Episodes covered: Extraction, The Enemy of Good, Jailbait, Tapa Boca, Trophy, Rap Payback, Man Inside, Kavanaugh
Forest Whitaker is blessed with a magnetic screen presence, a completely distinctive blend of imposing physicality and wounded sensitivity. But the prolific actor’s abilities have rarely been put to use in projects that seem worthy of his talents. Even his own directorial efforts – which include such completely forgettable titles as First Daughter and Hope Floats – betray either a poor judgment in finding worthwhile scripts or a curious lack of opportunities for a talent of Whitaker’s caliber. Perhaps the only movie roles that have put Whitaker to full use are his lead parts in Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai and his Oscar-nominated turn as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.
After the first two-thirds of the fifth season of The Shield, we can add Lt. Jon Kavanaugh to the list of Whitaker’s best roles. Kavanaugh works for Internal Affairs, and he’s looking into the Strike Team and the various allegations of corruption against them. Though Kavanaugh initially gains leverage by threatening Lem with jail time for a brick of heroin he confiscated but didn’t report in season four, his real interest is in Vic’s role in the murder of Terry Crowley, which stretches back all the way to the pilot episode. Whitaker makes Kavanaugh seem like the first legit threat to the Strike Team’s future, with his crazy eyes and his sudden shifts from almost-whispered pleasantries to focused rage making him a highly unpredictable match for Vic and his cronies. The “investigator obsessed to the point of madness” character has been done many times before, but rarely with this much conviction. And since we know just how guilty Vic is – and how many loose threads the Strike Team has left behind in previous seasons – Kavanaugh seems not only like a worthy opponent for the series’ protagonist, but like the closest thing to a hero that The Shield currently has.
The writers have done an excellent job integrating Kavanaugh into the series’ major storylines and steadily progressing his investigation while also slowly doling out backstory about Kavanaugh’s history. After storming onto the scene by turning Lem into an unwilling informant in “Extraction,” Kavanaugh shows his hand by personally appearing to prevent Vic from harming a C.I. at the conclusion of “Tapa Boca.” Kavanaugh responds to the unsuccessful wiretapping of Lem by bugging the Strike Team’s office in ”Trophy,” but when he attempts to bust up Vic’s under the table deal with the Russian mafia, the Internal Affairs Lt. finds that he is in fact disrupting an undercover operation meant to bring the mafia down. (For this twist alone – which is as much a surprise to the audience as it is to Kavanaugh – “Trophy” may be the most cunningly plotted episode of The Shield to date). Flustered yet undeterred, Kavanaugh sets up an office in the Barn, posting crime scene photos of Terry Crowley’s murdered body in full view of the detectives, taking the door off of the Strike Team’s office, and interrogating anyone and everyone with a connection to the Team’s operations.
Those interrogations provide some of the most intense moments to date on this always full-throttle series, with Whitaker’s livewire performance and the tightening screws of the ongoing storylines propelling several cast members to new heights. Cathy Cahlin Ryan has always been good as Vic’s estranged wife Corrine, but she hasn’t previously had an opportunity to come unglued in the way that she does in Kavanaugh’s office, where she is confronted with insinuations about Vic’s crimes and infidelities. It seems fully credible that she would tell Kavanaugh about the $65,000 that Vic gave her, and even the staunchest supporter of Vic would have to feel sympathy for her in that moment. Shane and Lem both seem on the verge of cracking under Kavanaugh’s gaze, with the former being more likely to accidentally reveal something through sheer incompetence and the latter clearly feeling the moral weight of his past actions. Even Ronnie has had something to do in this season, with Kavanaugh cleverly planting the idea in the detective’s mind that he is the only member of the Strike Team who has been careful enough to cover his tracks, and that the other guys are going to bring him down.
Kavanaugh doesn’t seem quite as competent on the field as he does in the interrogation room. When he tags along with the Strike Team on an undercover investigation in “Kavanaugh,” the Internal Investigator nearly blows the cover of a C.I. and winds up having his life saved by the Strike Team. It doesn’t help that Kavanaugh is simultaneously trying to deal with that case and the return of his estranged wife (played by Gina Torres), a mentally unstable woman who files a false criminal report saying that she was raped as a way to get back in touch with her husband. The scene where Kavanaugh has to tell his wife that he’s going to have to charge her with a false report and put her back in a mental facility is one of the most brutally intimate moments on the show to date – which makes it all the more devastating when Kavanaugh discovers that Vic has been watching the whole thing unfold from one of the Barn’s many security monitors. It’s almost understandable when Kavanaugh, overcome with emotion and frustration, abruptly decides to place Lem under arrest, staking all of his hopes on the man who is now his most reliable informant – Antwan Mitchell, who is willing to give up everything he knows about the Strike Team if Kavanaugh can promise to put the Team in the same jail facility as him.
Something bad is going to happen.
- Dutch and Claudette’s big case for the season involves yet another rapist-murderer. While the subplot isn’t all that interesting in and of itself, it does provide for some interesting moments between Wagenbach and Wyms, with the latter struggling to hide her ailing health from her long-time partner. At the end of “Man Inside,” Wyms collapses down the Barn’s winding staircase, apparently from exhaustion. It will be interesting to see where this is all going.
- Other new characters this season: Tina Hanlon (Paula Garces), a rookie detective who often finds herself on the wrong side of her training officer, Julien. She is also clearly an object of lust for the never-smooth Dutch. Vic has also hired a lawyer for the Strike Team played by Laura Harring; I’ve failed to catch the character’s name thus far, as she mostly seems like a plot device at this point.
- Danny is pregnant, and her refusal to disclose the father of the baby has led the other members of the Barn to open a bet on the identity of the daddy. While most people are betting on Vic, my money’s on the increasingly troubled Lem; since he seems likely to end the season in jail (or worse), the dramatic irony seems too good to pass up.