“Hey. We still got time.”
Drama, as we’ve seen in these episodes, isn’t about portrayal, but rather revelation. It’s about taking the characters to places where they reveal things that might even surprise themselves. When there are revelations, there’s always the risk that trust will be put in jeopardy, as other characters find out things that they didn’t know before; it’s why so many dramas set up their reversals in terms of changes in trust. These two episodes are nearly perfect in their dramatic form, and in pushing relationships to the point where they transform, possibly irrevocably.
“String Theory” begins this with the death of Carl and Scooby. (Go back through the season, they’ve been there from the first scene. Scooby is the one who shot the dog.) The scenes about them–their disappearance, the cops meeting on the dark street (this sequence, opening the episode, is beautiful, with long shots of the neighborhood and the city, and the sounds of wind and chimes), finding the bodies (the information comes through a hooker), meeting Carl’s wife–show how The Shield solves the problem of showing the impact of the asset forfeiture program but still keeps the focus on the police. We see the impact by seeing the blowback; Carl’s wife says “what you’re doing here in Farmington got him killed. You need to know that.” It’s not a subtle moment, and it shouldn’t be. It’s not a lesson for the audience; it’s a reversal that Rawling has to recognize.
Rawling (and by extension, the police) have gone much farther than simply losing the trust of the community. They’ve made what Machiavelli considers the greatest mistake a ruler can make, they’ve created hatred among their subjects “by being rapacious and aggressive with regard to [their] property” and are now susceptible to conspiracies among the people (The Prince, chapter 19). Rawling now has to face a world where everyone is a potential enemy, and by the end of “String Theory,” it’s breaking into a series of battles between citizens and police, with four squad cars shot at (including Aceveda’s and Danny’s), Farmington police trashing a store, and signs saying TWO DOWN WHO’S NEXT?
It’s something we’ve now seen in all four seasons, especially in the last two. The Shield really doesn’t endorse the Vic/Rawling styles of policing; like all great storytelling, it simply shows the consequences. The consequences are that yes, you can catch bad guys this way, but you also create chaos and destroy order. You can put away Antwon for 13 years by planting drugs on him, as Rawling’s former partner (and lover) did, but he’ll come back on a mission of vengeance. You can start seizing people’s houses, but then cops put in bids on cars and you have a community that hates you, with no one who will help but a homeless guy with his synapses misfiring. You might achieve the (very dramatically satisfying) goal of justice, but you’ll destroy the classical goal of a society, which is order.
Much of the revelations and consequences about these episodes center around the Shane/Antwon/Strike Team plot that’s been going all season, and blew up at the end of “Cut Throat.” When the Strike Team comes back at the beginning of “String Theory,” it’s to hear Shane’s confession, and their reactions are a great little anthology of their characters. Shane is in so much pain as he says these things–for the first time in the series, he’s truly humbled. Lem is instinctively enraged, Vic stressing his friendship and trust with Shane in a leader’s mode, arguing that he knows Shane better than anyone. Ronnie, ever pragmatic, wants to hear more before deciding.
“String Theory” is all setup, with two searches moving at different paces: the Strike Team has to retrieve Angie’s body and the Barn has to find Carl and Scooby, and then find their killer. The first search is quick and the second agonizingly slow, with each search making the other more intense. Each search runs into snags and mistakes–dump over a portable toilet and there’s no Angie underneath (that shot of literal shit literally flowing everywhere is so depressing); Roger, the witness to Carl and Scooby being taken, has lost most of his mind, and Dutch and Claudette have to work him carefully to dig out what he knows. (Some great acting from Joel Stoffer; there are scenes where Roger is clearly trying to say what he knows, and can’t find the way to do it. Also, some geek pedantry from me: although he’s supposed have been a particle physicist–hence “string theory”–most of his language suggests a background in geology.) Dutch and Claudette keep missing details, too, like the jeweler’s name and the initials on the back of the necklace. (It’s a really effective moment when the original owner of the necklace gets hauled in and we find that it was stolen, he reported it, and no one gave a shit until now. Once again, the Barn has lost the trust of Farmington, and with good reason.) And, crucially, Lem reveals to Rawling that Antwon will be flying in from Vegas; one of the things that makes The Shield so good in its storytelling is that when people make mistakes, they make mistakes in character. Lem can only lie if he’s had a chance to get ready for it.
With cops headed to the LA airport to get Antwon and bring him in for questioning, Vic diverts him to Burbank and picks him up, and offers to deal with him. When he brings Antwon in, Rawling says (again, with her smile) “I’ve got a couple of aces up my sleeve,” and it’s chilling, because why wouldn’t she? We realize, in that moment, that we’ve been tracking Vic and Shane keeping things from each other all this time, and keeping things from Rawling, so why wouldn’t she keep things from them? (The writers carefully planted this idea in “The Cure” that Rawling doesn’t tell everything.) At the end of “String Theory,” we head into the interrogation room with Rawling, Antwon, and Vic, three characters in a small room, all holding secrets, with a great closing moment of Rawling saying “Thanks for coming in, Antwon” and a closing shot of Vic shifting his gaze to Rawling. Shit just got real.
“Back in the Hole” was The Shield’s first extended episode, at about an hour of actual time instead of the usual basic-cable standard 47 minutes. (The producers would use this sparingly–there are only three more extended episodes, all at the end of seasons.) “String Theory” had a double search; this episode has a double interrogation, of Antwon and Kleavon, the suspected killer from San Antonio. (There’s also the continuing search for Angie’s body.) The interrogations often put three characters (or elements–when Shane is in the room with Antwon, Shane’s gun is the third element) in the room, which create a lot of opportunities for expressive editing. These are scenes where every look and cut counts, and it matters that you have such incredible faces (Close, Chiklis, Karnes, Pounder, Goggins, Anderson, and Campbell) to cut to. One thing that editor Hunter Via does here is cut to the third person in the room listening/witnessing, and we’re led to wonder “what’s he/she thinking or planning?” It’s another way that The Shield uses the elements of film craft to advance the story. (The skill here compares to the great three-character conversation towards the end of Seven, the one that takes place in the car.)
We’ve seen, all season, how far Rawling is willing to go; here we see she’ll go even farther, throwing down pictures of Antwon’s son getting fucked in a prison shower, taunting him with memories of being a child while his sister was raped, and threatening to transfer his son to Folsom (incredible reactive acting and tears from Anderson here, and it looks like he actually punches that wall, hard–there’s a mark there), and continually coming back to the line “who killed our cops?” A criticism of The Shield that’s not just shallow, but wrong, is that Vic is the cliché of the cop Who Will Do Anything to catch the bad guy, but one thing The Shield actually does is repeatedly confront Vic with characters who go farther than him. Antwon fires back with Rawling’s past, her affair with the cop who planted drugs on him, and hints about Shane and Angie.
With Vic stuck in the interrogation of Antwon, the rest of the Team (Army has now been deputized into them) continues the search for Angie, which runs into a comic and believable fuckup–Pitarrio gave up that she had been moved and buried in Griffith Park “by the horses,” but he didn’t mean the stables. Lem goes back and finds out he meant by the merry-go-round (“you know, the horses that go up and down!”) Some great touches in that scene: when Lem starts throwing punches, you know it’s gotten serious; the way Onahoua Rodriguez as his girlfriend raises her hands (you can see she’s done that before, a lot); and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot where she sees Lem take the heroin as collateral, per Vic’s instructions.
The team goes back, but they’re too late. Antwon passed the information through his lawyer to his people to reveal Angie’s burial (although it’s flat-out stupid that Antwon would think covering the camera would keep anyone from hearing that, I’ll give it a pass because as Vic recognizes, his people would have likely done this anyway) and the cops are already digging when they get back. (Painful and effective staging as one by one, the other Team members drive off and leave Shane alone.)
Shane has now been brought to a moment of recognition, the classical moment of self-revelation, where you discover that you have authored your own misfortune. He’s in the same place Vic was two seasons ago in “Scar Tissue.” Shane’s plan is simple–he’ll kill Antwon, since if he’s going away for murder, why not have it be him? The Shane/Antwon/gun scene in interrogation is even more tense than Rawling/Antwon/Vic, with Shane’s taunts getting more and more vicious (and the shots of the gun emphasizing what might happen). Goggins does things with his accent that are amazing; one thing that always happens is it gets more Southern whenever he’s in the presence of a black man, and he uses that.
“Back in the Hole” keeps the same idea as “Scar Tissue” but reverses the characters, with Vic bailing out Shane, and Vic does something absolutely unprecedented: “you don’t get out of this by getting dirtier.” They’re going to confess to Rawling, all of it, and use the tape of Antwon ordering the hit on Vic to bring down Antwon. It’s a revelation of Vic’s character on multiple levels: it’s partly based on the genuine trust he’s established with Rawling, and the way he wants to work with her, something he never did or could do with Aceveda; it’s also based on calculation, that Rawling wants Antwon badly enough that she’ll go for it; it’s his way of bringing the Strike Team back together (“so we survive it together or not at all”); and it’s Vic, once again, coming up with a scheme no one else could.
While all this has been going on, Aceveda brings Sara to a motel room. He’s drinking, he’s been traumatized by seeing Carl and Scooby stabbed to death, and he crashes down even farther with her, pulling his gun on her and playing the role of Juan–it’s a great bit of dialogue or acting that he yells “you ever suck a dick?” and then pauses before “like a cell bitch?” as if some part of his brain reminded him to complete the line. Calling back to the end of “Mum,” he drops the gun and throws up–remember he couldn’t make himself throw up after being raped.
I cannot praise enough the writing of Sara here, or Abby Brammell’s performance, which is a case study in how to craft a minor character with maximum impact. When she shows up, she’s both professional, and professionally warm, re-establishing the rule with Aceveda; after he attacks her, she’s scared but she also recognizes how much his anger and violence are rooted in pain. (It’s something she’d have a lot of experience with.) She is never a victim here and she clearly has her own code, so when she says to him “you’re a good person” and he lashes back with “a good person wouldn’t be here with you,” Aceveda’s the one I see as an utter asshole. (His GET OUT! is the most out-of-control moment in the whole scene.) So when Aceveda comes home to Aurora, there’s no sense that everything has been put right, any more than Julien’s no longer gay. There’s just a sense that whatever happens now, happens with Aceveda at home. By the way, I’ve noted that Aurora gets a lot of shit from fans and from Mr. Nowalk, but she is absolutely loyal. She simply has a limit in that she couldn’t offer Aceveda the sympathy he needed. I don’t have a problem with that because any marriage is about knowing your partner’s limits, and accepting them; and also because, as David Mamet sez, drama is about people bravely contending with themselves.
The other major event of this episode is the Claudette/Dutch/Kleavon interrogation, and it’s as great as the others. We see, piece by piece, Dutch and Claudette put together what happened, and put together how they’re going to break Kleavon; we see how each beat impacts him, or doesn’t (Ray Campbell does such subtle, effective things with his face; I will repeat ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER’s observation that even his role in Breaking Bad was beneath him.) There’s some great staging, too, with Dutch and Claudette often in the same posture (hands on desk, facing forward) as they go after him.
In the end, it’s Dutch who has to go up against him (Claudette catches the slightest change in Kleavon’s face) and it’s scary as Dutch details the experience of killing; he reveals that he’s been thinking about this way too much. Honestly, the way Dutch rapturously says “you used gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints, but also for a surer grip” is more disturbing than most of Hannibal, because it’s something happening in a real space. Dutch gets so lost in his imagining of killing (another great beat of staging–he’s not looking at Kleavon) that he starts bungling the details of his and Claudette’s story (and Claudette catches that immediately) and blows it. Campbell very smartly doesn’t play the moment as AHA! but as his brain finding a logical detail to focus on rather than remember strangling the woman. Kleavon goes home, but Dutch and Claudette have damaged his sister Fatima’s trust in him–“deep down, you know we’re right.” And they know that once the trust is damaged, the relationship can never be the same again. (Great work by JJ Boone at the end, and really all throughout–she’s trying so hard to hold on to that trust.)
We see the same thing with Rawling and the Strike Team. Vic’s plan works–confronted with the tape (and Rawling lying that she ordered it), Antwon confesses to ordering the hit on Vic and killing Angie and he’s going away. Even if he doesn’t give up the details on Carl and Scooby, claiming to Rawling he doesn’t know and taunting Vic by saying he does know. The Team is back together and doing great (“after what we pulled off today, a polygraph’s a piece of cake!”), with plans to go shake down Farmington for information, “Strike Team-style,” which means, of course, more antagonism and bad blood among the citizens.
There’s a cost, and they don’t know it yet: they’ve lost Rawling’s trust. The drama has pushed people to actions they’ve never taken before, and it’s also taken bonds of trust and broken them. It comes out in the action and the performances. Pauline Kael once called Alec Guinness (God rest ‘em both) “a peerless miniaturist–the eyelids drop a millimeter, and the meaning changes.” Glenn Close, here, does the same kind of acting. After Vic’s revelation, her face is just a little tighter, her voice three percent colder. It all sets up the crucial beat at the end–the IAD officer has found nothing, but she tells him to stay on Vic. “Are you sure?” “I wish I wasn’t.” Rawling began the season not knowing if she could trust Vic. Now she knows she can’t.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
This season is a master class in careful plotting and setting things up. (Kleavon, of course, will be back, as will his sister Fatima, and the line “now get in there and close him!”) Mamet noted the similarities between playwriting and running a long con; the common element in both cases is giving information without appearing to do so. What Team Shawn Ryan here has been doing is building to moments that are strong consequences from the characters’ choices, but don’t look like anything at first glance. Almost as a throwaway line, Vic tells Lem to make sure he gets some collateral; and the shot of his girlfriend seeing Lem take the heroin is almost literally a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. That heroin, of course, will be the leverage that Kavanagh uses against Lem at the beginning of next season.
The other thing that makes that happen is Rawling directing the IAD officer to “stay on Mackey.” A lot of people have complained that Vic always gets out of whatever jam he’s in, but to do so misses how tragedy operates. For Vic not to get away with things isn’t tragedy, but failure; what makes him a tragic figure is that he seals his fate by succeeding. That’s demonstrated so clearly here. Vic’s plan to turn things around by coming clean is, in part, his attempt to put his past behind him, and I believe it’s genuine. What makes it tragic is that’s the act that breaks Rawling’s trust in him, which leads to the IAD officer getting the brick of heroin, which sets everything else in motion. Because Vic will not admit he’s evil, because he tries to be good, he sets in motion the acts that will bring everyone down. (If Shane kills Antwon, he goes to jail, and Mara, Jackson, and Lem are all alive, Ronnie stays out of prison, and Vic is most likely still on the force.)
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