“Is there a problem?” “I don’t know yet.”
This is the weakest ending of all The Shield’s seasons, because it’s not really an ending. There’s a new element in play (to be known as the blackmail box) at the end of “Spanish Practices,” but that’s not anywhere the endings of other seasons. It’s a good enough ending if you don’t see it as a season finale. It’s also a good enough season finale for shows that are not The Shield. (It’s also the only season finale where Shawn Ryan knew at the time of filming that there would be another season. I wonder if what made all the other endings so good is that Ryan had to treat them like series finales. EDIT: not actually true, see thefncrow‘s post below.) In this last act, there are two major breaks before the end: one already happened at the end of “Chasing Ghosts” and the next one will happen in season seven. (You’ll know it when it happens.) This isn’t trying to be like the other endings, and (tiny spoiler coming up) season seven begins differently than all the other seasons, starting in narrative time not weeks or months but a few hours after season six ends. It’s a messier ending than we’re used to, with some elements working and some not.
Most of what doesn’t work in these episodes involves Hiatt. His character was weakly written from the beginning, but that really becomes clear now. The Shield’s writers have usually been very good at defining who the characters are, what they wanted, and then finding the story in the collision of characters, but Hiatt really has no character, he’s only whatever the plot needs him to be. In these episodes, the plot needs him to be useless and gone quickly, so that’s who he becomes. Suddenly, this is a guy who doesn’t “make a habit of banging chicks who know where to find me in the morning” (which makes him seem like a stereotypical asshole); suddenly, this is a guy who screws over CIs because he wants to keep kids from being initiated into gangs (Ruck Cohlchez correctly noted that he suddenly turns into a DARE counselor); suddenly, Hiatt’s mean to Vic, shoving his forced retirement in his face. There’s been nothing in the last half-season to suggest that this is who Hiatt is.
Really, I can only successfully read Hiatt’s presence in this season as some kind of meta-level joke, like some dipshit at FX (probably not John Landgraf, who is no dipshit) ordered Shawn Ryan to put a pretty face on the show, and the writers decided to show just how useless that kind of character and that kind of actor would be in this world. Claudette’s line “I don’t want Vic–too much cost–but I need someone with a little Vic” can be read as being about the Barn as a police force or about The Shield as a police drama; Hiatt’s boast that there are agencies begging for him only makes sense if those agencies are other networks. (Hiatt’s been saying to Vic in these two episodes that he’s the new boss; why does he just give up like that?) Claudette’s goodbye line “I guess somebody else just got lucky” is the perfect fuck-you, considering that who got lucky is CBS. Enjoy Honolulu, pal.
Most of Hiatt in these episodes is, of course, his role in Billings’ plot to maneuver Dutch into seeing Hiatt and Tina fuck. It’s as painstakingly plotted (Billings has to disinform Hiatt, Danny, and Dutch to bring it off) as any of the Strike Team’s actions, and I’m honestly not sure if it works for me. It holds to inside of the edge of plausibility, although there are some details that throw me (Danny says “Dutch, some unis saw you”–Billings invite them too? And how did he get Tina’s phone back to her?) More than anything, it’s petty; it’s a small act by a small man, the sort of thing that belongs in a Chuck Lorre sitcom. It’s not just beneath The Shield, it’s beneath Billings. Dutch is just a little too much of an asshole to Billings here, and Billings is just a little too vindictive. It’s like what’s been done with Hiatt (manipulating character for the sake of plot), but David Marciano and Jay Karnes are much better actors than Alex O’Lossleader, so we have a much stronger sense of who Billings and Dutch are. That means there’s more limits on what they can believably do. It also weakens the scenes in “Recoil” where Dutch interrogates a man who killed his lover; by connecting the last scene to Dutch going all boo hoo over Tina, it weakens Dutch’s genuine sense of compassion. The Shield always had a problem with getting too cute about linking its characters’ professional actions to their personal crises.
What does work in this plot is the aftermath–no surprise there, given how The Shield always commits to consequence. We can see, in “Spanish Practices,” how the Barn is all giggling over Tina; there are a lot of shots that cut from people looking at her to Paula Garces’ dismay. That leads to something that caught me by surprise on the first viewing, the moment between Danny and Tina when Tina says of Dutch “he had a chance, he just never took it.” Garces’ voice is assertive there, the tone of someone saying “let’s get this straight,” and it’s true–go back, even to late season 5, and there are moments where Tina’s clearly interested in him. It’s also true that Dutch was willing to manipulate her in “Postpartum” and mentor her through most of season 6, but what he never did was say “hey, do you want to go out with me?” K. Thrace has explained well that Dutch is afraid of meeting Tina on any kind of equal ground; he’s too insecure to put himself in a position where there’s a risk of her saying “no.” (I wish I didn’t know exactly what he’s doing.) So, he blows his last chance with her out of pure insecurity (Dutch’s tragic flaw), dismissing the idea of anything between them as “unrealistic.” There’s a last shot of Tina that lets us wonder if she’s hurt.
The story of Miracle Joe works too. This is one of The Shield’s best excursions into the life outside the Barn, because it’s done so quickly and with a few suggestive details. It’s also something that feels universally urban, in that every city has a homeless population and some of them are favorites of the locals and the cops. It’s also a rare moment when we see some genuine affection on the part of our cops for the citizens. When Dutch listens to Jimmy (Casey Washington), Joe’s nephew, tell the story of how he took care of his father, it’s one of Karnes’ triumphs as an actor. Karnes makes Dutch so transparent that we can see every stage of him trying not to cry, and it makes the scene in the locker room with Danny so believable. (Great opening shot of Dutch isolated in the corner and twisted on the bench.)
The Vic/Aceveda story here is also successful, and pretty damn exciting. Since Vic got served his retirement papers in “Extraction,” there’s been an inexorability about his fate that’s different from the intensity of the Money Train fallout or the story of Lem. Vic isn’t caught in some scheme that’s growing ever more complex and dangerous here; it’s just that nothing he can do to save his job works. Everyone he intimidates or reaches to can do nothing. The City Comptroller says “you’ve built a mountain of bad will too high to climb” (Aceveda says much the same thing, and can do as little) and notes that if Vic exposes the Controller’s daughter, Vic’s reversing his earlier report and will simply provide more leverage against himself. It gives such a sense of how much Vic’s past actions, not just the big ones, but all of them, have destroyed his present.
Vic also tries to secure his job by solving the San Marcos murders, and a tip from Pezuela leads him to the remaining three killers; there’s an effective, cinematic moment when the back of Vic and Ronnie’s van opens up and we see the crowd of Byz Lats ready to stomp two of the killers to death. Most of The Shield’s visual effects are theatrical rather than cinematic; this scene uses the power of editing to withhold the presence of the crowd until the door opens. It still doesn’t save his job. Vic goes to Pezuela, warning him that he’s under investigation, and Pezuela gives Vic a picture of Aceveda sucking a dick like a cell bitch, and later the memory stick and the story. In between, Christopher Cousins as Aceveda’s lawyer absolutely kills it in a single scene. He’s like the reverse of Becca last season, because Vic truly isn’t the usual lowlife he represents. Cousins conveys in a few minutes how utterly beneath him Vic is.
About that memory stick. It’s one of the trickier pieces of story on The Shield, but I can buy it. Here’s my reasoning: Juan’s partner downloaded it (remember, it was his phone) before Aceveda killed him. He stashed it somewhere safe and it was only found later, after he and Juan were both killed. (Vic says Juan downloaded it, but there’s no reason he should know whether or not that’s true.) If someone was gathering intelligence and went to the Byz Lats, it could plausibly have turned up. It’s a lot more plausible than Billings’ scheme.
Vic winds up teaming with Aceveda after failing to blackmail him, giving him the pictures and the memory stick because he needs Aceveda to trust him. (It’s a nice callback to season 3 when Vic gave Aceveda a tape of Aceveda beating a suspect.) This is what’s always been so great about Vic and Aceveda: the absolute flexibility of their relationship, and it’s been present since the first season. They can be enemies, allies, spies, with really no residue as they shift from one relationship to the next; there’s no emotional bond between them, so there’s no limits on what they can be. Whatever they are to each other at that moment, they’re fully and believably committed to that. They are both willing to use each other, and they recognize and respect that.
They start investigating Pezuela, and it’s a nice echo of their investigation of Gilroy back in season one in that it’s also based on real estate. Turns out Pezuela’s running point for a Mexican cartel, planning to buy up land and build apartments, stores, so forth and use them as fronts for crime. There’s an effective sense here of the way criminal organizations have diversified in the modern world, much as corporations do, and also of the scale of the world outside of Farmington. Later, there’s a nice, quick action scene of Vic having to engage in a fistfight while stuck in the window of a moving car, and it leads to the finish (for now) of the Vic/Aceveda story and the season, as they get their hands on a trove of intelligence on California officials. (If I’m reading this right, Pezuela’s old college buddy Romero, he of the chopped-off arm, was helping pay for it, and some of the intel was gathered by whoever was working out of the office Vic raids. There was a parabolic microphone in a shot next to Vic’s head at one point.) Aceveda correctly noted that investigating Pezuela’s operation would take more than the last three days Vic has on the force, but now they’re past investigating. The Shield has always been willing to push its characters into new territory, and now Vic and Aceveda have moved together into being counterconspirators.
The best, and most driving, part of these episodes is Shane and Diro. It makes perfect sense that Shane gets completely in over his head, and quickly; among other things, this is a great demonstration of what happens when Shane tries to act without Vic to guide him. Shane actually is pretty smart, but without Vic to restrain his impulses, he fucks things up even more quickly than with Antwon. When Shane brings Diro into the Barn to burn Rezian’s operation at the port (lovely moment with Potente playing Diro playing “clueless employee”), Vic reveals the story of Antwon and Angie to her. (Another great visual moment: Vic’s bald head lit in red light.) At the end of “Recoil,” Diro wants to cut Shane loose and Shane just won’t listen, blocking the door so she can’t leave. It’s one of the many moments when Shane’s desperation makes him so threatening, and then he does something truly impulsive and stupid: he reveals the Money Train robbery–”that was Vic! Him and his guys.” Goggins’ face immediately, even before Diro reacts and swears vengeance, registers OH SHIT.
Diro’s vengeance mission drives most of the action in “Spanish Practices.” (Again, it’s only in comparison to other Shield season finales that this seems weak.) Potente’s acting is a marvel in these episodes: without ever raising her voice or being at all demonstrative, she shows how Diro gets stronger and more confident in her actions. Watch how she holds her body away from everyone in “The Math of the Wrath,” and then consistently closes the space between her and Shane in “Spanish Practices.” For Diro, vengeance is just something you do, and probably something you’ve done for a few thousand years. (Another aspect of Diro’s morality that’s very old: turning off the machines to let her father die is acceptable. Allowing Shane to kill him by cutting off his oxygen is not. As Shane said, and as we’ll see, it’s all about family.) She states a key theme of The Shield, something we saw all the way back with Vic and Corrine in season 1: “we can’t separate the ones we love from the choices we make.” (It’s an effortlessly poetic sentence, with the phrases “the ones we love”/”the choices we make” balanced on the fulcrum of “from.”) That’s not something decorative on The Shield; it’s not something there to prove a point. It’s part of the characters and the story. Everyone–Gilroy, Vic, Kavanaugh, Diro–everyone will use who you love against you. Rezian says that Diro will kill the wives, the children, and then when the pain begins to fade, then she’ll kill who’s left. Last week, talking about Ronnie, I brought up the great line from Heat about having no one you love in your life. It’s to protect them as much as you.
The Shield does desperate acts like no other show, and Goggins does desperation like no other actor. Another thing that The Shield does so well is show how characters are defined by their limits, because whatever else is true about Shane, he will not accept the death of Vic’s family. Shane becomes this terrifying ball of nerves, sweat, and motion as he, holy shit, kidnaps Corrine and Cassidy and stuffs them into a shipping container. (Nice echo of season 1 and Kern Little, and also of the containers in at the shipyard controlled by Rezian.) It’s a completely crazy act, and by this point it’s all too believable–honestly, it would be unbelievable for Shane to come up with a less crazy plan on short notice. He puts a bullet in the gut of the assassin Zedofian in Corrine’s home (leading to a terrifying bloodstain) and then tries to re-ally himself with Rezian. The Shane story ends with Vic swearing to crush him, and Rezian telling him that to keep Vic’s family safe, he will have to work off the Money Train debt. If there isn’t a portent or catastrophe (the two favored season endings of The Shield) in these episodes, there is a common theme of people getting pushed and then reacting in unexpected ways. These two episodes demonstrate a principle of drama: every action produces a greater reaction, because actions go out into the world, and people act back on those actions.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
Oh man, the blackmail box. This caused a lot of discussion back in the first half of season seven among fans, critics, and commenters as to whether it worked. It does for me, because of one of the basic principles of storytelling: quality is proportional to ownage times plausibility. All fiction, by definition, involves a reduction of plausibility, because the storyteller is saying “what if?” (By definition, the only completely plausible things are not fictional.) We’re willing to accept that loss of plausibility if we get drama/ownage as a result. One of the things that made The Shield so good was that it didn’t have to get too implausible to create so damn much ownage.
The blackmail box pushes that, but not too far. (It’s another thing that’s a lot more believable than Billings’ scheme.) It’s believable, in fact it’s true, that a cartel would gather intelligence; it’s believable that Pezuela would have access to it; what’s hard to buy is that it would all conveniently be in the trunk of a car. Once we accept that, though, there’s a lot of great plot that spins out from it; my favorite is when Aceveda moves the box. (Vic goes to pull a file from it, and it’s gone; Aceveda says “I moved it because I knew you were going to do that!” Good burn, David.) It’s a great device to spin the Vic/Aceveda alliance into new levels of complexity, so it’s worth it. It’s also a mark of how disciplined The Shield’s storytelling is that they don’t add new twists–that is, they don’t keep piling on the implausibility. They don’t ask us to suspend more disbelief than necessary, and it’s always worth it.
Billings plots don’t work so well when they’re big things like the Dutch/Hiatt/Tina scheme (I just realized that it’s hard to believe Billings would put that kind of effort into it), but they’re so great when they’re in the background of a season. They’re both completely funny and completely believable. Season 5 had his captaincy and the vending machines, and season 7 will have his lawsuit and the fallout from it. It’s so much fun how no one ever takes him seriously about it; just as the Billings is the minimum level of effort to do the job, everyone gives less than one Billings about his lawsuit. And of course, it gives us the great guest shot from Jay Karnes’ wife, Julia Campbell, in the last episode.
Seeing what Shane does when he’s in panic mode gives so much force to the last five episodes. Ronnie says it perfectly: Shane can’t not fuck up for a single day, how long will he last on the run? It’s not vengeance to bring down Shane in the last episodes, it’s absolutely necessary to take him out of the picture, either by killing him or getting an immunity deal. It sets up an element of Beat the Clock in the last episodes.
Finally, Diro’s last line, to Shane: “your sentiment will destroy you.” It will destroy so many.