Events on The Shield move from action to consequence to consequent action fast, sometimes so fast they outrace our expectations, sometimes faster than the characters can cope. The plot of these two episodes moves so quickly and relentlessly that by the end of “Cut Throat,” we could be at the end of a season finale. At the opening of “Hurt,” the fully-in-command Antwon reveals that the Salvadorans have cut off his supply, and he’s not much interested in Shane and Army’s counteroffer of a source through Arizona, demanding $20,000 instead “plus one more thing”–and the scene is over. On another show, that “one more thing” could be withheld from us for an entire episode or two; Lost could withhold it for a whole season. Here, though, it’s only about 20 minutes later that Ronnie sees the tape and calls Vic and Lem in to watch: Antwon has demanded Vic’s death in exchange for Angie’s location, “a body for a body.”
And following that action, again, things escalate quickly and irrevocably. In the next episode, Antwon pulls Shane below street level and issues a threat: the hit takes place that day or he goes after Shane’s family. (Since The Shield is so much about surveillance, a recurring move has characters pulling each other out of lines of sight; Vic does the same thing with Assistant Chief Phillips in “Hurt,” going between parked cars.) Shane’s wife and son make him vulnerable on all fronts, but Shane warns him “you don’t want to make that threat,” because Shane has a lack of limits about his family. Shane tries to bring down Antwon via his right-hand man, Halpern, offering to install Halpern as the new leader of the One-Niners. It makes sense that Shane would try this, partly because he’s only seeing things in terms of power and what can be accomplished–as Shane says, this will keep the money flowing. (One more way in which Shane tries to be the pragmatic Vic.) For Halpern, though, he’s loyal, and that’s what matters; he’s absolutely not interested. (More on this idea shortly.)
Then, again, things go faster than we can expect. Shane’s plan also makes sense because it’s so desperate, and then Halpern makes it worse by revealing Shane’s orders to kill Vic (creating one of the funniest moments yet on this show: “Kill what partner?” “Don’t worry, Pablo, it ain’t you–not yet anyway.” Such a great warning, too, about what happens when loyalty isn’t your first virtue), then he decides to just leave, and Army ignores some basic gun safety when he threatens Halpern, and BLAM. Even though Shane improvises quickly and effectively, getting Halpern to give up the location of Angie’s body (buried under a portable toilet, and yikes, that is just depressing), now Antwon will know what he did, and come after him and Mara and Jackson.
The Shield simultaneously moves quickly from action to action, but it also respects plausibility enough to be patient. Because of this, Vic doesn’t immediately go after Shane when he hears about Antwon’s hit order. In fact, he seems paralyzed; Lem and Ronnie keep asking him what he’s going to do and Vic doesn’t have any kind of plan. (It’s why the closing A Man Alone montage in “Hurt” isn’t ridiculous, because we’re not seeing Vic Mackey, Prince of the City, but a guy who just doesn’t know what to do.) There’s also a patience to the entire series, which has worked through incidents and crises to build to the end of “Cut Throat,” where maybe the fundamental conflict of the whole series happens: an empty space at night, and Vic with a gun on Shane.
Shawn Ryan has called the main story of The Shield “Cain and Abel,” and if the story doesn’t really follow the Biblical concept of a favored son and his brother, Ryan has carefully noted in the past the brotherhood of Vic and Shane. “Sometimes brothers fight” is a line both of them have said, Lem has called the Strike Team “the only family I’ve got,” and of course the police force is often referred to as a brotherhood. The story of alliance and conflict between Vic and Shane began in the pilot, with Vic killing Terry and Shane as the only witness, and then continued in “The Spread,” where we saw Shane’s torment. It’s continued and escalated since then, as each alliance has led to a worse conflict (“Partners” and “All In” are strong markers for this story) and now we have a moment where the two of them could plausibly try and kill each other. (Shane has also been much less of a presence this season, and we know Vic is capable of gunning down another officer, so it’s scary believable that Vic could shoot Shane.) Shane insists that he would never hurt Vic, and in fact he’s pleading in this scene. (No one does desperation like Walton Goggins. He goes through so much in this scene with just his voice, pleading, negotiating, arguing, and even accepting, closing his eyes as if maybe he should just let Vic kill him.) Again, this scene could be a season finale–imagine Vic drawing his gun and just cutting to black there. But no, Vic lowers his gun, and we still have five episodes to go, and one of the greatest feelings a storyteller can give us: we don’t know where this is going.
The appropriately titled “Hurt” is the most despairing episode yet in terms of the city’s institutions; this is the episode where the broader focus of the fourth season really works. We start with horribly burned child (she had acid poured on her mouth and throat) and move through a series of foster parents, case workers, and finally other children who don’t seem to care very much, not because they’re monsters but because they just don’t think anything can be done. It’s one of the episodes where The Shield’s casting is so effective, because everyone here plays with the same flat affect. (Garrett Brown as Frank, the foster father, is the standout here if that word applies.) It’s also effective plotting, because we realize that everyone has a reason for not caring, and we can understand that while our sympathies get torn up by seeing Joi’s damaged face. One of the older foster kids is psychotic and a rapist; the caseworkers are overworked; even the foster parents who have seven kids (and are picking up the paychecks for them) and a locked room under the stairs aren’t so bad; one of the other girls, Bibi, says “I couldn’t take the chance–going someplace worse…at least he doesn’t touch you.”
That Bibi burned Joi says so much about The Shield’s tragic attitude of despair. One of the things that marks The Shield’s attitude as classic rather than liberal is that there’s no moral presumption of innocence. In this world, it’s assumed that everyone is capable of the worst thing, and innocence is something characters have to earn. It’s also classical in that there is no solution presented to the horrors children have to endure in this world; there’s no liberal belief here that suffering can be fixed; there’s no sense that Rawling or anyone else can put things right. Suffering is part of this world, and this episode makes us feel it always will be; the most you can do is hold the vigil by Joi’s bedside, as Rawling and Claudette do. People in this world have to operate within strict limits, and know that the most they can do isn’t much. (Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family gets across this idea so powerfully.) I’ve gone right by Danny’s informant in “Cut Throat,” but think of how Danny offers her the possibility of getting out from the Spook Street gang, and she says “single black mom, I just move to Beverly Hills?” (Think of what happened to Connie, too.)
A similar feeling of despair pervades the asset forfeiture program, which just keeps getting more mercenary. Your car’s not working? Hell, just put in an order with other cops for a new one, and let them seize it, and Laker tickets to the first one who brings it in. We’ve seen Vic do a lot of corrupt things before, but this one’s different. We’ve seen Vic steal things before, but now he doesn’t have to go outside the system to do it, now they system can do it for him. (This is very much what’s happened in asset forfeiture programs; check out Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness for some examples.) This further enrages Julien (it’s most effective when they do the bust and take the car, you can see how much he’s going through the motions) and leads him in “Hurt” to seize a white man’s car on the pretext that he has opened-but-corked bottle of wine in there–perfectly legal, under this system.
All of these stories and conflicts land on Rawling. Rawling is a truly Machiavellian leader, in that she is all about accomplishing a task rather than about her relationships with people.* We saw that in “The Cure,” and we see it now. If she can use you, great, and if not, she’s doesn’t get mad, she doesn’t get cold, but she will go to someone else. It gives her an honesty and a directness that no other character on the show has. She’s tells Julien that she can’t possibly understand what it’s like for him, and then starts work on a transfer. She throws the caseworker who botched the Joi case in jail, and warns his supervisor that she’ll do it again. And she moves Vic off heading the asset forfeiture program when a (doctored, but even the undoctored version would be bad enough) tape of the church bust lands in Aceveda’s hands. Vic is not just angry here–he’s hurt. He really thought he’d found an authority figure who was on his side and he played by her rules, dammit, so why is he being told to back off? (If you see Vic as a son seeking Mom’s favor, that scene really plays into it.) Nick Gomez (who directed two stone Shield classics, “Dragonchasers” and “Mum”) keeps the camera locked on Rawling while it swings all around Vic here; however in chaos Vic is right now, Rawling is literally unmovable. Rawling gets Vic’s pain, and even sympathizes, but she’s committed to accomplishing a task, and Vic now has to be less visible.
One of the things this season does very well is weave in background details that matter in later actions. We learned early in the season about Rawling’s background in Domestic Abuse; it pays off here with her concern for children. The Rawling Smile does not ever show up in the Joi case; she’s not trying to manipulate anyone here, just flat-out commanding. We also see some of her history with the foster care bureaucracy, and hear a little bit about her past. I’m unsure if that works. It’s too much like what any other show would do, giving Rawling a personal history with an abused friend. However, this season has shown how much the past matters in Farmington–think of how Shane tells Halpern “you didn’t come up with [Antwon]” to try and convince him to break with Antwon. Rawling’s little monologue by Joi’s bedside is an unusual moment for The Shield, but this is an unusual season.
In contrast to Rawling’s goal-oriented behavior, there’s Aceveda, who gets to be even more of an asshole in these episodes. Having failed to keep Vic locked up watching videos of the Garage Sting, he’s now using his position as City Council’s overseer of the asset forfeiture program to leverage Vic out, and now he has the video to help him. His scenes with Rawling are less about a partnership now and more him delivering orders to a subordinate–and if he can’t get Vic out of play, he’ll start going after the asset forfeiture program itself. (One of the many effective touches of the plot here: if Aceveda had succeeded at the beginning in keeping Vic off the streets, neither Vic nor Shane nor Shane’s family would be in any danger now.)
Aceveda’s sense of power is much more personal than Rawling’s. We saw last season how his method of running things was all about maintaining relationships, as opposed to the Get Things Done method of Claudette. This even extended to maintaining his relationship with Vic, something that played through seasons 2 and 3. Now that Aceveda is out of the Barn, he doesn’t have to maintain that relationship with Vic, and goes after him simply to assert his power. Unlike Rawling, there’s no purpose to what he’s doing other than to inflate his own sense of dominance.
Of course, that need to dominate is now really manifesting itself with Sara. It’s not just that things are turning more violent and ugly in the sex. The need really appears as Aceveda uses the abilities of his position to run a plate check on another client of Sara’s, and to confront Sara with that. It’s the most disturbing scene yet, because it’s a near-replay of his scene with Juan in “What Power Is. . .,” where Aceveda detailed all the ways he could use his power to destroy Juan. Here he does the exact same thing, except he does it to Sara (and there’s a hint he could go after her the same way); he even uses nearly the same line he uses on Juan–“you want to see the things I can do?” Aceveda is submitting more and more to his need to dominate.
In this midst of all of the ugliness and acceleration of these episodes, we get some relief in the cases and the characters. So good to see Dutch and Claudette working as a team again and enjoying it, and hey! Dutch gets to do some old-school observing and catches the Coffee Robber. The little scene in the interrogation room between all three of them is wonderful, because they all seem to be brightening each other’s day, even though, y’know, one of them is going to jail. There’s also an example of someone earning his goodness, as the guy who attacked an attendant for a cigarette turns himself in (“take your time,” Dutch says as he has a last cigarette), and an example of someone who doesn’t, as the guy who stole $300 from the cash register while the attendant was knocked out gets caught.
There’s also, in “Hurt,” a powerful moment of goodness, literally centered around a child. The Shield, no question, has its great, showstopping scenes, but that word is revealing–showstopping, scenes that stand out from the flow of the story and really only belong at the pivotal or climactic moments of a plot. Because the plots move so quickly, The Shield needs scenes and moments where the creative team has to do so much in a short period of time, and they come up with great stuff that moves so quickly, and with so little fanfare, that they can get overlooked. Check out Corrine and Dutch in the kitchen near the end of the episode: we can see, in the absolutely unguarded performance of Karnes (it’s because that he’s willing to embarrass himself with things like “Hungry Like the Wolf” that he’s so moving here), him reassuring Corrine, his vulnerablity over children, and how instinctively good he is with them (seriously, if you don’t fall in love with Dutch when he starts reading, I don’t want to know you); we see, when Corrine reaches out to him to comfort, that they’ve already gotten close and have slept together (fantastic acting from Cathy Cahlin Ryan. It’s all in the body language, her gesture is clearly that of someone who’s already touched him); we see, in the last shot, how happy she is. This scene advances the story, deepens our connections to the characters (and raises the emotional stakes for us), provides a moment of grace against all the violence of the preceding hour, and takes just over one minute.
It throws forward to another scene in “Cut Throat.” Corrine comes into the station (great staging: we can see that Vic can’t see how Corrine interacts with Dutch) and reveals that they can’t go forward with the lawsuit. Vic says “I’ll take care of it,” and oh dear, that can’t be good. Vic leaves a bag of money with Corrine. The scene is literally and dramatically dark, even portentous, and that’s what it should be. I’m not sure at the moment where that money’s from; since Vic cautions her not to spend any more than $5000 in one place, I’m guessing it’s the $65,000 from the Money Train robbery. Even if it’s not, even if it’s from the earlier retirement fund, Vic has now made Corrine an accessory to a series of felonies. When Corrine says “this feels like goodbye,” in some ways, it’s exactly that. This is what great storytelling does: the characters move forward, step by step, until they’ve gone over lines they couldn’t imagine crossing at the beginning.
*No one ever described the Machiavellian sense of power better than Jonathan Parry: “With a new attitude towards the individual, the Renaissance fostered a new attitude towards the State, also Italian in origin. A sensitive alertness, a studied, objective attention to the most effective and most elegant means of achieving desired ends, tended to supplant the older notion of the State as a network of fixed, traditional rights and duties, over which the monarch presided as a judge of disputes.” Rawling very much fits this newer attitude, with Aceveda, Halpern, Antwon, even Vic all to some extent following the older one.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
Rewatching this season, one of the most impressive things about the plotting has been how carefully details have been laid in that will pay off later–Rawling’s time in Domestic Abuse, the presence of the DEA, Jose Zuniga’s IAD agent. What I was not prepared for was to see three scenes in a row in “Cut Throat” that set up just about all of season 5. The tightness of the plotting on this show never lets up; we’re charging through so many events and then almost without noticing it, three things happen that will exactly pivot the whole series:
1) The IAD agent arrives, and will now be working with the remnants of the Strike Team. This comes directly from the pressure on Rawling from Aceveda, and in the longer term from Vic’s past, which makes him suspect; this will lead to finding the heroin in Lem’s car. That moment is so crucial, because it’s the first hard evidence against the Strike Team, and Kavanagh will reveal it in the first episode of season 5. It will also be the thing that causes Lem to accept a jail term, and we know where that goes.
2) Vic gives Corrine the $65,000 from the Money Train hit. Since Vic said “Smogjumper” to Dutch, he’s had his suspicions; next season, he’ll report them to Kavanaugh, and Kavanaugh will get Corrine to reveal that Vic gave her this $. That leads him to freeze the Strike Team’s assets, raising the pressure further.
3) Danny’s last guest role on Everybody Fucks Vic gets her pregnant, which gives season 5 a great ticking clock through the first ten episodes, and a moment of grace in the season finale. (Fun fact: Team Shawn Ryan knew how season 5 would end, and they coded that scene Lost-style, calling it Shane Delivers Danny’s Baby instead of Shane Blows Lem The Fuck Up.) It also pays off in seasons 6 and 7 as Corrine confronts her.
Shane says to Vic at the end of “Cut Throat” “that’s nothing that we haven’t done before”; two seasons later, at the end of “Chasing Ghosts,” he says “all I was doing was following your game, coach!” Going by the two-cycle structure of The Shield, we build to two Vic/Shane showdowns; the first ends with a drawn gun lowered, the second with no gun but a death threat. (Vic explicitly references the end of “Cut Throat” in “Chasing Ghosts.”) ZoeZ picked up on Ryan’s comment that Vic is Dr. Frankenstein (hmm, I never caught the significance that Mackey’s first name is Victor) and Shane is his creature, and Shane asks in both scenes what Frankenstein’s creature wants, what any estranged son wants from his father: recognize me. Recognize that you are mine, recognize that you created me.
Vic’s tragic flaw of self-righteousness guarantees that he won’t see that–even if, here, he reconciles with Shane, he can’t see that he’s headed down the same path that Shane is, only more slowly because Vic is smarter and less impulsive. Vic’s self-righteousness means he keeps running into people who are just like him, and thinking every time that he won’t suffer the same fate.