And then it came to me just what I had done. . .
These first two episodes of season six provide a distilled form of The Shield’s entire tragic arc, centered not on the Strike Team but on Jon Kavanaugh. It can come across as abruptly writing him out of the show, but taken on their own, it’s a complete tragedy in 90 minutes. (It’s only compared to the sixty-plus hours of the whole series that it feels too fast.) Kavanaugh, who has been going farther and farther away from any kind of law, finally goes too far for himself or anyone else, and most importantly, comes to see that.
The main vortex of these episodes is Kavanaugh’s pursuit of Vic, but it draws a lot of other plot and characterizations with it, foremost what happens to Shane. Claudette drops a bomb (PHRASING!) on the Team: Lem never cut any deal to give them up, and it leaves Shane completely devastated, left alone by the Team and the camera, framed in the back of the frame by the exit corridor, just unable to move or to react. The next time we see him he’s alone in his pickup, crying, with his gun in his hands. Shane’s mood starts wildly swinging in these episodes–he’s suicidal at the methadone clinic, dousing himself with gasoline and ready to sacrifice himself if it’ll take the pain of Lem away (that scene is a model of a great action sequence, with every action marked out in terms of space; and it ends with a shot that’s the reverse of the end of “Postpartum,” with Shane walking off and leaving Vic and Ronnie behind in the frame at the cut to black), euphoric a scene later when it works, fucking a teenager, almost giving everything away to Ronnie in order to save Vic, and urging Vic away from his vengeance trip with Guardo. Goggins makes every shade of Shane so damn vivid; whatever Shane feels, Goggins fully commits to it, so we get such a sense of Shane in the grip of emotions that are so far beyond his ability to control.
A strong insight of The Shield here is that although Shane has the worst of it, Vic isn’t far behind. Right there in the shot of Vic at the grave at the beginning of “On the Jones,” we see how broken he is (the way Chiklis moves his body tells us that, never mind his face), and we also see that he won’t let Shane or Ronnie see that.* He’s ignoring Corrine, trying so hard to hold it together; when Kavanaugh manufactures some evidence and gets a warrant issued for his arrest, we hear a little of the panic in his voice from “Of Mice and Lem.” There’s also the little moment where he yells at Cassidy–I don’t think it’s really because he doesn’t want her to see Aceveda lying about Lem, it’s just pure stress. Most of all, he’s starting to get consumed by the pursuit of Guardo. When Shane keeps warning him not to do it, he’s trying to save himself, because Guardo might just convince Vic that he didn’t kill Lem. Shane also happens to be right–Vic’s getting obsessed and going so far into illegality that he’ll get them all caught again. He’s also becoming almost as suicidal as Shane, and doesn’t realize it–heading into the Salvadoran headquarters (great shot of how they’ve turned a city block into a gated community/armed compound) with a single bullet in his gun is right up there with Shane’s gasoline stunt. Chiklis plays Vic so closed off in these episodes (Corrine says Cassidy is just like him, keeping it all inside); the expert negotiator disappearing, replaced with a guy who only cares about one thing. Neat character detail in closing: Shane stalks off from the “safe house” where they’re holding Nadia, Guardo’s girlfriend, but Ronnie stays behind. Ronnie isn’t fully behind the vengeance, but he understands that you stay loyal here.
We don’t see much Aceveda here, but what we do see is great. In addition to his little moment of advice with Claudette in “Baptism by Fire,” reminding us that he’s still the one who knows how to navigate a bureaucracy, there’s his confrontation with Vic in “On the Jones.” Notice that Vic at first doesn’t get the extent of what Kavanaugh and Aceveda did–he thinks Kavanaugh picked up a rumor about Lem, not that he planted the information. In the bathroom (neat staging to put Vic in the mirror), he realizes that Aceveda well and truly played him, and both of them blow up. Martinez is so good here–he plays the kind of anger where you know you fucked up, but the other guy fucked up worse. (“When do you ever take responsibility, Vic? When is anything your fault?”) Vic responds by throwing his badge and gun in the sink, but once again, like with Becca, like with Rawling, he doesn’t follow through, because then he’d have to admit he’s evil. He picks them up (the shot of the gun and the shield together echoes an earlier shot of Shane, holstering his gun next to his shield) and follows Aceveda out. Aceveda closes out “On the Jones” in a duet with Johnny Cash, coming back to his cover of Sting’s “I Hung My Head” that opened the episode, Aceveda’s destruction of Lem’s reputation in flat bureaucratic cadences cut together with Cash’s straightforward passion (it’s a little masterpiece of sound editing; listen and you can hear how Aceveda’s speech has been broken into distinct phrases), all of it concluding with a muttered phrase from Kavanaugh, after planting the evidence at Vic’s home, looking at his reflection and seeing no one he recognizes: “nothing personal.”
Throughout these episodes, we see Dutch become a pivotal character, much the way Lem was in season four: a lot of actions are about trying to get him on one’s side. Karnes’ sense of Dutch as instinctively a detective has never been stronger than in these episodes, as he keeps sensing things wrong with Emolia’s story and making simple moves (like pulling the video feed on the freeway onramp camera) to check things out. He’s assisted by a simple editing move too: we keep seeing cutaways to Dutch, sometimes looking at other characters, sometimes just plain thinking, emphasizing how he’s realizing things don’t quite add up. (The Shield uses theatrical devices much more than cinematic devices to tell its story, but this is a welcome exception.) There are also some great choices in his dialogue; he’s saying things like “Kavanaugh’s generated some proof” (prophetic choice of verb). It’s the language of someone who sees the evidence, but doesn’t believe the conclusion. (Another great touch of these episodes: no one believes Vic could have killed Lem.)
Watching Dutch’s interactions shows some of The Shield’s subtle approach to character. So many other shows would have blown the incredible scene with Dutch and Vic in the hospital; they would have had Dutch openly confront Vic and either haul him off in cuffs or (more likely) have Vic punch him out and take off. On a pure plot level, the latter would have been fine–all that scene has to do is get Vic on the run–but it would be wrong for Dutch and Vic. Instead, there’s just a hushed conversation, both of them wary, centering on the exchange “you think I did it?” and Dutch’s barely audible “No.” There’s a sense that for everything that’s happened, Dutch and Vic are still cops together, and they respect that; there’s also the compassion that was in Dutch’s voice at the end of “Postpartum.” Dutch recognizes that this man saw his friend blown up a week before. He lets Vic go. Another great interaction is with Tina, as Dutch theorizes about Occam’s Razor; he’s completely in his element here, a geek thinking for the pleasure of thinking. I love the detail of Tina’s smile as she says “so what do you think happened?” It’s fun in that conspiratorial way of sharing a secret. Dutch and Corrine are another good pairing: she’s come to be on good terms with him, and Vic has come to respect that. It’s with Claudette, though, that we see the most powerful interactions. Whatever happened in “Of Mice and Lem,” they’re past it. Their body language is completely open and friendly (the two of them sitting on pews at the end of “On the Jones” is the best use yet of the church setting of the Barn) and Dutch has become not her right-hand man but her necessary confidant. Claudette needs someone to share things with now and to bounce ideas off of, and there’s no one she trusts more than Dutch.
I and amb and many others have noted that there are really two Shields, one centered on Vic, Shane, and the Strike Team, the other centered on Claudette, Dutch, and the Barn. There are two moments in “Baptism by Fire” that define the morality of the second Shield. In the first, Claudette, who ran into such trouble as not-exactly-the-Captain in season 3, absolutely steps the fuck up here. Standing at the railing (since Aceveda in the pilot episode, that’s been the location more than any other that defines the captaincy), she says “I’ve got one chance to right this ship. To do it, I have to put an end to a pattern of silent deals and moral exchanges that have steered this place off course. . . .the truth may not lead us down the path we want, but it’s the only way to fix this place.” (There’s a great little moment early in “Baptism by Fire” that shows exactly what Claudette means–Dutch and Billings are searching Vic’s house and outside, Asher, played by Chaney Kley, says “anything to clean up?” with the sense that this is standard procedure in the Barn. It’s powerful because it feels so trivial–oh crap, IAD’s here, let’s get the evidence out.)
What makes it so powerful as a moral statement are two things. First, CCH Pounder plays it so well, and so differently from her character in seasons three and four. There, she was uncompromising, and almost humorless, her face held tight; she was standing on principle. Here, she’s open, almost smiling, relaxed; it’s like facing that the Barn might get shut down has liberated her. That ties into the second reason, and one more rare example of great writing on The Shield: the word only. It’s not the best way to fix this place. It’s not the right way or the moral way; it’s not a matter of principle. It’s that Claudette has seen enough to know that nothing else works. Let Vic off the chain and Kavanaugh shows up; let Billings be in charge and he lets Kavanaugh run rampant over the Barn. Her face and her voice let us know that she knows the righteous path is not some kind of fix for everything; there will be criminals that go unpunished, “karmic justice” that will not be delivered. She knows that humans, and human institutions, are not made for such things. The path of the truth is what we have to do, though; it’s very much a conservative attitude, that doesn’t see rights and proper procedure as transcendent ideals, but as the most reliable methods available to our imperfect selves. Winston Churchill caught this attitude best when he said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
The second element of The Shield’s other morality (you could call it the positive morality) comes from Kavanaugh at the end. There’s been an undercurrent of dismay–what the fuck am I doing? Is this me?–all through his performance since “Rap Payback,” and it comes to the surface in these episodes. As Dutch and others say, he’s a guy who never breaks the rules, and he’s been flailing at them all through these episodes. He rightly notes that he has nothing like Vic’s experience in planting evidence and coercing confessions; we can see how he gets sloppier and sloppier, and more desperate, as his lies starting coming clear. Dutch keeps finding evidence, Corrine comes in to charge him with sexual assault (Cathy Cahlin Ryan is so fucking good at this kind of thing, playing a woman who doesn’t usually stand up like this, but who can do it when its necessary); Whitaker starts to show some Goggins-level desperation late in “Baptism by Fire.” Claudette’s interrogation of Emolia is as straightforward and powerful as her work on Kleavon, using just as much insight but bringing her compassion to bear (when she starts by saying “I love this room, it’s my favorite one here,” you know Emolia will break), and with continued cuts to Kavanaugh, we see that it’s working on him too. Finally caught, finally confessing to Claudette, the face that’s been so mobile for the last thirteen episodes stops moving, becoming a constant frown of sorrow for who he used to be. Claudette challenges him by saying he’s no better than Vic, and his response is crucial: “I am better.”
He is, but not until the end. He becomes better than Vic in his last scene, because he’s in jail and Vic isn’t. Many of us have noted that Kavanaugh seems the more powerful character there (thesplitsaber picked up on this last week), and it’s for several reasons. One is the filming: although both Vic and Kavanaugh are shot through the bars, the camera stays in motion on Kavanaugh and locks on Vic, moving slowly in on him. Kavanaugh is still a live element in the frame, but Vic is a target, and things are closing in on him. Kavanaugh is also shot from slightly below, which makes him look bigger and more dominating. (Watch the end of episode 12 of season 3 of Breaking Bad if you want to see how this works.) Another is Whitaker, and it’s a great ending to a great performance. He’s still, calm, his journey over; he has accepted and discovered something good: he is not the man standing across from him. For his part, Vic is still fronting here, playing cocky. He’s demonstrating dominance, which is not the same thing as dominating. The dialogue was tailored to Whitaker’s own beliefs; it’s like we’re seeing that John Kavanaugh has finally accepted the core of who he is, and at his core, Kavanaugh is Forest Whitaker.
The most important element here, as always, is the plotting. Kavanaugh is the dominant character here because he’s completed a journey that Vic hasn’t; like Kavanaugh says, it’s not Vic’s time yet. Kavanaugh has completed the last step of a tragedy: he has recognized. Even if he has the details wrong about Vic, Kavanaugh has recognized himself. Vic still doesn’t know about Shane dropping the grenade, but more than that, Vic doesn’t see, let alone admit to himself, his role in driving everything. (“When is anything your fault?”) Kavanaugh reminds us of how tragedy works: “the universe will take out its trash when it’s ready”; Vic is even more clueless about what he’s hearing than he was with Rawling at the end of season four. The first words of “On the Jones” (which are the first words of this post) define the classical act of recognition; and the last words of “Baptism by Fire” are a warning that Vic doesn’t realize he’s giving himself:
*“Wins and Losses,” the webisode made as a bridge between season 5 and 6, has a neat little arm-wrestling competition with Lem, and shows the beginning of the hunt for Guardo. Watching it, though, breaks the momentum of going straight from the end of “Postpartum” to the scene at Lem’s grave; it also breaks The Shield’s “backstory is bullshit” no-flashback rule. For that reason, I don’t consider it canon and don’t have anything to say about it. ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER quite correctly calls it a valentine to Lem, and it makes a nice DVD extra. (A much better season 5 extra is the tribute they put together for producer and director Scott Brazil, who died not long after the season completed; he receives an In Memoriam at the end of “On the Jones.”)
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
A complex action is one in which the change is accompanied by such Reversal, or by Recognition, or by both. These last should arise from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action. (Aristotle)
Recognition is the final step in the journey of the tragic hero, and it will occupy these last 23 episodes. Recognition doesn’t just happen; it’s a process, just like reversal or robbing a money train. Like Aristotle says, it has to follow probability, and given everything that we’ve seen so far from these characters, it’s going to take a little time.
Some viewers consider season six weak, but it makes a lot more sense, and it’s a lot more effective, when seen in the context of the three-act structure of The Shield. Seasons 6 and 7 are best seen as three parts, not two seasons. The fundamental conflict that drives this act is, of course, Vic vs. Shane (even Brandon Nowalk picked up on that). There’s a major storytelling difference between this conflict and earlier ones. The conflicts that drove the seasons of Act Two–Lem vs. the Strike Team in season three, Shane vs. Lem in season five, even Shane vs. Vic in the first eight episodes of season four–all developed, they weren’t there at the beginning. “Postpartum,” though, ends with Vic stating and us all knowing that he and Shane are gonna throw down here. He just doesn’t know it yet, and that’s the difference. The conflict in this act can’t develop, it can only be stalled.
The three parts of Act Three, then, are demarcated by two stalls, two things that keep Vic vs. Shane from happening. Part one is the first six episodes of season six, through “Chasing Ghosts,” and the stall is simply that Vic doesn’t know Shane killed Lem. Once that’s revealed, the very next thing Vic does is call Shane to the site of Lem’s death and they have their showdown. Part two covers the last four episodes of season six and the first six episodes of season seven (this makes sense, in that season seven is the only season that begins in narrative time immediately after the preceding one ends). Shane creates the stall in “Exiled” (the first episode of part two) by writing up his testimony on the Strike Team. Things stay stalled until “Animal Control,” when Vic decides to have Shane killed and that fails. That launches part three, the last seven episodes of the series, as Shane retaliates and the Vic vs. Shane battle goes wide. It makes a lot more sense, because a battle of this magnitude isn’t one that either of them wants. They both have to be forced into it, which is one more aspect of drama.
Watching Kavanaugh’s last scenes, you can see some of the elements of Vic’s confession in “Possible Kill Screen.” It’s fascinating because both confessions are opposite answers to the same question: am I Vic Mackey? Specifically, am I the Vic Mackey Kavanaugh yelled about in “Of Mice and Lem,” the one who deals drugs! Who beats suspects! Kavanaugh’s recognition is that no, he’s not Vic Mackey, he’s not that guy. Vic’s recognition is that he was never the good cop, never the good husband and father, never the guy who just made a few mistakes. He is that Vic Mackey, the one Kavanaugh ranted about, and he always was.
The Shield’s economical approach to plot, sticking to stories already in motion and taking any incident as far as possible into the consequences, means that we see some ongoing plots continue here, and also see the seeds of later events planted right now. The Salvadoran gang story continues, but more importantly, in a throwaway line from the Salvadoran leader, Santo, we learn that there’s a peace among “the Mexi gangs”–we’re seeing the influence of Pezeula and his plan long before we ever meet or even hear of him. Also, Billings gets conked on the head in the Vic/Kavanaugh brawl, and that will generate some nonstop comedy all the way to “Family Meeting.” (At which time we will badly need some comedy.)