The wheels just keep on turning. . .
In its use of music, in its acting, dialogue, its colors, its camera moves, and its relation to the history of the preceding four seasons, the final minutes of “Extraction” demonstrate how great television can be. Coldplay’s song “Till Kingdom Come” begins as source music in Lem’s apartment, with Lem small at the back of the frame-in-the-frame. (But damn, can Kenneth Johnson wear a towel. Yowza.) There’s just a slight move in on John Kavanaugh (with his spookily warm smile) as he’s taken in; watch also for a glimpse of Lem’s visitor’s pass to Chino (quickly conveying that he went there to get the kill clock stopped) next to his gun. We cut from the interior of Lem’s home to the Strike Team on the streets of Farmington and the song shifts from source to soundtrack music as we go into a montage.
It’s another end of the day here, but a full contrast to the busy, gossiping community gathered together and happy at the end of “Ain’t That a Shame.” Everyone’s been split into ones and twos except for the Strike Team, and nobody says much of anything: Julien and Tina, then Dutch and Tina (classic Dutch that he does a triple take looking at her, and we can see that Tina’s attractiveness places her in a different world), then Dutch and Everyday (Karnes’ face says Dutch may have doubts, but as he said, “it’s been a long, shitty day”); Claudette at home, with a bathroom counter full of medicine (this being The Shield, I think that’s going somewhere); Corrine in her kitchen with the gum; Aceveda in his office, with the Terry Crowley case file, the original sin of the Team laid out on his desk; Danny with the betting pool on the baby’s father. (“Happy Turkey Baster” is in the lead.) When the Strike Team gets Darius, the guy who hit Ronnie with the crucifix at the beginning, it’s in an underground parking lot (another largely empty, entirely urban space). Ronnie’s punches are so methodical, deliberate, and brutal, the lighting is pitiless fluorescent green (playing off Darius’ peroxide hair and crimson blood) and it concludes with a double grace note (Shane taking the Walkman, Vic throwing down the Strike Team card). When Vic walks out, half-lit in urban orange light, he’s a king reclaiming his domain, and the camera gives him the kind of pan that Leone would as the music closes out.
Coldplay’s music is always earnest, sometimes insufferable, but never effectively ironic. Here, though, in the basics of montage and editing, it gets so brutally ironized, because Chris Martin’s warm, direct tones (his voice is better suited for this kind of direct address than loud emoting) and lyrics of a patient love get turned into something so different by what we see. As the song ends, it’s not love, but the consequences that will wait, will wait for you. And they’re here, literally in front of Lem.
In a rare moment, we begin the scene in a completely black frame with only a voice–”[a]bout six months ago” is the dark version of “once upon a time.” As fits all great Shield scenes, we get our view partially obscured, as if we were there, the camera in motion, a restless consciousness in the room. Lem finds out what we found out last season: IAD took the heroin and swapped it out–“you know how that will play out. Felony theft under color of authority, intent, to distribute.” Forest Whitaker’s cadences and gestures break the lines into poetry and he conducts them with his hands:
“We want the guy, that put him into motion [right hand goes into motion] The one who is really, dangerous [hand beats in rhythm with the words].”
Johnson is completely on Whitaker’s level of acting here–watch his face when Kavanaugh lets him know IAD took the heroin, you can see him slam his sphincter closed. The scene and the episode close out on more poetry, Kavanaugh’s hanging question “who do you think I want, Curtis? Come on, man, c’mon. Who do you think, I want?” In just a few minutes, the entire seven-season story of The Shield has changed. For everything that’s happened in this episode, the stakes have been raised in a way they’ve never been before and the entire story has gone dark, and there are ten episodes still to go.
This is simply Forest Whitaker’s most eccentric, most effective, and best performance. Some commenter, in a different article, criticized Whitaker’s “simultaneous over- and under-acting,” which is exactly true, and exactly right for Kavanaugh. He’s elusive, mercurial in his affects, shifting from friendly to warm to absolutely giddy (watch him come to Aceveda’s house in “The Enemy of Good,” it’s like he’s a tween who wants to thank Aceveda for introducing him to this totes cool band) to cold and vicious, and shifting between all these things instantly and unpredictably. (I’m pretty sure Kavanaugh’s LAPD records show he attended Vincent Hanna’s professional development seminar Intimidation Through Confusion: Handling Your Suspects and Informants.) To pick just one example, it’s so scary when he drops the friendly attitude towards Lem and stands right next to him and threatens him; he gets right into Lem’s private space, stands perfectly still, and his voice goes completely level and evenly paced, and the camera gets just as close.
Michael Chiklis, who directed him in a later episode, said that Whitaker doesn’t move like anyone else, doesn’t read lines like anyone else, with odd pauses and emphases; as a director he had no choice but to give himself to “the Forest of it all.” Kavanaugh keeps everyone around him off-balance, like a poker player who knows his own tells and starts doing them randomly. He’s so unlike the absolute uncompromising force of Antwon Mitchell. Mitchell’s body is hard, Kavanaugh’s is soft; Whitaker’s skin glows in golds (something cinematographers have been using since The Crying Game); Mitchell’s voice comes out in perfect cadences and Kavanaugh’s voice changes all the time, sometimes swallowing his consonants. There’s a neat touch from the sound crew: Whitaker is a little overmiked, so his gum-chewing and mouth sounds come through–we’re put in Lem’s position, way too close to this guy.
There’s something almost feminine about Whitaker here–in Machiavellian terms, he’s fortuna, the unpredictable feminine force that’s opposed by masculine virtù. (I have another, better feminine comparison, but it’s in the spoiler section.) Nothing Whitaker has done before or since matches this; second place goes to The Last King of Scotland. It’s often said that “no one could perform this role except this actor,” and this is true here, but the reverse is true as well. Only Idi Amin’s Uganda and the fifth season of The Shield are places intense enough, with stakes high enough (trust me) for what Whitaker can do.
Kavanaugh brings Aceveda back into the game, and it’s fascinating. Again, shifting his angle of attack, Kavanaugh first appeals to Aceveda’s sense of justice (good fucking luck with that one) and then to his mayoral ambitions, which of course lands. (“I would vote for that man”–Benito Martinez always gives a little smile/grimace when someone does that. It’s like Edward Norton’s voiceover in Fight Club: “[t]he girl had done her homework.”) Martinez agrees to go after Mackey not out of some grudge against him–I believe he’s willing to let all that go–but out of the political calculation that he’d rather help bring down a dirty cop than get publicly outed as the captain who protected a dirty cop.
The Kavanaugh/Aceveda/Lem scenes inspire Martinez and the writers to new variations on the character. Aceveda’s “eye for human weakness” (James Ellroy’s phrase) is as good as Vic’s or Kavanaugh’s; he knows that Lem has a conscience, and that makes him the weak link, and he knows just how to play him. In “The Enemy of Good,” I’m about 90% sure Aceveda and Kavanaugh figured out ahead of time that Lem didn’t know Vic killed Terry, and did a little one-act play for Lem’s benefit. (My 10% not-sure-ness comes from not knowing if Martinez/Whitaker or Aceveda/Kavanaugh are the great actors in that scene.) Aceveda also displays the great interrogating skillz he had as far back as “Our Gang” when he makes the Good Cop play, a final assist to put Lem across: “you know, Lem, if Vic is innocent, you’d be helping him.” (I simultaneously wanted to cheer and hit Aceveda with something heavy right then; as K. Thrace noted, there’s no show that crosses up our sympathies like The Shield.)
Last season ended with the Barn coming together, but its power to control Farmington greatly diminished, and these episodes continue that trend. A citywide ballot measure failed, funds are getting cut, and that has impacts everywhere. Also, Steve Billings is now the captain, and he’s in full please-don’t-bother-me-with-any-details-of-what’s-going-on mode. (“Anything you can do to quiet this shitstorm, get it off my plate, has my blessing” is his motto.) Like Rawling, he gives speeches from notecards; unlike Rawling, he keeps going on with them; unlike Rawling, no one comes in to save him (the shots of everybody listening to him are hilarious); unlike Rawling. . .you get the idea. Really, Billings’ indifference also serves to bring the Barn together. There’s a neat little moment in “Extraction” of Claudette and Dutch conversing about a case with Vic and Shane, and everyone is completely friendly with each other in a way we’ve never seen, and in agreement on Billings. (“Why confuse him?” says Shane as they decide not to reveal their progress.)
“Extraction” is full of imagery and events that tell us of the Barn’s lack of control; we start, as we so often do, right in the middle of chaotic action (the riot in the funeral parlor, with the still shots of credits and corpses breaking up the fight). Then we go right into another scene of chaos, as the high school cafeteria doors blow open and there are students fighting, gunshots, and we just-another-day into the title as students go streaming by Julien and Tina. Coming back to the show, we go into The Shield’s biggest action scene yet, a street riot that calls on images from the LA riots of 1992 (cars on fire, people breaking into a car to get at the passengers) and 1964’s Freedom Summer (Vic turning a firehose on the students). That last detail isn’t just symbolism, it’s storytelling; The Shield never uses that kind of imagery only to make a point. It’s also exactly what Vic would do then, and it’s something that a teacher calls him out on.
The stories of the Strike Team in both episodes show them doing the best they can with what they have. In “Extraction,” a hit-and-run earlier in the week has blown into nearly a full-scale Mexican-on-black war, and all they can do is keep it from spreading. In “Enemy of Good,” the thoroughly indifferent Doomsday is shaking down store owners in the absence of Vic Mackey running things (to the point where he’ll kill the owners’ children), and he can’t be intimidated or arrested, so the Team settles for dumping him over the border and having a Mexican cop bust him on a gun-possession charge. (Lobo Sebastian is suitably terrifying as Doomsday, especially when he’s just sitting there eating, but my favorite guest performance in these episodes is David Wendell Boykins as the barber in “Extraction”; his attitude is “dammit, that’s the third customer here this week that got killed! And the second time I had to stab a kid!”) Alone in the night (another Shield scene of figures in an empty space), Shane says “I know you hate passing the buck.” Vic responds with “what are you gonna do?” knowing that you can’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
Another moment in “Extraction” that shows the Team’s weakened position: Vic gets pushed into early retirement, a cop “carrying a risky jacket” getting shown the door. When Phillips gives him the papers, the camera starts closing in on them both in the style of an interrogation, and there’s a moment in there when the camera breaks the 180° rule, disorienting us a little. It is a disorienting moment, because of all the possible fates for Vic Mackey still in play, retirement just isn’t on the list. When he tears up the papers, it’s completely in character, because Vic is just too badass and too convinced of his own effectiveness to walk away; that look at the end of the Coldplay montage says “retire this, motherfuckers.”
We also have a new officer in the Barn, Tina, currently training under Julien and in these episodes, fucking up at least once in every case she’s on. As played by Paula Garces, Tina comes across as a much greener rookie than Julien ever was; his problem was always self-destructiveness rather than incompetence. (Garces is also unignorably beautiful in a way we’re not used to here. Someone once described Camilla Sanes, who plays Aurora Aceveda, as “believably attractive,” and Garces drops the believable part.) She also comes across as someone whose first response in any situation is to manipulate the people in it, flirting with men and bonding with women. (This doesn’t make her stupid–Tina makes mistakes but she never comes across as confused.) I’ve known too many men and women who do this, including myself, to get all judgemental about it; she’s one hell of a lot less manipulative than Aceveda, for example. It’s clear that her manipulation isn’t going to work on Julien; it’s less clear that it’s not working on Danny. When Danny gets Julien to hold off on his negative report on Tina, Catherine Dent is strong enough as an actress (and Danny is strong enough as a character) that it feels like Danny would have done it whether or not Tina said anything to her.
None of this is subtle, unless it’s Chiklis’ extraordinary acting at the end of “Enemy of Good” (Vic’s eyes drop just a little, his mouth twitches just a little, and Lem knows and as Lem runs off, Vic yells “everything’s fine!” with the desperation of a lover who just said the exact wrong thing). None of this should be subtle. The Shield has never been about sublimation or subtext, it’s been about conflicts that are unavoidable and out in the open; the progression of incidents has always been about making the audience aware of these conflicts, Now the act that initiated everything, killing Terry, has come back, not to haunt but to pursue our characters. It’s not guilt, not judgement that’s pursuing our characters, but consequence, and it’s here, sooner than anyone thought it would be. It took 15 episodes in season 3 to get to the point where the Strike Team self-destructed. It took 8 episodes in season 4 to get to Vic pulling a gun on Shane. Two episodes into this season, Lem knows that Vic killed Terry. Given The Shield’s commitment to the classical ideal of a single story, the pursuit of the consequences of a single action, that we’ve come back to the beginning can only mean we’re heading towards the end. The Shield’s final second-act turn has begun.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
It could all have been different. The Shield could have been such a different show and the beginning of season 5 was the point where it could have changed. The writers could have retconned their way out of the end of season 4–maybe the Strike Team stages more of their cunning plans and crazy capers and steals the heroin out of evidence. (Shit, if Millennium can walk back the end of the world at the beginning of its third season, anything’s possible.) If that had happened, The Shield could have gone on, potentially forever, a gritty reboot of Adam-12 or the West Coast Homicide, and it would have been a far, far lesser show. That Team Shawn Ryan didn’t is part of the morality of storytelling, and it applies to the creators as much as the characters: you have to live with the consequences of your actions. The creators had been shaping this as far back as the third season, but just like Vic, this is where they committed. The writers made the decision to go forward here, to bring in Kavanaugh and to have Whitaker play him, and that meant there are options for the future that are now closed off. This is what made The Shield a great show: not its inventiveness, but its discipline; not continually coming up with new things, but accepting what was already done and asking “what is now necessary?” It also meant that the story had to come to an end, because the consequences of the initial actions are just too great.
When Vic tears up the retirement papers, he commits, but as per the rules of tragedy, he doesn’t recognize that he commits. He’s tearing up his last chance to “play this smart,” as Phillips says; really, it’s his last chance, period. If Vic takes the retirement and just lays low for four months, Kavanaugh’s investigation most likely gets derailed. Most likely but not certainly; in “The Enemy of Good,” Aceveda protests that Vic will be gone in four months anyway, and Kavanaugh shoots that down. Kavanaugh might have kept pushing the investigation no matter what Vic did. So let’s say that although it might have already passed, by tearing up that letter, Vic has definitely given up his last chance to avoid the coming shitstorm that will leave the rest of the Team (and Mara, and Jackson) dead or imprisoned, and cost Vic his family. Then again, if Vic had taken the retirement, he wouldn’t be Vic. That’s what tragedy is.
Kavanaugh can be seen as a lot of ways, including Ahab in pursuit of Moby-Vick, the Great Bald White Whale (sadly, I can claim neither phrase as my own) dragging his Starbuck (that’d be Aceveda; the moment at the end of the season finale, where the camera cuts to Aceveda, and realizes that he helped get Lem killed, is extraordinary) with him, but the best description of him is another female figure: Nemesis. In classical mythology, Nemesis is the daimon called up by your hubris, not some kind of arbitrary external force; Nemesis wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for you. It’s part of the essential nature of tragedy that Nemesis is the enemy you create, and that’s part of Kavanaugh’s journey this season. He’s not someone like Armadillo or Rawling, both of whom are already prepared to do anything. In response to Vic’s escalation, Kavanaugh keeps escalating back until he goes farther than anyone, including himself, expects; battle not with Vic, lest ye become even more than Vic. The defining moment of Kavanaugh (and Whitaker’s performance) comes in “Smoked” when Vic rips him for selling Lem out to Antwon–”you won’t do this. You don’t have the guts” and Kavanaugh is so quiet, and actually proud of himself when he says “I didn’t use to.” He found an element of his character he didn’t know was there. It’s also another moment when Vic doesn’t recognize what he’s done–he’s scared of this guy, but he still can’t see what he did to create him.
Tina is one of the best examples of The Shield’s particular approach to character, and one that I’ve seen a lot of people miss. Unlike Joss Whedon, who often starts his characters as clichés and then reveals or develops them as something more, The Shield’s characters are fully defined from the beginning, and some of them are almost but not quite clichés. It’s the not-quite-ness that makes them so compelling, because that allows us to see them as unique people, neither stereotypes nor desperate attempts to avoid stereotypes. However, a lot of viewers and critics only see the cliché and don’t bother to pay attention to anything else. Vic can be seen as pure alpha macho unless you see how good he is at compromise; Mara can be seen as just the Woman in the Way until you see how much love she has for Shane and that she completely has Vic’s number; and Tina can be seen as purely manipulative until you see her strength and her feelings. Two moments always stand out when I remember Tina (and Garces’ excellent performance): her final standoff with Shane (the way she stares right back with a gun in her face is who she really is) and the end of the Tina/Dutch story, when she says “he had a chance, he just never took it.” That’s one of the best examples of how well the Shield ends its stories, because dammit Dutch you dumb fuck, there it was the whole time, you two would have been fine if you acted like a man instead of a pimp.
Speaking of Dutch, he’s got $50 on Vic as the father. Never let it be said he’s not a great detective.