“Is it connected?”
“Exiled” picks up on something we saw in “Haunts”: Shane and Mara just don’t know how to lie to each other. It never feels like a commitment or a choice on their parts, it’s just that when they’re confront each other, they reveal everything. This is sometimes quite touching and sometimes a lot funny, like when Mara says that Vic “might have figured it out” that she knows about Lem. (Yeah, that would probably be when you said “I know about Lem,” Mara. It’s a great and typical Shield moment when she says that: first we see Vic’s reaction, only visible to us, and then we see him from Mara’s point of view with a completely different and much more vicious expression on his face.) What isn’t clear yet is if this is a good survival strategy. When Mara reveals to Corrine that she knows what Shane knows, I’m thinking Shane either told her to do that or knew she would. So, has Shane bought insurance for them by having Mara know, and having Vic know she knows? Vic does have a problem with hurting women, no matter how much they betray him (like Emolia). Or has he just created one more target? (It’s not just Vic who’s a potential threat. As we’ll see, there’s also Ronnie to think about.)
The story has shifted, as it had to; The Shield never tries to walk back its game-changing moments. Shane works to insure himself in both these episodes, first by writing up a 24-page dossier (complete with photographs and documents) on “every wrong thing we’ve ever done,” and then maneuvering Vic into meeting him outside of Nancy Gilroy’s home to give him a copy. (“Exiled” was co-written by Kurt Sutter, which increases the chances of a Katey Sagal appearance; she’s as good as ever here, hitting Nancy’s weariness and unbullshittability so well.) Shane’s ploy to extract information out of Nancy works, because Shane knows the same thing Aceveda knew in “Postpartum”: you play Vic by behaving according to his worst expectation of you, and Vic expects Shane to run away. When they meet for the first time since the end of “Chasing Ghosts,” there’s puzzlement in Chiklis’ face and an edge in the Goggins’ voice that’s new. For the first time in the series, Shane’s thinking at least one step ahead of Vic.
Shane’s second move is to set himself up as the resurgent Armenian mob’s fixer. It’s immediately clear that the Armenians are not the Big Bads they were in the first three seasons; new guy Rezian doesn’t have anything like the menace of Margos or the professionalism of the ones we met early in season 2, when the Strike Team learned about the money train, and running Russian hookers out of apartment buildings is pretty small-scale stuff. Shane’s clearly looking for a new Antwon Mitchell to protect him, and finds out immediately that these guys don’t have anything close to Antwon’s smarts or self-control when they kill an Iraqi gas station owner.
Diro (Franka Potente) looks like a much more interesting character. “The Math of the Wrath” starts with her sewing, then visiting her dying father (who heads whatever’s left of the Armenian mob), and then the rest of the episode strips away all our (and Shane’s) illusions of her innocence until she’s ordering the castration of the men who robbed her Russian hookers. (“It was maybe too much?” she asks Shane.) It’s a role well suited to Potente’s skills as an actress; she’s another chameleon in her roles, someone who can be unrecognizable from performance to performance (I wouldn’t have seen her as the actress from Run Lola Run or The Bourne Identity without her name in the credits). We don’t know much about Diro yet except her ruthlessness and her loyalty to her father, and that’s believable coming from Potente.
Shane makes one more move in “The Math of the Wrath,” confronting Ronnie (another conversation between parked cars, and there’s a pause when a uni goes by) and appealing to him to break with Vic. When he says “I will thrown down with you right now,” David Snell makes Ronnie look dangerous with the slightest tightening of his face and locking of his gaze; his performance is usually so low-key that he doesn’t have to do much to become threatening. Shane tells Ronnie about killing Terry, and in light of how this episode ends, Ronnie’s almost non-reaction is fascinating. So: a truth-telling document as insurance, a bunch of semi-competent criminals as allies, and an attempt to drive a wedge between Ronnie and Vic. To secure his family, Shane’s playing a larger game than he ever has, with far more players and markers than the alliance with Antwon in season four, and that. . .did not go well. For now, though, it’s holding.
There are a couple of interesting and fun side stories in “The Math of the Wrath.” The first is a neat little scene with Aceveda, Pezuela, an assistant, and Aceveda’s campaign manager (Michael James Reed, with the best guest performance of these episodes). In terms of the main plot, it’s only about the moment at the end with Pezuela, as he hands Aceveda $100,000 and says he’ll get the other half when the San Marcos killers are caught. Reed, though, makes it so good with his utter directness (“Let me tell you why that’s a shit-awful idea”), showing Aceveda how he has a shot at not just the Mayor’s office, but the California State Assembly if he uses his City Council position to redraw the districts to reduce Koreatown’s influence. It’s effective because it’s so uninflected–no one says “why this is an outrage against democracy and will disenfranchise an entire ethnicity!” It’s just what you do. (Charles H. Eglee wrote this episode, and that kind of awareness of politics and the mechanics of keeping people out of power are a longstanding concern of his.) Benito Martinez is so reliably funny on this show–when Reed pitches the State Assembly idea, Aceveda’s face and voice say “really? I can have a pony?”
The other side story is the knockoff-handbag subplot, which on paper sounds like it’s on the theme of Women Be Shopping, but gets turned into something funny and real by the sheer power of everybody’s acting, and by The Shield’s way of doing comedy by having everything happen at once. (Right in the middle of the crime scene, Tina needs a Sharpie to give an autograph. You go, girl.) There’s something really spirited about the conversations of Tina, Danny, and Corrine on the details of different designers (I admit I’m a total sucker for technical conversations, no matter what the topic; see also Shane and the street hustlers talking cars in season 3’s “Posse Up”). Dutch’s utter bafflement about all of it is great, and of course there’s the button on the scene with Danny calling Billings out for fondling his balls.
Going back again to PerfectCircles’ description of season 5 as “like a fucking John le Carré novel,” that’s an even better description of all the Hernan-based plots in these episodes, the most complex plotting The Shield has ever done within a few episodes. It’s very much like le Carré’s world of different agencies, different agents, different runners of agents, and different agendas for all of them, and everyone holding secrets on everyone else. (It makes an even stronger contrast with the loyalty and honesty of Shane and Mara.) It’s a fascinatingly twisty plot (its own kind of pleasure) with Hernan’s loyalties in question on an almost scene-by-scene basis, and a strong sense of how agencies (whether ICE or the Barn) fuck people over for their own agenda, or through simply not knowing what’s going on. Also, if you’re into that kind of thing, there’s an extratextual layer to all the deception going on: that’s not Clifton Collins Jr. as Hernan anymore in “The Math of the Wrath,” which is why he’s only ever 1) talked about, 2) wearing a ski mask, or 3) seen in longshot.
Some interesting things come out of this storyline. One of them is that Claudette has been learning and applying the ways of power, and one of those ways is the necessity of compromise. She won’t get all six Byz Lats who shot up a neighborhood carnival, but she’ll get three of them, and “the others will find their way into our net eventually.” (Later, Vic says “we stopped the blood, for now”; it’s those last two words that define so much of The Shield’s attitude.) When the rest of Romero (the Mexican official who lost an arm) shows up alive with hundreds of thousands of dollars, she keeps him around by having the money searched for traces of drugs. (A neat acting choice by CCH Pounder: she always looks away from people when she makes these kinds of choices.) Claudette’s seen the rule-breaking fanaticism of Kavanaugh, and the rigidity of Rawling, and how neither works, and she’s gently negotiating her own path of authority here.
We’re also seeing Vic trying to negotiate his own path as everything’s closing in around him. In “The Math of the Wrath,” he convinces Hiatt to go along with an old-school Strike-Team-style cunning plan/crazy caper–Hernan and some Salvadorans will be robbing a gun store. They can’t blow his cover and they can’t let the Salvis have the guns, so they will plant Julien as the security guard, let the robbery happen, then set up a checkpoint (staffed by Danny and Tina), get Hernan’s team to run–right into a civilian’s van, driven by Shane. It works perfectly, the cops get the guns and Hernan gets the cred.
Vic, though, outsmarts himself on this one. He launched the plan saying “we’ve gotta protect Claudette from herself,” and you can see where that goes. Claudette immediately figures out what happened and rightly brings the hammer down on Hiatt for it (“you wanna follow Vic out the door, keep it up”)–what he did endangered the unis, who weren’t in on it, and therefore had a bunch of heavily armed Salvadorans heading right for them (to say nothing of what would have happened if they had held up some other vehicle that didn’t have Shane driving it). I can’t call it realism, but there’s an honesty–a respect for plausibility–in The Shield about the way these elaborate plans can go wrong, and how even when they go right, they’re stupid, risky things to do. We can also see the difference between Vic, who’s always trying to find that way that fixes everything, and Claudette, who’s willing to make a choice and live with it. Another result of this: Hiatt reveals to Vic that Claudette has played him, he’s going to be fired no matter what. Vic responds “Claudette’s not the only player at the table,” so we’ll see where that goes.
The biggest thread of the Hernan story, of course, is that someone’s blown his cover with the Salvadorans; even the Byz Lats know there’s a snitch inside. There’s a lot of candidates: the ICE agent reacts like he knows something (and someone high up wants the Romero arm-chopping investigation dropped); Claudette informed Aceveda and Aceveda informed the ever-suspicious Pezuela; even Hiatt’s been a little mysterious about his past in ICE. (Oh God, do not let it be Hiatt. That kind of role is way past Alex O’Laughlinnevadatryour$4.99primerib’s talents.) Hernan has vanished back to El Salvador; to throw suspicion off himself, he named someone else as the snitch, chopped him up, and dumped the body parts. (Dark, dark comic moment from Ronnie, looking into one of the bags at the head: “that’s not him.”) [Further discussion of the final scene between Ronnie and Vic here.]
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
Shane’s problem isn’t a lack of intelligence; he actually thinks through things pretty well in these two episodes. His problems are an inability to plan long-range and his permanent impulsiveness. (Come to think of it, he’s like Kurt Sutter that way.) It’s a good idea to get some allies for himself at this point; it’s a less good idea to have the allies be novice criminals with the same impulse control issues he does; and it’s a really fuckin’ bad idea to reveal the Money Train robbery next episode.
With Rezian now added to the mix, we have every major player in place for Act Three, Part Two except Olivia. One of the pleasures of the rewatch is seeing how slowly Pezeula’s game gets revealed. By the end of “The Math of the Wrath,” we’re seeing his role as a corrupt developer who’s literally buying Aceveda, and that he might have blown Hernan’s cover, but that’s it. (Of course, the “Previously On” for the episode all but says Pezeula did it, but there’s nothing within the show that gives it away.) Over the next episodes he reveals his plans, and his control over Aceveda. (The Picture surfaces next episode.) It’s another good example of what the long-form of television allows you to do, which is show how people become gradually corrupted or controlled by others. Pezuela’s plan–creating a community, complete with a shopping mall, in order to launder drug money and buying Aceveda to ensure it–can be seen as a commentary on a line of Dutch’s in early season one on the “five words” why people come to America: “free markets, rule of law.” Late in The Shield, we have a story that’s a little like Deadwood, showing what happens to make those five words possible, and who really benefits from it.
On the question of do-you-tell-your-wife-about-this: Shane always reveals himself to Mara, and they wind up dead together; Vic keeps things from Corrine, mostly out of self-righteousness but also in part to protect her, and Corrine and his kids end up alive, but gone from him. So on that alone, I don’t think it’s decidable whether or not the Vendrell openness is the right way to go. One thing we definitely see, all through The Shield, is that if Vic believes he’s protecting his family by telling them nothing, he’s just wrong. We see, as far back as the first season with Gilroy, what Diro will say in “Spanish Practices”: “we can’t protect those we love from the consequences of our choices.” Shane says at the end “whatever happens, we’ll be together,” and he (and probably Mara) make that real. (Like Mamet sez, it’s not a choice between right and wrong, but between two wrongs.) Really, the only way to be safe is to live like Ronnie. If you want both a family and to be alive, find another profession besides “dirty cop.”
Two nice call-forwards: Shane at the motel in the opening of “Exiled,” pacing, scribbling, smoking, all intercut with the titles, anticipates the opening of “Parricide,” where he’ll be doing almost the same things in a different room. Both scenes effectively show Shane about to do something game-changing. You don’t rush moments like that. And then at the Barn, Vic musses Jackson’s hair. Fucking chilling, that.
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Next: “Recoil”/”Spanish Practices”