“. . .the things I can do.”
What Power Is. . . could be an alternate title for the entirety of The Shield. In discussing Enlightened and Girls, Todd van der Werff noted how the “male antiheroes” of a lot of contemporary programs have the drive for power as their primary motivation. To the extent that’s true in The Shield, it’s made so much more interesting by the varieties of power that come into play in the story: power gained, lost, and reclaimed; the power of reputation; power legitimated by authority and power outside of authority; financial power (and financial weakness); power through knowledge; power in a community and the power of a community; and power through violence, and the threat of violence.
Just looking at the two main plots in these episodes, different kinds of power come into play. With 2½ seasons down, we know that the opening shot of a black boy lynched in the teaser of “Slipknot” is not something that will be resolved without surprises; episodes like “Inferno” and “Breakpoint” taught us that. It turns out to be a play for community power by Twizzy, who wants to pin it on the Las Prophetas gang to unite his black community. (More shortly on the absolutely unfuckwithable performance of CCH Pounder; for now, just remember how she responds to Dutch with the word “worse.”)
These two episodes play the theme of power at different scales, with “Slipknot” looking at power in a community, and the history of that power. Anyone with a working knowledge of LA (or anyone who’s been there in the last half-century) has seen the rise of power of Hispanic gangs and communities, and how it’s displaced black gangs. That theme runs all through The Shield but never as thoroughly in this episode, from the central story to Paul Benjamin asking if the officers can read a billboard (“I’m black. That’s my side”) to Assistant Chief Phillips (Nigel Gibbs, and he will be back, and he fucking owns) throwing a charge of racial bias at Aceveda to the image of a largely black rally challenged by the arrival of Las Prophetas.
Running alongside all of this is Vic’s play to get the Strike Team back in power by allying with the Decoy Squad against Claudette. It works, largely because Vic doesn’t so much go against Claudette as suggest she isn’t ready for her power. Dutch hilariously and bravely chews out Aceveda for giving Claudette more responsibility than power, and gets neatly smacked down by Phillips for it. (I can’t quite tell if Claudette is relieved to be back as a detective.) The episode ends with three strong images of power through violence: a branch sawn off a tree, Aceveda with a gun and the mugshots, and the Strike Team doing what it does best–a memory of violence, a promise of violence, and some regeneration through violence.
ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER correctly noted last week that I often underestimate Kurt Sutter; he kicked all kinds of ass writing “Slipknot,” and I haven’t even gotten to the best part. Michael Chiklis directed his first Shield episode here, and directed it well, working on a broader canvas and with more elements than most other episodes. (He has criticized himself for doing a few attention-getting outside-of-house-style shots here, which shows you the level of commitment the cast and crew has to unifying the work.)
When Aurora tells David “if you won’t tell me, I’ll find out another way,” there is no doubt that she will, and it leads to one of the most devastating scenes of this season. Aceveda being raped was so difficult to watch, but Aurora running out of the room was so much worse, and makes us feel David’s powerlessness. He can’t be loved by the person who he needs it from the most; he feels (and so many rape victims have said this) that he’s the one who did wrong. (She hits him with the same thing his cousin did, that he’s been hitting himself with: you couldn’t stop them?) It’s all loaded into one of the best-written lines ever: “they made you. . .suck?” It’s all in the last word, and the active voice: not “they did this to you?” not “they violated you?” but what you did, David. What he’s hearing is “even if you were at gunpoint, David, this wasn’t done to you, you did this. You betrayed me and you betrayed being a man.” All communicated in four words, and Camilla Sanes’ perfect delivery.
“What Power Is. . .” tells the story of Aceveda reclaiming his power, and it’s an intimate episode in contrast to the breadth of scale of “Slipknot.” Aceveda tracks his attackers, shooting one of them and another gang member in the process (a kid who was along as an initiation ritual; more collateral damage); Juan (Kurt Carceres) gets away. This leads to some classic Shield, with multiple protagonists getting in each other’s way chasing the same thing all over Farmington (a plot that goes all the way back to “Blowback”) and ending with Juan and David in the interrogation room.
What follows is the best scene there yet; it’s on a level with some of the great Homicide interrogations, Harold Pinter’s (God rest ‘im) play One for the Road, or the little-seen Sean Connery movie The Offence. (A good recent example is the Philip Seymour Hoffman/Tom Cruise scenes in Mission: Impossible 3, as one character starts the scene with all the power and then discovers he has none.) Part of what makes it so effective is how systematic Aceveda has been, and how he brings it to play here, as he calmly details all the ways he can fuck Juan up without ever killing him. He doesn’t just assert his power over Juan, he dismantles Juan’s power. And part of it is the subjectivity of the camera; it feels like a third consciousness in the room, circling the characters, jumping to catch little details (like Juan’s hands; also great is how, in the scene before, the camera focuses on his mouth), coming closer and closer to the faces until we’re in a place beyond a closeup. (All credit to Billy Gierhart’s work as camera operator and Dean White’s direction; it’s the kind of thing you’d see in Tarkovsky’s or Soderbergh’s Solaris.) It’s the kind of intimacy The Shield excels at, and it pulls us in to the emotions of the characters; I was almost cheering for David at the end. The whole episode pays off with David and Aurora reunited and headed out to a press conference. His line “I wrapped things up” is great (reminds me of a certain last line in a certain season finale of Breaking Bad), as is the way Sanes can instantly snap on her Admiring Wife Gaze for the cameras.
There’s no attempt to hide how all of this changes Aceveda, and also no attempt to emphasize it; the pace of The Shield doesn’t allow for that. We don’t get scenes of him meditating or debating with himself on what he has to do, or whether it’s right; what we get is the deeply scary scene of him in the car with Elisa, another scene that’s brief but with maximum impact. It’s a scene that’s necessary to the plot (Aceveda gets Juan’s location), but what makes it so powerful are Benito Martinez’ and especially Sofia Calderon’s performances. They let us know that at that moment, Aceveda is capable of anything, and she knows it.
When someone takes power from you, you take it back from them; considerations of your duty as a cop (the modern principles of suspects’ rights and the limits of your power) do not apply here. And if you battle with monsters, you’re gonna end up at least a little bit of a monster. The Shield plays by some old moralities to match its old style of storytelling and goals for the audience. Drama is an older form of storytelling than the novel, and empathy is older than analysis. One of the ways The Shield goes for empathy over analysis is these larger moral points are never emphasized, never reflected on; they’re presented to us, and then we move on to the next beat of the plot.
Structurally, all of this have been sideshows. The main plot of season 3 is in full swing now, with the moves and countermoves speeding up, and the plots colliding and bouncing off each other. The main plot has hit its biggest complication: Mara has lifted $7000 from the money train stash and given it to her mom. (We’ve had a lot of warnings about what her mom is like, and they are all justified. Her response to needing to cover up where the money came from, in order to protect her daughter? She tries to corkscrew another $3000 out of her.) Also going through these episodes is the questions of what are the limits of trusting someone? What can and can’t they handle? (What Trust Is. . . could be another alternate title for the whole series.) In this case, it’s the closeness to someone that makes you dangerous; Lem says it perfectly, “if I had [Mara] in interrogation, I’d tell her the only way to save her baby’s father is to give up the three guys he works with!” The Strike Team moves the money, Shane no longer gets the keys, and Walton Goggins just plays acceptance there. The Strike Team has gone beyond stresses here; this is the first fracture. It comes about because Shane is now more loyal to Mara than to the team; and certainly (as Lem knows in that line, and as Vic has seen) Mara is more loyal to Shane than anything.
Just as The Shield explores trust, it explores the consequences of not trusting. Mara’s stealing $7000 is absolutely wrong, and we can see how it comes from a place of Shane not trusting her. The scene between them lays out exactly what she’s feeling: why is her husband keeping who knows how much money (great comic beat: “are all those trunks filled with cash?”) in storage and why does he keep disappearing? On Shane’s side, like Aceveda, he’s been keeping a secret from his wife because he’s too worried about the consequences if she finds out. But keeping that secret means that Mara has no idea how risky her act is. (“This is life-and-death shit, for all of us”; Mara is as impulsive as Shane, but there is no way she’d take the money if she knew where it came from.) This scene goes all the way back to the beginning of the series, because we can see the difference between Shane/Mara and Vic/Corinne. Shane and Mara fight and scream, but there is no doubt that they love each other, and no doubt of their loyalty to each other. (Shane doesn’t consider for one moment walking away.) We never saw Vic and Corinne fight like this, and they came apart at the end of the first season. Both families, though, have the consequences of Shane and Vic’s actions visited on them.
Throughout these episodes, especially “Slipknot,” we get to see the contrasting styles not just of Claudette and Vic, but also of CCH Pounder and Michael Chiklis, on display. Chiklis as Vic is a chameleon, changing his facial expressions, voice, even his stance to suit whoever he’s with. He’s best buds with Walon, dutiful employee with Aceveda, even more dutiful with Phillips, alternating tough guy and avuncular enterpriser with the One-Niners, always tough guy with Owen (Matthew’s tutor; Chiklis plays Vic in those moments like he’s two seconds away from taking a swing at him), and sometimes sympathetic and sometimes an absolute wall with Corinne. Vic gets angry, but he doesn’t hate; to use James Ellroy’s line from American Tabloid about another chameleon, he can’t afford to. CCH Pounder as Claudette, in contrast, is the same person in every scene. Her emotion changes between scenes, but there is an absolute core to who Claudette is. You can feel it right away when she says “he wasn’t murdered, he was lynched. You better know there’s a difference”; you can feel the history Claudette feels in that moment. Claudette’s core is why I feel that she doesn’t particularly mind her demotion; this is not someone whose sense of herself depends on her job title.
Meanwhile in Farmington: some more great Sutter writing Vic talks to Julien about the guy who assaulted Corrine, and Julien responds “what’s the favor?” With three words, we know how much Julien has changed since the first season. And oh yeah, the Cuddler Rapist gets apprehended; I had completely forgotten about the all the figurines and gasped at the reveal. We get a good moment with Claudette and Dutch’s reactions after the arrest–there’s relief there, and some happiness, but also disgust. Next week, prepare for a treat as we get David Mamet directing Clark Gregg. (But make your own damn Shield/S.H.I.E.L.D jokes thank you very much.)
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
Another way The Shield plays by an old morality is that Aceveda’s decision not to kill Juan isn’t the absence of an action, it’s an action in itself, and therefore it has to have consequences. (Ellroy explores this theme as well, in The Cold Six Thousand.) Juan will be back, and Aceveda will have to deal with him, and this will drive part of the third-act plot. The Shield’s handling of the spiraling consequences of the rape convinces me that it’s not something that Aceveda will ever truly get over. (I wonder about his actions next season; do they come from his rape or from the way he takes power over Juan? Put another way: does he start slapping a prostitute around because he feels powerless, or because he’s begun to enjoy power too much?)
Speaking of old moralities: oh God, O’Brien. Just a small-time dumb hustler picked out for convenience by the Strike Team. (“So we’re gonna plant money on an innocent?” “If you can say that with a straight face.”) His fate is to get his feet chopped off, tortured (I think), killed, and then have his body torched. The desecration of a corpse is another one of the oldest taboos, which is why (to me anyway) it has even more impact than O’Brien’s death. Of course he’s gonna die, that’s nearly a lock once he picks up the cash, but I didn’t guess that he’d have to have his body destroyed like that. (Also of course, it raises the guilt on Lem. Part of what drives the plot through the last episode of the fifth season, drives Shane to kill Lem, is that by then, we can believe that Lem would turn in the Strike Team not to save himself, but because Lem would believe they really did need to be judged for all they’d done. Even if we don’t believe it, we can see that Shane would.)
In the last season, there’s that touching moment when Dutch tells Billings how Claudette made him a better detective. We can really see that in these episodes; with his insecurity, Dutch is prone to giving up on his own theories and on the straightforward evidence, and to fall back on more vague profiles. As he will say to Billings, Claudette keeps pushing him to prove his theories and to stick to the case. (Also, those two are just so damn fun to watch playing off each other.) It pays off here.