Monday, October 31, 2011

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season Five, Disc Three)

Episodes covered:  Smoked, Of Mice and Lem, Post Partum

The trick to writing The Shield is to keep painting Vic and his Strike Team into an increasingly tighter corner while still leaving them with believable ways to exist in that corner.  Since the Strike Team are the main characters of a show that was apparently always designed to go on indefinitely (or at least for more than a handful of seasons), they can’t simply be brought to justice (or killed), but having Vic maneuver his way out of too many impossible situations would strain credibility.  For the show’s plotting to be truly effective, the writers have to turn every one of Vic’s temporary solutions into a new problem that further tests the Team’s loyalty to each other, while also pushing the limits of their corruption. 

Shawn Ryan and his writing staff haven’t always been great at keeping the pressure on their lead characters.  The Terry Crowley murder was barely mentioned in seasons two through four, with two of those seasons being devoted to the Armenian Money Train plot and the fourth season deepening the show’s themes without making any major progress in the series’ master plot.  This stalling didn’t prevent the writers from producing a lot of entertaining television (season four was pretty great), and it’s entirely possible that some plot elements that seem inconsequential now will have a major impact on the series’ final episodes; after all, the Money Train plot that seemed to be completely wrapped up at the end of season three has become a potentially important part of Kavanaugh’s investigation.  The show has come up with some fairly logical reasons for avoiding steady progression of the plot, from creating a number of compelling side plots for the Barn’s other detectives to occasionally reminding viewers that the events of the first five seasons have taken place over only about two years.

Still, no matter how clever the writers have been about dragging their story out without losing the audience’s attention, there has always been a background feeling that they are also actively holding the plot momentum back in order to allow the show to continue for as long as it was a success for FX.  So a big part of what has made season five the best season of The Shield to date is that it has finally brought some real consequences for the Strike Team’s past actions.  Kavanaugh’s investigation has been plotted brilliantly – and is surprisingly still ongoing by the end of “Post Partum” (though apparently he’ll have less administrative support going forward)  - and his largely successful pressuring of Lem has confirmed that he is the greatest threat to the Strike Team’s operations thus far.  Past seasons would have likely ended with Vic finding a way to definitively discredit his Kavanaugh (as he attempts to by sleeping with the investigator’s estranged wife, thereby making the investigation look like part of a petty personal grudge) while slightly alienating the other Strike Team members with his actions.  Season five ends with Vic still under investigation by Kavanaugh as the no-bullshit Claudette assumes the Captain’s chair (apparently for real this time), and with Shane panicking under the pressure of potential arrest and murdering Lem.

While the writers have left room for the plot to move forward (there are still two seasons to go), they won’t be telling the exact same story that we’ve been watching for the past five seasons.  Vic will surely find out sooner rather than later who is responsible for Lem’s murder, which will obviously fracture the Team even more than it already has been, and we seem to moving toward the Claudette and Dutch (plus Kavanaugh) versus Vic endgame that I’ve been waiting for since season three.  Vic has proven himself to be extremely crafty in the past, but it seems unlikely that he’ll be having too many more definitive successes as The Shield gears up for its final episodes.  Watching the man who used to get away with everything gradually lose his grip promises a very satisfying ending to this uneven yet increasingly gripping series.

Quick Thoughts:

-  While the confirmation that Vic is in fact the father of Danny’s child (who is born in “Post Partum”) is an underwhelming resolution to that subplot, the scene where Vic quietly agrees that the child doesn’t need to know its father’s identity is a great acting moment for Michael Chiklis.

-  The street brawl between Vic and Kavanaugh was a smart way to bring their season-long conflict to a head while still leaving room for that plot to develop.  I can’t imagine anyone complaining about Forest Whitaker remaining part of the show, as his performance has been riveting and his unpredictable character has been fascinating.

-  The non-Kavanaugh new characters had more of a mixed season.  Tina’s unprepared rookie storyline has provided a lot of interesting moments, but she has been so far removed from the master plot that it’s hard to tell at this point how relevant she’ll wind up being to the show overall.  Her promotion to detective (thanks entirely to some bureaucratic stupidity outlined in “Smoked”) should put her even more at odds with the rest of the Barn.  Meanwhile, I still never caught the name of the Strike Team’s lawyer, who never became more than a plot device despite the best efforts of Laura Harring.  At least she played an integral role in the season finale, which is more than can be said for Michael Pena’s character from season four.

-  I could’ve done without the mousetraps-in-glory holes subplot that played out over the last several episodes, but Julien’s scene interrogating the homophobic Christian perpetrator was very intense, and the first major reminder since season three of the officer’s personal struggles.

-  A grenade hardly seems like the most dramatically logical murder weapon, but the scene where Shane tears up while preparing to drop the explosive into Lem’s car is very effective.  Though the conception and development of Shane’s character has been somewhat problematic, Walton Goggins has always given one of the show’s best performances, and this may have been his best moment to date – though I expect many even better ones to come, considering how prominent his character is going to have to be in season six.  Lem had been given even less depth than Shane in the first few seasons, but Kenneth Johnson always managed to deliver in the rare times when he was given big moments, and he was very compelling as a major part of his fifth and final season.

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