Saturday, July 16, 2011

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season Four, Discs Two, Three & Four)

Episodes covered:  Tar Baby, Insurgents, Hurt, Cut Throat, String Theory, Back in the Hole, A Thousand Deaths, Judas Priest, Ain’t That a Shame

It is a mark of The Shield’s unpredictable plotting that season four’s major storyline’s reach their dramatic climax not in the season finale (“Ain’t That a Shame”), but in the extended-length tenth episode “Back in the Hole.”  At times, the series’ messy, cases-piling-on-top-of-each-other style of storytelling can be frustrating, as certain plot elements seem to get short thrift or disappear altogether in favor of unnecessarily repetitive character arcs or insignificant standalone cases.  But the busy layering of plots also gives the series a lifelike pacing that contrasts nicely with its amped-up action movie tone, and allows the storylines to organically reach the dramatic high points that make “Back in the Hole” The Shield’s best episode to this point.

The payoff was particularly strong for season four’s two most prominent new characters, Monica Rawling and Antwan Mitchell.  It is a testament to Glenn Close and Anthony Anderson’s fully lived-in performances that these new faces were able to suggest enough personal history to make their ferociously intense interrogation sequence in “Back in the Hole” feel like the culmination of four seasons of character-building rather than ten episodes of plotting.  The writers spent the middle part of the season turning Antwan into a disappointingly typical villain (particularly in the final scene of “Tar Baby,” where his moustache-twirling murder of a young girl informant didn’t jibe with the much more ambiguous community leader we’d been introduced to at the beginning of the season), but the full complexity of the character immediately clicks into place during his interrogation.  As Rawling picks away at Antwan’s psychological defenses, reminding him of his years as a powerless abused child, tears well up in the gang leader’s eyes, and suddenly this charismatic cypher feels like a real, complicated human being.

Though Rawling’s grilling of Antwan is ruthless, it is clear that her desire to put him behind bars is based on a sincere and passionate desire for justice.  It is impressive that Close and the writers never turned Rawling into a villain, even though she was essentially the Dick Cheney figure in this season’s blunt Iraq war metaphor.  Her zero-tolerance, morally inflexible tactics represent a different type of corruption than the ass-covering, bending-the-rules modus operandi of the rest of The Shield’s ethically ambiguous characters, and the show was able to get a lot of mileage out of the collision of her well-meaning brand of injustice and the other characters’ more self-serving forms of moral turpitude. 

While season four’s new major characters provided a riveting counterpoint to the established players, the development of many of the show’s longer running storylines had a mixed success rate.  It was interesting to see the Strike Team working separately and at odds at the beginning of the season, especially during the stretch where Shane was essentially functioning as the dark mirror version of Vic (just as ethically compromised but with less competence).  But the writers quickly dropped the storyline about Antwan blackmailing Shane into killing Vic in favor of the more familiar and less tense storyline of the Strike Team coming together to get Shane out of his mess.  The fact that the old team wound up working together for most of the season despite technically being assigned to different precincts undercut the power of their tenuous reconciliation at the end of the season, and also made the introduction of Shane’s vice squad partner Army seem borderline pointless.  Here’s hoping that if Army  returns in season five, the writers find something for Michael Pena to do, because he was largely wasted as Shane’s lackey.

The Strike Team has always been The Shield’s most problematic partnership, and over the years they’ve largely proven less interesting than the Barn’s other teams.  Dutch and Claudette’s season-long investigation of a series of convenience store crimes wasn’t terribly compelling in and of itself, but it did provide a stable framework for exploiting the tension that had been growing in their partnership since late in season three.  The payoff in “Ain’t That a Shame,” which found Dutch turning down a promotion in favor of sticking by Claudette, even though her morally uncompromising ways make the partners the outcasts of the Barn, was truly the culmination of four years of smart character-building.

Danny and Julian were very much in the background of season four, and mostly functioned as representatives of opposing viewpoints about Rawling’s property seizure policies.  It was perfectly in character for Danny, who has always shown a reactionary streak, to support Rawling’s no-nonsense style.  Julian’s turn from naïve support to principled opposition of the property seizures was equally organic, and the definitive turning point – the police raid on an in-session church that was harboring drug paraphernalia in “Insurgents” – was one of the season’s most gripping moments.  Fortunately, Danny and Julian share a certain respectful bond that transcends politics, as seen in the quietly moving moment when Julian is the only cop who shows up to tend to a recovering-from-a-shooting Danny in “Ain’t That a Shame.”  While it might have been nice to see more of Michael Jace this season, it was something of a relief to see the writers lay off of his ongoing struggle with his sexuality, which had become tiresome and one-note in season three.

Another somewhat tedious element of the previous season of The Shield was the Aceveda rape storyline, which the writers ingeniously wound up justifying by making it an integral part of the political complications that ultimately undercut Rawling’s investigation of Antwan by allowing the One-Niners leader to make a deal with the DEA.  I’m not sure that the show needed so many scenes of Aceveda enacting rape fantasies with a high-class hooker – the scenes felt equally like excuses to give Benito Martinez something to do and desperate grabs for controversy – but the payoff in “Back in the Hole,” which found Aceveda basically reenacting a version of his rape where he was the one in charge, was powerfully executed.  Better yet, the councilman’s decision to move on from his humiliation at all costs led to some interesting plot complications in the final three episodes of the season, where Aceveda basically hired Antwan to kill his rapist in exchange for a deal with the DEA. 

The political complications that ensued – with Rawling and Vic racing to capture a Salvadoran drug dealer before Antwan could testify against him – featured the series’ most intricate and exciting plotting since its two part season one finale.  But really the fourth season took the sophisticated action movie feel of those two hours and maintained it for an entire season, making this the most consistently satisfying season so far.  There is still the sense that the writers are consciously avoiding pushing the series’ overarching storylines too far ahead – I’m not sure that Terry Crowley has even been mentioned since season two, and the Armenian Money Train thing seems to have definitively ended in season three – but by focusing explicitly on the ways that the Barn’s policies fail the community of Farmington, season four got to the heart of the show’s themes in a way that previous season’s only did sporadically.  And with Rawling’s Internal Affairs guy digging up some definitive dirt on the Strike Team at the end of “Ain’t That a Shame,” it’s only a matter of time before Vic starts to real feel the results of his past actions.

Quick Thoughts:

-  The storyline involving Dutch dating Vic’s ex-wife seemed promising when it started, but did not pay off.

-  I also wish that the Barn’s overly forceful raid of the church would’ve led to greater consequences.  We saw that the media had picked up a damning freeze frame of a smiling Vic tackling a churchgoing One-Niner, but the outrage surrounding this incident was never really explored and mostly felt like an abstraction.

-  While there were some plot elements that didn’t fully pay off, it was nice to at least see the show drastically downplaying the standalone cases this season, with most of the police work relating in some way to the asset-forfeiture storyline.

-  I recommend checking out the documentary on disc four.  It provides a lot of interesting insights into Glenn Close's working methods, and details the surprisingly complicated evolution of a memorably profane line of dialogue in "Back in the Hole."

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