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.
“How’d we lose control of this?”
“Snitch” turns on a huge, complex scene of L’il BK, a thirteen-year-old wannabe banger, being led by three white cops and a black one through a crowd of black people cheering him on and chanting “Spook Street! Spook Street!”; the camera keeps revealing a bigger crowd in a kind of spatial crescendo. That’s followed with a vicious verbal fight between him and another authority figure, Claudette (you can’t call it an interrogation because the kid gives it up immediately). It’s the sort of thing that feels like a racist nightmare specific to contemporary America, an urban scene of young black bodies and voices utterly out of control, ungovernable, defiant of any authority, the sort of thing used to scare the crap out of older white voters. On its own, that’s what it is.
What makes it work is the way it’s given context by the story, by what comes before and after, and by the strength of the characters. What does not make it work is any attempt to give character to that crowd. Again, The Shield always keeps its focus on the Barn. The world outside the Barn, whether its the upper reaches of LAPD administration or the lives of civilians, only matters on the show when it impacts the characters. The Shield has nothing of the social reach or interest of The Wire; right now, it doesn’t have the social reach of its own fourth season. For better and worse, it’s not trying to explain why anyone would behave this way. It also, as we’ve talked about before, has no presumption of innocence on the part of anyone. No one on this show can ever be assumed to be governable. (The Shield doesn’t criticize our world for failing to solve its problems, because it doesn’t have the Enlightenment belief that those problems can be solved. It’s another fundamental difference between The Shield and The Wire.) There are no real characters on The Shield except for those who interact with cops. It’s the necessary price that you pay for telling a universal story: you don’t spend time explaining the setting, because that’s not going to be the thing that endures.
Within that focus, though, respect for character and storytelling creates a more complex, even moving story. First, the events of “Snitch” get kicked off by the mayor’s office publishing a list of the ten most dangerous gangs in LA, which everyone in the Barn recognizes will be treated like sports standings. (Vic keeps the metaphor going by offering three hours as the over/under for the first murder. Tina calls under.) Spook Street didn’t make the list and L’il BK and a partner do the first kill. Another Spook Streeter suggests they brag about being affiliated with al-Qaeda to get more attention; they do, and now Homeland Security is on their way. This is The Godfather’s method of storytelling, used so well on The Shield: absolutely everything outside the Barn is hostile, through violence or incompetence. The Shield doesn’t demonstrate much faith in people to order their own lives, but it also doesn’t have faith in institutional structures. It doesn’t analyze either, but rather shows how its characters cope with both.
That’s where CCH Pounder comes in. In addition to holding to David Mamet’s “backstory is bullshit” rule, Team Shawn Ryan follows another principle, this one from Quentin Tarantino: “the face is the backstory.” (He was referring to Eddie Bunker’s performance in Reservoir Dogs.) Everything about Pounder’s performance, right down to the cadences of her voice, conveys this sense of a woman who lived the history of the struggle, and she can make her speech to L’il BK sing: “I wouldn’t waste the word ‘nigger’ on someone as empty and Godless as you. Too many of our people have died being treated like ‘niggers’ for me to belittle their suffering.” There’s this sense not so much rage (although that’s there) as of absolute weariness with Claudette, the sense that “once again I have to explain this.” (A lot of people active in civil rights have said the same thing.) For his part, Roderick Ikaika Maggay as L’il BK does some great reacting here, playing someone who 98% doesn’t give a shit.
There’s also a smart, even vicious button on the story, as we come back from the break and Anna Maria Horsford’s ADA Encardi lets Claudette know that she’s been hit with a complaint over saying “us[ing] a racist epithet to intimidate the suspect”; it’s a brilliant move to go directly from Claudette’s speech into that kind of empty, weak bureaucratic language. Encardi has Claudette’s weariness but not her idealism, and Horsford’s every bit the equal of Pounder as an actress; when she says “you let him get to you,” it’s something based on shared experience. Her voice says that she’s been right where Claudette is, many times. That’s the real payoff. The story comes to rest in Claudette’s office, in the territory of drama, of impossible choices and no solutions, and two black women who have to deal with it as best they can. (This is the most socially despairing episode since season four’s “Hurt.”) Dutch comes in and says “that had to hurt,” and Claudette replies “everything hurts.”
Meanwhile, Dutch and Billings continue their collaboration, which continues to be reliably funny and occasionally more than that. With Dutch, it’s his insecurity and brilliance that are forever struggling; with Billings, it’s his laziness and his insight. He can be just the guy sitting in the car wanting to get back to the station; he can also be the guy who realizes that an apartment manager (Mike Gomez, best known for The Big Lebowski) dropped a cinderblock on a singer’s head, and no one wants to give him up. Dutch can get too obsessed to see a truth that’s right in front of him. For his part, Dutch has learned a little from Billings, and not just about suspects; he orchestrates a Billings-like strategy of disinformation, trying to manipulate Danny into taking a desk job to help Claudette, and trying to manipulate Claudette into accepting it. (Her new meds are generating side effects; she’s beginning to limp in these episodes.)
There’s a single moment with Danny in “Money Shot” worth looking at closely, because it shows so much of what The Shield’s style is about. In the case of the girl whose parents paid to have someone “rape the lesbian out of her,” Danny offers to go in and talk to the girl (“you trusted a hunch, trust mine.”) As Danny tells the story of last episode where she got jumped at a crime scene, the camera begins a smooth, quarter-circular pan around her, and then jumps back to encompass more in the shot. It’s that little jump that defines the style here. The pan is something planned, something elegant, but the jump back has the feeling of a consciousness reacting. Which is exactly what it is, it’s the reaction of the camera operator (most likely Billy Gierhart, who is one of The Shield’s most essential creators). It’s something that’s absolutely human, rough-edged, unpredictable, and you’ll see dozens of examples in every episode of The Shield. It’s what makes this show feel so alive at every moment.
Another B-story in “Money Shot” follows the tradition of final seasons, and gives the episode its title: a curtain call for a minor character from the past. Here it’s Joseph Reitman as Axl, last seen in season six’s “On the Jones” as the producer of Dick ‘n’ Granny. This leads to a sting with Tina and Julien posing as amateur porn stars. Tina’s shedding her incompetence this season and becoming a good, confident cop; I suspect the tour as LAPD’s poster girl in season six helped her there. (The posters with Tina are a running gag now; every time we see them, they’re more defaced.) One way time gets structured in The Shield is through the two generations of training, Danny/Julien and Julien/Tina, and there’s some good, funny interplay here (“I was listening the first time you taught me this.” “Glad to hear it,” Julien says, with just a touch of “whaddaya want, a medal?” in his tone). And Tina grabbing the guy’s dick after Julien draws his gun is such a magnificent piece of ownage for her, and one of the funniest lines in the entire series (“natural. But small.”) Someone get Paula Garcés a role in a superhero movie, like fifteen minutes ago.
A lot of these two episodes, and clearly a lot of this season, will be about the question of trust between Vic and Shane. (You can see the story of the apartment manager in “Snitch” as an echo of this theme.) I don’t think it’s a question of them ever being what they were; the range of possible outcomes here ranges from hatred all the way up to indifference, with the golf game mentioned in season two’s “Partners” pretty much off the table. Shane continues to have his eye on the door (he and Mara are already moving), and Vic–well, it’s unclear enough with him that when “Snitch” opens with a night drive, it’s a possibility that he’s going to kill Shane. By the end of “Money Shot,” Vic is full-on playing him–keeping him close, as he said at the end of “Coefficient of Drag.” Shane’s playing Vic, too, by giving him what he says is the last copy of the confession, and it isn’t. Vic offers Shane a speech accepting killing Lem, and then a sneer after Shane leaves that lets Ronnie (and us) know that he was lying all through it.
Back to that opening sequence of “Snitch”: they’re actually going to the safe house where Vic killed Guardo and is keeping Luis (the owner of the blackmail box) prisoner. (Vic’s sense of self-righteousness keeps him insulting Shane about Guardo here.) Vic sets up an ICE bust on Luis’ home, and spreads the word that he’s selling off the files. In a move that’s both clever and very, very sad, Luis heads off to the goat farm that was going to be Lem’s destination.
The blackmail box itself was going to be some all-purpose leverage for Vic; right at the beginning of “Money Shot,” he mentions he “has a card to play,” heads to where he and Aceveda stashed it, and POOF it’s not there. AgThunderbird noted last week that Aceveda can think much farther ahead than Vic, and he anticipated this. He’s not particularly upset with Vic either, when Vic comes charging into his office and demands the files; three years of dealing with this man have taught him what to expect. Aceveda knows he can’t trust Vic, and acts accordingly. Vic pumps himself up into maximum threatening mode, and Aceveda has an answer for everything. There’s a great edit at the close of the scene: Vic’s parting threat “I don’t need the box, I have you.” Cut to: Shane’s “how’d that card play out?” “It didn’t.”
If Aceveda’s still a challenge, Vic continues to effectively play Rezian and Pezuela, Yojimbo-style. (That’s my favorite version of this plot, so that’s how I’ll refer to it.) One aspect of this kind of strategy that’s counterintuitive, but well-suited to the Mackey method: you don’t get subtle about this, you don’t try and insinuate your way into the target’s trust. You bully your way in like you’re charging through a fence. At the end of “Snitch,” Vic tells Pezuela that the tryout period’s over, and he’ll be setting the terms now. A few scenes later, at the beginning of “Money Shot,” he comes right to Rezian’s office and brags about the Money Train, saying it was him, Lem, and two other guys. (Shane gets threatening too.) Vic recognizes that the Armenians have been weakened, and probably also recognizes that Rezian’s not got much in the way of backbone. It’s a perfect situation for the always forward-looking Vic to exploit; as he says, “the foot-chopping generation’s dead and buried.” Like with Pezuela, he dictates the terms–three wishes, three favors he’ll grant to them, and then the debt will be paid.
It’s a very much a Yojimbo move that Vic’s next move here is to peel off Rezian’s right-hand man, Khalulian. It’s necessary, too–there’s a good insert of him putting a hand on his gun as Vic starts bullying Rezian. There’s a load of guns that are due for destruction, and Rezian wants it, so we’ve got a caper movie in “Money Shot.” Vic, though, doesn’t want the guns in the hands of criminals (call it conscience if you like it, and self-righteousness if you don’t; either way, it’s another obstacle), and he wants to further ingratiate himself with Olivia and ICE. (Olivia’s already a little curious, if not suspicious, about him. She recognizes that someone who keeps doing you favors has an agenda.) So, Shane steals the guns, Vic hands the bust to ICE, gets Rezian to take off with him and Shane just before ICE shows up, and then plants a bug in Khalulian’s phone to make him look incompetent or treacherous. (That last moment, by the way, is an unusually clumsy bit of blocking and filming, requiring Vic to keep his back to Rezian for way too long. Tavon thumbing the bullet in “Dominoes Falling” was a much better version of this.) It’s breathtaking, really; Vic’s running separate deceptions on Rezian, Aceveda, ICE, Shane, and Pezuela. Vic has always lied or concealed when it’s necessary to save himself or the Team, but it’s usually been a lie on a single front, with a single purpose. Nothing he’s done in all of The Shield is on this level.
The one place he’s clearly failing is with his family. Vic telling Shane “handle your wife” says just about everything we need to know about how Vic treats family. It’s even revealing that he says “your wife” rather than Mara–she’s a role rather than a person to him. For Vic, family is something you handle and control–you have a set of obligations to provide for them, and once you do that, your obligations are fulfilled and everyone should just accept that. (It’s also the attitude of early Don Draper and, apparently, True Detective’s Marty; thanks to Wad for that observation.) Your obligations most definitely do not include being honest with them. When Corrine confronts Vic about beating and gagging Mara, he says “that’s a gross exaggeration,” as weaselly and funny a moment as Chiklis can give; he follows it up a little later by saying “I can smooth this out” with Cassidy, who had, remember, wanted to arrest him for what he did to Mara. (More great Shield comedy, based, as ever, in the characters: Billings trying to bond with Vic.) Vic sees people only as creatures to use for his own ends. Sometimes those ends are protecting those people, but that’s still a form of using them; it still keeps you in charge. In season five, Becca said to him “you’ve lied so much, you’ve forgotten what the truth is”; it’s more accurate to say that Vic has handled and played people so much, he’s forgotten what any kind of honest relationship is.
Vic’s desire to handle his family isn’t irrational or necessarily stupid. We see here what happens when you take the opposite method of openness–Mara confronts Vic and tries to ally with Corrine, and that blows up in Shane’s face. If you’re going to be a dirty cop, there’s some sound logic to keeping your family far away from the dirt. The problem is, no matter what you do, that dirt is not under your control, and literally keeps coming to your family’s door, in the form of Gilroy, Kavanaugh, or Zedofian. Aristotle once wrote that the drama presents the solution to a dilemma that has no solution in logic. It’s a form of experiment, a way of answering the question “how should we act?” not by reason, but by looking at the consequences. What we keep seeing, and what Vic isn’t learning, is that he just doesn’t have the control he thinks.
Vic’s family life isn’t there for texture or character. Whatever events we see here affect other events, whatever the setting–think of Kavanaugh and Sadie at the end of season 5. Vic gains control over Pezuela and Rezian, but he’s losing control on all other fronts. His series-long practice of bullying and threatening leads him to scare the shit out of his firstborn (way to smooth things out there, Vic), and that he’s busy doing that keeps him from working with Shane or Ronnie. That leads to Ronnie getting mauled and nineteen stitches, and that leads to Ronnie’s weary statement to Vic: “I’m not gonna drown for Shane, or you.” It’s unforced and devastating, like so many Ronnie moments, because Vic is down now to one friend, one alliance that’s not based on lying or threatening or blackmail or dominance, and that friend has drawn a limit on his loyalty. (The lighting is great too, warm, but placing both their faces in noirish half-shadows. It’s the sort of thing John Boorman did in Point Blank.) Vic has always tried to control his relationships (Emma, who ran the women’s shelter in season two’s “Homewrecker,” called him out on that), which means they aren’t relationships at all; because Vic won’t give up that control, he won’t get any real loyalty back. Now that he’s playing his riskiest game and in danger on multiple fronts, he needs loyalty the most, and all he’s got is Ronnie, and not all of him. The way Vic has acted keeps creating limits on what he can do now. It’s the way tragedy works–how you act when you have a choice will lead to a time when there is no choice.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
The middle part of the the third act (“Exiled” through “Animal Control”), like season three, could have dropped a couple of episodes. It makes sense, and it’s effective storytelling, that there’s this period of near-stasis before everything comes crashing down. The problem is that the Yojimbo plot requires that the antagonists not figure out what’s going on, and the longer that plot goes, the less plausible it becomes. That’s going to happen no matter how smart or dumb the antagonists are, which is why that kind of plot is most effective at movie length.
However, these episodes do create something effective in terms of character. Everything in this part of act three pushes us to the beginning of “Animal Control,” and what’s happening here is that Vic’s hubris keeps growing. He’s scheming and playing people so well (with the crucial exception of his family) that it’s completely in character for him to come up with a plan that will get rid of Shane and the Armenians and can never be traced back to him all at once. It’s the nature of hubris that you keep pushing it, because every success makes you think you’re omnipotent; it makes you think you can master fate, not just people and things. That’s why it’s going to be a move by fate–Shane walking away at the right moment, the thing Vic can’t control–that saves Shane, and launches the last episodes.
The three-part structure of Act Three neatly repeats the three-season structure of Act Two, with two utter disasters on the outer parts. We’re in the middle part here; if there’s not the sense of reconciliation and hope that defined the fourth season, there’s at least the sense that just maybe everyone will get out with minimal damage. There’s even the sense, like the fourth season, of engaging with a broader world, with the Armenians, ICE, and the Mexican cartel in play, and on the domestic front, Danny’s child, Vic’s family, and Claudette’s illness. In terms of structure, The Shield moves in this part towards the more novelistic feel of season four, the better to make us feel how much is lost when it all comes crashing down in “Animal Control.” Again, there can be no tragedy without hope, and no sense of an ending without a sense of what is lost.