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.
“That’s right, ‘holy shit.’”
The final six episodes of The Shield lead off with the ninety most exciting minutes they’ve ever done, a near-nonstop series of moves, countermoves, lies, threats, last-second plans, countdowns, narrow escapes, and pure fucking ownage. As Shane said in season three, “this is life-and-death shit, for all of us”; just about everyone is playing for the highest stakes, whether it’s freedom, family, identity, career, or life at every moment. The writing team has loaded the story with just enough stakes for everyone to be at risk, but not too much to violate plausibility, and now we see what The Shield does better than any other show: desperate acts, when everything moves too quickly and too urgently for anyone to act on anything but their truest self. (So much happens so fast that I didn’t even notice that Danny and Lee are completely gone from these episodes, and I doubt Vic noticed that either.) Almost every scene sets off something else one or two scenes later, and that sets off another thing, and so on, and everything that happens closes off more possibilities. This is the most relentless, merciless storytelling of the whole series, and if this is your first time through, I’ll just add this: this energy holds all the way to the end.
The force of events and the strength of the storytelling blow up the genre just over halfway through “Parricide,” as The Shield stops being a cop drama for its major characters. With Vic/Ronnie and Shane/Two-man (crappy choice of partner there, but as Shane sez, he can’t choose who he gets to hang a murder charge on) trying to kill each other and failing, Two-man giving up Shane (a scene that deserves its own essay, right here), the Vendrells on the run, the Strike Team disbanded, and Vic out of a job, the institutional relationships that have been in place for these characters for six and a half seasons fall apart. What’s left is something older. The story burns down to two families, something so much older, more elemental, and more powerful than a police force.
More than that, though; the story comes down in these episodes to the story of two wives. It’s not something you see a lot of in our dramas these days. Tasha Robinson has written eloquently on the way a lot of contemporary films are willing to teach their male characters to respect women, but they don’t go so far as to actually make their women full characters. You see the same thing in a lot of television (the strong exceptions would be Mad Men and Game of Thrones) where powerful men do bad things and mistreat women, and we understand that’s bad, but it’s still all about the men. In these two episodes, though, Corrine and Mara truly reveal their characters; more than that, the entire story turns on what they do. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that if Corrine and Mara made different decisions in these episodes, the last four episodes would play out differently.
Back in season five, Vic made one of his biggest and most characteristic misjudgments when he said of the Strike Team “we’re not the usual lowlifes you represent. . .we’re a family.” Turned out he was wrong; Shane’s family was with his, y’know, family, and not with him or Lem. It’s Mara who shows what family really means here, and it has nothing to do with whether or not you’re lowlifes. Family means you’re together, you’re honest with each other, and you stand or fall together. Vic proclaimed that, but Shane and Mara live it.
The Shield is smart enough, though, to not reduce this to a simple syllogism of family = good, not family = bad. The first thing we see in “Parricide” is Shane prepping to kill Vic (done in shots broken up like the teaser for “Exiled” with Shane in the motel room; the cut to him on the bed here is effectively out of place and disturbing), and the second thing we see is Mara acting as a full-on accomplice to first-degree murder. As K. Thrace has pointed out, Mara is a “natural criminal,” and as I’ve pointed out, Shane and Mara are right for each other without being good for each other. Vic demonstrates the dangers of self-righteousness, and Shane and Mara demonstrate the dangers of loyalty.
Mara displays all through these episodes why she’s right for Shane, and just how great a character she is. Michele Hicks always found this core of anger in Mara: this was a woman who had a shit upbringing and has always been hit on by guys like Vic (something she said to him in “Blood and Water”). She’s always been the one who saw through Vic, right from the beginning, and that anger and insight explodes in her two scenes with Corrine. (I was sure when Corrine opened the door on her in “Parricide” that Mara was going to shoot her dead.) Hicks delivers her lines like a boxer (her stance is a boxer’s, completely stable and leaning slightly forward) throwing punch after punch, straight ahead into the breastbone, every single phrase precisely yelled at Corrine, every single phrase a simple statement of fact: Vic killed Terry, Vic robbed the money train, Vic and Ronnie tried to kill Shane, Vic tried to kill us at the hospital, Vic made you an accomplice. (Cathy Cahlin Ryan is just as good, and more on this shortly.) Mara’s not just angry, though; we also get to see how smart she is, defusing a confrontation between Shane and a motel guest in “Moving Day,” and finding a hiding place for them in unshown, empty houses. (That’s an absolutely dead-on detail for 2008 Southern California. I lived on a block where half the houses were in foreclosure and vacant.) More than anything, in the last, powerful moment of that episode, we see that her unbreakable loyalty. Shane tells her to leave, to turn herself in, and she’s having none of it; the way she walks back to the car and picks up Jackson tells us she decided, and she decided a long time ago.
Shane’s last line–“well, I always told you I’d get you a mansion some day”–can be read as a man trying to placate his greedy, materialistic wife, but there’s something much more compassionate going on there. Shane made that promise, Mara didn’t demand it; in my reading, Shane recognized Mara’s poor, unhappy upbringing and wanted her to have a better life, and Jackson too. That ties in with an earlier Shane line: “I’m nothing like my father, you’re nothing like my mother, we’re gonna make this work.” The mansion isn’t about material wealth, it’s about having a real home and a family. (In my experience, those who see Mara as some kind of gold-digger stereotype have had no experience of poverty.)
Back to Mara’s first confrontation with Corrine: that scene sets off The Shield’s greatest cascade of ownage, something that has the intensity of “Of Mice and Lem” but even more consequence, as elements set in place since the pilot blow up in everyone’s face, one after another. Mara owns Corrine, Corrine owns Vic, Vic owns Claudette and by extension, the LAPD. Corrine owning Vic gets my support as the greatest single scene of the entire series, something that is and will most likely always be my definition of drama. She’s building all through it, she’s been building towards this since the first season. She starts with her terms, stated quietly but already with an edge to them: you be honest with me and you might get my help. If you want to understand the contrast between Vic/Corrine and Shane/Mara, look how they deal with confessing: in “Haunts,” Shane fell apart in every direction, an absolute wreck, saying exactly what he did. He didn’t have to be asked by Mara, he needed her to know, and all his emotion was there. Here, confronted with Corrine’s question “is it true?” Vic says “I did a lot of things that I shouldn’t have done. . .for reasons that made sense at the time but are pretty hard to defend right now,” like someone in corporate PR, his eyes utterly dead. No matter how much ownage Vic delivers, he doesn’t have the strength to admit his evil, so he can never be forgiven. Corrine’s follow up “do either of you even feel any shame?” is just as great; “shame” is a moral quality in the way that “guilt” isn’t. Vic’s response, of course, is “I don’t think about it.” As Corrine recognizes, Vic’s being honest here, and there’s a cutaway to Ronnie that lets us know his answer is “no I don’t, but I probably shouldn’t bring that up right now.”
Then Corrine utterly takes Vic down. She hits him right in his most essential identity, the only one left: “the sad thing is, I’ve known. Maybe not the specifics, the details, but I’ve known. And I have let you infect me and our children! I’ll help you this one last time, and then the kids and I are out of your life. That is my price, and you have to pay some kind of price!” The line itself is exactly right, telling Vic that the bill has finally come due for him after everything he’s done, and the price will be that he will no longer be a father. It’s also calls back through The Shield’s history, back to the revelations from Claudette in season two, through Cassidy’s discoveries in season six, and most powerfully, back to Kavanaugh’s interrogation of her in season five. This is the other end of that incredible scene, the moment when she finally gets what Kavanaugh was saying and acts on it. Going back to my first Scenic Route essay, this is another essential difference between The Shield and The Sopranos: Corrine acts on what Kavanaugh said, but Carmela never acts on what Krakower said, and we all know she never would.
It’s Cathy Cahlin Ryan’s performance that makes it quite possibly the greatest moment of The Shield. Corrine’s not like Mara, not standing up to Vic and facing him down; she’s cringing as she says these things (and there’s a shot of her that makes her even smaller), her voice is breaking, first on the word “infect” and then almost screeching at the end. That’s why it works, because this is what drama is; it’s choosing to act and then acting no matter what. We don’t get to act our most important moments like Charlton Heston, we don’t get heroic camera angles; we act them as whoever we are, with whatever limits us, whatever we have to fight against to do it. (More than any other performance, Cathy Ryan calls to mind Shelley Duvall in The Shining, playing a character who was falling apart but still finding the strength to do the necessary thing.) We can see and hear why it took so long for Corrine to do this. Vic is her husband, the father of her children, and we can feel how important that is; the power of family runs all through these episodes. We’ve seen for six and a half seasons how hard it is for her to leave, how she could never completely do it, but now she knows, and she knows the right thing to do. She has to fight all her feelings and all her beliefs to do it, and she does.
That’s drama, and it’s why drama has to be acted. We have to see the difficulty, we have to see the struggle. There are always reasons to not act; there are always justifications. Drama isn’t about justifications or excuses for not acting; if you choose to not act, I’m sure Henry James or Gustave Fucking Flaubert can write ornate, complex sentences about why you don’t act. In drama you act, however uneloquently, however painfully; that’s why Aristotle claimed action as the primary component of drama, not language. That is what Cathy Ryan and Corrine do here.
With Corrine gone, Ronnie and Vic face down the problem: how long until Shane’s caught? “A month? If they’re lucky, a year?” It’s always about the necessary question here, especially with Ronnie; emotion or even revenge doesn’t enter into this calculation. They’ve got to bring Shane down, and Vic realizes that will be impossible while he’s still on the job. The culmination of all this ownage, the definitive last act of “Parricide” has Vic turning in his shield and telling Claudette “if this is all that’s left of this job, I don’t want it,” a moment deliberately shot (Vic on the floor of the Barn, superior on the balcony) like Vic telling off Aceveda in the pilot. Both scenes have him telling a superior that he can’t be controlled, but the crucial difference here is that Vic has no Gilroy and no authority any more to back him up. The last long shot of the episode shows Vic alone, walking into the Farmington night.
Visually, that image creates a theme that goes through all of “Moving Day,” and resonates with the title: who is Vic Mackey without his shield? Since this show is all about the action, that question immediately, practically, and before we get to the title, becomes: what can he do now? Has he been liberated by turning in the badge or has he lost his power? The answer looks like “the second, but not all at once.” Vic still has contacts and allies built over a fifteen-year career, and he’s still got his ownage on, but it’s less effective. Everyone knows about his resignation, and a lot of people tell him they’ll do this one last thing for him, and that’s it. Vic has no institutional resources except what he can call in to Ronnie.
At the same time, he needs to do more here; he’s reducing to a necessary, murderous core here. Most of the first half of “Moving Day” is Shane, Mara, and Jackson on the run and Vic tracking them, and he intends to kill them. (All of them? Certainly Mara, although Ronnie warns him “She’s pregnant. And the kid’s two.” When Ronnie Gardocki warns you that you’re going too far, you’ve gone too far.) These two aspects of Vic’s actions come together in perhaps The Shield’s most intense, unbearable moment yet, the hospital parking lot, as Vic prepares to open fire on a pregnant woman (and we get a moment of Vic psyching himself up to do it; he knows the kind of line he’s about to cross), and discovers he’s not a cop anymore, he’s just some asshole with a Desert Eagle. It makes his play to land a job with ICE that much more necessary.
It’s precisely that limitation that makes these episodes so intense. For all its action-movie intensity and speed, Vic Mackey isn’t the cliché of the supercompetent action hero, and that statement deserves some unpacking. Vic’s incredibly skilled at what he does best, and he’d have to be to survive this long. The Shield dodges the cliché because it’s never made the mistake of making everyone around Vic incompetent. It’s an idea that goes back in American fiction at least as far as the Western: it’s the outlaw who really knows how to get things done, and that got amplified in the Dirty Harry He Gets Results You Stupid Chief! tradition of cop dramas, that it’s the bad cop who can do things, and the good cops are too bound by rules and procedures to actually put away criminals. And of course poorly-written action movies have villains who are masterminds in the first act and complete idiots in the third. The Shield has no patience with these ideas; we’ve seen as far back as “The Spread” that competence and fuckups are equally distributed among the corrupt and the less corrupt. (Pure characters don’t last long on The Shield.) It’s not that Vic becomes less skilled here. First, it’s that he’s given up some of his power by turning in his shield; he doesn’t actually become more powerful because he’s gone outside the rules. Second, the people around him are just as good as him at what he does. Both things have consequences for the story.
At the end of “Moving Day,” for example, we can see Corrine can lie just as well as Vic. When Mara tells her what happened at the hospital, Corrine’s face freezes, and she keeps looking at Vic, so he knows Mara’s saying something important. Corrine lies perfectly at the end (something in her face suggests she surprised herself by doing it so well), saying that Mara and Shane don’t trust him anymore and won’t be calling back. It’s completely plausible that Mara would say that, and it’s the sort of thing Vic would expect. (Remember: you successfully lie to Vic by playing into his worst expectation of you.) Even if Vic was fully on his game, I don’t know if Corrine lying to him is something he’d ever consider, and this is not his full game. Vic buys it, and now he doesn’t know that Corrine’s no longer in alliance with him.
Another great liar in play here is Ronnie; his scene with Claudette in “Moving Day” makes you wonder how long a Ronnie-led Strike Team would have lasted. (Last week, I went right by the great moment in “Animal Control” when Claudette chews him out over covering for Vic and in his next scene with Vic, Ronnie doesn’t mention it. A lesser show would have had a little fight between the two of them, but Ronnie’s entirely focused on killing Shane at that point.) He reveals that Shane killed Lem (Claudette’s little moment of suppressing her holy living shit reaction and just saying “Go on” is amazing) and spins a story about how he and Vic are trying to bring him in. Unlike Vic, Ronnie doesn’t lie in order to show he’s stronger than you; as ever, he’s smart, goal-oriented, without any need to prove himself. Do not ever underestimate a man like that, because there’s almost no way to play him.
Aceveda has just as much skill as Vic, and he still has a job here. Vic’s alliance with ICE has gone from mutual benefit to outright necessity. Aceveda has leverage over Olivia now (assuming he still has a copy of her blackmail file) but Vic doesn’t, and Vic’s out of a job and ICE is his “soft landing”; Vic’s need to be the good guy rules out any kind of Lester/Joe-style private security work. Aceveda, though, shows some great initiative, turning Pezuela’s intimidation into a political opportunity. It’s in “Moving Day” that Pezuela reveals his true nature and mission, all the oily charm gone and throwing down an ultimatum right in front of cartel boss Beltran (Francesco Quinn, with no dialogue here, and as magnetic a presence as his dad, Anthony): “Mr. Mayor, the dick is up your ass, and I am the one, not you, who decides when and if it comes out”; having seen the sucking-a-dick-like-a-cell-bitch picture, Pezuela knew exactly what he was doing there. (The Shield is always so casually good at the way men threaten each other.) Aceveda now has leverage over ICE as, just like Vic, he demands to be officially be their undercover informant–otherwise, he’s never seen Beltran. It’s so Shield to have Vic and Aceveda angling for the same position here. There’s also a good acting choice by Laurie Holden and Paul Dillon as her boss, Chaffee: both of them take little pauses when Vic or Aceveda make demands. They’re bureaucrats, and their first reaction always seems to be to write the necessary memo in their heads. It’s also a great detail that Chaffee knows Aceveda’s lying about the blackmail box; it’s a moment when we see Aceveda’s eternal bullshit from the other side.
All the subplots in these episodes stay with the theme of family, and the principle that you do whatever you have to do for your blood. There’s the church Pezuela directs Vic to blackmail the priest into closing, and the priest’s illegitimate daughter that Vic gets to safety. There’s not much more to the plot than that, although it does allow for a few minutes with the eternally weird presence of Silas Weir Mitchell.
Dutch and Billings engage in some more complex interactions with families. Brandon Nowalk described how the Dutch/Billings/Claudette stories were a “small, sad reflection” of the Strike Team stories; the phrase is typically glib and unfair. The stories are neither small nor sad, they are simply played for different stakes. Not everyone in the Barn should have their life on the line, and playing these themes in a different key makes them more universal. In “Moving Day,” two stories about families collide between the desks of Billings and Dutch. Billings’ ex and her daughter show up with news that a Irving Heap (Cooper Huckabee gives a good, weary performance here; he’s admitted he’s evil, and he knows he’ll be dealing with it for the rest of his life), a registered sex offender, has moved into their block, and Billings first moves to intimidate Heap and then to frame him. Billings at his doorstep, glaring, is a genuinely scary moment, because we haven’t seen that look before and we’re not sure what it means. With Vic, we know a beatdown is coming, but this could mean anything. That doesn’t work–in fact, it seems to make Heap more aggressive–and Billings has officers from another precinct plant evidence in the Heap’s home. (Everyone knows that, and everyone almost openly says that. The Shield does its best social criticism not through outrage, but through showing the level of corruption that’s just part of everyday life in Farmington.)
That leads to a conflict with Dutch. On his side, he’s been dating Rita, Lloyd’s mom, and that leads to maybe the most painfully awkward scene Jay Karnes has ever played (which would put it in the running for most painfully awkward scene worldwide), as he rejects her because it’s only been about getting information on Lloyd. To be clear, using and rejecting someone like that goes beyond awkward into cruelty; The Shield has never been more effective in showing how Dutch’s obsessions destroy his relationships. (It also creates a fantastic moment for Frances Fisher, when she says “if I were brave enough, I would slap the shit out of you”–she’s a very 1940s-looking actress, and that’s a very 1940s line.) That leads to an offscreen moment, similar to the offscreen moment with Heap and Billings’ daughter, where Lloyd blows up at Rita, saying Dutch has “ruined” her for him and making Rita suspicious of Lloyd for the first time. What we see so often on The Shield is how different qualities in people coexist, and that Dutch is obsessed doesn’t make him wrong, and that Lloyd might be a killer doesn’t make Rita less of his mom.
These two plots collide in two brief arguments between Billings and Dutch, Billings arguing for the need to get Heap away from his daughter, and Dutch saying “it’s wrong.” As someone would in the episode after “Parricide,” Dutch asks “what, I’m supposed to be Shane Vendrell to whatever Vic Mackey plan you’ve hatched?” Billings then flips their roles, making the same argument that Shane made in “Chasing Ghosts”: I’ve gone along with you breaking the rules, I’m looking the other way with whatever you’re doing with Rita, I got Rita away from the observation room, so “I need you to step up.” Without slowing down the story in any way, these scenes illuminate some recurring themes of The Shield, the loyalty between cops, and the way that corruption never limits itself. Dutch’s “I can’t be a party to anything unethical” is quieter but just as hypocritical as Vic’s “THAT WAS DIFFERENT!” about killing Terry. Two seasons ago, pwhales raised the theme of family in The Shield, and now, on all levels, we’re seeing how it plays out. We’re seeing what the true families are, and going into the last four episodes, we’re seeing the irreducible meaning of family: these are the people for whom you will do anything.
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
That theme, of course, plays out most clearly with Shane, Mara, and Jackson, the only ones who live what Vic said in season five: either we all make it together, or we all go down together. (That’s a line that can be either a grand statement of principle or a threat.) Their story also plays out another theme I mentioned above, the question of “what are these cops without the shield?” and the answer, clearly, is “a bunch of criminals, and not very good ones.” Without their roles as cops, the members of the Strike Team have no loyalty and they have no power. They’re turning on each other, and have fewer resources to do it. It’s the tailspin of Shane, Mara, and Jackson that shows that most clearly, beginning right at the start of “Moving Day” when Shane can’t get a decent car, and it only gets worse; their descent is perhaps the most painful part of these final episodes. (Another visual motif keeps coming back, too: the picture from the start of the season keeps showing up, this time at Shane’s place at the beginning of “Moving Day,” and Vic will use it again. It’s a long journey to Vic’s desk at the end of “Family Meeting.”)
Nice going Dutch, you just made Rita a target. We keep seeing what Dutch said about himself in “Dragonchasers”–he just likes to solve puzzles, and for all his understanding of killers, he still doesn’t know how to interact with people. His last scene with Rita is a lot like Mara’s scenes with Corrine, unloading truth after truth on her, and that’s exactly what he shouldn’t do. (He has a problem common to geeks; he thinks that being right justifies everything. One more time, I wish I didn’t know exactly what he was doing.) There’s another continual Shield theme here, and it will come back at the end: can you foresee the consequences of your actions? Dutch could theoretically understand that Lloyd could transfer his anger from himself to Rita–put it in a textbook, make it someone else’s case, and he’d get it instantly. But he’s the one who’s making that happen right now, and he doesn’t see it, or doesn’t consider it.