“Hurt” and “Cut Throat” (season four, episodes seven and eight; originally aired 4/26/2005 and 5/3/2005)
At one of the most intense points in “Hurt,” an episode that features Antwon Mitchell strong-arming Shane into bringing him Vic’s head and Dutch and Claudette investigating an abusive foster home where a 7-year-old girl winds up raped and washed with acid to dispose of the evidence, Danny and Julien pull over a guy for an illegal U-turn. The reason it’s intense isn’t the story. “Hurt” is a plotty, knotty blast, but what makes it so searing is the way the cast and crew bring the script to life. Just look at how this bullshit piles up to make a point: Okay, a white guy gets lost in the wrong neighborhood and Danny and Julien pull him over, compelled by troubling legal overreach to potentially seize the guy’s vehicle for a minor traffic violation. Great, a simple scene with a clear moral quandary. He has an open container in the front seat, a corked bottle of expensive wine from lunch that he hasn’t sipped for three hours. He also has bootleg DVDs. And he may or may not have a tattoo—I don’t see one, but I have trouble imagining Julien inventing that detail—that Julien decides is a marker of gang affiliation. That’s a long way to walk for a scene that sold me from the very premise. But it lingers because of the way it’s shot. Drizzle desaturates the background. Red lights flash through the characters’ heads and color their faces. The blue stands between Danny and Julien, anticipating Monica’s speech (“Either you’re blue or you’re gone”). Julien quips that he might even get some Lakers tickets, Vic’s bounty for a newly seized replacement vehicle. So we end on a close-up portrait of Danny, shaking her head, red glinting off her cheek, rain streaking the scene, thinking about how Julien has arrested someone just to make a point to his superiors. I suppose I can sympathize. I came all this way just to say that “Hurt” has craft.
It goes overboard—rack focus that grabs your chin and forces you to look exactly where it wants, a handheld so jittery it distracts from the monumental discovery that Antwon is blackmailing Shane into killing Vic—but whatever it takes to get this season up on its feet. Season four is popularly low rated, and I suspect that has to do with the shift from Vic’s visceral representation of The Shield’s major theme to the cerebral, abstract representations here while Vic’s on the chain for his new captain. It’s a decline in entertainment value, or at least, it seems that way. There are times the season feels like a filibuster standing up there on its soapbox, but “Hurt” delivers all that moral provocation along with some urgent, exciting plots animated through splashy imagery. There’s Monica standing before her shelves of videotape as she reluctantly but firmly sidelines Vic for the bust of his garage sting. There’s the portrait of Julien in front of a wall of Polaroids of potential criminals, that is, black Farmingtonians. There’s Vic with not one but two criminals with bags over their heads (the Iraq references are as thick as ever). And there’s a medium shot of Vic glaring at Shane in the middle of a bust, trying to determine if this guy’s gonna pop him, and only one other object disturbs the black of night, the tailgate of a truck reflecting a thin blue line between them. Accident, maybe, but this is the same episode Monica decides to bounce Julien because at the end of the day, it’s not about what color you are or what you believe or don’t. It’s about whether you’re blue or not.
There’s also a recurring motif of videos within the video, both of which mislead. Vic wasn’t quite twirling his mustache during the church raid as the edited B-roll sent to local news suggests, and Shane isn’t really acquiescing to Antwon’s blackmail as the car surveillance suggests. Both videos are disturbingly distorted in the physical sense too: Vic gets paused smiling up in the extreme corner of a badly framed fly-by on an oblique monitor that makes him look little like himself, and Antwon gets a pixilated blue close-up that could almost be newsprint. Now, the garage sting surveillance has been so on-point that Monica walks away with another big win once Vic cleans up the other cops’ mess, but I like The Shield’s skepticism about every single thing the police do. Okay, the surveillance worked this time, says “Hurt,” but how much can you really trust what you see?
The episode even restores the prominence of the main story of the show, the rise and fall (and fall and fall) of the Strike Team. Best of all, Monica explicitly asks to see how the Strike Team worked together. They can but oblige. Here at the halfway point in season four, The Shield starts manufacturing the iconography of its back half: one old friend threatening another with violence late at night beneath an overpass as The Strike Team collapses in on itself. That’s already happened at Lem’s incinerator, but this is a step up. This is Vic and Shane. “Hurt” begins with Antwon telling the other side of the church raid, how he lost all that heroin Monica won, how he lost six lieutenants along with it, and how his El Salvadoran pipeline dried up too. He muscles Shane into a deal. “Just one more thing,” he says, but we cut to Vic before he Columbos. Even the editing is expressive. When we watch the second half of their conversation on the surveillance tapes, we find out that Vic is that “one more thing.” Antwon wants Vic dead, and he has Angie’s body as leverage. At this point Vic has lost his team, he’s been cut out of his work, his captain has offered his head, and now Shane is out to kill him. If he knew about Corinne falling for Dutchboy, Shane might be dead by now. In “Cut Throat,” Shane finally realizes how overwhelmed he is with Antwon—all it takes is for Army to Pulp Fiction-light the One Niner Shane was hoping to install in Antwon’s place—and he calls Vic for a late-night meeting. That’s where Vic pulls a gun on him.
Shane tries to tell his side of the story. “I would never do that. Never. You know that!” he shouts. He agrees Antwon is out of control, and he needs Vic’s help to get out of this mess. Goggins is teary and his expression is blubbering, but he’s increasingly resolute with each phrase, like he’s seeing his way through the fog and calmly landing on the last step, trusting he’s found the right foothold. “You’re my friend. I need you. Will you help me?” Vic lowers his weapon and shakes his head at the distance. It’s as big an act of faith as Shane shutting up. Whatever happens next, “Hurt” and “Cut Throat” have lit a fire under the season, visually as much as anything else.
- “Hurt” is written by Scott Rosenbaum and Lea L. Langworthy and directed by Nick Gomez. “Cut Throat” is written by Jennifer R. Richmond and Glen Mazzara and directed by Dean White.
- This week in obvious police corruption: Vic’s car is smoking so he makes an offer to the unis. “There’s a criminal somewhere out there driving my new ride. I got two Lakers tickets for the one who seizes it first.”
- One recurring theme in “Hurt” is the idea that trying to prevent bad guys just creates them. There’s the padlocked hell closet at the foster house, the threat of which leads the oldest child—the one in charge—to wash the raped girl’s mouth out with acid so the parents don’t think she let anything bad happen on her watch. And there’s the gang Polaroids, which lead Julien to make the point that the police are only making it clear to the citizenry that that’s how they see them, even the civilians.
- One recurring theme in “Cut Throat” is compromise, as in the Spook Street girl who accepts the gang but justifies herself by not actively helping them. At last all that domestic stuff becomes interesting, and it’s because it all ties into the theme. Aceveda’s call girl gives into his dom shtick. Later Corinne comes to Vic with the news that they were rejected from the clinical trials. “I’ll take care of it,” he says, and she just stands there considering. She knows exactly what he’s saying. What’s surprising is she doesn’t say no. Later when he delivers her a bag of cash, she rejects him but winds up hanging onto it anyway. Unclean!
- Monica’s crusade now extends to CPS. She has a background in abuse, and when she finds out about the foster care case, she locks up the social worker who was supposed to keep an eye on that house. When his boss comes to get him, Monica lets loose. “I’ll let him out, but the next case of neglect I see, that worker spends a night in county. The one after that, you’ll be sharing the door next door.” And I can’t overstate how vehemently she says these next words. They’re a verbal fist-pump. “Pass it on.”
- Dutch catches the coffee bandit! He also catches a guy who beats a convenience store clerk for being a dick about selling him loose cigarettes. The second guy turns himself in. When Claudette and Dutch sweat the bandit, he says, he’s sorry. Dutch says, “If you were really sorry, you would have turned yourself in.” “Come on. Who the hell would do that?”