“Send these to me wherever I land.”
Lem’s gone, but his presence and the consequence of his going are all over these episodes, which aren’t about moving on but its impossibility. “Like shit just moves on, right?” Shane tearfully says to Vic. Because Vic always moves forward, he replies “it does.” “Not for me,” and no, not for anyone, no matter what they believe about themselves or what they do.
In “Back to One,” the scheme to kidnap Nydia and use her to lure back Guardo works; it works because Nydia goes along just long enough (it pushes believability, but doesn’t go over the line), and all the protection Guardo brings is there to guard his $50,000, not him. In “Baptism by Fire” and here it’s clear that Guardo won’t come back out of love for Nydia but because of the need to demonstrate protection. It makes Nydia’s revealing that she’s pregnant that much more painful. Vic follows Guardo to a house and captures him; there’s a terrifying, silent shot of Vic’s eye over the shotgun there.
What follows is one of the most horrifying scenes of torture ever; it’s the one scene in all of The Shield that I’ve only watched once before. There are so many levels to the horror. Rewatching it, I realized I remembered it as much more violent than it is, but that’s because it’s so good at making us feel pain, which is not the same thing as showing it. The setting of an abandoned building has an end-of-the-world feel to it (there’s a classic Shield quick-zoom-out that shows how isolated it is); this will not be a scientific, antiseptic scene. This will be a chamber of horrors. Every impact of the chains draws blood and pain; when we cut back into the last part of the sequence, we see how much more damaged, even destroyed, Guardo has become. Luis Antonio Ramos sells that moment so well; we can see that Guardo’s consciousness has started to shut down and depart his body. (There’s a moment very much like this, both in the editing and in the performance, in 2005’s The Proposition, and it’s just as painful; there is no moment like this in The Passion of the Christ, which equates merely showing pain with making us feel pain.)
Another horrifying aspect is the presence of Shane. We, in the audience, are helpless witnesses here; we know what Vic doesn’t, that Guardo had nothing to do with the death of Lem, and we can’t stop him. That’s exactly where Shane is here, and it makes our witnessing hurt even more. There are shots here that rhyme with the climactic scene of “Postpartum,” where Vic beats Guardo in the background but we focus on Shane’s agony in the foreground; one more thing that we see that Vic can’t. When Ronnie shows up, he’s absolutely still; he can watch this without any flinching. (A key to who Ronnie is here, and a performance by David Rees Snell that’s the equal of all the others.) Shane bounces all over the place, trying to get Vic to stop, and it’s a measure of how empathetic an actor Walton Goggins is that we feel every moment. When he says “we just killed somebody” at the end, he delivers the line with an almost out-of-body floatiness.
Yet more horror is watching Vic. Starting with the last shot of “Postpartum,” and continuing through these first three episodes of the season, we are seeing a different Vic Mackey. The smart, calculating man we’ve seen for five seasons disappears and his eyes have gone scary blank, like a cult leader; he’s become a man who believes only in what he does, and must protect that belief at all costs. I’ve written before how Vic’s self-righteousness is essential to his character, and now he’s burning that out and become pure vengeance. (One of the things Shane keeps telling Vic is how stupid an idea this is; he’s risking getting them all caught after they just got away with so much.) It continues with every blow he deals to Guardo. A lot of people have written that yes, torture is all about dehumanizing the victims, but it’s also about dehumanizing the torturers, and we can see the physical transformation of Vic reflect that. When he finally stops and blows Guardo’s brains all over the wall (one chunk bouncing off of it, and it’s one of The Shield’s absolutely indelible images), Vic’s face is consummation, and that’s the most horrifying moment so far. Some rough beast has been born.
None of this the worst thing, for me anyway. The worst thing is that the entire torture of Guardo is absolutely futile. He didn’t kill Lem, he doesn’t know anything about it; every slash of the chains does nothing. It’s reminiscent of William Petersen whaling the shit out of a locked metal briefcase in To Live and Die in L. A., trying to open it and get at the money inside–and a phone book falls out. Even more strongly, it echoes the pilot episode. There, Vic confronted a child molester with a bottle of whiskey and a phone book and got to say his immortal line about being a different kinda cop. There, we cut away from the torture, and the torture worked; a child was found with ethereal voices on the soundtrack. Here we see all the torture, and it does nothing, no cutting away, no choir, no one was saved and no one can be saved. It’s not about information, or justice; in the end, it’s not even about vengeance; after he burns the body (another corpse, like O’Brien in “Fire in the Hole,” that will never be found), he seems to find peace, and that doesn’t last for even one episode.
Until the end of “The New Guy,” Vic is at peace and Shane isn’t. The episode starts with a moment that’s so very out of place, and therefore effective: Corrine recounting her dream of Lem. It’s another callback to the pilot that she dreamed a BBQ, and a great surreal touch that Lem walks off the cliff and doesn’t rise or fall. (“He disappeared sideways–how is that comforting?” Shane asks.) The Shield has never tried to engage any world but this one, and the suggestion that Lem handed off a message from the other side stuns. All through this episode, Vic tries to save rather than punish, trying to find and protect a breakaway group of One-Niners that want out, and there’s something just a little too frantic about the way he does it. When he’s unable to save their leader, Vantes, the grief he’s been avoiding for so long finally crashes down on him all at once. (An AA saying, courtesy of David Foster Wallace: don’t worry about getting in touch with your feelings, they’ll get in touch with you.) It’s a Twin Peaks-level bit of everyday surrealism that he’s shouting at Corrine through the plexiglass, and she can’t hear him and neither can we; he’s asking something about Lem in the dream but we don’t know what it is, desperate to know what really happened, what Lem’s true message was. His grief tears through him and he trashes the waiting room; it’s as powerful an image as the torture scene, a strong, vital man whose strength and vitality can do nothing, the operator who’s been in control for so long out of any control, not even an animal but an uncontained force. This is the true conclusion of the torture of Guardo. It accomplished nothing.
(sigh) Let’s get this out of the way: that tall fashionable lightly bearded void that keeps floating across the screen and sucking the charisma out of its surroundings? That’s Hiatt (Alex O’Loughlin) and, sadly, he’ll be around for a while. For those who think season six is the weakest, I’ll disagree but I won’t argue and that’s because Hiatt is easily the worst thing in all The Shield. It’s half the writers fault–as we’ll see, Hiatt really isn’t given anything to do, and has no real character to play. The other half of the fault lies with the casting directors or whoever thought O’Laughable would fit in on The Shield.* (Marc Blucas’ Riley had the same two problems on Buffy.) He’s exactly what people mean when they use “television actor” as an insult–conventionally attractive, unthreatening, someone who won’t be a distraction because the real purpose of your show is to sell Hawai’ian tourism, Microsoft, and Subway. One of the things you see from the entire cast is that they all hold to Sanford Meisner’s rule that you must always have an objective in every scene, and that gives The Shield such intensity. Hiatt never has intent, he’s just there.
There’s a lot of screen time here for FX’s new pilot Dutch and Billings: Police Cops! and it’s all worth it, because it shades and refines both their characters. Dutch, Tina, Billings, and Ronnie make for some great comedy in “Back to One,” in contrast to the Vic/Shane/Guardo scenes. Billings gets to act like a badass in a cop show, running and blocking a dealer (and offering a fist-bump to Dutch), and there’s a lot of fun stuff going on with Tina throwing looks at Ronnie and him just not interested. (He’s a bit more focused on the ongoing mess with Vic and Guardo.) Tina’s character picks up some interesting shading here too: exactly who is flirting with whom when she’s with Dutch? She’s the one who suggests “it’s still early” when Dutch says he’ll show her his filing system, and when Dutch amplifies it with an offer of Chinese food and a bottle of wine, I’ll side with ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER that her reaction (“is this a date?”) is pretty ambiguous. (ZMF, MRobespierre2, myself, and others got into a conversation about this scene back in the discussion for “Extraction”/”Enemy of Good,” and the most interesting part was that none of us could agree on exactly what was happening in that scene.) There is something genuinely attractive about Dutch when he drops his insecurity and just does what he’s good at, and Tina can recognize that.
A lot of commenters have been praising David Marciano’s performance (here and in other shows) and we can see how good he is right at the start of “Back to One,” where he puts the “charming” into “charming asshole.” The dominant aspect of Billings and Dutch in these episodes is that Billings is absolutely right about everything and Dutch won’t listen to him. (Well, Billings gets one thing wrong, but it’s a spoiler.) For all the truth-telling, Billings never stops being funny; he mixes it with some genuine affection for Dutch. Karnes’ performance is just as good, and just as complex, layering his yeah-right dismissal of Billings over a deeper layer of worry; he’s trying not to be defensive, because that would imply he cares, but not succeeding. You can see this most in “The New Guy” where Billings profiles Dutch, detailing pretty much his entire history (and addressing him by his actual first name, Holland), and Dutch keeps deflecting but not answering, and certainly not learning.
Dutch’s great flaw is his insecurity; this guy needs to hear from everyone how smart he is, and all the time. (He’s got to brag to Ronnie that he’s the one who realized something was off in Kavanaugh’s evidence, and Ronnie and Billings both give “oh, brother” looks that Dutch can’t see) It’s a nice moment late in “Back to One” where he picks up on Billings’ comments that he’s worried he drafted behind Claudette and goes to her. Dutch can allow himself to be insecure around Claudette; he trusts her that much. Claudette, when she says to Dutch “you made me a better detective,” is warm in that way you can be towards someone that a) you care about and b) you know his flaws. She recognizes this is a Dutch-needs-cheering-up moment, and of course it works.
Another aspect of Billings that we see here (we got a glimpse of it last season): Billings can give a shit, especially if there’s a case involving teenage girls. Marciano is as complete an actor as James Gandolfini or Philip Seymour Hoffman (God rest ‘em both) in that his entire appearance changes according to his character; in the case of the runaway girl, drugged and (horrifically) branded, he stands straighter, his face is more tense. Billings says “I happen to be a wonderful father,” and whether that’s true or not, it’s part of how he sees himself, and he cares about this case. (You really have to wonder what would happen if Billings found out about Shane and Tilly. What Shane is doing goes way past statutory rape; as a cop, he’s endangering her life.) I don’t think I fully got this until now, but Billings is one more of The Shield’s characters who comes close to cliche, but veers off and lands on a real person instead.
*It would have been a cruel joke, but I would have loved to see Eric Stoltz get the role of Hiatt. Stoltz was in the running for the original casting of Vic Mackey, and I believe Shawn Ryan said he would have been more of a “charming rogue” than the sympathetic bulldog of Chiklis’ appearance and performance. It would have been a stretch for him–Stoltz is the kind of actor who’s always convincing, but always convincing in the background–but he could have brought some strength and presence to a role that was in desperate need of them.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
The first part of the third act here has some really precise escalation. From “Back to One” through to “Chasing Ghosts,” we have four episodes with absolutely devastating emotional explosions, the kind that alter the entire dramatic landscape; each one (torturing Guardo, Vic trashing the waiting room, Shane confesses to Mara) gets bigger until the full game-changing Vic/Shane confrontation in “Chasing Ghosts.” Things in these episodes that look like they’re being ignored are just lying in wait, like the way Vic seems fine at the beginning of “The New Guy.” Next episode, of course, is where Shane fucking Tilly comes crashing down on him; and one of the most powerful aspects of Vic confronting Shane in “Chasing Ghosts” is Vic’s line “I’m not an executioner!” Shane by that point has made his peace with killing Guardo, but Vic’s self-righteousness means that Vic can’t accept it.
One of the fascinating changes in this season is Claudette, particularly the difference between her captaincy now and her almost-captaincy in season 3. She’s confident now in a way she wasn’t before, almost always smiling. (“Spoken like a true captain.”) She thinks more and more like an insider, not a reformer, and she’s a lot more successful in what she does. Her play with Vic–to keep him in line by telling him that he has a last chance to save his job when he doesn’t–is not something she would have done before. Her last line about Hiatt is the key: “I don’t want Vic, but I need someone like Vic.” (I also think that’s a meta line about Hiatt; it’s what you need for a successful police force and a successful cop show.) Claudette has learned that she doesn’t want to be Aceveda, but she has to be someone like Aceveda to be captain.
Welcome aboard now to Cruz Pezeula, played to perfection by F. J. Rio. Pezuela and his successor (Beltran, also played wonderfully by Anthony Quinn’s son Francesco) do not function as the Big Bad of Act Three, but they shouldn’t. There is no real equivalent to Armadillo, Kavanaugh, Antwon, or even Laney from here on out, because the conflict now is within the Strike Team itself, between Vic, Shane, and Ronnie. That’s exactly right for a tragedy, and it’s another interesting point of comparison with Breaking Bad, which (VAGUE SPOILERS) introduced some absolutely great villains in its last season, but that kept the show from fully developing a conflict between its main characters.
On the level of plot, Pezeula and his scheme to rebuild Farmington and use it as a money laundering operation shows us how the small world of The Shield situates in a larger world of crime (it’s a little like Vic’s speech to Hiatt about all the different powers in the “one square mile” of Farmington); on the level of character, Pezuela blends politician, criminal, and businessman so thoroughly that he makes those three categories seem artificial. He’s a Ben Gilroy (or an Antwon) who played things a lot more carefully. He’s a different kinda criminal, not really on Vic’s level (in any sense of that word), and it makes sense that it’s not Vic but Aceveda who finally takes him down.