Pray for Caleb, Nehemiah, and Savoy Jace; may they know peace, may they heal. Pray for the departed soul of April Jace; may she know rest. Amen.
“Do I know you?”
The fourth season of The Shield has been compared to The Wire, and not all of the reasons are clear yet. Already, though, we have the slowest start of any Shield season, with two episodes simply to move Monica Rawling (Glenn Close) into the Barn, and a sense of checking in on what everyone’s been doing for the last six months. (That’s also the biggest jump in narrative time between seasons so far.) Rather than diving right into a story, we’re taking a slow tour here and suggesting threads of stories that will come together later David Simon-style. The first episode, “The Cure,” also expands the universe of The Shield by bringing in more players outside the Barn and, fascinatingly, by giving a sense of the history of Farmington. Rawling has a history with Antwon Mitchell (Anthony Anderson) that Vic (and the rest of the Barn) doesn’t; in fact, both Rawling and Antwon have returned to Farmington after a long time away. (There’s also more bureaucratic maneuvering in these episodes than usual, another very Wire thing to do.)
Following on the collapse at the end of last season, everyone starts out diminished here. We get tipped off to this immediately: in “The Cure”’s teaser, we see Vic leading a bust that nets. . .two dozen stolen DVD players. It’s not the kind of takedown we associate with Vic. Near the end of the second episode, “Grave,” Ben Gilroy gets buried; the man who was Vic’s mentor, then his enemy, is now his worst warning. In between, we find the Strike Team has fallen apart with only Vic and Ronnie left, the Team’s clubhouse is now a post for monitoring the Garage Sting, which doesn’t seem to be going anywhere (another great visual tipoff: the clubhouse filled with videotapes–the Strike Team’s private space invaded and turned into storage); Lem looking supremely awkward in his few moments in the Barn; Dutch and Claudette still getting zero respect from the DA’s office after Claudette’s outing of an addict ADA led to “17 cases overturned, 40 on appeal”; and although Aceveda’s heading out of the Barn and onto the City Council, his marriage and selfhood are crumbling and he’s masturbating to surveillance videos of rape. (It’s great, though, that Aurora won’t even consider divorce. Camilla Sanes is one of the great supporting players here, and she gives Aurora an absolutely iron will with no sense of submission whatsoever.) Only Danny, Julien, and possibly Corrine seem to be doing OK, and we don’t spend much time with them.
Vic has applied for a transfer to a new citywide anti-gang unit, and he’s not going to get it–Aceveda destroyed his chances with a four-page letter (and Rawling already knows about it). This leads to a classic Shield scene, with Antwon in the Barn escalating the tension and then BAM Vic just explodes at Aceveda, and Aceveda rips him right back, in front of everyone. (Any time Benito Martinez folds his arms, you just know it’s gonna be good, and there’s also a great cut to Dutch with a facial expression of “let’s all watch this instead of working.”) What we learn here that the implicit (and sometimes explicit) bargain Vic makes with those with authority over him–let me do things my way and I’ll get results, you stupid chief–has fallen apart. The Garage Sting has produced nothing but minor busts (Louis, who set up the cameras in the cars, has been selling the information about which cars are bugged), so it’s not a matter of Vic being an abusive cop, it’s that he’s become an ineffective cop. “You are a joke. . .you really thought after everything, I wouldn’t get the last word?” Aceveda says, and Vic can do nothing but take it. It’s the exact opposite of the scene in the pilot of Vic humiliating Aceveda three seasons ago.
An aside: it’s hard to get a reading on what The Shield says about the ethics of police, for a lot of reasons I’ve gone into. One of those reasons, though, is the nature of storytelling, and the way, as Joan Didion sez, “fiction has certain irreducible ambiguities.” Stories, particularly dramas, present moral choices, and for the story to work, for us to really feel the characters’ conflict, they have to be choices between at least two strong alternatives. An easier choice will make for a clearer message (Walter White, for example, is unambiguously a villain) but a weaker drama.
The Shield’s inquiry into the ethics of policing doesn’t really happen with Vic, then, it’s with characters like Rawling and Claudette. By going against the DA’s office, Claudette has gotten cases overturned and investigated, so all the good she can do there is done. It’s now her refusal to apologize that’s blocking her and Dutch; what Rawling sees is that this has weakened Farmington’s ability to police by effectively taking her and Dutch out of play. (There’s a vanity to martyrdom; the martyr imagines that he or she is the only one who will suffer.) It’s not just her and not just Dutch who are suffering, but the district, and Rawling knows that when she tells Claudette “you’ve made your point. It might be time to move on.”
It’s Rawling’s dealing with Vic in these two episodes that most clearly shows The Shield’s moral calculus. This is not a show that has much use for civil rights, or discussions about same, but what we have seen in the last three seasons is the question Rawling faces in these episodes: can a rogue cop be controlled? The problem Vic poses isn’t that he’s ineffective, it’s that everything he does for you, and everything else he does on his own, brings untold shit down on your district and fucks up your ability to do anything else, whether it’s get funding, get the community on your side, or even (and no one knows this yet) have your residents keep their feet attached. Rawling spends these two episodes investigating and evaluating Vic (“what kind of future are we gonna have if you’re already lying to me?” she asks, and Vic actually comes clean) and finally gets stuck with him after it’s clear that Aceveda’s letter has made him unmovable from Farmington. (Aceveda tries to keep Vic running the Garage Sting, though.) We will now see how effectively she can manage him; the way Vic gets back some of his old-time swagger in “Grave” suggests that will be a challenge.
Antwon and Rawling have clearly been set up to be major players this season. Say this about Anthony Anderson: any work he’s done in the past co-starring with a kangaroo or, more demeaningly, Jamie Kennedy, gets well and truly erased in the first ten seconds of his appearance here. (It sets up his small but necessary role in The Departed, one year later.) Antwon commands authority every second he’s onscreen, and he’s not forgotten when he’s off of it. Anderson is an incredibly precise presence here, with his hair and beard perfectly etched and his body fat but solid, not at all flabby. He moves with the same cadences of his perfectly enunciated speech. (Respect!) Watching and hearing him, you can hear the genealogy of black activists that goes all the way back to Martin Luther King Jr. and before, and you can see why Lawrence Wright noted King’s “curiously impassive” face when he was preaching. (This genealogy includes heroes, hustlers, and a lot of men, like Malcolm X and James Bevel, who were both at the same time.) This kind of leader doesn’t lead by emotion, he leads by getting others to feel emotion. (Respect!) His voice is one more weapon in the arsenal, and he modulates it beautifully in his first confrontation with Vic, responding to Vic’s parody of his voice by shifting into a lawyer’s cadence and tone, describing the LAPD’s history with black suspects (it’s a history we’ve seen with Vic, too). And by the end of these episodes, it’s implied he’s running heroin and has killed or had killed a potential informant (Marcius Harris as Dead-Eye comes in with another great Shield one-off performance). He will clearly be a major challenge for Vic and Rawling this season.
It’s no spoiler to say, though, that this season stands or falls on Glenn Close’s performance. Her presence and style is something new on The Shield, and not just because female police chiefs are so rare. (Also not just because she has ice-blue eyes to rival Michael Chiklis’.) Close is an incredibly subtle actress, and she’s playing a subtle character; in both these episodes, particularly in “The Cure,” the most important thing Rawling is doing is not tipping her hand on anything. “The Cure” deftly handles the problem of exposition by having Rawling go from person to person getting information, but what makes it work, what makes it not an info dump, only becomes clear at the end: Rawling has been interrogating everyone, especially Vic, to see how to set up her asset-forfeiture program–I’m sure she asked Vic for a tour of Farmington so she could get him alone and interrogate him about the Strike Team, and see if he knows that his transfer has already been sunk.
Close communicates this so effectively mostly by using her face. Anderson uses his voice as a primary instrument; Close uses her smile, holding it long enough to let other characters see that she knows something, and she’s not going to give it to you. Unlike CCH Pounder, who lets us (and everyone else) know immediately how strong Claudette is, Close hangs back behind that smile and waits for others to react. Her history suggests a tough woman, but we haven’t seen at this point how strong Rawling is. At the same time, she always plays warmth; Close (and the writers here) would never go for the Ice Queen cliché of the woman in power. (I dated a second or third cousin of Close’s for a while and that combination of New England bearing and warmth is definitely a family trait.) Whenever a woman plays an authority figure, the word “maternal” is gonna come up; this is one of the few cases where it actually applies. Close is the Barn’s mom: she’ll take care of people (she fixed the men’s bathroom, which Aceveda couldn’t be bothered to do in three seasons), she’s warm and open to her cops (the gumball machine is one of those things “that only happens in real life and great fiction,”) and there are things she will not tell them, for their own good.
In “The Cure,” it’s a great touch on the part of Glen Mazzara (writer) and Scott Brazil (director) to update us on every character, but to hold off on the most important one until the last minutes: Shane. Vic finds him at Dead-Eye’s apartment, alone and stealing a Blackberry, which has Shane’s name in it. It’s always funny when Vic has to confront someone being more corrupt than him, and Shane just perfectly shrugs it off–“what are you, IAD now?” By the end of “Grave,” we’ve established that Shane is setting himself up as the new Vic, coercing blowjobs from prostitutes, corrupting Army (short for Armando, and a reference to his service in Iraq (how did you not reference that, Mr. Nowalk?); another great supporting performance from the always interesting Michael Peña), and demanding Respect! from Antwon. Shane’s been getting his first taste of power as a boss rather than as Vic’s number two, and he likes it, and he wants more. However, Shane clearly lacks one of Vic’s essential characteristics–Vic, for the most part, knew his own limits, and knew the limits of others. Shane not only doesn’t have that, he doesn’t even see how essential that is. Right now, Shane is in the mode of “I’m going to fuck you up simply because I can,” and confusing that ability with authority. Two episodes in, and he’s already drawing his gun. There’s no way this goes well.
That scene at the end of “The Cure” is another quick masterpiece from The Shield. On the level of plot, it brings multiple stories together, as Vic loses an in with Antwon, realizes how dangerous he is, and realizes how far his former best friend has gone from him. (What he doesn’t realize is how much of that is because of him–again, Vic will not admit he’s evil.) On the level of style, it’s haunting; the lighting is about two notches above darkness, so we get a sense of the characters almost floating in a void. Most, if not all, of The Shield’s best scenes are like this–one, two, or a few figures in a dark space, an empty space, or a nondescript space. What that does is remove the context from the characters and emphasizes the actions, nothing more; so often on this show, it comes down to what people do, no matter what their personality or surroundings. It’s what makes The Shield so universal.
Other goodies from these episodes: We see the return of the Shield three-shot, with a conversation between two people at the edges of the frame and a listener in the middle. It comes back once with Vic/Antwon, with Monica listening, and again with Aceveda/Olivia (the prostitute who got raped in “Grave”), with a stained-glass window in the middle. There’s also a neat moment with Vic interrogating a One-Niner at Antwon’s meeting; Vic fills up the foreground but the focus is on Rawling in the background. Close is small in the frame but completely dominates the scene. Brazil put a lot of blue objects and backgrounds in “The Cure,” appropriate for an episode centering around an OG Crip; damn, Dutch trying to convince Claudette that racially, he’s pretty cool is some Ricky Gervais-level comedy of embarrassment; and that bald guy going around getting credit for everything? That’s Steve Billings. He’ll be here for awhile. Enjoy his ownage.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
It’s of course the asset forfeiture program that makes this season most strongly resemble The Wire; that is, this is a season that will explore the institutions of a city and the war on drugs. It’s an unusual season of The Shield in many ways, and that aspect is the least of it. It’s also a season where everyone comes together (Dutch is already flirting with Corrine) rather than blows apart, and it will be the last time that ever happens on the show.* In addition to having six months of narrative time elapse between seasons three and four, six months elapse between four and five. This season is more isolated from the others, and it makes sense that Team Shawn Ryan could give it a different flavor.
As great as Anthony Anderson is in this season, he’s even more powerful in the rest of the series. It also allows us to see how gangs work inside prisons, and why getting incarcerated doesn’t make you any less of a player in the story. Anderson is such a physical actor, like Chiklis (hell, like everybody on this show), that forcing him to sit in a chair for his scenes makes him even more of a threat.
So slowly, in these episodes, we can see the long chain of consequence that is the plot move to the next links. The fallout from the Money Train robbery has destroyed the Strike Team, which leads Vic to want back on the streets (there’s a pleading note in Chiklis’ voice we’ve never heard before when he says “put me somewhere where I can make a dent”–and once again, Vic’s tragic flaw is that he thinks he’s a righteous man), and the price is giving Internal Affairs access to the Barn. Vic agrees, and brings his final fate one step closer. A scene or two later, at the funeral, Kurt Sutter gives Katey Segal a brutal eulogy for Gilroy: “I hope he was scared, and alone, and in a lot of pain. . .he had a dick he couldn’t keep in his pants, he threw away 20 years on the job, and he shit all over his family.” That last part sound familiar? Vic once said to Gilroy “I’m not like you,” and Gilroy responded “not yet.” Vic’s fate keeps closing in, because he keeps bringing it closer, and because he can’t see that’s exactly what he’s doing.
*SPOILERS FOR BREAKING BAD
You can get a great sense of the difference between The Shield and Breaking Bad and the approaches to storytelling by looking at Breaking Bad’s fifth midseason finale, “Gliding over All.” In two scenes–the “Crystal Blue Persuasion” montage and Walter ‘n’ Skyler at the storage unit–Team Vince Gilligan do what Team Ryan spend the entire fourth season doing here. After so much damage, they bring everyone together and create a sense of hope and optimism for the future, just before the final reversal comes crashing down. I mean this as complete praise for both shows and their vastly different methods of storytelling: Breaking Bad is cinematic, allusive, finding its meaning in images, colors, music choices, edits; The Shield is dramatic and straightforward, relying only on its incidents and its actors, and going through the entire series of incidents to get to the end. This is nothing but praise for both shows, because they’re doing the same thing in different ways, and on both shows, everyone knows exactly what they’re doing.