Monday, January 30, 2012

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

Episodes coveredCoefficient of Drag, Snitch, Money Shot, Genocide, Game Face, Animal Control, Bitches Brew, Parricide, Moving Day, Party Line, Petty Cash

“Coefficient of Drag” gets the seventh and final season of The Shield off to an appropriately breathless and intense start.  In the opening five minutes, Shane comes home to find that his wife and child have been bound and gagged by Vic and Ronnie in retaliation for Shane’s quasi-kidnapping of Vic’s family at the end of season six.  Shane only convinces Vic to spare his family by convincing him that the Armenian gang that Shane’s been working with (and against) is ultimately the bigger threat to Vic’s livelihood.  While no blood is ultimately shed in this scene, it’s abundantly clear that the split in the Strike Team is permanent and irreparable.  It’s also clear that Vic and Shane’s multitude of double-dealings aren’t going to be as successful as they were back when everybody on the Strike Team was on the same page. The complicated fallout from Shane’s warning of Armenian vengeance leads an increasingly scary Ronnie to calmly dispatch of a hitman immediately after receiving important information from him; Shane, who needs the hitman alive to maintain his Armenian connection, is forced to mutilate the body so that his death looks like the work of a rival gang that removes the feet from their victims.  The sickening thud of Shane’s ax against the hitman’s ankles is a classically grungy Shield moment, and the fact that it takes several whacks before he’s able to cut through the bone reinforces the reality that the problems that these men have made for themselves are not going to be easy to get out of, and that the “solutions” to those problems are only going to create further violent headaches for the Strike Team.

After that incredible season opener, The Shield surprisingly settles into a series of several episodes that do very little to advance the master plot and that largely repeat overly familiar character beats.  Once again, Danny is put in danger by Tina’s inexperience, as the rookie fails to clear a room that the new mother is entering.  Dutch is concerned about the increasing signs of physical and mental fatigue that Claudette is showing as a result of her ongoing Lupus crisis.  Julien feels morally conflicted about the Strike Team’s peculiar brand of justice.  Aceveda’s political ambitions (he is beginning a campaign for mayor) get him in to bed with some dangerous people.  There are some nice moments amid all of this aimless busyness, such as Claudette’s riveting tongue-lashing of a young gang member who loves to say “nigger.”  And certain ongoing storylines that aren’t directly related to the Strike Team’s fate have been entertaining.  Dutch’s personal interest in a boy who shows early signs of serial killer behavior is his most intriguing extended case since the serial rapist/murderer from season one, and the fact that Dutch is willing to cross the line into “dating” the boy’s single mother while grilling her for information about her son gives some interesting shades to the Barn’s most honest detective.  Meanwhile, detective Billings’ attempts to sue the department for an extremely minor injury suffered toward the end of season six continue to amuse, as do his constant attempts to do as little work as possible while still earning a day’s pay. 

Still, too much of the early half of this season is taken up with uninvolving standalone cases, gratuitous appearances from unmemorable recurring or one-off characters from earlier in the show’s run, and unnecessarily convoluted gang rivalries that don’t seem to be headed toward any sort of payoff.  “Genocide,” the season’s most frustrating episode, revolves almost entirely around the barely coherent minutiae of Farmington’s warring gangs, which would be less of a problem if any of the show’s gangs registered as anything more than plot points.  Honestly, if I were rewatching The Shield, I would have no trouble skipping straight from “Coefficient of Drag” to “Animal Control” (in other words, from the first to the sixth episodes of the season), and I don’t think that a first-time viewer would have much of a problem doing the same.  A lot of stuff happens in the early episodes of season seven, but very little of it is of any real consequence.

That said, the run of episodes beginning with “Animal Control” and extending through all of disc three find The Shield at its absolute best, with each elaborate double-cross and violent plot-twist leading to the nail-biting tension that the show has often been masterful at producing, and bringing with them the promise of real consequences that the show has spent too much time avoiding.  The intense focus of these six episodes – which revolve almost entirely around an on-the-run Shane being chased down by Vic and Ronnie (who want to kill him) and the rest of the Barn (who want to arrest him), all while Claudette, Dutch, and Julien hatch a plan to arrest Vic – has made for the most satisfying group of episodes that this show has produced to date.  I can’t think of another series that has come into its home stretch with a run of episodes that are almost unquestionably its best, and I can’t wait to see how the final two episodes wrap everything up.

Quick Thoughts:

-  What happened to Franka Potente’s character from season six?  I honestly don’t remember, although I seem to recall her still being alive.  Considering that the Armenian storyline seems to be completely resolved by the end of “Animal Control,” I’m not expecting her to come back, but her absence is a reminder of how many unnecessary storylines and characters have been introduced over the course of this series in the interest of keeping it going for seven seasons.

-  Laurie Holden is this season’s big guest star.  Her character plays a fairly pivotal role in the season’s running storyline – she’s an ICE agent who Vic is hoping will help him get a job as an undercover officer within that agency (a job that he desperately needs, now that he’s turned in his badge and lost his pension)  - but she still seems more like a plot device (a la Laura Harring’s lawyer from season five) rather than the full-fledged characters that Glenn Close, Anthony Anderson, and Forest Whittaker have played in past seasons.

- Here is how Steve Hyden of the AV Club predicted things would end up for Vic at the conclusion of the series (in his 2008 review of “Coefficient of Drag”) – “Vic (finally goes to) trial for the murder of Terry Crowley and gets off on the kind of legal technicality he normally despises, depriving him of the justice he deserves and exposing him as a killer and liar to his fellow boys in blue.”  That seems like a pretty ideal conclusion for the show, but given the final two episodes’ reputation for “sticking the landing” and the writers’ penchant for swerving in unexpected directions, I won’t be surprised if The Shield ends up in a very different but equally satisfying place.

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