (“Why don’t you ever call?”)
One thing that’s fascinating about The Shield’s visual style is something that’s not there, or rarely there: it’s a bad idea to shoot a conversation in shot/reverse shot when you’re using handheld cameras. (The West Wing and Alias tried this, and it just looks like everything’s gone wobbly. Shot/reverse shot really needs the fixed position of the cameras, because you’re really showing each character from the other’s fixed point of view.) The Shield found so many other ways to shoot conversations: having the characters in the same frame, and moving between them using rack focus; swinging the cameras between the characters; placing the characters on opposite sides of the frame and often putting a third character watching in the background (there’s a moment like this in “Bottom Bitch” with Claudette, Vic, and Farrah, and there’s a great beat as Farrah preens in the background); cutting between the characters who are not on a horizontal plane, so the instability of the camera and the gaze makes sense (“Streaks and Tips” does this, with a conversation between Claudette and Aceveda on the staircase); and many other ways. I’ve seen other shows use handheld cameras, but none that developed a complete style around it the way The Shield did.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
Shane and Mara: by the end of the series we see that they’re impulsive, dangerous, and both delusional in that they think they can plan things a lot better than they really can; and they both have limits as to what they can live with (the limit is always killing) and are utterly in love with each other and loyal to their literal last breath. They break my heart, because they have the strongest love on The Shield. (One of Shawn Ryan’s notes for the final season was that Shane and Mara would grow closer as Vic and Corrine would come completely apart.) They have so much in common, especially in their best and worst qualities, and are just plain incapable of lying to each other for more than a few days; Mara revealing her pregnancy anticipates Shane revealing killing Lem. If you don’t make this one of the core relationships of the entire series, the final episodes lose at least half their power; it’s one more reason Mara is one of the great Shield characters, and one more case, for me the best case, of the way The Shield generates so much sympathy for its characters without ever needing to make them morally good or even likeable.
Some things start here that play out for a while, or throw forward to later in the series: Dutch and Claudette begin tracking the Cuddler Rapist (and that’s going to lead to That Scene–wow, this season really piles on the unbearable moments); Dutch inadvertently provoking Fets into attempting rape again will get echoed in the last season with Lloyd; and the image of Farrah with a gun in her mouth, well, that comes back on us next week with Aceveda. (Aceveda’s willingness to sacrifice Javier because of a threat of bad publicity reminds him of how easily the same can be done to him.) And Farrah will also be back in the last season; her meth-rotted appearance is like a wraith come back to haunt Vic. (She’s like something out of The Shining in that episode.)