Crosstalk: The Sopranos and The Shield: What's in store for TV's greatest anti-heroes?
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(Note: The following exchange contains major spoilers for current and past seasons of The Sopranos and The Shield. Proceed with caution.)
Scott: By happy coincidence—made possible by the looong gestation period between Sopranos installments—the sixth seasons of The Sopranos and The Shield have been unfolding simultaneously, and it's been hard to keep them from bleeding together in my mind. Here, we have two of the greatest anti-heroes in television history, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), finally approaching their day of reckoning, when all their past sins are coming back to haunt them. Granted, Judgment Day will come sooner for Tony, since there are only a handful of episodes left in The Sopranos' run, while the ever-resilient Vic still has room to maneuver, because The Shield has one more season left before "The Farm" presumably closes its barn doors forever. But it's been fascinating to see how these men respond as the noose tightens around their necks, and the very different ways these shows are wending toward conclusions.
For the whole of their runs, The Sopranos and The Shield have pulled off a tricky balancing act: Season after season, their central figures have committed terrible sins, fracturing their families with infidelity and violence, and blackening society with acts of criminal treachery. And yet their gifted creators—David Chase and Shawn Ryan, respectively—have elicited sympathy for the devil, drawing us closer to them as their bad deeds accumulate. As the saying goes, "Everyone has their reasons," and for these powerful men, just remaining on top of the Jersey mob or operating the Strike Team in a gang-ridden neighborhood requires some "moral flexibility," even if those compromises mean selling your soul piece by piece. (Or worse still, compromising the souls—and sometimes lives—of the people you love in the process.) Neither one of these shows cares for moralizing per se; there's never a Family Ties episode in which lessons are learned and reconciliations are struck. But it would be a cheat if the good life awaited Tony and Vic at the end of the line; they've paid a heavy price for the things they've done over six seasons, and it's reasonable to expect the heaviest (or perhaps ultimate) price to be incurred soon.
The big questions, of course, are "What?" and "How?": What's going to happen to Vic and Tony, and how are Chase and Ryan guiding us to the finish? Steve, a couple weeks ago—one week before what you and many others felt was the best Sopranos episode of the season—you wrote a blog post expressing your general disappointment with the series' sixth season, and it's safe to say you aren't alone in feeling that way. I sympathize with this position, insofar as I'll admit that the show isn't as entertaining or even gripping as it used to be. However, I'm here to beat you back on it anyway, because I think Chase's refusal to satisfy viewers in conventional ways—and by "conventional," I mean by the high standards of seasons one through five—has given the show an honesty and integrity that transcends mere entertainment. Here's the key line from your blog post:
"And I don't think you have to be an action-hungry meathead to think Chase, like Tony Soprano, might be willfully alienating those who used to love him."
See, you say that like it's a bad thing. After Uncle Junior gut-shot Tony and Tony got a new lease on life—prompting our hero to declare that "every day is a gift," and other such bullshit—Chase has gone in the other direction entirely. After five seasons of providing reasons for us to care for Tony (and a psychiatrist that has endlessly enabled him), Chase has finally, at long last, said "Enough is enough. It's time to reveal Tony as the man he truly is: A sociopath, a menace to society, and a plague on his family and the other murderous cretins who have suffered under his charge. We're now done with psychoanalysis, beyond the excuses suggested by Tony's upbringing and his relationship with his mirthless mother and ruthless father. We're also done witnessing those occasional moments of grace when Tony tries to look outside himself and do the right thing." Now, as the end nears, we're seeing Tony's truest self: The one without loyalties, the one who puts himself above all to such a degree that he does precisely the wrong thing whenever someone's in need, whether its Vito's fucked-up son (whose horrible fate is tied to the outcome of a football game), Christopher (who needed Tony to understand his struggle with addiction), or his own boy, who has never responded to his bullying, and certainly won't be cured by being sent to a strip club. Tony Soprano is, in short, a miserable bastard. My questions for you: Does that really make the show worse? Or is it just not as pleasurable to watch? Is there a purpose to Chase ripping apart his canvas, or is he just being willfully perverse?
I'm guessing that you would like The Sopranos to behave a little more like The Shield, which has been consistently strong throughout its run on FX. One of the big things I like about The Shield is that Vic's biggest sin—shooting a cop during a bust in order to protect the team—happens in the very first episode of season one, and that incident continues to haunt him, both in the many internal-affairs investigations centered on him, and in his tortured relationship with Shane (Walton Goggins), the most troubled Strike Team member. On a message board recently, someone asked a good question about Vic that I'd like you (and our readers) to answer: To what extent does Vic believe that what he's doing is right? I'd say that about 99 percent of the time, he feels in the right, which is a stark contrast with Tony, who's bothered to the point of bad dreams, panic attacks, and tearful confessions to his psychiatrist. (Until recently, anyway, when he's liberated himself from guilt to such an extent that he can barely stifle his glee over Christopher's death.) Granted, Vic doesn't have anything like Tony's rap sheet, but he breaks the law as a matter of course, accepting kickbacks from local gang-bangers while allowing them to operate (under certain conditions) and doing anything to save his own hide and protect the Strike Team. If there's one thing Vic has over Tony, it's loyalty: The Mob may put loyalty above all things, but that's just posturing. For Vic, it's truly gospel, and the strongest sign that he operates under a code that's conspicuously absent in Tony's conscience.
What The Shield does well is lock us into Vic's decision-making very clearly. Though he's a wily and sharply intuitive cop, he's also a simple machine whose feelings and motivations are right there on the surface. (Contrast that with someone more "decent" like "Dutch" Wagonbach, whose fascination with the criminal mind is sometimes uncomfortably personal. If someone in "The Barn" turned out to be a serial killer, wouldn't he be the first one you'd suspect?) I've often wondered why, in the face of so much danger on the beat and the constant scrutiny of his superiors, Vic holds onto his job so fiercely. You could argue, I suppose, that he needs the power or the kickbacks, but I think it's because he's truly a justice-seeker and he believes his mission is, on balance, a righteous one. We understand his actions completely and yet are regularly reminded of his treachery, which has made him (and the show) continually fascinating.
All right, I've blabbed on enough. How are you feeling about these shows as they reach their final chapter? Have the most recent Sopranos episodes done anything to change your mind about season six? (Side question: Are full seasons better considered as a whole rather than piece-by-piece?) And what do you imagine will happen to our villainous heroes?
Steven: To answer (some of) your final questions first, yes, the two most recent Sopranos episodes have made me eat my words somewhat. I wrote my blog post after the now-infamous "Chasing It" episode, where Tony suddenly became a huge gambling addict and decided to start hating the relatively benign Hesh, one of his most trusted advisors. It was an alarmingly implausible cap on a run of increasingly hackneyed episodes where Tony seemingly contemplated killing another long-running character every week, including Bobby, Christopher, and Paulie. (I still subscribe to the theory that Chase is needling fans who bet in those dumb pools over which Sopranos character will get whacked next. "Maybe it's this one. Or maybe it's this one. Bwahaha!") Clearly, the last two episodes have been more powerful, mainly because they've included more meaningful plot action with the core characters than most of the other season-six episodes combined.
I lashed out in a moment of frustration because The Sopranos is my favorite show of all time, and even though (we both agree) it's no longer what it once was, it's still better than 95 percent of what's on television. Chase long ago set his own standard, and for me, the Shield comparison is apt because it's the only show right now worthy of that standard. I half-hoped, half-expected that Chase would prove me wrong when I argued The Sopranos had become "unsatisfying and sort of empty," and he has to a degree, but even the best parts of season six illustrate where The Sopranos has gone wrong for me since season five. Let's review one of your main statements.
It's time to reveal Tony as the man he truly is: A sociopath, a menace to society, and a plague on his family and the other murderous cretins who have suffered under his charge.
It's true that Tony is a sociopath, a menace, a plague. But he also used to be a caring father, a loyal friend, and a charming guy. Tony's Jungian duality was one of The Sopranos' great themes—evil is rationalized and compartmentalized in the hearts of bad men pretending to live good lives, and this inevitably compromises their families and friendships. When we first met Tony, he wasn't some cardboard cutout of a murderous mobster. He was a regular guy trying to provide for his wife and kids. Yes, he robbed and extorted and murdered people to make his living, but the daily struggles with co-workers and family were actually fairly common and easy to relate to. You could almost imagine Tony living next door, waving at you with that goofy wide grin of his every morning when you both picked up the paper at the end of the driveway. Some might argue that making Tony likeable softened his hard edges, but I think the opposite was true: Seeing Tony share tender father-daughter moments in one scene and killing an old stoolie with his bare hands in the next in season one's classic "University" episode made him a profoundly chilling character. Because you liked Tony, and didn't want him to pay for his lifestyle, it made you as complicit in his crimes as a well-paid bystander like Carmela. (It's interesting to note that The Sopranos began pre-9/11; I wonder if people would accept such a nuanced depiction of evil today.) Tony certainly seems like a black-and-white baddie these days. With the loss of dichotomy in Tony—in all the characters, really—has come the loss of much of the show's richness.
The Sopranos' well-rounded depiction of evil clearly was an influence on The Shield and Vic Mackey, another loyal, likeable guy who is also selfish, greedy, and probably borderline sociopathic. (Killing a cop in the first episode still haunts him, but only as an open case he might still be busted for. Morally, he doesn't seem bothered by it all. Ditto that for robbing an Armenian money train, engineering drug deals, cheating on his wife, and so on.) While Tony has had any redeeming qualities stripped away, Vic has actually become a "cleaner," better cop as The Shield has progressed. He's no longer the corrupt cowboy constantly looking for a scam from the first two seasons; since the implosion of the Strike Team after the money-train debacle, he's been playing it relatively straight, bending the rules only to serve the interest of his job or to bail out one of his team members. But deep down, he's still a cop killer and a crook who will do anything not to get caught. And nothing Vic does now will wipe off that stench. Like Tony, Vic has rationalized himself beyond reality to forge a normal life. But he isn't as self-aware as Tony. Season six of The Sopranos is about Tony accepting that's he's, as you say, a miserable bastard. Vic fears that realization even more than prison, I think. His hypocrisy regarding Shane murdering Lem was obvious, but he's clearly not ready to accept that yet, preferring the comfort of his usual "for the team, not for me" bullshit. But his safe zones are disappearing. How heartbreaking was it when Vic's daughter Cassidy did the Lexis-Nexis search and found out about his past? Cavanaugh was one thing—your own teenage daughter being onto it is even more terrifying.
Watching Vic navigate the terrain between the good and evil parts of his life is what I love about The Shield, and miss about The Sopranos. In a way, it doesn't matter what happens to Tony from here—he's already dead in the sense that he no longer seems capable of growth or change. You asked if I thought Chase has made the show worse by taking this direction. It's more complex than that. Intellectually, I admire what he's doing. The way Christopher was "handled" in the "Kennedy and Heidi" episode was trademark, low-key genius. But because Chase has distanced us from the characters—either by cutting them out of the show (A.J. of all people is the only core character to get any real face time lately—where the hell is Carm? Meadow? Sil?) or, in the case of Tony, making him so completely monstrous that he's no longer relatable—The Sopranos is a lot less satisfying on an emotional level. Which is why Christopher's murder, while ingeniously handled, also left me a little cold. Again, intellectually I understand that since Uncle Junior shot Tony, he has systematically separated himself from his loved ones because he can no longer handle familial betrayal, real or imagined. And Christopher's murder (and Tony's musical-chairs-style pondering of whacking other main characters) comes out of that. But the lack of emotion and introspection over the death of his once-beloved cousin resulted in a pretty much nonexistent payoff. It's not that Christopher deserved "better"—his death just didn't have the impact of Adrianna or Big Pussy's deaths. I guess that's the point. Chase is showing what a cold prick Tony has become. But why is the overall tone of the show so cold? If Chase is doing a brilliant job of not making me care so much, is that really a good thing?
I also wanted to ask for your thoughts on the parallel father-son relationships between Tony and Christopher, and Vic and Shane. We saw how Tony handled Christopher—how do you think Vic will handle Shane? For me, Walton Goggins superseded Michael Chiklis as the star of The Shield with season five's concluding episode, which is probably the most gut-wrenching episode of any series I've ever seen. (Can The A.V. Club start a "Make Walton Goggins a star" campaign? I can't believe this guy isn't making big-name movies and winning awards.) Like Christopher, Shane is a shadowy reflection of his father figure, and probably more trouble than he's worth. But now that his murder of Lem is out in the open, I have no clue how Vic will handle it. Also, here's a loaded question: Do you think being on commercial television has actually helped The Shield in some ways, making it quicker-paced and more plot-oriented than The Sopranos, which has a very indulgent patron in HBO?
Scott: Steve, you do an excellent job of articulating why The Sopranos has become so unsatisfying and "cold" for many, but I feel like what Chase has been doing with Tony's character is dramatically and morally necessary. Had the Tony we're seeing in season six been the Tony we'd seen throughout the entire series, I think the show would have been far less interesting. As you say, much of his "Jungian duality"—the ability to function as a suburban family man as well a treacherous gangster—has been eroded in recent seasons, and that's an element of the show that's certainly worth mourning. But I think it's been clear from the start that Tony cannot possibly sustain the uneasy detente between the good and evil within him, and the sum total of his actions must come at a price. Chase is far too cynical to believe that Tony could leave the life and achieve some state of enlightenment, so he's gone in the other direction, which confronts viewers with the uncomfortable reality that this conflicted man we used to care for, however perversely, is quickly receding from view. You hit the nail on the head with this statement:
In a way, it doesn't matter what happens to Tony from here—he's already dead in the sense that he no longer seems capable of growth or change.
Again, you say that like it's a bad thing. You see, over the course of the series, Tony has grown and has changed, only his soul has fallen permanently into darkness. To my mind, last Sunday's episode, "Kennedy And Heidi," may be the most important episode of the series to date, because Tony has completed his secession from the human race and he feels liberated by it, having achieved a state of bliss that's made manifest in his peyote high. He once considered Christopher a son with perhaps more affection than A.J., whose weakness and petulance always disappointed him. And yet Tony not only suffocates him, but can barely stomach the funeral rites—and not because he feels guilty over killing Chris, either, but more in the sense that he feels put out, like a kid being dragged to church in his Sunday best. Perhaps the use of music was too on-the-nose, but "Comfortably Numb" is a good way to describe how Tony is feeling right now, emphasis on the "comfortable." (Nice touch to have Chris' life end with the line "The child is grown, the dream is gone.")
There are so many great things about "Kennedy And Heidi"—including the cutaway to the title characters, whose brief exchange the critic Matt Zoller Seitz persuasively argues is the series' most significant—but my favorite may be Tony's two sessions (one imaginary, the other real) with Dr. Melfi. My mouth was agape when Tony just casually, with that cat-like grin of his, confesses his relief over Christopher's death, and how much easier it was than the other murders he's committed over the years. (In fact, my wife and I actually had to rewind the DVR to confirm what Tony said.) Of course, it's all revealed as a dream sequence, which is a tactic Chase and his writers have pulled many times before. Then, later, it turns out that the speech was just the dress rehearsal for the real thing, with all the incriminating details just barely elided. With these two scenes, Chase reveals that Tony's therapy sessions have "cured" him in the sense that they've made him a more functional sociopath, capable of identifying and compartmentalizing the pesky areas of his conscience that were holding him back. Like Melfi, Carmela is ultimately an enabler; she knows damn well what happened to Ade, and she can live with it, too, so long as she never has to confront the truth head-on, and Tony continues to provide her with material comfort. (The day Carm took Tony in exchange for a piece of real estate was the day she sold her soul forever.) And don't think that state of denial is limited to Melfi and Carmela: We, the loyal viewers of The Sopranos, have been enablers all these years, too, for continuing to look past Tony's deeds in order to see the decent man who cares so much about the fate of those ducks in the very first episode. In "Kennedy And Heidi," those ducks are buried in asbestos.
To shift from one surrogate-father/son relationship to the other, you asked about how Vic and Shane's relationship on The Shield will proceed now that Vic knows what happened to Lem. The answer is "I don't know," because I never expected their inevitable confrontation to come until the end of the season. It would seem that they have too much on each other for either one to come clean and involve the authorities, though it's possible that Shane—who killed Lem because he'd imagine himself ratting out Vic and the others in the same situation—could pull that off. At the same time, they can't continue to work with each other, can they? Since the series has another season left, we know that Vic will wriggle off the hook again, but I just can't imagine the show working without the Vic-Shane dynamic, if only because Shane provides such a great window into Vic's dark side. He's the bad son, having inherited all of Vic's worst qualities and none of his strength, compassion, or overriding sense of justice. With a season to go, the writers appear to have written themselves into a corner; it seems only natural now that Vic's day of reckoning would come sooner rather than later, since his domain is collapsing just as surely as Tony Soprano's. But I have faith in Shawn Ryan and company: If there's one thing The Shield has displayed over six seasons, it's consistency, almost to a fault. To that end, let me respond to this question:
Do you think being on commercial television has actually helped The Shield in some ways, making it quicker-paced and more plot-oriented than The Sopranos, which has a very indulgent patron in HBO?
Yes and no. Yes in the sense that one of The Shield's chief assets has been its urgent, purposeful storytelling; there's hardly been a pause for breath throughout the entire series, and the drama just pops each and every week. HBO is the only imaginable home for a show like The Sopranos, because it's the only network that can support its high budget, extreme content, and artistic indulgence. But couldn't you also wish The Shield, great as it is, could benefit from a little indulgence? There are so many cool narrative flourishes in The Sopranos—rhyming plotlines, dream sequences, standalone episodes like the classic "Pine Barrens" from season three—while The Shield, when stripped down to basic story mechanics, is really just another cop show, isn't it? A great cop show, granted, thanks to first-rate work by everyone involved (please, please someone recognize Walton Goggins' brilliance), but not one that's going to surprise you with subtle narrative or tonal grace notes.
Okay, I'm sure you'll have plenty to say in your next transmission, but don't forget to answer the big question: How does it all end for Tony and Vic? I have some theories on both fronts, but I want to hear your predictions first.
Steven: Scott, I wish season six of The Sopranos played as well as you describe it. For instance, I think your take on Carm is really fascinating; it would be nice if Chase were as interested in exploring her character as you are. Lately, Carm, along with countless other core characters, seems to come and go like a guest star. The Sopranos has become The Soprano; all Tony, all the time.
"How does it all end for Tony?" is obviously the central question at this point; it's just too bad it's the only question. Chase and his writers no longer spend any real time on secondary storylines or peripheral characters. I know there are a lot of characters to contend with—I appreciated the Artie cameo after a long absence in "Kennedy And Heidi"—but the non-Tony-centric storytelling has been distressingly shoddy of late. It's like, "Oh, A.J. is engaged to that girl from the construction yard! And he has silly facial hair! Oh, now they're broken up and he's pouring battery acid on some kid's foot!" While I agree that The Shield could benefit from more Sopranos-style flourishes, The Sopranos would benefit more from being a leaner, meaner narrative machine. Telling new stories while moving the overarching storyline along is something The Sopranos no longer does very well. On The Shield, the constraints of being "just another cop show" has forced Shawn Ryan to make every scene, character, and plot development count. Vic has been so busy trying to outfox the forces converging on him that there hasn't been much time for the navel-gazing Chase often mistakes for depth, but the psychological rot setting in around him is always tangible.
Maybe it isn't the direction of season six that bothers me, but the execution—like Tony, I'm numb to the bludgeoning ponderousness of these concluding episodes. A pet peeve of mine is when season six defenders accuse critics of being kill-hungry meatheads averse to the artsy-fartsy "psychological" stuff. Let's not give Chase too much credit—he ain't exactly subtle. In fact, he can be gratingly obvious. In case you don't get the first "Comfortably Numb" reference in "Walk Like A Man," he'll be sure to beat you over the head with it (literally) in "Kennedy And Heidi." In case you don't get that doom for all involved is approaching, he'll have one of the characters come out and say so.
When Chase decided to rest for two years after season five—a move that clearly hurt the show's creative and commercial momentum—I wonder how close he came to packing it in, because I don't think he has anything left to say other than "goodbye." The driving force behind Tony's nihilism seems to be the end of The Sopranos, not what's happening in any of the actual storylines. It reminds me of the Star Wars prequels—The Phantom Menace and Attack Of The Clones were basically a preamble to the only movie people really wanted to see, Revenge Of The Sith. Season six has turned into a waiting game: What's gonna happen? Like I said before, I don't think it really matters, because Tony is already dead inside. And that is a bad thing, because we still have three episodes to go!
You want my prediction anyway? Here it is: The show will end with Tony sitting alone in his mother's house. Cut to his hand, where a housefly sits. All of a sudden, we hear the disembodied voice of Nancy Marchand: "Oh, my Tony, he wouldn't hurt a fly." Then Chase will superimpose an image of Livia Soprano over Tony's face. The transformation from son to mom will be complete. And in case you don't get the reference, Chase will play the Psycho theme over the credits.
Okay, I'm kidding. But I do expect an open-ended, low-key finale heavy on philosophical pontificating and dream sequences. No jail or death for Tony, in other words. As for Vic's fate, I'll plead the fifth for now. There's too much other stuff to hash out in the meantime: How will he handle Shane? Will he stay on the Strike Team? Will Dutch figure out that Shane killed Lem? Will Ronnie go to IAD to get away from Vic? The Shield still has plenty of life left; The Sopranos is hopefully due for a proper burial.
Scott: Okay, let me get this straight: We're considering the final days of one of the richest, most magnetic characters in TV history, and you want to spend more time with Artie Bucco?! Listen, I can understand your frustration over the lack of time—and yes, occasionally the lack of care—given to the supporting players on The Sopranos this season. But I think in most cases, they've reached the end of their arcs; maybe not all as definitively as Uncle Junior, who's destined to live out his final days in a glazed stupor, but I'm not sure we have anything left to learn about the remaining characters. Carmela has already cast her lot with Tony, in spite of her occasional misgivings about what she clearly knows happened to Ade. Meadow has successfully removed herself from her father's sick gravitational pull, and will probably be just fine if she steers clear of Jersey for the next few weeks. Sil has been the good soldier for six seasons running, and Paulie, sick bastard that he is, remains so attached to Tony that he's become almost like a mood ring. Melfi has also long since reconciled her foolish role in treating Tony, and now exists as a feeble sounding board for his psychosis. The only characters who remain dynamic are A.J., whose failed relationship with Blanca is explained quite efficiently with a few looks and gestures (her body language during all their scenes together, especially at the Sopranos' dinner table, suggested that it was not meant to be), and Phil Leotardo, whose endless rancor remains the biggest threat to Tony's survival.
Over the course of six seasons, there's no question more attention and care has been paid to The Sopranos' supporting players, but they were ultimately defined in relation to Tony, satellites orbiting around one massive star. I think it's entirely appropriate that Chase and company have zeroed in on Tony for the final season—and when they haven't, as in Vito's Brokeback Mountain plotline in the first part of season six, the show has occasionally lost its bearing. There's no doubt that The Sopranos isn't as pleasurable to watch in its last season as it has been in the past, but it remains as honest and artful as ever in revealing Tony's prevailing instinct for self-preservation, which has now completely beaten back his weakening conscience. He isn't the guy who's susceptible to panic attacks anymore, because he's officially divorced from morality. When he shouts "I get it!" to the heavens at the end of "Kennedy And Heidi," he's a free man in the most awful possible sense.
So what's going to happen to him? I'm amused by how specific your prediction is. (And a little annoyed by your rancor. This is, we both agree, one of the greatest shows in TV history after all, right? A little respect, please.) I'll be more general. Here's how things could go down for Tony, in order from least likely to most likely:
Tony gets pinched. As if! The Feds have been circling Tony forever, and there's some suggestion that any one of his guys could turn on him, but among the many institutions Chase holds in contempt, law enforcement probably ranks as number one. After all, those hapless suits couldn't protect a single one of their witnesses from getting bumped off, much less assemble a complicated case against Tony and his crew. Probability: 5 percent.
Tony gets whacked. The sharks are definitely circling on this front. A confrontation with Phil has been brewing for some time, and that will have to be resolved violently before the season's end. But again, Tony's instincts for self-preservation are keen as ever, and I'm not convinced that anyone can touch him, especially after Junior's bullet failed to fell him. Probability: 20 percent.
Tony lives on. We agree on this one. I actually think that the whole series could have ended after "Kennedy And Heidi," though there'd probably be a riot at HBO's offices. But Tony, dead to the world as he might seem, won't be allowed to survive without being visited by one more tragedy, most likely involving his other son, A.J., whose volatility makes him and everyone around him vulnerable. In the end, I think Tony will be consigned to a hell of his own making, and that's an appropriate enough punishment for his sins. Probability: 75 percent.
As for The Shield, this week's episode shows that Shane has learned some survival skills of his own from Vic, and looks to stick around as a major threat to Vic's livelihood. What concerns me now is the fate of the Strike Team dynamic: Lem, the group's conscience, is dead, which strips some soul from the show in much the same way as Ade's death did in The Sopranos. And Shane's role in Lem's murder has cast him into exile, even though the bosses may be forcing them to work together again soon. That leaves Ronnie, whose stepped-up role hasn't necessarily made his workmanlike character more dynamic; Julien, who doesn't share the loose morals (or instincts) that make the Strike Team work; and the new guy, Hiatt (Alex O'Loughlin), who has kept his motivations perhaps a little too close to the vest. I trust the writers know what they're doing, heading into the last 15 episodes or so, but with each season, it's become more of a stretch for Vic to continue to slip the noose.
(Am I alone in wishing for a crossover episode involving these two shows? Sure, they look nothing alike, are set on opposite coasts in different milieus, and have completely different approaches to narrative, especially in their current seasons. But I'd love to see a confrontation between Vic and Tony—two stubborn men who get their dirty business done under gut-wrenching scrutiny and pressure—and I imagine they'd instantly hate each other. My money's on Vic in a fight, by the way.)
So what will happen to Vic? He faces the same three options in season seven that Tony's facing right now, but I'd reverse the probabilities. I think he's most likely to get pinched, now that The Barn has been taken over by CCH Pounder's Claudette, whose nose for bullshit is as sharp as her suspicions about anything that involves Vic. (Dutch, too, has a long-running vendetta against Vic that will surely be quenched by leading a successful investigation.) But death is also a possibility, given events like Shane's decision to involve himself with the Armenian mob. (Though that has more potential to backfire for Shane, I think.)
In any case, I'll miss these horrible, fascinating men when they're gone. With The Wire heading toward its final season as well, I'm worried that there's nothing that sophisticated waiting in the wings to become my new obsession. But both shows have unquestionably expanded the boundaries of what television can accomplish, so there's reason to be optimistic about what might follow in the wide-open space they'll leave behind.