Given the heavily serialized nature of The Shield, it’s necessary to discuss future episodes to fully appreciate what’s happening now. In these reviews, the first part will only reveal events up to and including the current episode, and the second part will be marked with a SPOILER warning and will reveal events from future episodes. Commenters, please mark SPOILERS for first-time viewers. (You know why.) Wad VanDerTurf has generously indexed my reviews of previous episodes here.
“No. That’s not necessary.”
Entering the seventh season, it’s all about alliances. The Shield has always played up the importance of negotiation and compromise in this world; it’s one of the things that generates both its sense of a real place and its drama, as its characters had to decide where to place their trust, and how far they could take it. This was never a show about superheroes or supervillains, never about people who could realize their desires on their own. Now, those necessary alliances are spilling out beyond the boundaries of the Barn. There are alliances of convenience that could lead to actual loyalties, and there are alliances that are in place just long enough to prevent the players from trying to kill each other.
The first alliance we see, and the one that we track all through the episode, is between Vic and Ronnie. With Lem dead and Shane as a not-exactly-enemy, Ronnie steps into Shane’s position, the loyal and occasionally murderous right-hand-man. We start right away with Vic and Ronnie collaborating, tying Mara up and gagging her, and then interrogating Shane. Social Distortion’s music, straightforward, aggressive, but always with a strong moral sense (“but the day may come when you’ve got something to lose/and just when you think that you’re done paying dues”), is perfect for The Shield, and there’s an effective edit where we cut to Mara in the apartment just before Shane opens the door, so we have one moment to know what’s coming before he does. Among other things, Shane reveals what happened with Zedofian, how he was sent to kill Vic and how Shane wounded him in Corrine’s home. Vic and Ronnie leave, and we go into the title on Mara’s face. (Again, Michele Hicks can do so much with her eyes.)
Much of the first act is about the race to get to Zedofian. “Multiple chasers after a single target” is a recurring Shield plot; in fact, it’s a recurring Kurt Sutter plot–he wrote the first one, “Blowback,” and this episode. Vic and Ronnie get to him just before Shane does, and Shane, just downstairs from the motel room, will be an earwitness to some of what happens. Like Shane did over Terry at the beginning of the series (we never saw that, but a conversation in “Postpartum” revealed that it happened), Ronnie confers with Vic over what to do about Zedofian. Since Ronnie stopped Vic from killing him by saying his blood’s in your wife’s house, I think Ronnie told Vic something like “you have to be somewhere else where a lot of people can see you when he dies.” Vic leaves, Ronnie gets Zedofian to give up Diro’s number, and puts two shots in his chest.
Like the moment at the end of “The Math of the Wrath,” this isn’t something new for Ronnie, it’s a deeper revelation of something that was always there. He’s always accepted the necessity of killing, and now he does it. Ronnie takes a moment to just look at Zedofian, and the camera takes a moment to just look at him, and there’s that absolute acceptance on his face. (“Had to be done.”) Some people have read the killing of Zedofian as Vic’s corruption infecting Ronnie, but it’s not that; compare the look on Ronnie’s face to the look on Vic’s face after he shoots Margos, which has nothing like Ronnie’s calm. Ronnie doesn’t exist to make a point about corruption, he’s a defined, unique character, someone different from Vic. Later, we get another moment just looking at Ronnie in his car (The Shield moves too quickly to allow for much more than this, and it makes us pay attention to small details), and just after that Vic says “I need to see that distant stare come off your face.” Killing someone that cold-bloodedly is new for Ronnie, but he can most definitely handle it. (More than anything else, the sense of Ronnie actually doing something he already accepted is what connects him to Joss Whedon’s Wesley Wyndham-Price.) There’s a strong, ambiguous moment at the end, where Ronnie smiles and says “I thought pulling the trigger would be the hard part, but after–” and Vic cuts him off. How was he going to finish that sentence? That smile suggests, to me anyway, that Ronnie discovered there was no hard part. That reading makes Vic’s line twistedly funny, when he tells Ronnie not get sucked into that “black hole” of guilt that got Shane. I don’t think that’s what you have to worry about with Ronnie.
The Ronnie/Vic alliance feels strong, based in common goals and trust. Claudette, by the way, will recognize this, and put Ronnie in charge of the Team, so that Ronnie will be responsible for any shit Vic does. (I love Claudette’s huge grin in that scene, and the fact that Vic has to cover his smile.) Ronnie/Vic is the opposite of Vic/Shane, who are essentially in a state of deterrence with one another. At the end, as Shane meets up with the other two, Shane first denies knowledge of who chopped off Zedofian’s feet, and then admits it–he wanted to make it look like Diro’s move in order to convince Rezian to ally with him. Then Vic claims ignorance on who actually killed Zedofian, and Shane knows he’s lying, and doesn’t call him on it. Like deterrence or poker, a necessary skill is recognizing a bluff, but a further necessary skill is recognizing when to allow a bluff. Shane and Vic are now playing each other (Vic says “we have to keep him close”) and they both know that, and it’s unclear what will happen. Which is to say, it’s a tense, exciting story that’s been launched.
Related to that is something that’s always been there but I never really caught until now: Vic is a very good liar but not a great one. Chiklis gives Vic just a little extra force when he’s lying, like Vic’s trying to push it on you. Great liars speak lies just like the truth, but Vic, with Shane and with Claudette, always lies like he wants to make you to accept it, and other characters often do accept it for their own reasons. He wants to bully you with it. It’s something that’s exactly in character for him.
Vic continues to strengthen his alliance with Pezuela, pitching himself in much the same way that Shane did with Antwon back in season four, and doing a better job at it. Pezuela’s going to need the services of a corrupt cop as much as he needs the blackmail files, so Vic has a way in. What’s different is that Vic is playing Pezuela from the beginning, planting the idea that the Armenians have the files. (He also says that blackmailing Aceveda went nowhere, and Pezuela seems to have lost interest. Julie Taymor recommended just this method for dealing with weak points in the plot–just go by them as quickly as you can.) There’s some great lighting in their last scene here, with Vic hovering just out of the light like the LA version of All the President’s Men. It’s a mutual alliance, as Pezuela gets a commissioner to take a vacation to give Vic an extra 30 days on the force, and for Pezuela to evaluate him.
In a single scene, there’s a hint of another alliance coming up. Vic, of course, can’t say anything to Corrine that isn’t nearly a complete fiction by now. This isn’t just limited to words–there’s also the hilarious moment of him and Carlson (Matt Carboy) laying a beatdown on the guy who had the blackmail box, and then waving goodbye to Cassidy with the guy still at Vic’s feet. Deception will always create opportunities for comedy, and The Shield won’t pass that up. Corrine goes to confront Mara, and she defines the difference between her family and Corrine’s in a single sentence: “I guess one of us is being lied to” (so very smug on that line) and suggests that it might be time for Corrine and Mara to ally. The men of The Shield have been creating so much havoc fighting each other that it might be necessary for Mara to lead its women to fix things. Without ever making it obvious or getting in the way of the story, The Shield lands on some critiques of masculinity the same way Peckinpah did, by portraying it honestly and always with attention to the consequences.
The Shield’s theme of family recurs here, with Mara placing family above the dick-swinging contest of Vic and Shane, and of course Vic’s parting line to Shane earlier was “Lem was family.” Family is a higher virtue than alliance because family is necessary, and family obligates you. Here, you can choose your alliances, you can betray alliances, but never your family. There’s the possibility that Mara will create a greater sense of family for Corrine, and also the possibility that family will win out over alliance.
Of all the alliances here, there’s one that’s completely honest and aboveboard–Vic and Aceveda. These two have always been so flexible in their relationship, because there was never any emotional content to it. It’s truly, with them, nothing personal, and they’ve been enemies, allies, spies, conspirators, all through the series. Now, after six seasons, they can be completely honest with each other; just because a few weeks ago Aceveda planted a lie that contributed to Lem’s death doesn’t mean they can’t work together. (Aceveda will never be family–remember season four’s line “you’re not a cop. You never were a cop.”) Like Vic says, they’ll never be friends, “we’re just here for survival.” Note how Vic follows that with “you wanna be mayor, I just wanna keep being a cop.” Vic is completely honest here, he doesn’t have anything like Aceveda’s ambition. Because of that openness, they can collaborate so effectively here. Aceveda suggests copying a file and giving the original to a City Council member who’s been dealing with Pezuela, doing a favor and keeping their leverage. Vic smiles as he realizes, maybe for the first time, how smart Aceveda is. You can do a lot worse in terms of allies, and Vic certainly has.
The arrival of ICE agent Olivia Murray creates another alliance, this time an institutional one. She shows up at the site of the body dragging, offering assistance but not trying to take over, because she’s trying to rise in her own agency. It’s an effective visual that the lines of blood keep appearing in the background with no one really paying attention to them, and another good moment has Claudette casually stepping around a dismembered leg. It’s also an effective bit of texture when they start looking at former Mexican police, recognizing that law enforcement in Mexico often serves as auditioning for cartel work. It helps a lot that Olivia gets played by Laurie Holden, one of the most unusual and interesting screen presences around. (She had just worked with The Shield’s crew on The Mist, and would go on working with them on The Walking Dead.) Holden’s beautiful but not in any kind of generic way; those eyes are too wide apart and the face too angular for that, and her voice always seems to be an octave deeper than anyone else’s; if she’d been born fifty years earlier, Hitchcock never would have worked with any other actress. She’s warmer and more demonstrative than Franka Potente, but gives the same suggestion that we don’t know everything that she’s doing, and that this alliance might be going somewhere else.
All of this takes place parallel to the story of Billings. I think we can all agree right now that any kind of plot contrivance or implausibility is completely justified if it gets us to the sight of David Marciano in wraparound sunglasses. (Favorite moment: Julien walking by Billings, looking at him once, and thinking “I don’t want to know.” It’s the sort of moment you’d get on NewsRadio with Matthew.) Billings gets neatly played by Dutch, Claudette, and Anna Marie Horsford’s ADA by an old case that gets brought up by one of the players walking in and saying he killed his wife. The Emilio/Hector/Lorena case feels like the Platonic ideal of a one-episode Shield case, stupid people doing stupid shit–“I’m protected because of final jeopardy.” (Second favorite moment: Dutch’s single glance down at Lorena, who does indeed have a great rack.) Billings of course demonstrates his not-failing memory, stamina, and logic skills and blows his own lawsuit; The Shield suggests that both crime and corruption are things best left to the professionals. I wish we could have heard how the rest of the case played out (I’ll just assume everyone’s going to jail in some capacity), but it does what it needs to do. When Billings defines the Billings unit of effort (“whatever’s between zero and the city-mandated minimum”), it’s the sort of thing a Dilbert character would do. Billings raises laziness to a way of life. In a show (and in a season, I promise) where everyone is so damn intense, we need someone around who’s just trying to make it to 5pm. Well, more like 4pm for Billings.
The Billings story resonates with the end of the episode, and the upcoming plot, because it’s a warning that your allies might be betraying you just as they appear to be helping you. (In fact, they might be helping you specifically as an act of betrayal.) At the end, Shane meets with Vic and Ronnie (Shane on one side, Vic and Ronnie on the other), and Vic lays out the plan to spark a Mexican/Armenian gang war. It’s a plot that calls back to Miller’s Crossing and Last Man Standing/A Fistful of Dollars/Yojimbo all the way back through Hammett’s Red Harvest, but it’s a plot that takes place entirely among outlaws. This is a new step for Vic and the remnants of the Team, moving from cops, even dirty cops, into the orbit of criminals. They’re going to be allies to everyone and to no one, they’re going to be working for and possibly against each other, and it remains to be seen if they can ever get back.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
This doesn’t feel like the beginning of a final season; with its sense of new alliances and a potential conflict way off in the distance, it resembles the beginning of season 3. There’s nothing like the flashforward that opens the last season of Breaking Bad or the fantastic Seven Souls montage in The Sopranos. (It’s not even like the end of “Extraction,” which gave such a sense of foreboding for the entire fifth season.) It’s the absence of those devices that mark The Shield, once again, as a dramatic rather than a literary work. Shawn Ryan, Sutter, and everyone else aren’t concerned with making a unified work around themes of death or betrayal, they’re concerned with advancing the story one more notch without giving away where it’s going. Clark Johnson, who directed “Family Meeting” (as well as the pilot), gave a simple rule of storytelling in the final season: “nobody expects to lose, nobody expects to die.” Neither do we, at this point; although the Mexican-Armenian conflict has been seeded by Vic here, we don’t see yet how it’s going to explode in “Animal Control,” where the third act starts its final turn.
Pezuela’s arc is one of the better character reveals on The Shield. He began last season as a corrupt businessman, then made the transition to full-on Medium Bad in “Recoil,” possibly dangerous but not up there with Diro or Rezian. Now he’s involved in the body draggings and will become the major focus of the ICE/Aceveda/Vic investigation. It’s the last turn that’s the most interesting, though, when Francesco Quinn’s Beltran shows up and he we see he was always just another rung on the cartel’s ladder, and gets owned by Aceveda. The Shield, all through the series, holds to the rule of showing everything from the perspective of Farmington, and Team Ryan realizes that you can get a lot of story out of that, because it’s necessary that our characters won’t know everything at once. As ever, what The Shield loses in social perspective it gains in character interest and intensity.
This episode introduces something rare in The Shield, an object loaded with meaning. (Todd van der Werff noted that this is a common strategy in Lost, and it would be hard to imagine a show more distant from The Shield.) It’s the picture of the Strike Team, and we see it here for the first time. Vic folds back the picture to have Shane facing forward at Zedofian and the other three facing back at him, a visual indicator of the break in the Team. That picture will of course be back in the last minutes of the show, folded down even farther until it’s nothing but Vic and Lem, the member of the Team who Vic didn’t betray simply because he was killed before that could happen, as elegant a symbol of Vic’s destroyed life as you could ask for.