“I’ve learned there’s always a compromise.”
David moves into position in the City Council, Monica guns up the asset forfeiture program, Dutch tries to move him and Claudette into being detectives again, Shane continues to work his way closer to Antwon, and Vic tries to manage all of these changes; everyone in “Bang” and “Doghouse” tries to gain or regain control, and winds up meeting Control’s closest friend, Compromise.
Already, this is The Shield’s most expansive season, with more players, more issues, and more settings, and this season uses The Shield’s genre of cop drama to explore the theme of control. That’s uses the genre, not challenges or critiques or (God help us all) deconstructs the genre. The Shield plays by the rules of a cop drama, which stays mostly with the cops as they attempt to control a city. This is a larger agenda than just solving crimes; Hill Street Blues, with its ever-busy station and multiple plots and fronts, is the definitive source of this kind of show. Because it focuses on the cops, of course things like the rights of suspects are only obstacles to control, which is the goal of the protagonists. (“It’s like Sherman’s March through the hood,” Claudette says of the asset forfeiture program.) When Rawling says “our job is to distinguish between the criminals and the citizens,” she’s articulating her mission, and also the mission of the cop drama. She’s also going directly against the concept of rights, because rights apply to all citizens.
Control, not the inalienable rights of the citizenry, is the fundamental classical principle of government. Michel Foucault, as usual, nailed the difference between classical and modern governing when he said that the fear in modern government is that one would govern too much and the fear in classical governing is that one will govern too little. What makes The Shield so effective at portraying Farmington this season is that it shows how far that desire for control has gone, and what means the police are now using. It stays a cop drama, but now the cops’ methods have expanded.
Last week, zedhed noted how “Farmington cannot have a saviour” and how effectively The Shield portrays Farmington as a district gone completely to shit. (Not even hospitals are safe here; they can’t afford a metal detector.) The modern institutions of jobs and of rights have fallen apart in Farmington, to the point where Rawling’s question “do you even worry about yourself? About being killed?” gets the answer “when it’s time, it’s time” from Choppa; the idea of an inalienable right to life has no application if citizens do not expect to live. (Over on The Dissolve, Nathan Rabin discussed Menace II Society, a work on the same territory, emotional and geographical, as The Shield and noted how its characters knew they were going to die, and that made them ungovernable.) Unlike The Wire, The Shield doesn’t diagnose how the institutions fell apart or give the history to them; there is no interest in how Farmington got that way, or how it can be fixed. (Farmington is the setting of The Shield, but Baltimore is very much a character in The Wire.) There is only the dramatic question: who will most effectively control Farmington–Rawling or Antwon? Already, we know that both of them will use whatever means necessary to do so.
One of those means is compromise, a necessary element of both life in a district like Farmington and in a drama. No one in an inner city has control over everyone; no one has access to everyone, so if you want to do anything, at any level, you have to compromise. We can see this happening in the pursuit of the Stay-at-Home Rapist Oscar in “Doghouse,” with collaborations between Farmington and gangs, Vic and Antwon, even Vic and Dutch. (Cops and criminals in pursuit of an even worse criminal is a storyline that goes at least as far back as M, the first serial killer movie.) Sudhir Venkatesh, in his writings on the sociology of the inner city, has always noted this need for compromise; he has stated the Grand Theft Auto series, because of its need for players to compromise to get anything done, is a much “less sensational” work on the inner city that most media and many academic portrayals.
Compromise also comes from the definition of drama. It’s only an omnipotent protagonist who doesn’t need anyone’s help, and omnipotence is dramatically boring because we know what will happen; we just don’t know how. If the protagonist can solve problems without anyone’s help, it’s an adventure, not a drama; this is why adventures have so many heroes who have to go it alone, dammit! No one in The Shield, though, can get what they want without someone’s help (although there are characters who won’t compromise, more on this in a moment).
The compromises start at the beginning of “Bang,” with a meeting between Vic, Ronnie, and Lem having to deal with the problem of Shane. “Never goddamn ends!” Lem says, and he’s right; Shane is an even bigger threat to them because of what they’ve done, and because Shane has a family. He has something that can be threatened. (In fact, “Bang” shows us how far the police will go in threatening families.) So begins Vic’s two-episode journey to turn Shane back into an ally, if not exactly a friend.
He succeeds, but at the same time, Shane is getting closer to Antwon, and he’s doing it by becoming even more of a Vic. Shane’s learned the (literally) Machiavellian principle of being both loved and feared; you follow up beating Antwon’s right-hand man with an offer to Antwon of tips on what’s gonna get raided. He’s gotten to the point, in “Doghouse,” where he doesn’t need to threaten anymore. On Vic’s end, he’s learning to treat Shane more deferentially, and Shane treats Vic like he’s doing favors for Vic (Shane’s little “I’ll ask around” in response to Vic’s request tells you so much about how their roles have changed.)
The result of all of this compromising is that Shane gets back on the Barn’s anti-gang unit, but as Vic’s equal, not a subordinate, and he’s going to pass information on to Antwon, and Vic knows he’s going to do it. (That’s the “theory” in “Doghouse” that Vic wanted to test.) We’re now at a John le Carré-level of an ambiguity of multiple agendas–everyone is a kind of double agent, and everyone is wondering what does he know? How much is he pursuing his own agenda, and how much is he pursuing mine? Is the damage he does worth the good he does? (Monica already has to ask “are you gonna burn me, Vic?”) Vic’s last play in these episodes, then, is to find the thing Antwon won’t compromise: his son. (Well, one of them; Antwon has a lot of kids. Him smuggling his semen out of prison, twice, is one of those Shield touches that’s completely bonkers and also believable, and it’s matched by his declaring a park a drug-free zone so his kids can play safely. It’s the sort of thing a warlord would do.)
The backbones of both episodes are a series of compromises to catch (or at least take out of play) a murderer (in “Bang”) and a rapist (in “Doghouse”) and both run into the limits of compromise and control. Make a bunch of gangbangers part of the pursuit of the Stay-at-Home Rapist, and they go out of your control and go after a Chinese guy with his own flower truck; collaborate with Antwon to give up a suspect and he does–he gives them up to the Spook St. gang to kill him themselves, and you demonstrate that you don’t have the control, Antwon does. (“Antwon showed the street he’s got more juice than we do.”) Sometimes, too, you find that no compromise is possible, because no one wants it; Julien discovers this when he goes to a kid who ran away from being photographed. Nothing Julien offers will move this kid, because Julien’s a cop, and that’s the end of the story; The Shield, so often, shows us the moments when there just are no options, the limits of control.
Meanwhile, the DA offers Dutch a compromise: start doing us some favors and we’ll start letting you have some real cases. (Anna Maria Horsford is, as ever, great as the ADA. There’s no bullshitting this lady.) Dutch takes it and doesn’t tell Claudette, because “what if I promise to control her?” I can’t have been the only viewer who said “yeah right Dutch,” because Claudette is too good and instinctive a detective not to know what’s going on when they’re sent after a guy with three (3) marijuana plants in his backyard, because he’s gonna testify for the defense and the DA wants him unavailable. Even Dutch is pissed. They’re thrown a double murder case at the end, though, so just maybe this worked.
Also meanwhile, Aceveda’s back in the Barn. There’s some nice work here by Benito Martinez; he looks out of place but not less powerful, and it’s clear than Aceveda is maneuvering to get some control over the Barn through the City Council. (Martinez also gives Aceveda a specific tone of voice when he’s lying and wants you to know it.) He pitches to Rawling that she needs to explain the asset forfeiture program in public; Aceveda’s power has always come from working with people to achieve his goals rather than trying to control them. (This is as good a definition of “politician” as opposed to “cop” as you can ask for.) She agrees.
Many have noted the similarities between Vic and Aceveda, and for all the glib critics who see Vic Mackey as some kind of super-alpha-male, note how much of what he does is based on compromising and doing things for others; he’s far more of a compromiser than, say, Walter White. I’ve noted before that Chiklis is a chameleon as an actor, continually changing his attitude, expressions, and stance depending on who he’s with and what Vic wants from that person. It’s both a subtle and necessary performance; if Vic couldn’t compromise, he wouldn’t have lasted as long as he has.
There are really two characters here who won’t compromise. One is Rawling, and it’s always a great Shield experience when Vic meets someone who will go much farther than himself. For Vic, the asset forfeiture program is a means to an end, to get Choppa to give up the shooter; once that fails, there’s no point in going through with it. Rawling has committed to the program, though; it’s not leverage for her, it’s something she’s going to see through to the end, success or failure, and nothing, not a mother screaming at her or the threat of bad publicity, is going to make her back down. (“Either it works or it doesn’t. To make exceptions to put a prettier face on it sounds more like Aceveda than me.”) The word “reformer” almost always gets preceded with the word “liberal,” but Rawling is an authoritarian reformer. “Bang” is where Glenn Close steps up and delivers on the strength that the first two episodes promise; the scene at the beginning where she’s addressing the Barn and goes off her prepared notes sets up the entire arc. Her voice and face lock into place, she plays this conviction rising within her. (See also the scene where she chews out Dutch. She’s six inches shorter and completely dominates him.) She closes out “Bang” with two words (“take it”), a signature, and the Mackiest of moves, throwing on her sunglasses and walking away.
The most fascinating uncompromised character is Sara, though, the hooker Aceveda meets and (it looks like) pursues. Abby Brammell is one of The Shield’s great finds; her eyes are as wide-set as Ellen Barkin’s, and like Barkin’s, they give her this incredible toughness. Her face is angular and unique in a way that seems European; from the first shot (so simple and effective that Aceveda is talking politics but keeps looking at her), she’s marked as someone from a different world. In her apartment, he tries to take control, grabbing her, and she takes control, detailing exactly the monetary and physical rules of her relationship with Aceveda, and her voice isn’t hard, but there is no doubt that these are the rules. Just before this, there’s a fantastic moment with her on the couch, as the camera moves from an overhead shot to a level shot; it’s a Sergio Leone move in reverse, and it has the same effect of letting us know that Shit Just Got Real. (It’s also the exact perspective of someone going from standing over her to getting on his knees.) Martinez is equally great her, in David Mamet’s “invent nothing, deny nothing” school of acting; at the end of that scene it looks like at least four different emotions has piled up on his face. He doesn’t know where this is going, and neither do we.
Media and self-promotion play a role here too, whether it’s the videos in “Bang” (“I do weddings and confirmations too”) or RAGA (“righteous angel, glorious ass”) in “Doghouse.” What other way can you assert yourself here except by fully tagging a billboard or an interrogation room? What chance do you have of getting out of Farmington, other than to get yourself fucked on camera? It’s something that ties The Shield to its specific location and plays out all through the series. (For now, remember this line: “everyone comes to Los Angeles to get famous.”) Speaking of media, here’s your Billings moment of the week: showing up at the crime scene in “Bang” and dropping a one-liner (“See no evil, hear no evil”), Law and Order-style. (Detective Billings, I knew Lenny Briscoe. Lenny Briscoe was a friend of mine. You, sir, are no Lenny Briscoe.)
It all comes together, as it so often does, at the end of an episode. “Doghouse” closes in the Barn, with Vic surveying everyone, all the players, seen at a distance, some through dirty glass (again, The Shield is all about surveillance, all about people watching each other). Structurally, the team that blew apart at the end of last season is back together, and Vic is back running things; structurally, he’s back in control. But Chiklis’ face tells us the opposite: what being back in control really means is that you are now compromised on all fronts, you are now dealing with everyone who has different goals than you. It never goddamn ends.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
The plot keeps moving with the Vic/Ronnie/Lem meeting at the beginning of “Bang.” The team’s not coming back together out of friendship, but out of the need to watch Shane; the consequences of previous actions keep advancing people to the next actions. We can see two things here that play out later: in addition to the risk Shane poses to everyone, we see Lem’s continual discomfort with this life. He’s never been fully on board with the Strike Team’s corruption, and it keeps getting worse through the whole series. By furthering those two elements, this brief scene throws forward to the final, horrific moment with Lem and Shane next season.
Watching the expansiveness of this season sets up such a contrast with next season. Beginning, really, with the last minutes of season four, the story contracts–we move away from all the political issues, all the policy conflicts, and focus on our main characters, as it should in tragedy. It’s the universal nature of tragedy that removes it from politics. Tragedies might be about people in high places, but it’s really not about how they govern; that’s something external to the drama (remember that part of Hamlet where Shakespeare got into the history of the Denmark/Poland conflict? Nope, me neither, just that line tossed off about “did smite the sledded Polack upon the ice.” Doesn’t cost the play anything). For one season, not only did The Shield restore the Barn, it restored the show to another genre. The nature of tragedy, though, is that you can’t stop it, and The Shield has to go back to its story after this season.