“You ever suck a dick like a cell bitch?”
Aceveda’s rape is one of the most difficult things to watch ever broadcast. Nick Gomez (landing another great episode after season 1’s crucial “Dragonchasers”) chooses shots that put us in close. The camera is unstable, but it’s also unblinking; we’re always seeing Aceveda, and in particular his face. (Incredible acting from Benito Martinez as he keeps finding deeper and deeper levels of humiliation.) One of the only exceptions to this is the cut to the actual sucking-a-dick-like-a-cell-bitch moment (“work it”), shot from below and turning Kurt Carceres into a kind of gargoyle. (Prison Break viewers know that Carceres cleans up just fine; here, he’s not too gross, but he completely sells the look of an ex-con with no access to dental care and no interest in hygiene.) The barely furnished apartment is another piece of great Shield setting–there is absolutely nothing else to see in this frame except what is happening.
It’s been criticized as a moment purely for shock, but it’s not. Like everything on The Shield, it’s an action with a past and a future. (Obviously, discussion of the future will have to wait, but I think Aceveda has ID’d the suspects at the very end of “Posse Up.”) There are several bits of foreshadowing when Vic first visits Carceres, from his first line (“who are you [sexual orientation epithet redacted to avoid autoflag]?”) to Vic jamming the bong in his mouth; kendynamo noted that this is a favored interrogation method of Vic. (Also, a brutal visual cue with the bong in the foreground like an erect blue cock.)
Most importantly, though, it’s set up through a series of actions. It’s the Money Train robbery and Vic’s using, and losing, some of that money in a sting that put the marked bills in circulation. It’s the Strike Team going off the Alvarado sweep that leads to the arrest that leads to the discovery of the marked bills, and that sends Vic after Carceres and Aceveda after the money. But, crucially, it’s Aceveda’s decision to stay behind, alone, and look for anything else that leaves him vulnerable; it’s his decision to take down one guy on his own and not check to see if the other rooms are clear that gets him captured. (This is not the same thing as saying it’s his fault.) Aceveda getting raped is exactly not an action that comes from nowhere. It’s something that happens because of a series of events set in motion by the Strike Team, and it’s also something that happens because of Aceveda’s own choices. This is The Shield’s writing at its finest. ZoeZ pointed out that on Breaking Bad, everything that happens, happens because of Walt; on The Shield, there is an ever-growing pattern of consequences from Vic’s actions, but every character makes their own choices, and chooses their own fate.
Unlike a lot of our pop culture, and a lot of our politics, The Shield never shows rape as something that’s about sexual desire. It’s always about power, and humiliation, and we always spend time with the victims and the consequences of rape. (Critics who see The Shield as some kind of glorification of brutal men damn well need to keep that in mind, and yes I do mean you, van der Werff and Brett Martin; big ups to Simon Wilder for digging out those quotes) This continues with the Cuddler Rapist, as we work our way through the victims, including victims who haven’t come forward yet. Claudette and Dutch are at their most subtle and powerful here, drawing out information from people who are doing everything they can to forget it; Peggy Miley’s performance as Luanne, mechanically eating and placing a giant wall around what happened is a standout here. (The wide shot of Luanne, at the right of the frame with the bed as a huge negative space, both calls back to where the rape happened and gives us Dutch’s POV, as he sees the bed has been stripped.) Also great is Afemo Omilami as Vincent, in rage and pain over his mother’s rape. Unlike INSERT CBS PROCEDURAL, using a geographical profiler isn’t some miracle fix to catch the guy, it’s just one more step that narrows it down, and it costs money (out of pocket for Dutch, it looks like). At the end of “Posse Up,” Claudette reminds Dutch that even if he got publicly humiliated by the guy he publicly ridiculed, they’re closing in. (Men using power to rob others of their dignity is all over these episodes.)
“Our money’s marked?” Of course the money’s marked, you dumb fucks, you robbed a major money laundering operation and that never occurred to you? (No, it didn’t occur to me either, so I am a dumb fuck as well.) That is more great writing, in that it’s something completely plausible and still unexpected. (Great moment to open “Posse Up” with the Strike Team going all Sherlock Holmes on the money, complete with magnifying glass.) It’s great writing in that it creates more consequences, and creates urgency; now they have to find all the marked bills and they have to do it soon, because the switch to new currency makes their cash too easily detectable. Already, by the end of “Posse Up,” we’re treated to a great series of shots of the Strike Team coordinating their actions around the barn to track David’s secretary (Nina) as she checks the bills. There’s clearly a promise of more complications, and more actions, on the way at the end. This is why Aristotle said over 2000 years ago that the most important thing in writing a tragedy isn’t great language or dialogue, it’s the structure of incidents.
Consequences continue with Vic showing up at Shane and Mara’s, seeing the damage, and immediately knowing that they’re lying. (As with Dutch at Luanne’s, Nick Gomez gives us shots from Vic’s POV.) He interrogates them at the Barn parking lot (more on this in a moment) and then comes by to direct the cleanup, Wolf-style. (Great touch that he wants to keep the chemicals away from Mara.) The Vic/Mara relationship here is done entirely in glances exchanged, and it’s great; Mara clearly knows they’re in trouble and resents having to depend on this guy, and Vic, less clearly but it’s how I see it, is beginning to find a little admiration for Mara. What’s there most clearly is Shane and Mara’s absolute loyalty to each other. When Vic says “you’re gonna have to step up,” Mara is willing to do that, but “this is how Shane wants it.” There’s a sense in Chiklis’ reaction that no one has ever shown him this kind of loyalty. It’s a new element on The Shield.
There’s a staging pattern in Shane/Vic and Mara in the parking lot and Aceveda’s rape with the cell phone picture: two people acting and one witnessing. The Shield’s entire visual language is based on witnessing; almost every shot in the entire series is from the position of someone who could actually be there. By a dramatic alchemy that I’ve seen before but still don’t fully understand, putting a third character in as a witness makes us feel more like witnesses. You need to have actors who are greatly expressive to do that, and wow, Michele Hicks can bring that (there’s a great little cutaway to her during Vic and Shane’s argument that implies she’s remembering the whole fight), and so can Wilmer Calderon, taking the picture of Aceveda’s rape. (He clearly has a sense that this is going way too far.)
We get some welcome lighter moments with Shane going undercover. (This is something of a meta joke, in that the cast and crew have noted that Walton Goggins will take any opportunity to remove his clothes on camera.) Not only do we get Trish being ever-awesome, not only do we get some quality Shane-Lem comedy (“you’re the one who knows the names of dick parts”), I unironically love Shane bonding with the hustlers. There is no chasm of prejudice so great in this country that it can’t be bridged by the love of fine automobiles and the pimping thereof; America, fuck yeah. Also great: JC Mackenzie, who will soon retire, move to Boston, and go into real estate, does a fantastic interrogation of Tommy, playing exactly Guy Who Already Knows Everything So Fuck You. (So much happens in these episodes that I’ve really gone completely by the whole Tommy plot, but it’s another example of the way cops cover for each other, the limits of that cover, and the way consequences go way past anything you intend.) And an interesting intertextual moment as Deltron’s “3030” instrumental track plays in the crack house; it had just been used two years before as the main title music for Michael Mann’s Robbery Homicide Division (aka Heat, the series), a show that, with its sleek, expensive surfaces and high-profile, big-money, complex cases, was the negative image of The Shield.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
“Don’t throw your life away.”
So true, and no one realizes it yet. As we’ve all seen, The Shield isn’t great in the moment, it’s great in the consequences, and the consequences of David’s rape will be played out all the way to the end. That line is gonna come true, as David will wind up killing (directly and through Antwon Mitchell) both men, and as a politician, he’ll have to deal with “perception is reality” as the photograph eventually surfaces. One of the things The Shield is great at is showing the vulnerability of men, and how that gets exploited; it’s what James Ellroy called “the eye for human weakness.” We’ll see that a few episodes down the line when David confesses (the exact word, because to him, he’s admitting he failed) to Aurora, and finds no sympathy there (I find that scene harder to take than the rape itself) and all the way down the line in season 6, when Pezeula shows Vic the picture (“and rather than stand up like a man, he did this.”) I don’t know how deliberate this was, but the consequences of the rape, particularly the way Aceveda is made to feel it’s his fault, are the experience of many, if not most, female rape victims; there’s a recent and justly circulated Vice story about this. (Obviously, the nature of the fault isn’t the same for men and women; no one treats Aceveda like he was asking for it by being so well dressed.)
Vic doesn’t get loyalty. He can recognize it, and he can exploit it, but he doesn’t get it. There is no one he will be loyal to outside himself. What JK Rowling said of Voldemort is also true of Vic: what he “does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend.” To the end, Shane and Mara will love and be loyal to each other, and to the end, that, and Vic’s inability to comprehend that, will have consequences. It’s why Mara is such an essential character on The Shield; she is the one who brings love into the action. (It’s not as thoroughly developed as in the Harry Potter series, but The Shield also recognizes love as incredibly powerful, and absolutely unsentimental.)
The “two characters act, one character witnesses” scene is a key Shield element, and it will be back, most effectively in the torture of Guardo in season 6. There’s an element to it that we see here in the parking lot: the third person, the witness, is the one who truly knows what happened. (The horror of Vic torturing Guardo is made so much worse, because we’re in Shane’s position, in that we know what happened but can’t stop it.) A term used a lot in film and especially TV criticism is “audience surrogate,” the character whose responses are meant to be ours. The Shield used this idea really effectively, because its surrogates weren’t moral surrogates; there was no attempt to guess at how we felt about the characters and judge them. The Shield’s surrogates just knew what we knew, and could do just as little to change things. Roger Zelazny (God rest ‘im) said that was how catharsis worked–you knew what the characters were feeling, you wanted to keep the disaster from happening, and you couldn’t.