Since then anyone who kills receives in his body, without wanting it or knowing it, the soul of his victim. (Eduardo Galeano)
Between closing out the first part of Act Three (with its inevitable blowing of Shane’s secret), finding the rapist/kidnapper of the runaways, the continued Reign of Claudette, the return of Tina, the return of Carl Motherfucking Weathers, these two episodes illuminate and/or transform so many key relationships in the story. Going back to the idea of drama as a series of incidents that build to the revelation of character, The Shield now shows us not just who these people really are, but what they really are to each other.
No episode defines the bond of Shane and Mara like “Haunts”; there are two things we learn that are so crucial here. The first is that Shane cannot lie to Mara. He can conceal things (“eatin’ ain’t cheatin’”) but when she confronts him in the hospital over the condoms in his pocket, he can’t look her in the eye and lie. The makeup of Shane’s beating is so detailed, and so effective, twisting all his expressions and blinding one eye. Michele Hicks’ performance is so commanding here, able to go between extremes of soft and hard, sympathy and resolve. That’s not enough, though; Shane continues going through these episodes wanting to tell somebody–such an effective, despairing exchange with Vic in the car: “ever think about just coming clean? For all of it?” “NO.” “I know, so we just have to live with it.” (A good silent come on! beat from Ronnie in the back.) Shane’s real truth-telling will come at the end, begging Mara for forgiveness, and finally confessing to killing Lem.
Both the Goggins and Hicks are phenomenal here. Shane, again, cannot lie to her, and there is a simple, clear objective for him in this scene: he needs Mara to forgive him. He starts the scene falling apart and falls apart further as it progresses. This isn’t the guy who would accept Vic’s bullet in “Cut Throat”; this isn’t the guy pleading for Lem’s forgiveness as he died. This is what Shane needs more than anything. It’s the second crucial revelation of who Shane and Mara are that she does forgive him. Hicks shows us the impact of every single thing Shane says landing on her; she also does so much with those huge eyes, not looking away. She walks towards him and embraces him like it’s not a fully conscious act, but this is who they are: because Shane will never lie when she confronts him, she will always forgive him. To be clear: this is not a safe or a healthy way to behave. It’s completely believable, though, and dramatically overwhelming.¹
In these two episodes, we also get to see how effective Dutch and Billings are when they’re working together, and how funny and petty they can be when they’re not. Early in “Haunts,” Carlos, who runs a safe house for runaways, comes in, and Billings immediately pegs him as a suspect. Again, David Marciano is phenomenal–his stands differently as he looks at Carlos. There’s a great detective in there, and it’s not all that far below the surface. Karnes is equally strong and subtle, especially in Claudette’s office with his little head shake. (He and Claudette have done this kind of thing before.) Carlos’ daughter Sabrina disappeared three years ago, and Carlos has been kidnapping and anally raping girls (“that wasn’t pleasure, that was punishment”) to get them to go home. He confesses, if it will be on television, but doesn’t allow the part where he molested Sabrina to be broadcast. The camera keeps cutting to Billings the way it did to Dutch in the first two episodes of the season, and Marciano keeps playing greater levels of silent disgust.
After the broadcast, when Sabrina turns up dead, and Billings explodes at Carlos with “YOU MADE HER RUN AWAY! AND SHE’S DEAD!” it’s the kind of thing you usually see on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, usually from Christopher Meloni. It works here in a way it doesn’t there because this kind of moment is so rare on The Shield, and it’s unheard of from Billings. It’s not a moral aimed at the audience (the moral point of SVU is basically Rape Is Wrong) but a revelation of who Billings is; the reaction shot isn’t really on Carlos but on Dutch.
Unsurprisingly, “Chasing Ghosts” shows that the Dutch/Billings alliance lasted “all of what, 48 hours?” Dutch can be a good partner to Claudette because he can acknowledge how good she is. That’s not gonna happen with Billings. Tina’s back, Billings is back to teasing Dutch about her (come on, Dutchman, you gotta expect that), and Dutch is back to being annoyed by it. He’s gonna call IAD over Billings’ still-present vending machines (sorry, “quickmealer”; the way Billings says that is as funny as Tracy saying “inscrutable!” on 30 Rock) if he doesn’t stop. What makes it so funny is how Dutch puts it in exactly those terms; later on, when Dutch backs off, he tells Billings “you can keep the leverage or you can lose the money.” Billings thinks it over and decides he’d rather have the money.
The slaughter of the Mexicans case has now fully landed on the Barn, and it’s now an existential threat–the difference, as Claudette says, between the Barn staying open and “closing for good.” As the investigation continues, there are some intriguing details: the victims were almost all former prisoners, but with forged work visas; a forger recognizes from the font that the visas for the victims were made in Mexico; the arm was from a high-ranking Mexican official; Hiatt uses (we assume) some old ICE contacts to arrange a meeting with undercover agent Hernan. (Clifton Collins Jr. hits the right note of annoyed professionalism: “is anyone gonna make this look good?”) Hernan reveals that the killers weren’t Salvadoran, and also that Guardo and the Salvadorans had nothing to do with Lem’s death. (That lands on Vic. He’s been a cop long enough to recognize when someone isn’t lying.)
The most interesting detail in terms of relationships, though, is how Claudette reacts when Aceveda brings Pezuela into the Barn. Pezuela has information about the killings, but Claudette’s reaction is proper and absolutely icy as she tells Aceveda not to bring a civilian into an ongoing investigation. It’s when we see most clearly that Claudette runs the Barn, and knows she runs the Barn; it’s another difference between now and season three. Aceveda sees it too; he’s been implicitly treating her like a subordinate, and that ends here.
Back in the season 5 reviews, some commenters speculated what Vic would be like working for a Blackwater-type company as a mercenary. The return of Vic’s old partner, Joe, gives us some idea about that. Joe’s superficially in better shape than when we last met him–he’s got a great car and is most likely getting his stew on, baby–but the old desperation isn’t far below the surface. He’s currently intimidating drug dealers for apartment owners, and it’s his only income this month.
Joe’s partner, Lester (Patrick St. Esprit), shows us the Vic not taken. Lester is a Vic some years out of the force with a loud shirt and no values except self-interest. He tosses dealers out of windows, makes them drink piss, with so much enthusiasm, and also disdain for the way Vic isn’t fully into it. (It’s another neat Shield action sequence at the apartment, using perpendicular angles to show where people are and aren’t. Lester fails to clear a room and nearly takes a golf club to the head for that.) Lester no longer has that essential self-righteousness of Vic, if he ever did, and St. Esprit plays him so effectively that way. He has Vic’s ownage, his sense of superiority, his wit, but there’s no morality to him. It’s not even that Lester sees everyone as an enemy–no one has any value for Lester except for the money he can make off of them. Even more than with Joe, Vic has to be thinking “what happens if and when I go off the force? Is this gonna be me in ten years?”
I’m more OK with Autumn Chiklis’ acting than most; Michael Chiklis has said that he could be more physical with her than any other actress who wasn’t, y’know, his daughter. It gives a lot of the scenes with her a reality that wouldn’t be there without it. The monologue she has to give in “Chasing Ghosts,” though, is just way above her level. It’s not an easy thing for anyone to do–giving a speech that’s either a statement of character or exposition, and making it sound natural–but her reading is just so damn flat. She’s detailing what she’s heard about Vic from a LEXIS/NEXIS search (there’s a scene much like this in the first season of The Sopranos), and it’s another moment where Vic could admit he’s evil, and doesn’t. It doesn’t have anything like the power it should. (We’ll see at the end of the episode what this scene done right is like.) She’s much better as a physical actress, with a neat little moment later on–when Danny offers to let her hold Lee, she recoils just a little. That feels right.
The most important relationship on the show hits its most major turn at the end of “Chasing Ghosts.” It’s the change in Shane’s behavior that sets it off; Shane has been forgiven, and he’s acting like it, relieved and relaxed. (The detail of him putting his feet up on the table in the clubhouse sells that more than anything.) Shane’s dialogue is so careful here, because everything he says means “don’t look any further,” not “Guardo really did kill Lem.” There’s a logic to that, too–Vic just got back from a meeting with Antwon Mitchell that got him nothing but embarrassment. (Always good to see Anthony Anderson again, especially when he’s so relaxed and in command like here. Also always funny to see Chiklis puff Vic up into maximum intimidation mode and have it completely fail.) Vic begins to suspect Shane, and directs Ronnie to count the grenades Shane logged in back in “Postpartum.”
The count matches, but that’s not what reveals Shane; it’s the last report of Kavanaugh, a last shot from a player no longer in the game. Shane blew it when he met Vic and Ronnie after killing Lem and said he couldn’t shake the tail, because the report reveals there was no tail on Shane. Vic confronts him with it and Shane gives him one last chance not to know, not to recognize, not to reveal their true relationship: “stop right there Vic. There’s nothing good where you’re going.” The camera has been arcing around the characters all through the episode, not like the wild swings of “Postpartum” but more like classic Sergio Leone; this is going to be like a gunfight but with words.²
Vic keeps going, and Shane pauses and says “I did what I thought had to be done at the time.” What happens then is a near nonstop explosion of character, defined by the difference between Shane and Vic. Shane has confessed to Mara and in doing that, he’s recognized who he is. He knows killing Lem was a mistake, but he also knows why he did it and he can accept that. Vic has not confessed, not recognized; there is no Mara in Vic’s life that he can confess to. Shane has Mara’s love and a family to hold on to; Vic has only his righteousness. It’s another iteration of “admit you’re evil,” and the most powerful one yet, when Vic says “I would have spared Lem!” and Shane replies “and I stepped up and put Lem down, so you could go to sleep at night believing that!” (Shane says: I have done evil, so you could continue to believe you are not evil.) “Spared,” by the way, is such a perfect word here, because it implies there’s some part of Vic that gets what Shane says. (There’s a look from Chiklis at that moment that implies it too.) You don’t “spare” a completely innocent person. The Goggins and Chiklis are at their best here (they usually are in scenes with each other); Shane, for all his emotion here, is fundamentally at peace, and Vic, for all his righteousness, is fundamentally not.
It’s such a wildly emotional scene; because of that, because of The Shield’s unified style, it can be darkly funny as well. I love the little exchange about Guardo and then Terry: Shane brings out the Guardo-deserved-it-anyway argument and Vic clings to his righteousness with “I’m not an executioner!” Shane fires back with “tell that to Terry’s family” and Vic yells “THAT’S DIFFERENT!” and I just start laughing. Another equally funny line is Shane’s “aw you did! More than once.” Now that Shane’s not doing it anymore, you can really see how much Vic lies to himself. He’s been called out on it before, but never by anyone who knows all that Vic has done the way Shane does. Shane can even see through to the emptiness of Vic’s threat to kill him; when Shane says “no you won’t,” it’s not a counter-threat, it’s just a dismissal.
This is the true break of the Vic/Shane relationship, and it’s not over killing Lem. It’s about Vic’s refusal to recognize, Vic’s inability to see that he’s “looking in a mirror” when he sees Shane. Shane dismisses Vic with the worst insult a Chicagoan can utter (Shawn Ryan is from Rockford, about 90 miles away, so I’ll give him the honorary Chicagoan title here): “goddamn hypocrite.” It’s not just that before, Vic and Shane have been partners in crime. Before, they’ve been partners in thinking that they’re not criminals, and that comes to an end here.
¹BREAKING BAD SPOILERS HERE AS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT
There are correspondences all over the place with Breaking Bad in these episodes, they may be intentional but are more likely the result of running into similar issues with similar stories. One thing we can see is how much more compelling Mara is as a character over Skyler White, because Mara has a clear objective. She loves Shane and will stay with him no matter what. It’s not that Skyler is a bad character, and its certainly not that she’s an unrealistic one; it’s that she’s not a great dramatic character, because the writers never fully figured out what she wanted. Skyler oscillates between being Walter’s enemy and his partner, and because of that, she’s never fully empathetic as either one. (It’s also an insanely difficult acting challenge to pull off that kind of character. Anna Gunn is a damn good actress but she wasn’t up to that. Elizabeth Banks is the only actress I can think of who can pull off that kind of role.) Skyler makes sense if you see her as corrupted by Walter, but as ZoeZ has pointed out, The Shield isn’t the story of a bad man who corrupts everyone around him. It’s the story of people who make choices and the consequences of those choices, and Mara chooses to stay with Shane.
In the great confrontation between Walter and Hank that ends “Blood Money” and drives the last act of Breaking Bad, there’s an understanding of character that’s identical to the Shane/Vic confrontation in “Chasing Ghosts”: Vic and Hank aren’t angry that moment, they’re deeply, deeply hurt. Both Dean Norris and Michael Chiklis play the pain of their characters so well, because the man they thought was part of their family has betrayed them. In addition to pain, though, Vic has some Walter-level self-deception going on here; his yell of “THAT’S DIFFERENT!” is his version of Walter’s “what’s wrong with you? We’re a family!” In both cases, we have characters who have been through reversal but not recognition. One of the ways (as we’ll see) that The Shield is a much fuller tragedy than Breaking Bad is the way it allows for recognition, not just reversal.
END OF BREAKING BAD SPOILERS
²”Chasing Ghosts” was a turning point in the career of its director, Frank Darabont. By the time he shot this episode, his films (like The Majestic and The Green Mile) had gotten so bloated and slow that even he was getting sick of them, long after his audiences were. Shooting The Shield with its handheld style and quick-working crew got him back in touch with a looser, quicker, more improvised style and he enjoyed it, and enjoyed working with the crew. He would bring the style and most of the crew over for his next film, The Mist, and for the first season of The Walking Dead; both of those projects have their origins here.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
The first stall is over, and now we move into the slow-paced second part of The Shield’s third act. It’s the weakest part, but the weakness doesn’t sink the show. In retrospect, it feels a lot like the sort of thing Breaking Bad would do; specifically, it’s like the fourth season of Breaking Bad, where things start with an intense conflict and then just go into a holding pattern for ten episodes. I can see a different structure to this act, where we go from the end of “Chasing Ghosts” directly into “Parricide.” The stall does make sense from a character standpoint, though; it’s very much who Vic is that he will not jump immediately to killing Shane. Even when he does go there, he tries to back out (and it’s who Ronnie is that he won’t let him).
Also, the weakness doesn’t come from the holding pattern. The biggest problems with the next ten episodes all come from the kind of external, annoying shit that can happen with a TV show. Two actors that would have been more essential to the story were lost: Clifton Collins Jr. (Hernan) was apparently a major prima donna on set and his character was dropped; and Franka Potente (Diro, coming up in two episodes) went to shoot Che and her character didn’t have the planned arc in season seven. (Che remains Steven Soderbergh’s best film before his (snort) (chuckle) BWA HA HA “retirement,” so I’ll forgive her that one.) A writers’ strike also contributed to a lot of season seven hassles. Perfection is just not possible in the collaborative, messy world of television, and it’s amazing that Shawn Ryan held everything together enough to get The Shield‘s last act over its middle bridge. Once we get to the botched hit on Shane (and the Armenians are literally blown away), everything came together for the last part of the last act. (Another reason to like act three, part two: Patrick St. Esprit’s Lester comes back. That guy is just pure amoral ownage, and it’s so great that it’s Dutch and Billings who bring him down.)