Thursday, February 9, 2012

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season Seven, Disc Four)

Episodes covered:  Possible Kill Screen, Family Meeting

“Possible Kill Screen,” the penultimate episode of The Shield, climaxes with what is undoubtedly the finest scene of the entire series.  Vic has managed to work out his deal with ICE, offering to work as a well-connected undercover agent in exchange for immunity on anything he confesses to.  After taking a deep breath and pausing for what seems like an eternity (though it really only takes up about 45 seconds of screen time), Vic launches into a thorough and detailed account of his and the Strike Team’s many wrongdoings, from the Terry Crowley murder to the Armenian Train robbery to the murder of Lem.  Vic has once again masterfully slithered out of a seemingly inescapable hole, but in doing so he has finally been forced to drop any pretense of being a good cop, or even a decent human being. 

I haven’t given a lot of attention to Michael Chiklis’ performance in these posts, mostly because it is already so celebrated and has unjustly overshadowed the outstanding efforts of CCH Pounder, Jay Karnes, Walton Goggins, Michael Jace, and others.  But this confession scene is a true tour de force for Chiklis, and simply one of the finest acting moments I’ve ever seen anywhere.  The sequence works largely because it finds seven seasons of deceptions finally coming to light, and because its relatively slow pace and quiet tone stands in such sharp contrast to the show’s default jittery pulpiness.  But it takes an actor of Chiklis’ caliber to really sell the full weight of Vic’s actions, as he goes on a complicated emotional journey from devastated shame and guilt to resigned defeat to nostalgic borderline-joy, and finally back to a shield of cocky defiance.  The scene is brilliant because it completely unmasks Vic, showing all of the ugliness behind his “ends justify the means” brand of law enforcement, and then puts the mask back on, giving insight into just how skillful this villain is at compartmentalizing his many flaws and presenting a heroic façade.

By the end of his immunity-granting confession, Vic seems to have convinced himself that he’s once again gotten away scot-free, perhaps only alienating Olivia (the ICE agent played by Laurie Holden, who is suitably shocked as she is recording Vic’s confession).  But, even more so than usual, Vic’s actions have a profound effect on many of the show’s other major characters, and series finale “Family Meeting” is largely dedicated to the repercussions that Vic’s confession causes for himself and others.  Let’s look at where each of the major character ends up, one at a time.

Ronnie Gardocki:  Vic’s agreement with ICE doesn’t extend to Ronnie, who is obviously completely thrown under the bus by his mentor’s confession.  Ronnie is arrested by Dutch in the Barn, and Claudette smartly arranges events so that Vic is forced to watch his last remaining friend get hauled away, aware that he has been betrayed.  Ronnie’s belated character development in the last several seasons didn’t make up for his complete blankness in the first half of the series, and after seven seasons I’m still not sure whether David Rees Snell is even a particularly good actor (“tight-lipped stoic guy” seems like kind of an easy role, honestly).  But Ronnie’s final scene brings his muted character arc to a surprisingly strong conclusion, and the moment where he briefly confronts Vic about his betrayal is one of the finale’s high points. 

Shane Vendrell:  While Ronnie’s fate isn’t exactly happy – at best he will serve life in prison, and at worst he will probably be killed by Antwan Mitchell or one of his associates – he gets off easy compared to his former Strike Team comrade Shane.  Exhausted and no longer able to drag his injured, pregnant wife and their sick child along on his escape attempt, Shane decides to finally turn himself in.  But when Shane warns Vic about his plans, his mentor and former friend tauntingly informs him that it’s too late, as Vic is already immune from any charges that Shane’s confession could result in.  Disgusted by the prospect of a free Vic visiting his family while he’s in prison, Shane allows the police to find him at home, and then shoots himself in the head before they can arrest him.  What the officers find in the next room is more disturbing.  Shane’s wife and child lie in the bedroom, dead of apparent drug overdoses.  The image of Shane’s family, together in the worst possible sense, with his wife clutching yellow roses and a fire truck tucked under his son’s arm, is the most tragic moment of the finale, and it is all the more disquieting for being strangely beautiful.

Claudette Wyms:  Dying of Lupus and legally unable to stop her arch-rival Vic, the morally righteous Captain of the Barn nonetheless winds up achieving a level of satisfactorily heroic justice at the end of the series.  Claudette gets Vic in the interrogation room of the Barn, pointedly insisting that he sit on the criminal side of the table, and reads him Shane’s suicide note while showing him photos of his former partner’s dead family.  Afterwards, she forces Vic to watch his one surviving Strike Team partner Ronnie get hauled off to jail by her former partner Dutch.

Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach:  In addition to putting handcuffs on Ronnie – a highly satisfying moment of one of the Barn’s good cops finally getting a win over one of its most corrupt ones – Dutch is able to definitively mend his sometimes strained relationship with his former partner Claudette, who helps him goad a confession out of the junior serial killer that he’s been hunting for most of the season.  This isn’t a straight-up victory – the child’s mother is missing, most likely killed by her son’s hand (a situation possibly exacerbated by Dutch’s personal interest in the case) – but at least Dutch appears to have prevented a potential killer from claiming more than two victims.  And with Dutch being able to arrest a disgraced Strike Team member in full view of the rest of the Barn, he will undoubtedly be less of an outcast in the future, restoring a sort of moral force to The Shield’s universe.

David Aceveda:  The writers never quite figured out what to do with Aceveda after he left the Barn to join the City Council.  Still, the finale gave the mayoral hopeful an interesting one-off side story that brought his character’s smug moral rot into focus.  Aceveda is opposed in the mayoral race by a charismatic independent candidate who fans may remember as the comic book store owner from the season three finale (Andre 3000).  While Aceveda’s proposed solution to Farmington’s gang violence epidemic is to put more cops on the street, the independent candidate’s street level approach involves hands-on activities such as picketing outside of a crack dealer’s house.  That personal commitment to change causes the independent candidate to get shot and die for his cause, while Aceveda comfortably makes empty promises to TV reporters (and later gets told off by Claudette in another of the finale’s many satisfying moments).

Julien Lowe:  Julien was one of the show’s most intriguing supporting characters in The Shield’s early seasons.  The writers were wise to eventually move away from his struggles to reconcile his religious beliefs with his closeted homosexuality, as that storyline started to seem a bit repetitive somewhere around season three, but they never really came up with anything compelling to replace it.  While the material that Michael Jace was given in the last several seasons rarely lived up to the quality of his performance, the way that the writers used Julien sometimes provided interesting commentary on the other characters.  Many times throughout the last season while the Strike Team members were busy trying to cover their asses, Julien could be seen in the background quietly but very competently doing his job.  Julien’s only notable moment in the finale finds him silently observing a happy gay couple as he drives by in a cop car, a small grace note that suggests that his internal struggle will continue to have a profound effect on his life.

Danielle “Danny” Sofer:  Like her former partner Julien, Danny tended to get lost in the shuffle as the writers introduced more and more auxiliary characters into their increasingly convoluted storylines.  She is more or less quietly back to work in the finale after Vic alienated her earlier in the season by refusing to grant her sole custody of their bastard child.  It’s a shame that the writers couldn’t find more for Catherine Dent to do after season two, since her performance was always strong and her character’s mix of vulnerability and reflexive conservatism was often compelling.

Corinne Mackey:  Cathy Cahlin Ryan, who played the estranged wife of Vic Mackey (and is married to Shield creator Shawn Ryan in real life), was one of The Shield’s unsung heroes.  Family drama side stories on crime shows are often less compelling than the major cops and robbers plots, but Corinne’s relationship with Vic was consistently interesting, and used sparingly enough that it never became tedious.  Corinne’s story was one of the most unique looks at spousal abuse that I’ve seen anywhere – mainly because the abuse was never physical (that seems like the one line that Vic would never cross), and almost entirely unintentional on the part of the abuser.  In a remarkably unglamorous performance, Ryan allowed Corinne to become increasingly unhinged as the series went on, making her eventual decision to help Dutch and Claudette bring Vic down wholly understandable.  It isn’t clear whether she’s happy where she ends up – in Witness Protection in Rockford – but knowing that she will most likely never see Vic again is as close to a happy ending as her character could realistically get.

Vic Mackey:  As a result of his confession, Vic gets his immunity and his job with ICE.  But he also loses all of the things that made him feel good about himself.  The Strike Team is destroyed, through actions that Vic now has to acknowledge are almost entirely his fault.  Other cops hate him.  He’ll never see his family again.  And his ass-kicking undercover ICE job turns in to a strict and confining desk job that requires him to type ten-page, single-spaced reports every day for the next three years.  Vic may have escaped from prison with his life intact, but there is a great deal of poetic justice in the show taking everything away from him in the process.  In the final scene, Vic is working a late night at his desk job as he sees cop cars speed by outside.  Seemingly on the verge of tears, he grabs his gun, adopts his signature scowl, and ambiguously heads out into the night.

The Shield is a terrific and groundbreaking television series, but I wouldn’t put it in the same league as The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Mad Men, or Breaking Bad.  The plotting was often unnecessarily convoluted and messy (it isn’t hard to imagine a more tightly structured series that completely excised the Armenian Money Train plot, for example) and long stretches of the show (most notably all of season three) were frustrating in a way that the aforementioned shows rarely were.  Although The Shield was a frequently nuanced study of corruption, it didn’t pursue its themes as rigorously or as consistently as The Wire or The SopranosBreaking Bad has certainly surpassed The Shield in terms of stakes-raising plotting.   And though The Shield has an impressively stylized aesthetic, it was tonally a lot more one-note than Deadwood or Mad Men.

Still, I can’t think of another long-running series that closes with as strong a one-two punch as “Possible Kill Screen” and “Family Meeting.”  Every question that a fan could want resolved received a satisfying answer, and the corrupt main character was held fully morally responsible for all of his actions despite escaping legal punishment on a legal technicality.  And many of the show’s ace performers – particularly Michael Chiklis, Walton Goggins, CCH Pounder, and Cathy Cahlin Ryan – were given career-best material that they each completely nailed.  The Shield is an imperfect, uneven series, but it is worth sitting through the occasional frustrating sections to get to the tremendously gripping and powerful conclusion.

Quick Thoughts:

-   Laurie Holden’s character Olivia never became much more than a plot point, but at least she was a pivotal plot point, unlike Laura Harring’s season five lawyer, who served a purpose but never seemed like an essential part of that season.  The most underused season-long guest star was Michael Pena as Shane’s Vice Squad partner in season four, who was given so little to do that he didn’t even register as a plot point.

-  The best of the show’s returning guest stars would be either Anthony Anderson as Antwan Mitchell (throughout season four and a couple of times in season five and season six) or Forest Whitaker as Jon Kavanaugh (all of season five and the first two episodes of season six).  Even though neither character appeared in the final season, they definitely had a major impact on the overall story arc of the series.  Glenn Close’s season four role as Barn Captain Monica Rawlings was equally interesting and well-performed, but her story arc had little bearing on the show’s major plotlines.

-  The fact that ICE didn’t check in with Claudette before signing off on his immunity deal is a pretty major plot contrivance.  But unlike some of the show’s other leaps of logic, it was totally worth it for the outstanding confession scene and the resulting fallout.

-  The award for most extraneous storyline goes to Vic’s season three affair with the dog handler, a completely pointless subplot that neither started in an interesting place or went anywhere whatsoever.

-  Although Kenneth Johnson gave a nice, soulful performance as Curtis “Lem” Lemansky, and that character’s death at the hands of Shane was one of the series’ most wrenching moments, I can’t honestly say that the absence of his character from the last two seasons changed the show’s dynamic all that dramatically.  It’s true that Lem’s death was a major turning point for The Shield, to the point it basically fueled the last two seasons worth of plot, but the character was never fully developed enough for the show to seem fundamentally different without him.

-  What about the few Barn members introduced after the pilot?  Steve Billings, who first appeared as a background character in season four, gradually developed into The Shield’s one reliable source of comic relief, giving the show a much-needed wrinkle in its tone.  The writers and David Marciano gradually turned Billings into a full-fledged character capable of delivering the occasional dramatic moment as well.  Billings never played a major role in any of the series’ important storylines, but he was one of the few successful late additions to the show.  Tina Hanlon, first seen as a trainee in season five, seemed like an interesting new face at first, as her rookie insecurities and traditionally feminine appearance and attitude introduced a new element in the show’s dynamic.  But the writers never found a way to incorporate Tina into any of the show’s important storylines, and the character didn’t really take off despite the best efforts of Paula Garces.

-  Season seven was probably my favorite overall, despite a surprisingly slow first half.  Five would be the other contender.  Season four was essentially a side story that fleshed out some of the show’s themes without really advancing its master plot, but it was nonetheless one of the more consistently gripping stretches of the show.  It seems almost undeniable that season three is when The Shield was at its most frustrating, although it should be said that The Shield at its worst is still better than 99% of what television has produced.

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