“I really don’t like this.” “Well, you’ll pretend.”
The major throughline of this season is the fallout from the Money Train, and that continues; but second to that is the story of Claudette. She has risen to power and responsibility in the Barn, commanding the Strike Team and the Decoy Squad, and she runs into a major obstacle in “Cracking Ice,” as she well and truly fucks up, missing a detail that Walon filed about a mole in the department, blowing Walon’s cover and nearly getting him and Trish killed. What makes this compelling is that it’s not gratuitous, and it’s not something that reveals Claudette as an incompetent. It’s a simple mistake. Again, one of the character strategies on The Shield is that no one is immune from mistakes just as no one is immune from ambition. Claudette has a different morality from the Strike Team, but it doesn’t make her superhuman; the writers’ decision not to put her in Aceveda’s slot immediately is paying off here. Claudette can’t suddenly become boss of the Barn any more than the Strike Team can start living the good life. (Throw your hands up.)
“Cracking Ice” moves so fast that it starts in the middle of the action, with Trish’s distress call; “Safe,” in comparison, feels slow for The Shield, and not in a contemplative way, but like 39 minutes of show in 45 minutes of broadcast time. With so few extras, it made me wonder if FX mandated a lower-budget episode (or if, per Brandon Nowalk’s review, they blew the majority of the budget on exterior footage). (Aaron Sorkin ran into the same problem on the second season of The West Wing and came up with their best episode, “17 People.” Here, not so much.) The opening exposition of narcocorridos slows things down even more (between that and Ronnie’s Journey tickets, this episode is an unintended intertextual festival with some other great TV dramas). There are some good threads and scenes here (Corrine showing up, and the ending with Aceveda), but they’re running parallel to each other, not coming together yet. It’s a middle-of-the-story episode that’s more static than it needs to be. (Some nice three-character zigzag compositions, though, one with Ronnie, Lem, and Vic in the van, and another in the Barn with Dutch, Danny, and Julien; also, a good shot of the truck meth lab, in desaturated tones and seeming to stretch to infinity.)
One of the pleasures of “Cracking Ice” is seeing Nicki Micheaux step up and make Trish a full character. (You can especially see this in comparison with Natalie Zea’s Lauren, who is more important to Vic, and much less defined as a character.) So far, Trish has been there to crack wise with Vic and be our main contact with the Decoy Squad, but this episode shows her on the job and playing layers of fear, cockiness, anger, seductiveness, and a necessary resolve at the end, when she’s in Aceveda’s office and trying to put it all behind her. (Great reactive work from Gareth Williams as Walon in this scene.) In the best Shield style, you get a sense that that kind of moment, when the job is done and you have to forget whatever ugly thing you had to do, is a necessary and continual part of undercover work. The episode also uses her sexuality effectively: why yes I do want to see Nicki Micheaux in a sex scene; no, not this sex scene.
Another pleasure here is the camerawork and staging of the aborted takedown of the 12s. Over in the CZ yesterday, I was reflecting on The Wages of Fear (what do you mean you haven’t seen it? Rent or stream that puppy right the fuck now. You’ll thank me) and commenting that action scenes do not need physics-defying CGI or wire-fu to work; what they need is a strong sense of spatial and temporal relations and what is possible, and what is not. This scene is one of The Shield’s most intense, with multiple characters converging on a diner, having to do it in such a way that no one notices, and two reversals of the action, as 1) Vic tells Walon his cover’s blown and he’s about to be killed and 2) Walon telling them not to grab the 12s from the diner. One of the things that this sequence does right (that is often done wrong) is that we can see that everything that’s going on, but an observer on the street wouldn’t notice a thing.
Meanwhile, Shane and Mara continue to have the closest relationship on this show. One of the best moments here at revealing character is Mara’s repeated calls to Shane–it’s when she starts spotting that Shane drops everything and races home. (Another wonderful moment is Shane and Lem on the couch playing videogames and Mara saying goodbye to her two boys; both Goggins and Kenneth Johnson have the ability to look maximally goofy, and they’re not afraid to use it.) You see it especially in contrast with Vic’s relationships; he has become literally distant from Corrine (more on this in a moment) as she reaches out to him (once again, it’s his children he really cares about, not her) and his affair with Lauren runs into something of a major snag. So far, Shane is succeeding on exactly the point that Vic failed: he’s managing to be both a corrupt cop and a loving, not just a providing, husband. (Shane’s attempts to provide a diamond ring for Mara on the cheap give us some more great comedy of corruption: “yeah, but you gave me the sign, right?”)
The Shield’s storytelling method creates some challenges for the actors that wouldn’t exist on other shows. We will not get an episode that’s about, or even partially about, Corrine’s loneliness; no Corrine-goes-to-Paris-and-reflects-on-the-futility-of-existence scenes, sorry. What we get is a brief scene in “Safe” with her showing up at the station, and a fantastic shot of her exiting, hiding that she’s nearly in tears, with a tiled floor marking out the negative space between them. That’s all the time we have for that storyline, so the burden of making these emotions count falls almost entirely on the actors; they have to have an impact and quickly. It’s a pretty damn big challenge, and Cathy Cahlin Ryan can at least handle it, although she’ll be even better later in the series.
“We’ve always been a team.” Yes they have, and with $7000 missing from the Money Train stash, the team is showing some cracks. (“Cracking Ice” turns out to be a perfect title.) We’re well into the second act and we know enough about these characters–we’ve seen enough of what they do–that their actions are completely comprehensible. Ronnie and Lem are immediately above suspicion. Ronnie reported the money, and he’s just too pragmatic to do this, and Lem is too instinctually good. Suspicion does fall on Vic and Shane, then; we (and the rest of the team) have seen how impulsive Shane always is, and how impulsive Vic has become. Last season, the Strike Team was so strong that Shane and Lem went and saved Vic on their own. At the end of this episode, they have suspicions of each other, and nothing has been resolved.
Corresponding to the cracks in the Strike Team are some new alliances, with Vic reaching out to Walon to create a Strike Team/Decoy Squad entente, and, even more interesting, Vic taking a tape of Aceveda beating a suspect. . .and giving it to Aceveda. (I did not see that one coming.) Something we’ve seen throughout these seasons is the shifting relationship between Vic and Aceveda; because they don’t have an emotional bond, there are many more possibilities for how they can treat each other. Here, with Claudette stepping into place as Vic’s major antagonist, Aceveda is someone more useful to Vic as an ally than as an enemy; Vic would rather Aceveda owe him a favor than extort one from him. It’s another new moment in the story.
Elsewhere: “Funny later. Not funny now.” You have any other character besides Dutch protesting that he needs child pornography on his laptop for work, and it’s an obvious lie; with Dutch, it’s the obvious truth. It’s not less creepy, though; it’s about Dutch getting way too obsessed with getting into the minds of criminals. But it’s the same kind of instinct that leads him to that quiet conversation with Claudette at the end of “Cracking Ice,” as they speculate on whether or not the Cuddler Rapist has escalated to both murder and ejaculation. Oh, and I’ve gone right by Tommy’s suicide; it plays out devastatingly on Danny’s reactions, and in mirrored and windowed images, with a great isolating shot of Danny from the side at the sound of the gunshot.
Lastly, Benito Martinez has really emerged as this season’s most valuable performer. Since his rape, he’s lost his charming politician’s veneer; he plays Aceveda as being in nearly constant pain, with (as K Thrace and a lot of commenters have pointed out) no ability to use his politican’s skills to relieve it. At the end of “Safe,” his brother (or cousin? I didn’t catch it) opens with the questions that have to be ringing in his head all the time: “You couldn’t stop them? You couldn’t do anything?” It’s not just pain he’s carrying, it’s guilt over that (and as ZoeZ pointed out, it’s undeserved guilt). Whatever else I think of “Safe,” that’s a stunning ending; what makes it land so hard isn’t the words (“If it were me, I’d kill them.”) but David’s reaction. He hadn’t thought of that.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
Usually I’m happy to see Natalie Zea show up (and that sweater is a nice character choice), but she deserves better than a guest role on Everybody Fucks Vic. Part of the problem is how Lauren’s been written–there’s not much personality there, not much for Zea to play. An even bigger problem is her boyfriend Hunter. I buy that there’s a history there that Vic can’t match. That would be enough of a complication, but the writers really put an effort (here and in later episodes) to show how Hunter is a weak loser (I actually think he’s shot in soft focus in “Cracking Ice”) compared to Vic’s real manliness. (It’s one of those moments where the shallow criticisms of The Shield are right.) Dutch, next season, is a much more interesting and believable challenge (not exactly a rival) to Vic.
Lem has an ulcer and it seems like he’ll have one for, oh, about the rest of his life; he’ll be coughing up blood by the end of season 5. There’s something about Lem that goes beyond any question of morality; he literally does not have the stomach for corruption. The Shield is always so strong about the physical damage this life takes on you, from David’s healing scar to Lem’s ulcer to Claudette’s lupus. Some of this show’s sense of consequences take a long time to play out, because some of them can be dodged or schemed against; but some of the consequences are there all the time, and Lem’s body is one of them.
At the beginning of season 3, I was expecting the story of the Money Train cash to be all about greed, as each member of the Strike Team sought to grab most or all of the stash for themselves. It’s a measure of discipline on the part of the writers that the team comes apart, but not over individual greed; they fall apart over the sheer stress of trying to survive having taken the money. The writers recognize that having stolen seven figures’ worth of cash from the Armenian mob is enough of a problem without everyone trying to take it all. These episodes have a couple of neat little foreshadows of what happened, and what’s going to happen: Mara has said that her mom needs money or she’ll be thrown out of her apartment; and Lem has suggested just cashing out at “30 cents on the dollar” and making the money someone else’s problem. (Lem will finally cash them out at about 3 cents on the dollar.) Vic’s response is fantastic–“I want a dollar on the dollar!” It’s that wonderful kind of greed where it’s mixed with righteousness–dammit, I am entitled to all the money I stole.
Previously: “Mum”/”Posse Up”
Next: “Slipknot”/”What Power Is. . .”