You have to let your characters win sometimes. (Shawn Ryan)
“Ain’t That a Shame” both finishes the story of Monica Rawling and makes clear what that story is, in the same way that “Fire in the Hole” finished and clarified Lem’s story in season 3. Getting the ending of a story right matters so much more than getting the beginning right; there are many ways things can start but we have to feel that the ending is inevitable, that of all the possibilities, there’s only one way it could end. It’s here that we see who Rawling is: she’s the gunslinger, the outsider who comes to clean up the town, and then leaves, the hero of the community who can’t be part of that community, like Shane (Alan Ladd, not The Goggins), Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, or Mifune in Yojimbo and Sanjuro, and this is her last stand.
It’s there in the first minutes of the episode, as she publicly accepts the deal Antwon made and privately enlists the Strike Team to wreck it; standing in the Team’s clubhouse, legs apart, shoulders forward, arms straight down, it’s the exact pose of someone about to punch upward into someone else’s windpipe. This launches a recurring Shield plot of multiple chasers after a single target (“What Power Is. . .,” “Blowback,” and “Inferno” are other examples) as she and the Team try and get to Bonilla, a major Salvadoran drug runner, before the DEA. Two more great moments right at the beginning–her smile as she watches Antwon on video, hearing and remembering his description of Bonilla (that was my biggest FUCK! YEAH! all season) and the next just after the titles, with the four team members in a semicircle around her, the gunslinger and her deputized posse.
As part of this story, Aceveda and Vic have two scenes together, and in the first, we find out that Antwon killed Juan. We can see, again, the flexibility of the Vic/Aceveda relationship. Each knows the other has, or could have, something on him–Vic is rightly suspicious about Juan’s death, Aceveda knows Vic is planning something extracurricular involving Antwon–and they both back off because they can help each other here. It’s a nice touch in their first meeting to have them both sit down on the porch, it makes them look almost but not quite comfortable with each other, and another neat moment alone with Aceveda after their second meeting, who’s almost but not quite unworried. Most critics don’t realize this (probably because Vic uses nasty language and punches people), but Vic Mackey is one of the most expert compromisers and negotiators on television. He’s a man in a junior position in a larger organization who is very good at what he does in that position, and who has ambitions, but ambitions with distinct limitations. He’s much more the Don Draper of the first three seasons of Mad Men than Tony Soprano, let alone the monomaniacal Walter White.
The chase for Bonilla takes us through chases, clues, codes (not good codes), and scenes in interrogation; there’s a great moment where the deadline suddenly gets shoved up as the DEA finds his location. In another mistake-in-character (everything is just moving too fast, and the Strike Team can overestimate its own strength), Lem gets left behind guarding three guys, which leads to an impeccably executed and thrilling close-quarters action scene as Lem has to fight them off. They get off the couch and start slowly closing in, with the editing slowing it down even more, and then one of them gets his shotgun. The Shield’s action scenes are often distinguished by a complete clarity in the filmmaking (we can see where everyone is, and at every cut, people stay in the same place. It’s amazing how many higher-paid directors don’t get this) and a believable clumsiness in the action (Lem falling down at the end of the scene).
The chase finishes with Bonilla and almost all his records captured by the Strike Team. The aftermath gives us more strong, even funny staging: the Team in the background, just chillin’, as Rawling converses with the DEA agent. It’s a moment of triumph that blows up in her face a few scenes later in Phillips’ office. “You made them eat shit, and now they’re making the mayor eat it”; the DEA is ready to start cutting off funding to LA, and Rawling finally runs into someone who will go as far as she does, and has more resources. Aceveda says the DEA will break its deal with Antwon and give him up for arrest, but she will have to resign; I think he went in and pitched exactly that deal–Antwon for Rawling. (As always, when Aceveda buttons his jacket, the issue has been decided.) Her last appeal to Phillips (“Roy?”) is one of her subtlest moments in her voice acting–her voice stops just short of pleading.
So interesting, and such close plotting, that what brought Rawling down wasn’t the asset forfeiture program, even though here she uses it to take the foster home from “Hurt” (the Child Protective Services officer says “you’re out of control, and now everyone can see it”), but her pursuit of Antwon. I don’t know if it weakens The Shield as social commentary; if there’s a point here, it’s that getting into fights with federal agencies poses a greater risk to police officers’ careers than seizing the assets of citizens. (Historically, that seems to be true.) Regardless, what this plot move does is make this season’s battle between Rawling and Antwon that much clearer, and this conclusion that much more powerful; it’s one more example of a recurring Shield theme: THE PRICE YOU PAY FOR TOTALLY FUCKING OWNING, in ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER’s words.
After the fall of Rawling, we get the payoff to what has been another plotline and a small mystery about the heroin Lem took. In “A Thousand Deaths,” Vic gave that heroin back to Gusano to protect Emolia, and in this episode, Gusano claims that it wasn’t heroin. Turns out Emolia is a CI, and contacted the department, and that brought in Jose Zuñiga’s IAD officer, and they switched out the heroin. IAD will now go after the whole Strike Team, and they have two things they never had before: physical evidence against the Team and someone working against them without their knowledge. (Terry was Federal, not IAD.) When Emolia says “Vic likes me and my boy, we can use that” she reveals not just that she played him, but she knows exactly how to do it. She knows Vic’s weakness is that he always has to save women, and if they’re mothers, even better.
In its acting, plotting, dialogue, and camerawork, the last ten minutes of “Ain’t That a Shame” may be the best thing The Shield has ever done, a graceful conclusion to all the major stories of the season, overt and otherwise. Slow it down and look at it in detail: Rawling, cleaning out her desk, finds Carl and Scooby’s badges, and wants them displayed where everyone will see them; when cops show up to escort her out, Vic and Dutch stop them. The way they handle it is fascinating. Vic makes the appeal based on kindness, but then Dutch lays down the rules: Antwon’s coming in, and Rawling’s going to make the arrest. (The tones of their voices are different: Vic appeals, Dutch dictates.) In that beat, and in the looks of everyone in the open space of the Barn, we can see the sense of a community and the code of police.
Vic meets Corrine in the parking lot and effectively gives custody of Cassidy back to her; what’s so interesting about this moment is how Chiklis plays it. Earlier, Cassidy said of her new boyfriend “he’s just like you!” and Vic’s face just fell apart. In that scene and this one, he’s humbled here in a way we’ve never seen him before; Vic recognizes, maybe for the first time, that not only can’t he solve every problem, maybe he’s the cause of some problems. (“It’s a lot of things,” he says when Corrine asks him why.) Antwon, escorted, shows up in the background, another way The Shield works its visuals through staging rather than camerawork.
Anthony Anderson does so much in the next scene by not saying anything; the Barn scenes in this sequence are the quietest it’s ever been. Keeping with the gunslinger image (that kind of character ain’t much for speechin’), Rawling places him under arrest in a tone that’s both level and utterly fierce, and there’s a beautiful, disturbing moment of Antwon confronting Shane. I like that Lem is perched on the edge of the cage, slightly higher, like he wanted to find room to watch this up close. And any time you can add to Kenneth Johnson’s height, do it.
Vic and Rawling go to her home, and what happens next shows you the advantage of The Shield’s approach to drama, and how the creative team plays on it; there is so much plot going on that the quietest scenes can be loaded with subtext. Quiet scenes on The Shield are not meditative, the way they can be on Breaking Bad or (most recently; there are many other examples) Fargo; quiet scenes are still about characters committing actions, or not committing actions. Rawling’s farewell to Vic is so dramatic, because she knows what Vic doesn’t: IAD has solid evidence now, Emolia is working against him, and they’re coming after the whole Strike Team. Rawling likes Vic and respects him, but she’s too committed a cop to reveal to him what’s going on. She almost warns him, and he almost recognizes it; when she says, with such earnestness, “promise me, you take a good look at where you’re going, and you take care of yourself,” she’s really screaming “goddammit, Vic, RUN!” (say it like Matthew Fox, it’s that powerful) Vic’s face says “something’s being said here but I don’t know what.” There’s a handshake, and after Vic goes, Rawling allows herself to cry; I suppose this could be considered weakness by someone who’s never met an actual woman.
Back at the Barn, Phillips offers the captaincy to Dutch, whose immediate response is “Claudette’s the best person.” He turns it down, telling Claudette that sometimes you have to do the right thing–“one day you’ll understand.” It’s a defining moment between those two, resolving a story that began at the end of last season, and exactly catching Dutch’s sense of humor and Claudette’s pride; she’s positively beaming. Following Danny and Julien earlier in the episode, it’s evidence of another healed relationship. Vic shows up, and in another effective character beat, speaks directly to Dutch when he says they’re all going out for drinks, “want to join?” Just by the staging, it shows the respect Vic now has for Dutch, and his desire to reconcile, or at least treat Dutch as part of the community. Chiklis here gives a good example of “invent nothing, deny nothing” (David Mamet’s definition of a great performance), in that I’m not sure how Vic feels, but as ever, what counts is the action, showing Dutch respect.
The concluding scene shows how well The Shield works within the rules of genre. The big-scene-at-the-bar is a staple of the cop drama, and workplace dramas and comedies, but what makes this so effective is simply that The Shield has never done one before. For the first time in the entire series, the Barn has come together (Danny and Julien show up too) and they’re happy, they’re smiling and talking to each other and goofing off (favorite detail: Lem re-enacting the earlier fight with a pool cue for a shotgun. Second favorite detail: David Rees Snell talking to his real-life wife) and we’ve never seen that before. Against everything, against the collapse of last season and all the conflicts, a community has come together. Right in the middle of the scene, we cut to our last shot of Rawling, still, exhausted, silent, alone in her home;* it’s the last shot of our gunslinger, riding out of town, and it’s really a musical effect too, a quiet interlude amidst chaotic sounds (listen to the end of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring if you want to hear an example. Actually listen to all of it, it fucking owns). If Rawling couldn’t clean up the streets, she brought a family together; if The Shield doesn’t fully dramatize Farmington, it created a full story for the Barn this season.
Back to the bar, and one last moment: in the background, the IAD agent enters, says a hello or two, looks at Vic, and heads offscreen. The camera stays in the same position and only moves slightly in on him before it shifts focus and shifts our attention back to Vic, and closes out the season. The moment lasts five seconds, and creates a portent maybe even more powerful than the dark foreshadowing of the second season’s ending, because this is something that we see but the characters don’t. (It can be compared to the end of Cloverfield, and if you don’t know what that means, watch it again and keep your eyes on the middle-right area of the screen.) Those five seconds tell us that whatever is going to happen has already started, and nobody knows it. Not yet.
*I find this moment incredibly affecting, possibly because I’ve been in exactly her position, too exhausted to do anything but have a drink. I suppose by Brandon Nowalk’s standards that means I’m not human.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
Lem says to Shane “you’re gonna be on wife number what, 6, by then?”–oh, Lem, you couldn’t possibly be more wrong.
It’s really only after seeing the whole series that season 4 makes sense. It’s so necessary in drama to have the sense of potential that this season gives. Vic is never gonna be a rule-following, rights-respecting cop, but we can see here what he could have been, an effective agent of authoritarian policy. The argument can be made here that such a person never deserves our sympathy, but that argument implicitly denies an assumption of drama: no one is outside sympathy. To go back to my second post on The Shield: the power of drama is to make us feel for people we would otherwise only judge. We can see how the Team and the Barn can come together, so when everything starts coming apart (and in the very next episode) we can feel something is lost.
SPOILERS FOR BREAKING BAD AND AN UNSPECIFIC SPOILER FOR THE SOPRANOS
It’s so different from what other great works of our time, particularly Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, give us. In this season, we’ve seen the Strike Team go as clean as they can without going up against their fundamental tragic flaws–they can’t admit to Army’s charge of “you are guilty!” (Lem, of course, will try and do that next season, and look what happens.) Part of what was so compelling about Walter White was the way he kept pursuing his fate; his flaw kept driving him to knock off bigger antagonists and create a bigger empire, right up until “Gliding over All,” whereas The Shield’s protagonists said “enough” after the Money Train robbery. The Sopranos has been described as the third act of a tragedy, where everything was set in motion a long time ago and we’re seeing the last stages play out. I can see how that might be compelling in a historical perspective, but it doesn’t have the same strong feeling of people making choices and having to live with the consequences, no matter what they do next, of The Shield. Walter White chooses to throw away his chances and Tony Soprano never had one, but the Strike Team had a chance, and because of what they did and who they are, they couldn’t take it.
AND UNSPECIFIC SPOILERS FOR LOST TOO
Because there is potential, there can be reversal, the change of good fortune to ill fortune or vice versa. That’s pretty darned essential to drama. (“They had the perfect plan, and it went perfectly” is bad drama.) A good effect often deployed by dramatists is to juxtapose the moments of good and ill fortune. The multiple timelines of Lost (at the end of the third and fourth seasons) and the editing and camera effects of Breaking Bad (at the beginning of “Ozymandias”) both did this simply and beautifully; both shows could place the highest and lowest moments of its characters right next to each other. Neither of these moves can be done the unified style and absolute linear storytelling of The Shield. What this season did do, though, was to create a narrative of the Strike Team and the Barn coming back together, and to load it with little moments (Vic giving Corrine the Money Train cash, the IAD agent, Lem taking the heroin and Emolia seeing it) that will blow up into the ongoing disaster of season 5. It’s just as powerful, but like so many things on The Shield, we don’t see it in the moment, we have to wait for the story to play out; there’s never an episode or a scene where you can say “the whole story is right here.”