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 episodes, 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.
Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues. (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan)
“Party Line” opens with a late-night drive to Indio to pay a visit to Mara’s mom, Stella, played quickly and so viciously by Delane Matthews; with a huge glass of bourbon and a gentleman caller who resembles a (barely) sentient lump of beige Play-doh, she tells you about all you need to know about Mara’s motivation. Afterwards, in the parking lot of a 1950s-looking motel that’s a new, effectively disorienting location, Ronnie, exhausted, declares “we’re not gonna find him.” David Rees Snell plays Ronnie with so much reserve that the slight, weary break in his voice (exactly right for a man under stress and without sleep) has as much impact as Vic’s cry of “I don’t know!” back in “Of Mice and Lem.” Ronnie wants to run, and Vic comes back at him by first making it all about Vic–“how’s that gonna make me look?”, and asserts the principle of the state of war: “Shane does not get to win! He doesn’t get to kill your career, my life with my children!” and there’s incredible audacity or self-delusion again, Vic trying to save two things that are pretty much fucked at this point. Vic’s still trying and still scheming, though, and much of it will be trying to land a job and a deal with Olivia and ICE. “Give me one last shot,” he says to Ronnie, and if not, they’ll run together. The language of these episodes is full of references like this, last shots, needing just a few days, and decisions that can’t be undone, and these are nothing more than realistic assessments of desperate actions.
That opening scene sets the tone. What distinguishes The Shield’s ending from all other shows is the sense that there is no safety net anymore (Scott Tobias’ description of watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). It’s not simply that almost everyone is at risk, and they’re all risking at least their lives. It’s the sense that everyone will do anything to advance their position or defeat someone else’s. It’s obligation that defines the relationship between people, and those are obligations not to do things as much as to do them. Now, through these two episodes, those obligations fall as the actions turn into Thomas Hobbes’ state of war, “of every man, against every man.” Not surprisingly, the only things that compare to this are the endings of the films of Sam Peckinpah, the greatest artist of ownage. (The Wild Bunch would be the most obvious example, but even The Osterman Weekend has an ending like this, and I’d pick Straw Dogs as the best, most terminal version.) It’s the kind of ending, the kind of action, that puts the characters at risk for so much more than their lives. Cormac McCarthy (no surprise there either) caught this feeling in No Country for Old Men: “I think it is more like what you are willing to become. And I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard.” It’s not just that these characters, who we have known for so long and empathized with so much, are in danger from what will happen, they’re in danger from what they will do. That’s the pity and terror of these last episodes.
This state of war has been latent all through The Shield. A theme common to the classical political theorists was that war was always potentially there; where they differed was on what kept us out of it. Here, it’s the personal relationships that have kept the characters from full-on turning on each other, and those have fallen apart. We see here that you can’t count on the institutional relationships, and you can’t count on relationships that are built on dominance and exploitation, because one day you won’t be in that institution, one day you won’t have the shield, one day you’ll be weak, and you can do nothing. When that day comes, when you need those relationships the most, you’ll reach out and find nothing there, no one who can help you. Without those relationships, without that obligation, there’s only the state of war, there’s only the question of who has the most force, and who can run the best fraud, and that person might not be you.
We see this most clearly with the story of Shane, Mara, and Jackson. Shane was always the biggest shitkicker on the Strike Team, the guy who would go farther than anyone else with intimidation and violence. Vic knew how to use that, too (at least as far back in “Coyotes,” as Gilroy claimed that Vic wouldn’t kill him: “Maybe not. But Shane will.”) Starting with trying to get a car at the beginning of “Moving Day,” though, Shane keeps discovering that all his power derived from the badge. All through these two episodes, the Vendrells’ position gets weaker, sadder, and more desperate: a real estate agent blows their cover in the house; Vic and Ronnie give Shane’s picture to gang members and set a $10,000 bounty on his head; two of those members carjack them and make off with all their money, and Shane only saves his family by playing on Vic’s corruption; Shane tries to rob a drug drop and the cops are already there (“you ain’t a cop, I was right”); they’re reduced to living in a shitty abandoned house and stealing security deposits; and Shane can’t even get 75 cents on the dollar for them. In that last scene, Shane’s exchange the convenience store owner “all the favors I did for you?” and the reply “walk away, white man” tells us everything. No matter what Shane pretends, all his relationships with Farmington were based on threats and dominance, and now he doesn’t have the authority to do that anymore, and there’s no friendship to which he can appeal.
When Mara comes up with the plan to hit the real-estate office, just the way he says “I can pass a cashier’s check, no problem” tells us he thinks it will be no problem and it never occurs to him to think otherwise. Shane’s been the vicious prince of the city for so long that he can’t think of any other way to be and he’s having a hard time adapting here. The robbery of the real estate office is one of The Shield’s great, unforgettable scenes, built on a real sense of character (Shane had a problem with numbers going as far back as “Two Days of Blood”) and what I call comic heightening, which is the opposite of comic relief. Mara’s little “sorry” and “gracias” as she enters and exits (and the detail of the cleaning woman holding Jackson) are “Hungry Like the Wolf”-level funny and make the scene so much more unbearable. Shane’s still, like Llewellyn Moss, an inventive, reasonably smart guy (and Mara makes for an inventive, reasonably smart partner; there’s a light in her eyes when she comes up with the plan) but he’s so overmatched in terms of power and resources, and it’s only here that he realizes it, ending “Petty Cash” with the understanding that he, Mara, and Jackson are truly alone now.
Another indelible set of scenes are the three set in that empty house at the beginning of “Party Line.” The Shield almost never slows down to have scenes that don’t advance the plot, and it certainly has never stopped to this extent. (Michele Hicks in the pool, naked, her hair back to emphasize the planes of her face, surrounded by all that bright blue light makes for the most beautiful single image of the entire series.) That makes each moment more heartbreaking, because just the presence of these scenes means they can’t last. It makes Shane and Mara’s fantasy of running to Colombia even more painful. These scenes, in addition to jacking up the tension, give us such a sense of the Vendrells as a real family, people who dance and have barbecues and play hide-and-seek. It’s something that The Shield has always done, trusting its actors to make us feel the emotional stakes, and quickly.
One of the most thematically resonant scenes in these episodes isn’t in any of the increasingly desperate (and increasingly thrilling) moves and countermoves among all the different players. It’s the brief conference, early in “Party Line,” after Corrine’s revealed what she knows to Dutch and Claudette, that Shane and Mara have gone on the run and Vic wants to use her against them. Assistant Chief Phillips starts off with an immediate “arrest her,” stating that once arrested, she can be forced to cooperate–if Vic wants to use her, then they’ll use her better. Dutch and Claudette counterargue in practical terms, but also in moral, personal terms; Corrine’s just trying to get away from Vic. “We owe her,” Dutch says, and there’s the difference between what they want and what Phillips wants. He’s one of The Shield‘s defining institutional figures, and he only sees a resource to be used. Dutch and Claudette have a relationship with Corrine, and they place the relationship above everything else. They both know, they’ve both seen what happens when you start seeing people only as resources, when you deny your obligations to them. (Think of a moment in Breaking Bad’s fifth season: “because it’s what you do.” Think of the line in John le Carré’s Smiley’s People, about a defector: “because we owe. For as long as he comes over, he has no one on his side but us.”) Phillips agrees.
That decision, on the simple level of plot, pays off all through these episodes. Corrine, Claudette, and Dutch are literally in sync whenever they answer the phone together, and Corrine’s deceiving Vic like a pro. (That leads to an insanely tense moment when Dutch tells her to leave the cordless phone open when Vic shows up, and of course we get an insert of Vic toying with the phone. The Shield has no problem here cranking up the tension even higher.) There’s another great phone-related moment at the end of “Party Line” (appropriate title, that) when Claudette suddenly jumps in and starts talking to Mara directly. Mara listens, agrees, hangs up, and then after only a little pause tells Shane what happened, which tells you just how far these two will go for each other.
Dutch and Claudette also show the value of genuine relationships and obligation here. Their shorthand with each other is so convincing and kind of sweet, and necessary for actions that move so fast. I love their completely silent conversation about giving Shane “a light sentence,” especially Dutch mouthing “DO IT.” That’s why it’s so disturbing at the end of “Petty Cash” when Claudette rejects Dutch’s compassion with “if you don’t like the way I’m handling this case, you can always leave.” It’s completely clear that Claudette’s reacting to something that’s not there, probably from the sheer stress of it all, but the impact isn’t any less. If Dutch and Claudette’s friendship is in trouble, if that relationship falls, then there’s just no hope for anyone any more.
We also see the value of honest relationships with Claudette and Julien. Last week, Wad wondered if Julien’s loyalty to Claudette was based on his sense of right or a personal loyalty, and it’s both. Claudette’s always been honest with Julien, she’s respected him and how he’s advanced, and part of that respect is keeping him informed (via herself and Dutch) what’s going on, to the extent that she tells him in “Petty Cash” that they might be arresting Ronnie and Vic soon. The day has come when “it’s pick-a-side time,” and because Claudette has extended trust to Julien, she gets it back. He sides with her and Dutch and slightly but covertly against Ronnie–“if I get wind of anything you’ll be the first to know.”
He and Ronnie (who, since the conversation with Vic at the beginning of “Party Line” most likely has a bag packed with a fake passport, a gun, his Money Train cash, and his Journey CDs) take the case of Cardell Rhodes, a promising football player gunned down; it turns out the shooter was the mother of another prospect and she was trying to kill the recruiter. (Charles Eglee, who co-wrote “Petty Cash,” focuses more on social issues than other Shield writers; this story feels like his work. And hey, Van Bro shows up!) That forces Ronnie into an alliance with the ever-eager Billings (“nutjob plan”), because Shane has sent a package detailing “one of the Strike Team’s many evil deeds” to Claudette. Screw the main plot, because this subplot gives David Marciano a comic extravaganza, from his second line “I’m goin’ back to my crosswords” to his fist-bump with Ronnie to his complete failure to intercept anything. A whole day’s worth of funny gets capped off with a package of paper, blank except for HEY RONNIE TELL VIC HE’S A SHITHEAD YOU’VE BOTH JUST BEEN PUNKED and the return address Cletus van Damme, which wins the Best Callback Ever Award (Shows That Are Not Arrested Development category).
The subplots with Ronnie also create strong visual interest in these two episodes. A lot of the moves by Dutch and Claudette here are about trying to keep Ronnie from finding things out, or disinforming him via Billings, so a lot depends on what characters can and can’t see and hear. After 84 episodes, we all have a bedrock sense of where the spaces are in relation to each other in the Barn–the most visible space is the breakroom (great moment of Dutch turning his back on the bullpen when he talks to Claudette), the least visible space is the stairwell, and the Captain’s office can work both ways. There are shots of characters seeing each other, not seeing each other, or checking to see if someone’s seeing. Our history with the show makes every shot comprehensible; because every shot is an action by a character (seeing or not seeing), every shot heightens the intensity.
Aceveda gets in the game too, crashing a Pezuela/Beltran/Vic meeting, and I can’t describe what happens next better than ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER, so I won’t try:
ACEVEDA PUTTING A STONE FUCKING BEATDOWN ON BITCHASS PEZUELA AND PULLING HIS FUCKING PISTOLA ON MACKEY WAS SOME OF THE MOST HARDCORE SHIT EVER IT WAS LIKE HOLY SHIT EVEN MACKEY DOESN’T WANT ANY OF THAT. ACEVEDA FUCKING RUNS SHIT AND EVERYBODY HERE NEEDS TO RECOGNIZE
(I’ll just add the detail that Aceveda unbuttons his jacket just before. Whenever Aceveda buttoned his jacket, it was his sign that he was done with you; doing the opposite means he’s gonna throw down.) ZMF echoes here James Ellroy’s description of Ed Exley in White Jazz: “no, I fix things, Exley runs things,” one of the reasons I’ve claimed that Aceveda is the Latino Ed Exley. That moment most closely resembles Vic’s beatdown on Armadillo in season two’s “Dead Soldiers.” There’s a similar psychological setup, in that Aceveda just had his manhood challenged by Vic and he needs to reassert himself (back in “Dead Soldiers,” Vic got literally tossed in the garbage by Corrine’s bodyguard one scene before he demolished Armadillo), but that’s less important than the action’s dramatic necessity. Aceveda has to dominate Pezuela, and he has to do it in front of Beltran, to keep himself in play in the ICE investigation.
Like Mara forgiving Shane in “Haunts,” or Ronnie executing Zedofian in “Coefficient of Drag,” it’s powerful not because it reveals something new about Aceveda but because it confirms something old. Since late in the first season, Aceveda’s been a steamroller of ownage, crushing anything in his path, whether it’s Ben Gilroy or falling behind in the polls or civilian auditors in the Barn or colleagues who get arrested or getting raped or Rawling’s asset forfeiture program or the death of Lem. Aceveda’s found a way through all of it (Beltran calls him “a fish swimming through razor blades”) and has always gotten more power. Since then, he does what’s required, with perhaps the most foresight of anyone. If getting to the mayor’s office requires dealing with Pezuela, he’ll do it, and if it requires choking him out, he’ll do that too, with as little hesitation, and just as effectively. Really, his turning point back in the first season was when he started collaborating with Vic rather than trying to bring him down, because that’s what he needed to do.
Maybe that’s what leads him, at the end of “Petty Cash,” to appeal to Vic to restore their alliance. In this state of war, Vic and Aceveda have been playing Mutually Assured Destruction for most of these episodes: Aceveda can blow Vic’s cover but only at the cost of revealing that he’s partnered up with the cartel for his mayoral campaign. Aceveda comes back to the principle of personal relationships and makes an offer to Vic: “I’m asking that we both respect the other’s endgame.” Vic looks at least intrigued.
Aceveda got forced into that move because Vic’s playing a good game, but he’s short of perfect here. Vic’s running some great schemes but he’s moving too fast to see (or it’s just not occurring to him) that some players are lying. After Aceveda delivered the beatdown, Vic had to get himself back as ICE’s alpha dog, and he pulled together his skillz and remaining resources to track down Beltran. Echoing Vic’s line to Aceveda a few episodes back (“don’t worry, if Pezuela wants you killed, he’ll send me to do it”), Beltran directs Vic to kill Pezuela. (The contempt Beltran shows for Pezuela is a nice touch. Pezuela diminishes from villain to mere businessman, and not a good one, building the warehouse late and overbudget.) Vic spares Pezuela and turns him in to ICE with the intent of Pezuela stonewalling ICE for a few days. That blows Aceveda’s leverage, and leads him to the offer of an alliance with Vic.
Vic’s scheme to broker a deal between the cartel and the Black Board of Directors and then rip off $100,000 from that deal and deliver it to Shane shows him at his full intelligence, audacity, and self-delusion, and it shows that in his own way he’s as desperate as Shane. (Ronnie’s reaction is just short of are you insane? saying “the wheels are coming off the whole goddamn thing.”) Vic can still get a good threat going when he has backup, telling the Board that the cartel can fire an “RPG into this living room before I hit the floor”; the man who started this series as a cop is now threatening cartel-style mayhem in LA. He can still improvise with the best, stashing the money in, holy fucking shit, a garbage can in a gas station men’s room. He executes the plan perfectly, but doesn’t see the two lies behind it all: Shane made the demand only to set him up for an aiding-and-abetting charge, and Corrine’s working with Dutch and Claudette. He’s completely oblivious to both possibilities and to the danger he’s spreading, especially at the end of “Petty Cash” where he’s all smiles and compliments with Cassidy over a math test, having just told Corrine to keep the cash belonging to a Mexican cartel that murdered “47 people–cops, dispatchers, janitors.” at a single police station. (This is way past what he did with the $65,000 remaining from the Money Train, and how did that work out?)
The Board, by the way, is a nice touch courtesy of director Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow, Black Snake Moan). He’s one of the occasional film directors (like David Mamet for “Strays” and Frank Darabont for “Chasing Ghosts”) who came in to direct an episode. Brewer felt that these characters would be of an older generation of black Los Angeles, and gave them a good 1971 look. Overall, he did an excellent job, using reflections to catch some offhand beauty (Vic overlaid by an orange prison jumpsuit is a favorite), but there’s one shot that doesn’t work: the swooping camera on Corrine in the park when Shane doesn’t show. It gives a sense of Corrine’s disorientation, and it would work fine in one of Brewer’s movies, or Paul Thomas Anderson’s; here it’s out of place, because it violates the feeling that what we’re seeing could be observed by someone in the space, unless that someone is a particularly curious pigeon. A minor point, but one that demonstrates how much a unified style defines The Shield.
When Vic delivers the money from the Board, it launches another great, resonant scene, a two-hander with Vic and Beltran, plus a couple of shots of tequila that Vic declines. On the surface, this scene is the last phase of a job interview, the “tell me about yourself” part, and Vic’s puffing himself up as he so often does. (“You got an action hero on your payroll” is even better than “I don’t step aside, I step up,” as is his remark about his grandparents. It’s not important whether or not that’s true, because his clear purpose in saying it is to sell himself to Beltran.) When Vic says “the edge is where we live. All of us, all the time. People try to convince themselves otherwise, but it’s just an exercise in self-deception,” though, it makes the scene much more ambiguous. Vic didn’t live like that, not so long ago; back then he had a family and was on his way to a secure retirement. So many times, Vic justified, entirely reasonably, his theft because he needed to make sure he had a future, with Joe “I guess I didn’t steal enough” Franklin as the strongest warning of that. Even a week ago Vic had a shot at keeping some of his pension. Now, though, Vic might be delivering the line he thinks an action hero should deliver, or he might have come to believe it and embrace it. Maybe this is Vic’s way of saying “I get it!”
This scene throws forward to Vic’s conversation with Olivia in the parking garage (one more of the many anonymous urban spaces that serve as stages for The Shield’s most crucial scenes), as Vic gives up her blackmail file (carefully distinguishing himself from Aceveda) and acknowledges that he has no leverage any more, no job, and “I need a place to land. Can I count on you for that?” Vic’s not as desperate as Shane, but he’s getting there, with almost all of his relationships destroyed. He’s appealing to Olivia to save him from Shane’s fate. He’s asking, so late in the game, after he’s betrayed so many, for one last alliance.
Maybe, then, what Vic said to Beltran was true, no matter what he believed; maybe he was fronting for Beltran but described himself without knowing it. The state of war is all edge, all the time, having “no future I can plan on past tomorrow” as Vic says to Olivia. In his last scene in “Petty Cash,” introducing Ronnie to Beltran, Vic’s achieved the state I call “giddy with disaster”; the nonstop action has burned off all everyday anxieties. You’re not worried about anything in this state, because there’s just no time; you’re happy and hyperconfident because if you’re wrong, you’ll be dead before you realize it. It’s why Vic can peel off a twenty to celebrate Cassidy doing well on a math test (another very Tony Soprano moment). It’s why Vic can say “a little ulcer never hurt anyone” and mean it. Ronnie isn’t anywhere close to Vic’s state–we can see that line makes him remember Lem. (We can also see how quickly he can hide that from Vic and Beltran.) Maybe Vic has learned the truth of Hobbes’ statement, but in reverse: if force and fraud are your cardinal virtues, not only will you end up in the state of war, you belong there. It really is about “what you are willing to become,” and Vic might already have become someone else. Going into the very last hours of The Shield, the questions are, once again, right from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, specifically its poster: who will survive? And what will be left of them?
THE FINAL SPOILERS
Some commenters have noted when Claudette blows up at Dutch at the end of “Possible Kill Screen,” she’s giving a speech that was most likely intended for Vic, about how he can’t possibly make up for all the shit he’s done. (The speech she does give Vic in “Family Meeting” is way more measured and effective.) She’s clearly thinking about what she’s going to say to Vic as far back as these episodes, saying to Dutch “we can’t expect justice out there when we don’t demand it in our own house.”
One of the pleasures of marathoning Shield episodes is going straight from “Petty Cash” into “Possible Kill Screen,” because you go right from Shane and Mara’s lowest, most desperate moment into. . .something even lower and more desperate. Once you create this sense that everyone’s at war and anything can happen, you have to deliver on it or it’s just weak, and the opening of “Possible Kill Screen” raises the stakes even higher than I thought they could be raised. That’s actually a pretty good description of the entire run from “Parricide” to “Family Meeting.” Really, what all these episodes do is raise the stakes, darken the atmosphere, so we expect things to get worse–and then they get even worse than that.