Episodes covered: Blowback, Cherry Poppers, Pay in Pain, Cupid & Psycho
Coming out of disc one, I had some concerns about the creative direction of The Shield. Shawn Ryan & co. did a great job of presenting their police office as a complicated environment with many factions using different methods to pursue similar goals, but the wide scope of the show left a few important characters feeling undeveloped. And while I like the idea of the police station as a hub of furious activity, with several different cases going on at any given time, the collision of the show's serialized and procedural elements occasionally made the show feel scattershot and uneven. I'm happy to report that the episodes of disc two correct many of the lingering flaws of disc one, with cases that involve the entire department pulling together the show's many individual strands and bringing a greater sense of focus and momentum to the plot, while also deepening the investment in the characters.
Toward the beginning of "Blowback," Captain Aceveda insists that Vic's Strike Team bring along some uniformed cops on a drug bust. Aceveda's right to be suspicious: in a wonderfully economical pre-credits sequence, we get a step-by-step look at how the Team bends the law to get the information they need about the Armenian gang involved in the drug deal. While the show still hasn't done enough to establish the personalities of Vic's Team members - they basically seem like his henchmen at this point - simply seeing the work they put into illegally bugging the apartment where the deal goes down, then virtually kidnapping an Armenian translator, then manipulating a sleazy higher-up into writing up a warrant, gives us an invaluable look at how they work as a unit. The Strike Team's smooth operation depends largely on their autonomy within the department; they can't risk outsiders seeing the crooked means by which they get their results. The eventual bust goes down seemingly without a hitch, but afterwards Julien (one of the uniformed cops the Team takes along) clandestinely observes Vic and his cronies taking a portion of the drugs for themselves.
Julien seemed too far disconnected from the series' main concerns in the earlier episodes, where the time spent on his struggle to reconcile his closeted homosexuality with his Christian beliefs felt out of proportion to its importance in the series' ongoing narrative. But setting this inexperienced, gentle man of conviction against the corrupt veteran Vic is a plotting masterstroke that simultaneously brings two elements of the story into greater focus, but also deepens our understanding of Julien and Vic's characters by contrasting them to each other. Naturally, Vic finds out about Julien's secret (in a somewhat contrived scene at the end of "Pay in Pain," Vic finds Julien with the pseudo-boyfriend who first appeared on the previous disc) and uses it to manipulate Julien into rescinding his testimony about the drug bust, thereby slowing down Aceveda's investigation of the Strike Team. The portrait of Julien as a man caught between Vic, Aceveda, and the Bible is very compelling. It will be interesting to see if Julien's denial of his own nature winds up corrupting him further, although now that he has so many enemies I wonder if he'll even make it through the entire first season. The scene in "Cupid & Psycho" where Julien insists to Vic that he's not gay, but has urges inside him that he wishes he had the strength to suppress, may be the most devastating moment to date in this always-tense series. Michael Chiklis gets a lot of deserved praise for his portrayal of Vic, but Michael Jace may actually be the strongest link in this excellent ensemble.
Or maybe Jay Karnes is giving the series' finest performance. Dutch gets a fine showcase in "Cherry Poppers," which centers around his continuuing efforts to capture a serial killer targeting young prostitutes. There is undoubtedly a certain amount of arrogance and overzealousness in Dutch's desire to close a major case, but he also has a genuine desire to right wrongs and bring criminals to justice, and he is clearly putting all of his intellect and all of his emotion into solving this case. Karnes manages to show all the sides of Dutch's personality simultaneously, which makes his arguably the show's most lived-in performance. Dutch often has a sarcastic demeanor, but it slowly melts away as he becomes more and more unhinged throughout "Cherry Poppers," leading to the point where he nearly assaults a suspect, trading in his cerebral approach for some Vic-style violence. It'll be interesting to see if Dutch's intense commitment to this seemingly unsolvable case will ultimately corrupt him, or if the show will choose to contrast him to Vic by showing him overcome the odds with some old-fashioned police work. Either way, this storyline could potentially carry the character through the rest of this fascinating, exciting series.
- I know that Shane is beloved by fans, but his character is not nearly as well-rounded as the other cops at this point (though he has at least been given more personality than the other non-Vic Strike Team members). He seems incompetent and corrupt to the point that I have a hard time imagining Vic putting up with his antics. While I have no doubt that there are a lot of people who want to be cops just so they can feel powerful and beat people up, it seems like a smart, cautious guy like Vic would only want good detectives on his Team. The underdevelopment of the Strike Team remains The Shield's biggest flaw.
- Between the dead prostitutes, the underage porn ring, and Vic punching his coked-out hooker informant in the face to help her corroborate a story, "Cherry Poppers" may be the bleakest episode of television I've ever seen.