Leave you like they left me here, to wither in denial. . .
Dean White shoots a lot of moments in “Smoked” through windows and in reflections, part of The Shield’s house style of surveillance, beginning with the long scene of Lem meeting with Becca and Vic. It’s a slow, agonizing trip until he gets to them, broken up by the titles; The Shield usually moves so fast that this scene stands out even more. The meeting sets out the obstacle of the episode: the Team needs $100,000 for Lem’s bail and their accounts have been frozen.
The surveillance style continues with the Kavanaugh/Vic confrontation in the break room. This is the scene where Kavanaugh truly reveals who he is; his voice has the calmness of a supervillain, and the language, too–“the noose, tightening,” and a little pantomime with a tea bag. (His move earlier, walking Vic and Shane through the apartment where Terry died, and having Terry’s brother there to watch and call Vic out, was pretty damn dramatic too. Kavanugh will do anything now to raise the pressure.) He offers Vic one last deal–turn yourself in and I’ll let you pick the prison–and of course Vic isn’t having any of it. Vic looks at him like he’s Armadillo, or the white supremacists of early season three; Vic realizes he’s looking at someone who will go much farther than he will, telling Kavanaugh that if Lem goes to Lompoc, he’s the murderer, and that he doesn’t have the stomach for it. And Whitaker loads so much into his quiet reply, saying it not with anger but with pride, and the camera, so still on him before, gives just a little jump when he says “I didn’t use to,” like even our perception has been shocked.
Kavanaugh, in that moment, reveals himself as another classical figure in this most classic of dramas: he is Nemesis, the daimon you call up through your hubris. Nemesis isn’t an external enemy, she (it’s feminine) exists because of what you did. It’s not just a matter of Vic’s corruption poisoning others (I’d argue that Farmington is always corrupt, and always will be), it’s the specific things Vic has done. He’s had so many chances to admit he’s evil and walk away, but he kept escalating, kept taunting Kavanaugh, and Kavanaugh kept escalating back. (You can compare Kavanaugh to another Nemesis in another contemporary classical drama: the Joker in The Dark Knight.) Kavanaugh started out as a dedicated IAD detective, but now he’s something much more, and Vic’s seeing it, but not recognizing yet how he made him what he is.
There’s a thematic benefit to Kavanaugh going full Nemesis here. For almost five seasons, we’ve been watching the Team’s corruption from their perspective. It’s the storytelling strategy of The Shield to stay focused on them, and that strategy (as I’ve said before) is to sacrifice range for intensity. That means, though, although we see what the Strike Team does, and we can see that it’s wrong, we don’t see the consequences from the other end. Now, though, Kavanaugh has adopted the Team’s strategies and tactics, and he’s using them on our protagonists. We can see Lem and the threat of jail, in fact the threat of death, hanging over him. We see Corrine, her assets frozen, not knowing how she’s going to pay to feed her children. We see Kavanaugh intimidating and threatening everyone he meets. We get a sense now of what it’s like to deal with Vic and company, because Kavanaugh turns what they do back on them.
If you want to see how much Kavanaugh has become like Vic, watch his scene with Aceveda. Aceveda starts the scene by storming in, resigning his position as a reserve policeman in order to deny Kavanaugh leverage, and ready to launch an investigation of him. And Kavanaugh flips him right then and there–he wants Mackey to turn to Aceveda under pressure. Whitaker’s smile is so Vic as he says “walk out angry, Mackey’s watching.” (Mackey is watching, conveyed exactly by the shots, pans, and edits.) It works, too; the episode closes with Vic going to Aceveda, and appealing to him/threatening him, saying if he goes down “I will scorch the earth, covering the whole department, starting with you.” A neat touch here: Aceveda doesn’t give his usual smile when his political career is at stake. If Vic knew him better, he’d recognize that something wasn’t right.
The Tina situation comes to a crisis point in “Smoked.” She keeps making mistakes (this time, not recognizing an undercover cop) and it’s gotten to the piont where Julien and Danny want her gone, both emphasizing that it’s about safety over everything else. Billings reluctantly agrees (in addition to Tina being Latina, “she’s just so damn popular.” Keeping with the Mad Men comparisons, Tina is the anti-Pete Campbell) and starts the paperwork, and then a complication shows up: pictures of Tina in the locker room are floating around.
Enter Dutch. “Smoked” has scenes where you see two aspects of his character get played off: in the bathroom, we see the detective who can find out where the pics came from, and also the pathetic guy that everyone recognizes as such (“the way you keep staring at her, it would have been cruel not to”); and it’s so very Dutch that he puts himself above everybody else (“we’re not all Neanderthals,” he tells Tina) and then keeps the pictures. (He also gets a classic comedy moment when Claudette makes her return while he’s looking at the pictures: “what are you looking at?” “Nothing! Huh?” The “huh?” coming second is what makes it perfect comedy.)
The camera in the locker room was Billings’ plant (someone’s been ripping off the vending machines, or so he claims). Billings has many faults, but no one outside of Claudette can play Dutch better. When Dutch confronts him, he comes up with a deal to appease Danny and Julien, deflect (at the very least) a complaint from Tina, and keep Dutch quiet: put Tina under Dutch’s responsibility and have him train her as a detective. When Tina says “so I keep my mouth shut and I climb the ladder?” it’s an unnecessary line; the moment, just before, when she said “I see” told us that she’s been dealing with this kind of shit for a long time. (When The Shield makes mistakes, they’re usually on the side of being too clear.) She accepts, and we’re left to ponder the morality of it. Does she deserve the chance? Do Billings and the Barn deserve not to have Tina come after them? How much does Dutch’s puppy-dog yearning for Tina compromise him? Like everything in The Shield, it’s not going to be judged right now. We’ll have to see how it plays out.
The Team’s pursuit of $100,000 leads them to join Dutch and Claudette in an investigation of some high-end weed, and that leads to a scene as intense and elegantly staged as Kleavon’s arrival in “Rap Payback,” with Vic calling a tip in to Shane and Ronnie just before Dutch and Claudette act on it. There’s a perfectly timed moment as Shane and Ronnie run away frame left as Vic and Dutch break through a door frame right, and a demonstration of Vic’s survival smarts as he tells Dutch to cover the front, he’ll take the back. Our old pal and electronics expert Smitty (VJ Foster) delivers the bail money, and it feels like a strong, well-executed caper, but Vic gives a funny-but-disturbing closing line at the commercial break: “‘cause you’re the last honest guy we know.” The Strike Team is rapidly running out of allies; in the next scene, even Becca wonders if she’d be more help to Vic as a friend than as an attorney.
There have been better episodes of The Shield than “Of Mice and Lem”; I’d say next week’s episode qualifies. What I have not seen, on The Shield, in a movie, in a play, in whatsofuckingever any kind of timed fiction, is 45 minutes where two antagonists slugged it out with so much happening that every single scene was some kind of reversal or advance in their battle. Vic and Kavanaugh go fully at each other in this episode; they’re grabbing anything they can, any advantage one can get over the other, and spraying collateral damage all over Farmington. (If season 5 is The Raid, this is the final fight with Mad Dog.) Breaking Bad occasionally got to this level of intensity, but never this kind of pace; it’s one of The Shield’s unique claims to greatness that it’s drama pitched with the intensity and speed of an action movie, or even a videogame. There are scenes that should have REVERSAL! or BODY BLOW! appearing on screen when they happen.
For all the speed and intensity here, it’s still a drama; it’s still about the revelation of character. Again, The Shield does not portray character, it reveals character; it doesn’t use colors, or camerawork, or editing, or dialogue, or flashbacks to show who these people are, it only uses action. (This is why The Shield is theatrical rather than cinematic.) Also, for all the speed and brutality here, it still holds to plausibility. The events that happen here were all set in motion so long ago, and we’ve seen, step by step, how they lead to an episode like this, when there will be no time to reflect, calculate, or analyze. This is half of what The Shield and drama are all about, showing how people act when there is no time to do anything but live who you truly are. The other half is living with the consequences of what you do and who you are.
The episode opens with three scenes that reverse the story twice. We start right in Lem’s face, free on bail but crying, throwing up, and then he gets a visit from Kavanaugh, who’s back to his early-season style of happiness, thinking that the Team made itself vulnerable by getting Lem’s bail money. It’s a “social call,” quickly ended when Lem starts throwing up blood. Next scene, Vic pays a social call on Sadie, posing as a “friend of John’s,” and she quickly turns that into a revenge fuck. (You get a sense that this will turn into an episode of Everybody Fucks Vic by the way she offers him coffee.) Torres does so well playing Sadie’s mood swings (she does a lot of acting with her eyes), and Chiklis has been praised many times for the way he shows about four different reactions in three seconds, one of which is (guitar riff) I’m Fucking Gina Torres (He’s Fucking Gina Torres).
Then it’s over to Becca’s office (“I had an ex-wife thing,” says Vic), and Lem wants to make a deal and go to prison. “DA’s receptive,” Becca says; Kavanaugh’s investigation has been getting out of control and as Lem keeps pointing out, he took the heroin and the evidence is unbreakable. This way he still has some control over what happens, but more than that, “I don’t want to fight anymore.” The difference between Lem and Vic has never been clearer; at the end of “Smoked,” Vic told Becca that if she had to, make a deal that put Vic in Lem’s place, but Lem doesn’t say if. He wants this, he wants to make the sacrifice, he’s not trying to get away with anything any more. Kenneth Johnson plays these scenes so calmly; he’s almost completely still (and the camera stays very still on him), in contrast to Chiklis and the Goggins, both active, in motion, yelling. Ronnie has some of Lem’s calm and steadiness, too, when he says that Lem knows eventually he’ll break. There’s no judgment there, just an acknowledgment of the reality of the situation–given enough time, everyone breaks. Like Lem, and unlike Shane and Vic, Ronnie can accept. The writers and David Rees Snell create a strong sense of who Ronnie is with only a few gestures and details.
Vic goes to Antwon to deal for Lem’s safety (“I decide his quality of life”) and the deal is apparently straightforward: break the returning Kern Little and new guy Moses into a police storage unit to recover the last of the seized assets from last season. (The wheels just keep on turning. . .) The setup for the break-in is beautiful, done with some extreme long shots that show the urban landscape of a railyard. Kern is never in the same place as he was the last time we met him, and the Vic/Kern relationship is always changing. Kern’s rap career has failed, and now he and Vic are in the same desperate position. Moses plays peacemaker here, and that’s a clue that there’s another agenda in play.
It gets revealed during the robbery, as REVERSAL! Moses guns down Kern and the guard. Moses (L. Michael Burt in the best guest performance of these episodes) says “sure it’s part of the deal, the part Antwon didn’t tell you about” with complete confidence–he knows about the deal for Lem. (Antwon wants to install Moses over Halpern as the new leader of the One-Niners. Alive, Kern was a threat to that. Dead in a robbery of a police storage unit, he’s a martyr.) The Team can do absolutely nothing about it except hit Moses a few times, and then, so horrifyingly, leave Kern to bleed to death on the ground.
Goodbye, Kern, you were one of The Shield’s great characters, a wannabe-gangsta thug who believed in the promises of fame, fame through music and through violence, failed at all of them, and ended up used and betrayed by everyone, Vic and Antwon leading the list. Antwon’s play assures him of the only real fame he’ll ever have, that of the martyr, and that will only be among the One-Niners. (It’s like a contemporary version of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust.) Goodbye to Sticky Fingaz too, one of the great performers here; he gave Kern a constant desperation, like he knew this would always be his fate, a Tony Montana who always knew that he was really Fredo Corleone.
Forest Whitaker plays another reversal in the following scenes. Showing up at the storage unit, he’s completely confident, walking the Team through another scenario of people getting shot like he did in the opening of “Smoked,” and almost getting it right. He uses his hands as effectively as Jason Lee telling a joke, and there’s a great long shot (and quick zoom) of him pointing at Vic and the camera that makes it look like we’re staring down the barrel of a rifle. Vic tries to walk away from it, and Chiklis has a neat little dramatic moment where he shows us Vic thinking “just walk away, just ignore it–fuck it, let’s do this”: “let me remind you of a few things you seem to have forgotten. I didn’t kill Terry. You’ve lost your leverage with Lem. And your ex-wife’s pussy tastes like sweet butter.” It’s one of The Shield’s best lines, merciless, vicious, Vic slamming Kavanaugh as hard as he can, the verbal equivalent of jamming a broken fluorescent light in his neck. (About 15% of you are saying to yourself “gosh, that seems an awfully specific reference.”) Advance Kavanaugh’s reaction frame by frame and you can see the moment where his heart rips in two.
When Kavanaugh confronts Sadie, it’s so different from their other two scenes together. She’s the one absolutely in control here (“what did he do? Well, he made me come. Twice”) and he’s not just hurt but enraged. He’s frightening at the end of that scene, because we can see the guy who trashed the hotel room is back. Torres, again, plays so much with her eyes, showing some fear but also showing that she’s not giving any ground to this man. Again, this is how fast things are happening in this episode: Kavanaugh was completely in command two minutes earlier.
Kavanaugh comes back to his (formerly Billings’) office and confronts Assistant Chief Phillips and the Chief (John Cygan), and finds out that yes, they’re shutting down the investigation–Lem’s jail term is enough. The supervillain of “Smoked” is gone, now replaced with an utterly broken and defeated man, and Whitaker delivers his speech, trapped on the word “piss” like a Paul Thomas Anderson character (I’m thinking Julianne Moore in Magnolia or Philip Seymour Hoffman in Punch-Drunk Love), not from rage but from agony. In interviews, Whitaker mentions the hate the fanbase had for Kavanaugh, and he seemed puzzled and genuinely hurt by that, and I hear that in this scene–”this guy! This guy, this guy is just pissing, he’s pissing all over us! He’s pissing on you!” It’s not a self-pitying “why am I the bad guy here?” but a hurt bewilderment that they don’t see Vic as the bad guy. Cygan and Nigel Gibbs (as Phillips) are so good in their reactions; when Kavanaugh says that Vic “screwed my ex-wife with the sole purpose of making this investigation look like a personal vendetta” it’s not that they don’t believe him, it’s that they’re both thinking “this will be a fucking PR nightmare if this gets out.” When the Chief tells Kavanaugh “you have 48 hours to tie up the loose ends,” it’s like Michael Mann’s films–it’s a moment that would be a cliché in any other work, but here it’s been so well prepared that it becomes archetypal instead. Kavanaugh is down to his last moments here.
Picking up on an idea from amb (this was in the “Jailbait”/”Tapa Boca” comments–the AV Club is apparently autoflagging comments with links right now), there are two Shields: one is the Tragedy of the Strike Team, the other is a looser, more procedural, but still story-oriented work starring Claudette and Dutch, with Julien and Danny in supporting roles. The two storylines cross over here, interestingly, as Claudette blows up at the Chiefs (with Billings offering she-has-a-point-there-type support until she turns on him, too) for letting Kavanaugh run loose in the Barn. Part of the collateral impact of this episode is that it leads the Chief to offer Claudette the captaincy of the Barn. Over a year ago in narrative time, she blew her chance on that, and now the Nemesis the Team brought down on the Barn leads her into the captain’s office. (So many stories play out here, all of them at once.) Amid all the chaos and boldly drawn lines in “Of Mice and Lem,” there’s a quiet, subtle moment at the end between her and Dutch. They’ve been at odds most of the episode because Claudette wrongly suspects Dutch of having revealed her lupus diagnosis. It was actually Billings, and she apologizes, and asks for his support. When Dutch says “you’ll do fine. Whoever sits up there has to have an active mistrust of everyone and everything in this place. I can’t think of anyone better suited to the job,” it can be read as an insult, Dutch’s version of “fuck you, Miss Never-Gonna-Trust-Anyone,” but I read it as sincere. What he’s saying is no more than true, and I think he’s recognizing Claudette’s skillz here. The ambiguity of the moment, for both of them, comes from the simplicity of the performances; because neither Pounder nor Karnes emphasize anything, because they don’t force a reading, there can legitimately be multiple ways to take it.
By the way: I’ve often cited the dialogue as the weakest aspect of The Shield, but my God this episode’s language is on fire. There’s no attempt to be artificially clever (which is so often what makes words sound false) but everything has been carefully and, more importantly, believably chosen, from Vic’s insult to Kavanaugh’s speech to Dutch’s use of the word active, implying that Claudette has to inquire about her officers, not just evaluate them.
Two more scenes and another reversal: Kavanaugh says goodbye to Lem, telling him that it was only a threat to send him to Lompoc, and Kavanaugh looks so defeated here, barely able to meet Lem’s eyes. His voice has a new tone to it: not the rage of the last few episodes, not the on-and-off charm of the early episodes, but something flatter, more hollow. There’s almost no emotion there, especially when he says at the end “I know.” He doesn’t act like he wants Lem’s friendship or forgiveness, but like he genuinely recognizes the kind of man Lem is, and he wants to acknowledge that. (“Not you. Not Curtis Lemansky.”) It’s entirely who Lem is that he can’t not shake Kavanaugh’s hand here. There are other characters here–Vic, Shane, and Aceveda among them–who can think entirely in terms of fights and tactics, but Lem always sees another person in front of him. Then it’s back to Lompoc, as Vic has to tell Antwon there were no goods in storage, and worse, Antwon tells Vic that Kavanaugh has started an investigation of the prisons, and it will cost Antwon privileges and trouble. Kavanaugh may have been bluffing, but Antwon absolutely isn’t; like Shane did last season, Vic discovers the price of making a deal with this man, the price of dealing with someone who doesn’t live by deals. My favorite Antwon moment in all The Shield is his pronouncement that no matter where Lem ends up, he’s a dead man–”it will happen, and you can set your watch to that inevitability.” A close second is Antwon the Logician’s response to Vic’s threat, as Vic says if anything happens to Lem, “my reach will get you shivved,” and Antwon coolly observes that if Vic could do that, he wouldn’t be talking to Antwon at all. It’s a quiet conversation until the end, filmed absolutely chaotically, with the camera coming in from both sides (again, violating the 180° rule) and then bouncing with the characters in the final near-fistfight.
With all this going on, there’s still time for the resolution of another case: whoever’s setting rat trips on the cocks of Farmington has escalated, moving to the kind with interlocking serrated teeth (AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH). The investigation spins in several directions at once–Dutch and Claudette have to bring in the guy who got chomped a few episodes back, and although they try and be discreet, it leads to his wife finding out, and him beating the shit out of her. (Let me stress this: “leads to” is not the same thing as “causes” or “is responsible for.” The Shield is always about people making choices in a world where the past never goes away.) A gay community leader (or at least organizer) talks to Julien about putting up flyers, and their meeting goes about as well as you’d expect, but it does result in a suspect, and Julien interrogates him. It’s a terrifying scene, partly because the SNAP of the rat trap is both a threat and makes us imagine what happened (again, AAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH) but mostly because Julien and this guy share a Biblical, self-hating (certainly in Julien’s case) homophobia. The way Julien, shot from below so he looms over us, says the word “penis” is frightening, and a strong reminder that his story of dealing with being gay is in no way over.
Oh, also, we have a double episode tonight of Everybody Fucks Vic with special guest star Laura Elena Harring. In the words of Con Air, “on any other day, that might seem strange.” We also see a demonstration, triggered by the investigation and arrest of Rat Trap Guy, an image that reminds us for all the drama going on with our characters, they exist in a city that has its own people and its own agendas. In a single image, Vic and Becca in the alley while everyone else goes by, it conveys a scale of events like the entirety of the fourth season.
At the end, with no other subplots to visit, we come back to the bar, and the Strike Team isolated in the dark, shot from the angle of a security camera, and Vic reveals that the deal with Antwon fell through and Lem will have to go on the run, Vic’s face is desperate in the mirror, and the music shifts to the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm,” a song that doesn’t work in any other context but this, a ridiculous, operatic, and overly emotional song that completely fits here, where things have gone into a world beyond crazy (it’s like Mahler’s Piano Quartet in Shutter Island), and Vic is trying to explain and Lem’s in more pain and Shane and Ronnie keep firing questions and it’s the most terrifying moment of this terrifying episode and the entire show when Vic cries out “I don’t know! I don’t know!” because for almost 65 episodes straight Vic has lied and bought and cheated and tricked and charmed and fought and stolen and shot and threatened and fucked and killed his way out of trouble, he’s found a way out of every jam they’ve been in, but now Lem’s life is on the line and the clock is down to only a few hours now, once he’s in custody he’s in Antwon’s domain and it’s only a matter of time before he’ll be killed, and Vic has no idea what to do, no money to purchase anything and no allies beyond that table, and Lem’s groans are wordless now, an animal in pure pain. . .
. . .and with all of this Claudette assumes the Captain’s office after so much time, and Tina seems to be flirting more with Dutch than would be necessary, the physical and emotional distance between Claudette and Dutch already growing, and also Danny’s having her baby, Julien’s driving and even Jesus is falling down, falling down now. . .
. . .and the second scene in this episode was Vic at Kavanaugh’s ex’s home, and the second scene from the end is Kavanaugh at Vic’s ex’s home, and I have no idea where that’s going but there’s no way it can be good. . .
. . .and the first scene was Lem crying, and the last scene is Lem getting into a car, not crying, not groaning, not throwing up blood, but looking utterly dead, someone who has been through too much and has nothing left, no resources, no emotions, completely exhausted and defenseless, and the dawn is coming up, and Shane lighting a cigarette is a classic signifier of coolness, but here it means nothing, everyone is desperate and desolated, everyone is at the mercy of actions they took days or weeks or years before, and Vic drives Lem away, and there is one episode left.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
One of the most effective progressions (not exactly a plot) of the season is watching Vic and Kavanaugh get more elemental in their fight. It began with the two of them working through others (Lem, Emolia) to get at the other one, and then it got more about each destroying the other, then the ex-wives get pulled into the fight, and finally there’s the great moment at the end of “Postpartum” where they just flat-out charge each other and start throwing punches. You can argue that drama is a series of incidents meant to force characters into who they primally are, and that scene is the culmination of what’s been going on all season.
Another effective touch is the way Kavanaugh’s departure gets foreshadowed. In his farewell to Lem, you can see a touch of regret in the way he played Lem; he half-realizes that dealing with Antwon was a step way too far. I think Kavanaugh can see Lem is at peace here, and he knows that he is not. It sets up his exit three episodes from now, where he’s in jail but he can honestly say to Vic “I’m at peace. Are you?” There’s a layer of Kavanaugh here that’s still compassionate, he’s shoving it aside, and we get a sense in that scene with Lem of how much it’s costing him.
Well, now Everybody Fucks Vic goes on permanent hiatus. It was an iffy spinoff but it did end strong, with a great sense of Vic’s relationships with women and a way to up the chaos level of “Of Mice and Lem.” Looking at the last two guest shots, Sadie uses Vic to get back at Kavanaugh (to be clear, if Gina Torres used me for anything, I’d have my name legally changed to reflect that), and Becca regrets it about eight hours later. It says a lot about who Vic is that he gets laid a lot but doesn’t have the stable relationships that Shane, Lem, or even Dutch do. (Again, don’t tell anybody about the status of Everybody Fucks Vic–another consistent prediction about season seven was that Olivia would appear in the comeback episode.)
Also, Claudette now runs the Barn through the end of the show. There’s been a lot of good conversation here about that; I’ll just emphasize that 1) the Barn is in near-continual crisis for the rest of the series–in a few episodes, it’s going to be in danger of shutting down–and 2) Claudette is dying. Her illness is taking more of her energy and attention; there’s the season seven episode where we briefly see her house is a wreck and Claudette says she simply has no energy left for anything but work. (I know someone with lupus and that’s accurate.) She never really has any time to establish who she is as a captain; as the third act of The Shield gets going, she, like everyone else, is just trying not to get destroyed by all the events in the rush to the end.
Finally, on reflection, the vending machine subplot (in fact, all of Billings’ redecorations) has been so elegantly threaded throughout the season. It literally puts one more obstacle in the Barn for people to move around, it gives you a clear sense of what Billings’ priorities are, it triggers the crisis with Tina in “Smoked” (and her getting assigned to Dutch, which becomes a plot thread next season), and of course it leads to one of the funniest Dutch/Billings scenes next episode (“. . .I think this is kind of a gray area.”)