“Do you even have a clue how we’re getting out of this?”
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of The Shield is its quality of mercilessness, in its characters, in its storytelling, even in its style. This is not a show where conflicts get shoved aside or sublimated into something else; this isn’t a show where a protagonist gets to pause, reflect, and say “and those consequences. . .they’re coming.” That’s a great line, and a great moment (if you don’t recognize it, I won’t spoil it), but on The Shield, the consequences are never coming, they are already here, and characters aren’t anticipating those consequences, they’ve already happened and everyone’s trying to catch up.
The mercilessness hits in the first seconds of “Tar Baby,” with the sounds of a woman screaming and pleading through a rape. (The use of the credits cutting between the action has never been more effective; it gives a reason to break the action into glimpses while the sound keeps going.) It’s only gradually revealed that this is Aceveda and Sara, and it’s a performance on both parts, as Sara coolly and professionally gets him to back off. (“I told you, no bruises.”) Somehow, when the sex starts up again, her cries are no less scary. There’s an equally cool and professional moment from her as she appraises his “gift” and insists on a receipt next time, and another one from him as he leaves, rejecting the moment of sympathy she offers him. There’s no implication from Sara that this is a romantic relationship, just a sense of kindness, and Aceveda rejects that too.
The asset forfeiture program continues in these episodes, and Rawling shows no mercy in applying it. The Shield’s characters aren’t supersmart or supercompetent in the mode of action heroes; they’re limited in their actions, but within those limits, they’ll pursue their ends all the way. When she explains the program to the community in the church, or to reporters, she might throw in a joke but there’s no attempt to hide what she’s doing. (It now extends to arresting gang members if they hang out with each other, another tactic used by the non-fictional LAPD.) If she has to go into a church looking for drugs or suspects, she’ll do it, and hope it turns out well. Rawling also shows no mercy in protecting her detectives; when she finally has the showdown with the ADA over Claudette and Dutch, Rawling’s completely willing to start tanking cases if they’re not taken off the bench. (Neat little reaction from Anna Maria Horsford as she realizes that’s exactly what will happen.) Close works that smile of hers overtime in these episodes; she always lets you know that she’s using you, and she always does it in the most friendly way possible.
When Rawling opens up to the community about the asset forfeiture program in a church at the beginning of “Tar Baby” (a church will play a role in “Insurgents” too), we see Aceveda’s plan revealed. He got her to call this meeting so he could publicly denounce the program, and in front of the community. (Sorry, Captain, but you just got Aceveda’d. BOOM!) Great, tricky Shield staging in the church with Aceveda, Antwon, Rawling, and Julien at the four corners of a squashed diamond; it creates a lot of opportunities for pans between the characters, with the camera following the attention of the crowd. Aceveda’s goodbye line to Rawling is pretty merciless too: “Learn to do what I say and we’ll be just fine” (there’s another character who could say that, soon enough).
“Tar Baby” centers around a takedown of a drug operation. It’s set up with some excellent camerawork, following the surveillance of Vic and Lem as they identify who’s who; this sets up, among other things, the great moment when Vic appears behind one of the lookouts. The raid itself feels slower and more professional than a lot of scenes like this, with everyone knowing what to do and executing it. Rawling continues her professional and merciless work, as she declares an emergency to evacuate the block in the search for Freebo, and a father gets into a fistfight with Julien as a result. It’s another day of occupation, of the LAPD getting into the homes and into the faces of civilians, and it nets “the largest cache of black tar heroin in Farmington history.” Rawling knows all this, and accepts it. Julien doesn’t, and that sends him to collaborate with Aceveda. (Aceveda reminds him of what happened last time; Julien might be married, but his homosexuality doesn’t stop having consequences.)
Maybe there’s some mercy in the arc of Dutch and Claudette here. Claudette finds out about Dutch’s deal, because of course she was going to; there’s no universe in which she doesn’t eventually realize what’s going on. Their story here takes them through a fight (“it was my fight” “AND YOU LOST!”), silence, and maybe it’s reconciliation we see in “Insurgents,” with the camera cutting between them isolated in the listening post, surrounded by a lot of negative space, especially Claudette. Shawn Ryan has called Dutch and Claudette “a non-sexual love story,” and that’s exactly what we’re seeing here: two lovers who’ve betrayed each other, who acknowledge that, and realize that they still do love each other. CCH Pounder loads so much exhaustion into the line “I can’t believe you sold me out” that we realize how much it cost Claudette to freeze out Dutch.
An aside: there’s a procedural aspect to The Shield, but it’s not a procedural like Law and Order or its many spinoffs and predecessors. What makes it different is that the actual details of the crimes take very little of our time or attention; crimes usually get dealt with quickly here and are part of the working life of the Barn. The focus is always on the emotions and behavior of the characters here, within and without the Barn. In “Tar Baby,” Lily Knight gets a great beat as she confesses and realizes that she’ll have to say goodbye to her father (“just. . .be gentle”; much negative space around her too) Crimes aren’t puzzles here to be solved, but stories of what people do. It’s part of the broad moral universe of The Shield that people do horrific things for a variety of reasons.
Lem is also a place of mercy in the world of The Shield. Four seasons in, the value of Lem in the story becomes even greater. He’s the guy who never should have been on the Strike Team in the first place, a decent, empathetic man who became a cop out of a need to care rather than to dominate. It makes sense that this guy would work with kids; he’s protective as he introduces Angie, who will lead them to her mom, which leads them to the location of the drug operation. (Excellent, quick work from Bree’ana Banks as Angie and Fylicia King as her mom.) Kenneth Johnson plays Lem as someone instinctive rather than calculating (this is an especially strong contrast to Vic), someone whose first thought is to protect people, and that has always brought him into conflict with the other members of the Strike Team.
All of this is setup for the terrifying final moments of “Tar Baby,” where the season turns. The drug operation was Antwon’s, and Shane couldn’t warn him in time. All through these first episodes, Antwon has been all menace, all threat; whatever he’s done has been offscreen. (He wasn’t announced as a villain the same way Armadillo was in the first seconds of season two.) Shane has been acting like a boss this whole time with him, always demanding, always cocky. Now, finally, as Vic would say, Antwon doesn’t step aside, he steps up, and shoots Angie dead. (Two bullets from Shane’s gun, two from Army’s.) Leaning over Shane (and we see him from Shane’s perspective), the line is so good and so brutal, because there’s so much conviction and even delight in Anderson’s delivery: “one time, doing time, for a long, long time.” (It has the same cadence as his opening speech on Respect! but slower.) The problem with your mercilessness is that you have limits, and one day you’ll run into someone who doesn’t have your limits. And now what do you do?
If you’re Shane, now you don’t know what to do. Part of what makes Walton Goggins a great actor is his ability to play not just extremes of emotion, but all the shades in between. All through “Insurgents,” Antwon shows no mercy; Shane’s a “bitch with a badge doing my bidding.” Shane’s desperate, and trying so damn hard to conceal it, Everything he’s saying is just slightly heightened, trying to convince Army (and himself) that there will be a way to fix things. Of course, now, it’s not just Antwon he has to deal with, but an enraged Lem who comes after him after Angie’s disappearance, and (although Shane doesn’t know it yet), Vic and Ronnie, who’ve bugged his car.
The density of The Shield’s plotting, as ever, creates great scenes, because there are moments when all the plots pile on top of each other. Outside the church in “Insurgents,” Vic and Ronnie are trying to grab one of Antwon’s men, Burdice, and Shane and Army can’t let that happen because of Angie. So Army runs their car into Burdice’s and tells him to shut up, outside of Vic and Ronnie’s sight but within Shane’s. (We’re seeing here that Army knows the stakes too and is going proactive.) All this in sight of the reverend, who tells Rawling “stay out of my church!” The scene takes 30 seconds and collides three plots and seven characters.
The Garage Sting’s surveillance cameras open and close these episodes, appropriate and effective for a series that’s all about people watching people. The opening is, let’s be clear, classic Shield–what we all (justly) remember is hungry like the WOOOOOOLLLLLLLF, but Dutch’s awkwardness is even more painful, and the blow-off line “I have to be in Kansas City” has got to be one of the worst humiliations ever. The moment gets followed with Vic telling Dutch to be “hungry. Like a wolf”–blink and you’ll miss the precise staging of Shane and Ronnie watching. It gets further followed in “Insurgents,” with Vic yelling at Dutch that he took Vic’s daughter to the hospital “just to make me look like a prick in front of my ex!” and Dutch quite calmly saying “I’m sure your ex doesn’t need any help from me in seeing what a prick you are.” (That he has a date with Corrine had to help him there.) Love Vic’s reaction–what happened to the guy whose best line used to be “pussy said yes plenty”? (And another moment when plots collide, as Rawling calls him away before he can do anything about it.)
The closing of “Insurgents” shows us just how crazy things have gotten; a season that started with the pace of The Wire has now gone full Shield. Surveilling Shane’s car reveals to Vic and Ronnie just how far Shane has gone with Antwon. Lem has to come back, but under Vic’s terms–he’ll have to conceal what he knows about Shane. Shane isn’t running things anymore, he isn’t even pretending to, he’s just trying to find Angie’s body and scramble out from under Antwon’s control. The remnants of the Strike Team are now set up against Shane; there’s no attempt anymore to bring him back. The conflicts are all drawn clearly for us, and we know how little these players will back down. It’s on.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
New viewers don’t know it yet, but they’ve met the greatest serial killer in all of fiction: Kleavon. Most contemporary serial killers are descendants of the 19th-century tradition of the criminal mastermind: killers who create elaborate, complex schemes and carry them through, and who exist largely so that the main character of the detective has a worthy scheme to figure out. More recently (Thomas Harris is the best current example), serial killers have been loaded with complex psychologies. Their schemes are just as complex but now they have backstories for what they do, and what they do has some kind of meaning; the detective now has to figure out not just the means of the scheme but the purpose too. (It’s to Bryan Fuller’s great credit in Hannibal that he takes this idea and runs with it as far as he can possibly go, turning the entire show, including the surface of sounds and images, into a dense psychological fantasy.)
Kleavon has none of that. He has exactly two defining attributes: he kills women who remind him of his mother, and he’s smart enough to not get caught. That’s it. That’s the benefit of The Shield’s focus on drama: it throws away anything that doesn’t advance the plot, and then lets the actors take the character from there. It’s not a paradox that because we know less, the character becomes more realistic; drama isn’t meant to show us a complete person, it’s meant to show us a person at the moment of drama. (One more time, from Aristotle: the subject of drama is action, not character.) Kleavon isn’t there to demonstrate some psychological theory or to give Claudette and Dutch a puzzle to solve; he’s one more person in the story. Because of that, like all The Shield’s characters, he comes off as a real person.
From his first scene, Ray Campbell is phenomenal; he’s the smartest person we’ve ever seen in the interrogation room, and he lets us know that Kleavon is going to be next to impossible to break. That scene felt a lot like John Carroll Lynch as Arthur Leigh Allen in Zodiac, and I wonder if Campbell used the same idea as Lynch did: play the scene like you’re innocent. (Of course, Kleavon is innocent of this particular crime.) He feels as professional here as Rawling or Claudette; you can’t get any purchase on this guy, so we know in later seasons what it will take to bring him down; his actual breakdown in season 5 feels like the human equivalent of an iceberg calving off a glacier, a small crack in his character widening slowly, then quickly, and then falling apart.
I’ve written how The Shield is three-act (seasons 1-2/3,4,5/6-7) tragedy, but another way to read it is as two cycles: seasons 1-4/5-7, with both cycles driving to a conflict between the two main characters, Vic and Shane. You can read these cycles as a structure of incidents that push these two men to a point where only one can win (where, maybe, only one can survive), and that moment is almost here. In the first cycle, they are able to reconcile and that reconciliation sets up the second cycle, which ends with complete disaster. There’s also a nice touch that the two cycles are marked by two generations of cops: seasons 1-4 have Danny training Julien, and seasons 5-7 have Julien training Tina.
Lem, more and more, appears as the pivotal character of The Shield. I mean that almost literally, in that he’s the character who people revolve around and try to get him to turn their way. He’s less of an agent than Shane or Vic, because he’s not trying to scheme, just trying to do good, and he keeps getting caught up in other people’s schemes. Last season and this season have been laying more and more groundwork for the end of season 5, in that we keep seeing Lem and Shane brought into conflict, and Vic trying to resolve it. It’s all heading toward that moment when Lem and Shane will be at a point where there’s no reconciliation or resolution possible, and Vic won’t be there.