Ask to see a hero and I’ll show you Claudette Wyms.
For everything else that happens in “Man Inside,” the Claudette/Kleavon battle dominates it. The episode starts with Dutch formulating strategy, still thinking they’ll play him together, and Claudette goes into the interrogation room and blows right by all of that: “between San Antonio and here you’ve killed at least eight women, including one last night. Your sister’s missing 24 hours, we think you killed her too. Let’s start talking.” For the rest of the episode, Claudette and Dutch are boxer and coach (this is a comparison that Emily Lewis et al. make on the commentary track). Dutch comes up with the strategy, first finding Kleavon’s weakness in that he can’t handle a black woman standing up to him, and later, when Julien and Tina find Fatima, faking a picture of her dead body to break Kleavon. Claudette executes the strategy, because she’s the only one who can, the only one who has the emotional leverage over him. CCH Pounder conveys Claudette’s progressing sickness with the simplest move–she doesn’t do anything, doesn’t even freeze. Her eyes go scary blank and her whole face slackens, and of course Kleavon can catch it; Pounder’s acting is so good she can wordlessly convey Claudette recovering and trying to find her place.
Claudette’s whole character, her whole career really, has been defined by her will. She’s only been able to get where she is, and to do what she does by being relentlessly strong and never giving any ground, and now, horribly, her body is failing her will. She keeps pressing Kleavon, and getting to him, but her body simply can’t support her will any more. She goes out on the balcony and says to Dutch, in tears, in her most nakedly open and vulnerable moment on the show “I can’t do this. I can’t! Look at me.” (Has Claudette ever said that to anyone?) Like the end of “Dragonchasers,” Dutch looks around to see if anyone’s watching. The camera keeps moving around Dutch, and Dutch keeps moving around her, both blocking any way for her to escape. Dutch profiles her as well as he does Kleavon, knowing that he has to push her as hard as she’s pushing Kleavon, saying you have to do this, if you don’t, he comes after you, he comes after Fatima. There’s a great, tight shot with only Dutch’s face and arm and the interrogation room door as he says “so you get back in there and you close him!” She does, and the moment at the door with her little smile (“thanks for the push,” as James Ellroy would say) is beautiful.
She’s back and she keeps pushing–no Dutch-style circling the conversation and no one’s going to come in with evidence, there isn’t any. All there is are two wills locked in a room together, a scene that goes to the fundamentals of drama. All Claudette has is her knowledge of the seam in Kleavon’s character, between his love and hate of Fatima, because her body is literally breaking down in front of him as her nose starts bleeding (a brief, disorienting internal edit there), and Dutch, seeing his fighter hurt, comes in and tries to call her to the corner. And I have not ever seen, nor do I expect to see, a more heroic moment in fiction than Claudette saying “no” and the look on her face. (I remember that moment as dramatically heightened, the door closing very slowly, but The Shield doesn’t stress its great moments that way. Just the shot of Claudette blocking the door from closing says everything that needs to be said.)
Ask me what a hero does and I’ll say “a hero does what is right,” and if there’s any word in that sentence after “right,” we’re not talking about a hero. That “no” and that look from Claudette says she’s going back in, she’s going to break Kleavon, and if she bleeds more, if her vision gets blurry, if God and Kleavon’s eight dead victims show up and say STOP!, fuck all that, she’s still going to do it, and if she dies right there, she’s still going to do it. She has done the heroic thing, committing to action and accepting any and all consequences of that action. It works. Ray Campbell is phenomenal here, bringing all his will into play too against his sickness, trying with all his strength not to say what he’s going to say, and we can see in his performance the seam become a hairline fracture, and the fracture become a full-on break as he confesses–“she was nothing! Those others were nothing!” Pounder’s performance doesn’t let up there, because you can see Claudette trying so hard not to be relieved, not to let up until she gets a full confession out of him. It works, and in the universe of The Shield, everyone pays. Claudette breaks herself, passing out and crashing down the stairs (the sight of that through the window of the admission cage is one of the most horrifying moments on the show; it happens at a distance, so it looks like it actually happened and we just were in the right place to see it. It’s one of the many ways The Shield perfectly stages events to make them look not staged at all) and leaving the episode to end on Dutch’s horrified face.
Drama cannot be limited by realism. One of the great things about fiction is its capacity to inspire; to show us not simply what we are, but also to show us what we are capable of. One of The Shield’s great assets as a drama is to show us a world that is fully morally populated, one that has heroes, tragic heroes, villains, bystanders, everything. The creators and cast were willing to make these people more than examples; they made them characters with wants and goals and flaws, and set these characters in collision with each other. Claudette remains one of the great inspirational characters I’ve found in stories, right up there with Lars von Trier’s Bess, Quentin Tarantino’s Jules, and Mark’s Apostles. She and The Shield are a reminder of the full range of humanity, and a demonstration that great drama can horrify us, can make us cry, can inspire us, can give us nightmares, but what a great drama can never do is depress us. What great drama affirms, at every moment, is that what we do matters.
Ask to see a hero and I’ll show you Curtis Lemansky. Throw a grenade near any of his buddies, like in “Kavanaugh,” and Lem just goes full Steve Rogers on it and sends it flying back. (By the way, two guys playing catch with a live grenade? That’s maybe the fourth or fifth most intense thing in “Kavanaugh.” That’s what The Shield is like.) Lem is just too damn instinctually good for the Strike Team, and of course, Kavanaugh will grab that and use it, just like he has since “Extraction,” combining sympathy and threat: “you think [Vic] would have picked up that grenade and saved me? That he would save you? I’m giving you one last chance. Give me Vic.” Lem won’t do it; the same instinct (not principle, instinct) that made him grab the grenade keeps him from selling out the Team. Heroes are in danger precisely because of their heroism; doing what’s right makes you incredibly vulnerable if you need to do something wrong to save yourself.
Ask to see a hero and I won’t show you Vic Mackey–but then, as good a definition as any of “tragic hero” is “one flaw away from the real thing.” Vic will do what is right–sort of. To some extent. If certain conditions are met. And so forth. (It’s a version of Kavanaugh’s 98% principle.) You can see that most clearly in his scene with Becca early in “Man Inside”; Kavanaugh continues his strategy and brings Ronnie in, making sure he drops the knowledge of the $65,000 on him. (A nice, quick Shield moment: the cut to Becca there, letting us know she didn’t know. Jay Cocks said that a reaction shot isn’t a cut to a reaction, it’s when the cut itself implies the reaction. Another nice touch: I think the Dude would have told Kavanaugh in that scene “man, could you make your posture a little more professional?”) Vic hasn’t told Becca about that, and she confronts him on it. Chiklis’ performance in this scene, and the writing, is extraordinary, as Vic goes from denial to pride to self-righteousness to honesty to fucking begging in about 90 seconds; it’s the entire arc of Walter White and then some in a single scene. Vic says that the Team stole money “because it was easy,” and that he needs her help to get a second chance “because I can do better.” However, the words “Armenian Money Train” and “heroin” and “I knew Terry was undercover for the Feds” are never mentioned; another chance for Vic to admit he’s evil goes by. By episode’s end, Vic makes something of peace with Corrine, telling her to get her own lawyer and to reveal everything she knows about the money, but also planting a story with her about how he got the money by taking extra overtime and “that’s all you know.” Vic will come clean this far, and no farther; it’s not making “amends,” as he says. He’s also placing Shane, Lem, and Ronnie in greater danger by doing this. Without knowing it, he’s following the rule Shane laid down in “Jailbait,” and violating the rule he stated in the same episode, placing family before team.
Picking up on a discussion from “Jailbait”/”Tapa Boca,” I think we can see pretty clearly here that in Vic’s moral calculus, Vic always comes first. He explicitly chooses family over team here, but implicit in this action is that he will not sacrifice himself. We saw it before in “Back in the Hole,” where he confesses far enough to save Shane and nail Antwon, but not far enough to risk himself. (It’s the nature of tragedy that what he did broke Rawling’s trust in him and furthered IAD’s pursuit, which is why everyone’s at risk right now.) Vic always talks about how they’ll all stand or fall together, he acts to protect his family, but all these actions have a limit: Vic sacrificing himself is just not on the table. The one exception we’ve seen is in season two’s “Scar Tissue,” where he was ready to take the fall over Armadillo, and he was saved by Lem and Shane there. Since then, he’s been able to get away with everything, so when he says to Becca “I’ll deal with the danger later,” he clearly thinks that he will be able to deal with the danger. He still has the hubris to think he can get away with it, so this isn’t really putting anyone ahead of himself.
From the point of view of investigating and building a case, Kavanaugh’s mention of the $65,000 was a stupid move, but at this point he’s using these interrogations to try and fracture the Team. It’s working, too; Vic reveals to the Team that he gave the money to Corrine, and everyone’s pissed at him about that. Twice in the episode the framing places Ronnie, Lem, and Shane on one side of the frame and Vic on the other, and the scenes are shot at eye level so we can see how much shorter Chiklis is–they’re almost crowding him off the screen. By the end of the episode, the three of them are meeting separately from Vic, and Ronnie wants everyone to have their own lawyer. Kavanaugh correctly noted that Ronnie is the one who’s too smart to have the kind of vulnerability that Lem, Shane, or Vic do (Lem still has a heroin charge hanging over him, and Shane and Vic can be targeted for undeclared income), so when Ronnie says that the strategy of is to have four lawyers investigating Kavanaugh instead of just one–well, it might be true. It might also be that Ronnie is ready to cut loose. In “Kavanaugh,” the $65,000 issue gets jacked up another notch as Dutch tells him about the Armenian Money Train. Dutch now thinks that the Team did the heist, and here’s a tiny and unsurprising SPOILER: that’s going to matter.
A lot of critics and writers have called this The Shield’s best season so far, if not its best overall. That’s true, but what’s often missed in that description is why it’s the best. It’s not like Team Shawn Ryan said “gosh, things have been pretty decent around here, but let’s do a great season now”; it’s that they got to a point in the overall story where the chaos and acceleration of season five could plausibly happen, and in fact had to happen. (On the rewatch, it’s clear that every season is exactly what it needs to be.) There are so many events from previous seasons that have kept going, not just the two major plot landmarks of Terry’s death and the Armenian Money Train, but smaller details along the way: Jackson (Mara and Shane’s child), the return of Antwon Mitchell, the two autistic children of Vic and Corrine, Aceveda’s rape by Juan and having Antwon kill him. Even the detail in “Kavanaugh” of Guardo arming the Salvadorans with grenades comes from Rawling and the Team’s takedown of Bonilla at the end of last season. After 54 episodes of preparation, we’ve arrived at the point where Kavanaugh starts investigating and all of these details from the past can (again) plausibly go off, one after the other, and it’s only accelerating as the season moves on, a nonstop yet exactly-timed shitstorm of ownage and emotional detonations, like some hybrid of The Raid and Magnolia.
Everyone gets pulled in. Everyone gets desperate or close to it. There’s less and less time to think, only time to act according to your character. Kavanaugh raises the pressure on everyone, including Aceveda in “Man Inside.” Kavanaugh starts suggesting that Aceveda leaked the information that Terry was undercover, and worse for Aceveda, warns him that he’ll start investigating the death of Juan. Kavanaugh continues his campaign of letting people know that he knows, and pressuring them with it, and Aceveda is the perfect target for that. Everything is happening at once, Aceveda goes from discussing reward money with Vic and Reyes (the officer from Olympic heading up a new task force, played by the great character actor Paul Ben-Victor), to seeing Kavanaugh, to seeing Lem, all done with the swinging camera. He goes straight to Lem, and he’s desperate, almost charging into the observation room after him and offering to “broker a deal. . .one year! One year for all the shit you guys have done!” Kavanaugh’s drive has infected Aceveda, but Vic’s self-righteousness has infected the Team, because now it’s Shane who’s saying “this is about keeping our badges.” It’s another chance to admit you’re evil, and it goes by.
Unique in the entire run of the series, “Kavanaugh” starts away from the main cast, with, well, Kavanaugh. In just a few details and shots, we get a sense of an extreme and unhealthy level of self-control and isolation; again, everyone pays, and whatever makes Kavanaugh so fanatical costs him something. This is where we start to see that. There’s a long shot of him in his home with only the kitchen light on and Whitaker halfway out of the light, shot from above. It’s a David Fincher type of shot, showing not just where he is in the space, but his relation to it–this is a man who’s alone, and barely in the light. Somehow, also, a guy who brushes his teeth before and after his morning ramen has an extreme need to keep himself disciplined. (If you’re into that kind of thing, Kavanaugh shutting off the news from Syria as he wakes up tells you The Shield is not into that kind of thing. This is not a show where the primary focus is on anything but its characters.) The whole sequence closes off with an elegant clue as to the source of Kavanaugh’s need for self-control: a wedding band, perfectly centered in a square, two years after his divorce. He puts it on.
Anthony Anderson is back, and his Antwon and his performance are more powerful than ever. Anderson has such a strong physical presence that confining him to chair gives him even more impact; his voice still has the swaggering cadences of Respect! so it seems like he should be moving. In prison, he’s somehow even more secure as the ruler of the One-Niners, getting anything he wants. Kavanaugh wants information from him, and Antwon states the terms of the deal: make sure the Strike Team does their time at Lompoc with him–make sure, in other words, that he can kill them. Kavanaugh refuses, and Antwon correctly notes that time is not on his side; Antwon is not someone you can bullshit.
“Kavanaugh” and Kavanaugh are all about being caught between loyalties and identities. Shield style communicates this so well, with the camera shifting focus or panning between all the people Kavanaugh attends to over the course of the day. Kavanaugh is a crusader after a dirty cop, but he’s also a cop himself, and the latter identity forces him to team up with Vic and Emolia to pursue a cache of grenades. He also has to continually make sure Emolia is never alone with Vic, and almost pulls it off until Emolia and Vic get isolated after Lem tosses the grenade. (The sound editing there is perfect–we can hear the urgency but not the words in their voices.) Kavanaugh’s biggest source of identity confusion, though, is between being a cop, being a husband, and being an ex-husband.
Gina Torres gives another one of The Shield’s great guest performances as Sadie. One of the remarkable aspects of her work here is that she tamps down her incredible physical presence; she makes herself somehow look smaller and less imposing. She also can slide between extreme moods the way disturbed people do without ever making it seem like different personalities. (When she says at the hospital “don’t keep asking, because at some point I’m gonna say yes,” we believe it, and when she’s begging him at the end, we believe it, and we believe it’s her both times.) Dutch finds out she has a history of mental illness, and it turns out that the rape she reported at the beginning didn’t happen, and she injured herself to get Kavanaugh’s attention.
All the aspects of John Kavanaugh come together in the interrogation room, as Sadie admits what she did and breaks down. All season, as many commenters (medrawt in particular) have noted, Kavanaugh has been getting right into everyone’s personal space and into their lives, and now it’s his turn as Sadie and the camera do the same thing, getting into that space where The Shield lives, where we’re too close to the characters and at an angle that no one you’re not having sex with should ever be. (Only The Passion of Joan of Arc comes close to what this show does.) It’s an utterly horrible scene, the kind where you desperately want to look away but The Shield gives you no other place to look. Both Torres and Whitaker play this scene fully, with their bodies (at one point, they seem to be a second and a half from fucking on the table) and faces, even with their breath. Earlier, when he believed she fought off a rapist, Kavanaugh was her husband, asking her to come home, but now he pulls back to the identity of the ex and the cop, telling her she’ll be charged with filing a false police report. “I’m an Internal Affairs lieutenant, that’s who I am.” (It’s heartless, and if you’ve ever dealt with someone mentally sick, you know it’s necessary.) And all the time, Vic and Lem are watching this (Ronnie clued them into the fact that Kavanaugh still wears the ring last episode)–“at least we found his weak spot.”
If I spend a lot of time in these posts recounting plot, that’s because The Shield does plot so well, and plot is the primary component of tragedy; you’d think by now I’d have learned that when you think things can’t get any crazier, they get twice as crazy. Last season, the gun pointed at Lem got loaded, and Kavanaugh chambered and cocked it in “Extraction.” Now he pulls the trigger. (I saw the end of “Trophy” coming, but this one completely surprised me.) All day, he’s been bouncing between Sadie and the Barn, and keeping the two distinct in his mind, but in the interrogation room, he forgets where he is until Sadie’s “everyone sees what I am. Everyone sees me” snaps him back to awareness. He charges out (I love Vic’s “yep, saw you with the crazy, and damn right I’ll use that” smile) and arrests Lem, commandeering everyone in the Barn he can to do it. (The Barn goes as quiet as it did when Antwon got marched in.) Whitaker’s skinniness, his mismatched eyes, and most of all his contained-hysterical voice make him seem truly demonic. On any other show, this is the season finale, the sort of thing NBC would advertise with a DON’T MISS THE SHOCKING LAST MINUTES! commercial. Here, that’s not even close to the end. Here we have one more scene, as Kavanaugh visits Antwon again, ready to give him what he wants, and we still have three episodes to go.
THE SPOILERS DISTRICT
There’s a subtle piece of misdirection going all through season five (I’m not even sure “misdirection” is the word, because I don’t know if it’s intentional): Ronnie looks more and more like the one who will break. He’s always been the most pragmatic of the Team’s members, he’s careful, and next episode he’ll suggest that Lem might be talking. It’s a great touch that what he’s doing can be read as rationality or the hint of disloyalty. That he doesn’t flip, that he never considered flipping, shows such understanding of who Ronnie is–rational, merciless, but also loyal. We’re a season away from his biggest revelation of who he is–letting Vic know that he always knew Vic killed Terry–but what makes that moment work so well is that it’s completely consistent with everything we know about Ronnie. That rationality is why Ronnie’s fate is less formally tragic than the others’, but more painful. We can see how Shane’s and Vic’s flaws brought them down, but Ronnie should have made it. Ronnie isn’t tragically flawed, he just made a mistake, extending twelve more hours of trust to Vic than he should have.
Watching the end of “Kavanaugh” fucking hurts because I realize that Lem has maybe four days left to live, tops; more details are getting put in place. If Ronnie is a piece of misdirection, it worked, because with the arrival of the grenades Shane now has possession of the murder weapon. (Next season we find out that Shane took the grenade before he logged them all into evidence. EDIT: as thefncrow noted, I am most likely wrong here.) Shane already knows that desperate measures might be needed in the future if he’s going to save his family.
I don’t think Vic consciously puts his own interests above everyone else’s, and that’s part of what drives the tragedy. Vic takes risks because he always thinks he can get away with it, but he doesn’t do what Claudette does in “Man Inside” or what Lem does in “Of Mice and Lem” (two episodes hence), which is to deliberately, definitely get hurt. Claudette makes herself sicker (and most likely shortens her life) in pursuit of justice, and Lem decides to go to prison. I have no doubt that Vic would risk both, nor do I have any doubt that he’d try and get out of both. That’s not putting others above yourself, though; to link up two clichés, if you want to take a bullet for someone, you can’t try and dodge it.
Fascinating that Vic has three big confessions in the course of the series, all to women; on the first two (to Rawling and to Becca) he holds back. It’s only when Olivia Murray can give a grant of total immunity, give him the freest pass possible, that he’s able to confess everything. Right there is the whole arc of a tragic character: only when he’s caused the maximum amount of destruction can he truly recognize who he is. What makes so many of the events in The Shield happen is that Vic doesn’t recognize; you can really see that in this season and in season seven, but it goes through the whole series. One way you can define Vic’s tragic flaw in “Man Inside”: he still thinks a second chance is possible; he thinks there’s a way to say “I can do better” without falling all the way down first. Vic passes up or talks the Team out of chance after chance to walk away with lesser damage, because he’s always sure that he can get away with it (hubris) and that he deserves to get away with it (self-righteousness), until finally everyone and everything except Vic’s bare existence has been destroyed. Again, this is part of classical tragedy; it’s why the conclusion of classical tragedy isn’t reversal but recognition. Unlike the rationalists of the Enlightenment, the ancients knew that there were things about who we are that we don’t know about, and drama is a series of incidents constructed to bring the protagonist into a confrontation with himself. (This idea comes back in the modern world; you can see strict Freudian and Jungian therapies as ways of getting people to recognize themselves without going through all the unpleasantness and damage of tragedy.) We’re seeing Vic’s (and Shane’s) reversal here, but he hasn’t yet been brought to recognize that he created all of this, and how.
Speaking of recognition: Kleavon’s return in season seven was one of its most plausible and welcome developments. Kleavon was just too smart not to be a jailhouse lawyer (he shows up with full documentation, as I remember) and to use Claudette’s illness as leverage to get out of the death penalty. It also allowed Ray Campbell to show a new layer to his performance, showing us a Kleavon who was at peace with himself. It was different from what we saw in season four, where he was always concealing something; he was confident then but also damaged. Season seven’s Kleavon was actually relaxed because he was fully honest with himself, and for the first time could be honest with others about himself. That made his last moment with Dutch just perfect, looking at the tape of Kyle and saying he’d seen that look before. “Where?” “. . .the mirror.”