“Sorry for the inconvenience.”
Shawn Ryan and Forest Whitaker made this the key to Kavanaugh’s character: this is a man who feeds on defeat. It’s not simply that every time Vic escalates, Kavanaugh escalates back; it’s not a matter of you-just-pissed-him-off. It’s that when Kavanaugh gets completely humiliated as he is at the end of “Trophy,” he somehow gets stronger, calmer, more powerful. His affability and charm get burned off and he retreats within himself, giving away less, his smile looking more and more like a shark’s. Even the moment at the end where Kavanaugh keeps listening to Vic saying “we’ll beat IAD again next year” feels like a deliberate self-torture, a mental flagellation, or maybe even a bizarre way of psyching himself up. Then when he blows up and trashes the motel room, it’s scary because there’s such precision in the movements, like his earlier kata with the pen. (Whitaker has actually trained in martial arts, I think as far back as Ghost Dog.) It’s like his spirit has gone absolutely berserk but it’s still filtered through a disciplined body. Whitaker consciously chose to lose weight throughout the shooting of the season, and you can already see the effects in “Trophy,” but in “Rap Payback” it’s really apparent, the cuddly guy who we first met in “Extraction” disappearing and replaced with someone feral but still under tremendous self-control.
Mr. Nowalk, loopcloses, Aceveda, and others have noted that Kavanaugh doesn’t know what he’s up against in the early episodes–but with “Trophy,” he gets it, and with “Rap Payback,” the battle is joined. Perfect Circles observed last week that “this season is like a fucking John le Carré novel,” and that’s exactly right, because in “Rap Payback” Kavanaugh pulls a classic George Smiley move: stop keeping things secret, stop investigating and waiting for the target to do something wrong, and go on offense. (In The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley says “we declare an interest in his affairs,” and Connie says “light a fire on his doorstep and see which way he runs.” Smiley, though, was more likely to find the target’s one weakness and go after that rather than engage in Kavanaugh-style all-out assault.) Raise the pressure on everyone–Corrine, Danny, Aceveda, Vic, Shane, the Team, the Barn, everyone. Put Terry’s picture up where everyone can see it. Take over Billings’ office (goodbye couch, you were good). Threaten Danny over her affair with Vic and then reveal it to Corrine. (The rest of the Corrine/Kavanaugh scene deserves its own essay.) Have the Strike Team’s clubhouse doors removed, for the sake of fuck. Make everyone come in and sign off that they’re under investigation, including Aceveda. (Great detail: of course Shane will go in without a lawyer.) Raise the pressure on everyone and someone will break. (“Even his IAD buddies are surprised by this move,” Becca says.) Compare the end of “Trophy” with the end of “Rap Payback,” and you can see it’s already working: the team that was in their private space and celebrating with some Southern Comfort has been forced out in the open, gazing up at the man they’d completely defeated one episode ago, and not knowing what he’s gonna do next. Neither do we.
Everything in “Trophy” goes the Strike Team’s way. I don’t know if we were meant to be faked out like Kavanaugh; even on the first viewing, it seems just a little too easy the way the Team is walking right into Kavanaugh’s trap. It seems a little too easy that the Team wouldn’t know the clubhouse was bugged–Vic says at the end that Ronnie sweeps the clubhouse for bugs every day, and in fact we saw him do that in “Enemy of Good.” Benito Martinez’ face generates a lot of the tension in this episode, because he seems like he can never quite believe this will get the Team. What’s important, though, is it’s absolutely believable that it would fool Kavanaugh, because partnering up with the Russians to maintain quality control on illegal prescription drugs is just what the old-school Strike Team would do. (In a very season four moment, Aceveda points out that a lot of Farmington’s residents can’t afford the drugs legally.) When Kavanaugh comes charging in to arrest the Team, and Vic reveals what’s going on, the staging places Whitaker dead center in all of it and he just doesn’t move at all as everyone just swirls around him. (Vic does a nice kiss-of-death moment of laying his hand on Aceveda’s arm on the way out.)
For all the triumph of “Trophy,” Vic commits one major fuckup: he doesn’t tell Becca what he’s doing, having a conversation with her in front of Kavanaugh’s microphone as part of stinging him. He’ll continue to not tell her things in “Rap Payback,” leaving out that little detail that, oh yeah, Kavanaugh’s investigating him for the death of Terry Crowley. Vic’s hubris and his self-righteousness are converging here, and it’s causing trouble for Becca. He still thinks he can get away with anything, and he still won’t admit he’s evil; he won’t even admit how evil others think he are. At the end of “Rap Payback,” Becca doesn’t look at Vic the same way she used to, and she says “right now, I have no clue about who the hell you really are.” It’s an echo of the end of “Back in the Hole,” where Vic got out of a major jam on the surface but lost Rawling’s trust in the process. (There’s a brief callback to her in “Trophy” when Vic says “she was trying to warn me, I didn’t listen”; MRobespierre2 correctly noted that somehow she’s now called Rawlings.)
Where the Vic/Becca partnership runs into trouble, the Dutch/Claudette relationship heals, with Dutch deciding to stop pestering Claudette about her health (I’M SORRY. I’LL STOP.) and Claudette opening up to him: she’s had lupus for 15 years and she’s going through a recurrence right now. Touchingly, she says to Dutch “I just need you to be you”; it’s a rare moment for Claudette to show any kind of need, and we can see Dutch’s gratitude. It’s a good thing too that they get their partnership working, because in the next episode, oh shit, Kleavon’s sister Fatima shows up with a bloody shirt.
Dutch doesn’t trust Claudette enough, though, taking Fatima home and doing an impromptu search where he finds Kleavon’s death kit, and can’t do anything else because oh fuck Kleavon shows up. What follows is a supremely effective suspense scene, made all the better by The Shield’s absence of inflection in the shooting style. (It helps, too, that there’s no background music.) There’s the perfect timing of Kleavon coming in through one door as Dutch hides in the closet and an amazing shot of Kleavon and Fatima foregrounded with Dutch framed in the background. Most of all, there’s Ray Campbell’s incredible performance, first in the way he effortlessly bosses Fatima around (just that scene in the kitchen tells you how Fatima has been able to overlook what he does for so long) and then later, with Fatima missing, the way he paces the interrogation room. CCH Pounder matches him, displaying Claudette’s iron will, and it looks like that will pushes Kleavon to break and kill another woman–and cut her hair to resemble Claudette’s. Season five just ramps up on all fronts.
Tina continues a mix of learning and fucking up here; the fuckup is promising a Mexican that he won’t get deported if he testifies against a woman who made him dig a grave. (Favorite guest performances this week from Jennifer Echols and Ernestine Phillips as the housemates; Phillips in particular perfectly embodies the Shield “shit just happened” attitude to crime.) But “the Dutchman’s got a plan,” and he has Tina and the guy just stand outside the door of the interrogation room as an assist in breaking Shonda. Tina can charm Dutch, but not Julien; her attempts to do the latter result in a disastrous moment as she tells him she’s cool with Julien being gay. (Billings let her know but left out the little detail about Julien’s self-hating homophobia. Speaking of whom, he’s pretty damn useless in these episodes, bossing Danny around, ignoring tips about lethal drugs, and way more concerned with interior decoration than anything else.) That’s about the last thing you ever want to say to Julien and it leaves her in a worse position than before.
A few more goodies in these episodes: Tina’s eye-roll at Dutch’s lame joke on seeing the dead, wrapped body, shot so that we can see it but he can’t; in “Rap Payback,” wannabe gangsta Casper’s rise with Bop Street (“can’t argue with the free market” is a very Wire-like line); Kavanaugh just before the raid in “Trophy,” his face filling half the frame, and then the quick zoom-out to show the rest of his crew getting ready; the LA-style urban-rural interface where the Team finds Kang in “Rap Payback” (he’s the one who tries to escape and gets slashed on a barbed-wire fence); and the camera floating between Vic, Shane, and Becca in the clubhouse conversation in “Trophy,” occasionally locking on one of them. It’s the same strategy Tarantino used at the beginning of Reservoir Dogs, but so much more intense here. Also, an overall storytelling move that traces its origins in cop shows back to Hill Street Blues, maybe to Barney Miller: the overlapping and colliding plots. There’s always so much going on at the Barn, and all at once; what The Shield does is crank up the speed of that, so that scenes don’t really end but get stepped on by the beginning of the next scene.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
So many things in these episodes set things up for or get referenced later: the Vic/Kavanaugh standoff at the end of “Trophy” anticipates them fighting at the very end of the season; Vic and Danny’s conversation about their child (at that moment, I’m pretty sure they both know but neither is ready to say it to each other); the rat trap (there are 19 others out on the street) and the guy (Joe Carmano) who doesn’t want his wife to know about it; the vending machines, not yet revealed to be Billings’ (one of the funniest lines in the entire series is Billings’ “I think this is a gray area”); Claudette getting under Kleavon’s skin; and most touchingly, Claudette saying to Dutch “I just need you to be you,” which anticipates her last line to him, when she knows she’s going to die: “you just keep doing what you do. It means a lot.” A lot of commenters (K. Thrace and more recently amb among them) have noted that Dutch and Claudette are the examples of good cops in the Barn; they’re the example of a good relationship too.