The police are cowboying up in Ferguson, Missouri, and the command is a joke at every level. Amnesty International has sent observers to the suburb, and I’m watching cops take them away at gunpoint on TV. Tear gas and rubber bullets, camo and combat boots, riot gear and shields, snipers and stun grenades, media arrests and guns pointed at unarmed civilians, these are the images of the local police department in a small town in the heartland. The people are protesting the killing of an unarmed black teenager and the amateur response by the department that shot him to death, and this is the police reaction. If it were The Shield, it’d be a bit on the nose even in the Monica Rawling months.
In many ways The Shield is the show of the moment. Only The Wire is as clear-eyed about how the badge amplifies personal failure, passes its costs onto the city. The Shield isn’t just about the police brutality and embezzlement of The Strike Team. It’s a chronicle of compromise, incompetence, and silence throughout the system. Police corruption is a fog that comes and goes. Even the tight-ass sticklers go loony on The Shield.
It isn’t just what happens but how it happens too. The show really gets your adrenaline pumping. How exciting to surprise a methed-up hostage-taker by blasting down a wall. What a thrill to throw back a live grenade. There’s a juvenile sense of play on The Shield. Look at the videos of the Ferguson police, their comic-book arsenal and their taunts at civilians. That’s what we’re seeing.
The Shield is rare in that it has time for its black police grappling with those two identities. In “Man Inside” Kleavon Gardner accuses Claudette of betraying her race, and in “Kavanaugh,” Antwon Mitchell tells Kavanaugh that he’s on the wrong side, too. Both Claudette and Kavanaugh laugh it off, but this has been a persistent concern in the past. Also in the past, The Shield has dealt with violent neighborhood riots and police overreaction. But that’s the thing. This is the show of the moment, but the moment on the show is a bit further along in the story than Ferguson. So, as much as it feels like negligence to ignore the topical parallels, it feels like overreach to hit them too hard. Unless you go broad. The Shield doesn’t have much faith in a police department actually investigating its killer cop, does it? That seems about right.
But “Man Inside” is far from the headlines. The Strike Team gets a try-out with another city task force led by Paul Ben-Victor’s Reyes. At the end Reyes breaks it to Vic that, no, it turns out IAD wants him way too bad to make him valuable to Reyes. The look in Chiklis’ eyes when he falls from “Put me in, coach!” to “No hard feelings, we didn’t really want to switch teams” is just gutting. That’s Vic realizing exactly how hot his water is. He lamely tries to cover, even though it doesn’t jibe with his previous line, and Reyes gamely lets him. The Shield has such a way with masculine melodrama that it can build its macro case against Vic and the guys and then zero in on their pain and wring the drama out of that, too.
Hence the scenes of Shane, Lem, and Ronnie scrambling. Shane thinks Becca’s making him look guilty, and Ronnie climbs aboard the Separate Lawyers Express. A simple shot of Ronnie’s silhouette flanked by Lem and Shane’s worried faces says it all. They’ve got Lem for his drugs and Shane for his finances, but IAD has nothing on Ronnie. And that’s a damn good reason for him to cut the others loose. Lem, on the other hand, goes all in with Vic. Even after an explosive chat with Aceveda, who offers one year for everyone else if they give up Vic, Lem’s still on Vic’s side.
Until the ending of “Kavanaugh.” Lem and Vic are watching Kavanaugh and his ex-wife, Sadie, who has a history of mental illness, as she confesses to framing an innocent man for rape. It’s an impressively foggy performance from Gina Torres, yet I can’t help but feel like someone who doesn’t speak the language criticizing the accent work. Does “history of mental illness” really cover this? The Shield loves a good provocation, but this woman fucking a bottle and calling her ex to rescue her as a romantic overture is just beyond. The way she’s ready to throw that perv under the bus evokes some sociopathic lines of Kleavon’s. What a depiction of mental illness. Vic’s watching on the monitor and says, “At least we found his weak spot.” Lem, always the most compassionate Strike Teamer, just gives him this look like, “That’s your reaction to this?” Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much time to consider those second thoughts about Vic.
The Shield’s in the middle of a four-and-a-half-season (and counting) killer cop cover-up. Jon Kavanaugh is closer than ever, but the writers wisely keep his progress messy. He doesn’t close in on Vic methodically, step by step. Every time he makes a connection, he makes another one that’s just noise. He sees between both the right lines and the wrong ones, and he’s too consumed with paranoia to tell the difference. It’s exciting to see him put the pieces together about Antwon Mitchell and Juan Lozano, but that stuff’s inextricably bound up with his worries that Aceveda was on the take with the Strike Team and behind the Terry Crowley hit. He’s so lost in his conspiracies that he interrupts that tender moment with his ex-wife to go make sure Vic wasn’t prying. Earlier, when he thinks she’s just been violently raped, he leaves her to keep an eye on Emolia, the star of his prosecution against Lem. Vic Mackey is going to go free because Jon Kavanaugh got too delirious, the latest in a line of dominoes that have tried coming after Vic for murder. At least, that’s what it seems like at first.
When Kavanaugh catches Vic and Lem watching on the monitor, he bellows across the balcony, “Hey! Hey! You! You’re under arrest. For possession of heroin with intent to distribute.” Lem shakes him off and walks downstairs. It only makes a bigger scene. Everyone is there and on edge. The hairs on your arm stand up. Billings apologetically arrests him. Julien and Tina do the grunt work. The officer in charge of intake tries to stand up to Kavanaugh and gets trampled. Vic protests throwing Lem in with people he’s put away, but Kavanaugh doesn’t care about that either. Lem stands there on the edge of the cage, looking out, denying his reality. And then Kavanaugh pays a visit to Antwon Mitchell and okays his deal. In exchange for Antwon’s testimony, Kavanaugh will make sure the Strike Team winds up in his cell block. It’s chilling. Kavanaugh was already formidable when he was on the up and up. Imagine how invincible he’ll be once he starts bending his principles. The first time Antwon suggested it, Kavanaugh immediately walked. He doesn’t need that intel that badly. The fact that he agrees now is a betrayal of his own values. He’s setting the Strike Team up to be killed. And all because he’s been pulled this way on Emolia and that way on Sadie and lost balance. It’s a tragedy. Another cop has been compromised for flying to close to Vic.
And still the most moving scene on The Shield since I can remember comes from Claudette, and it’s not when she gets Kleavon and the camera zooms on Dutch’s dropped jaw and it’s not when she collapses and falls down the stairs. True to this gallows march of a story, it’s a quiet moment with Dutch on the balcony. Kleavon has just spit in her face for being an uppity black woman. Dutch is proud. “He’s cracking.” She leans on the balcony and slowly says, “No, Dutch, he’s not.” He says it’ll just take one more push. “I can’t.” Dutch tells her not to stop now. She smiles, laughs with anxiety, looks him in the eyes, can hardly believe what she’s saying, but she’s accepted it. She repeats, “Dutch, I can’t do this.” We’re looking up at them on the balcony with a continuous shot that catches every expression on CCH Pounder’s face. It makes you crumple. This is the good guy. If there’s a good guy on The Shield, it’s Claudette, and here she is, so close to landing a killer’s confession, but she’s the one that’s been broken. Jay Karnes is on fire, too. He looks around as if for support and stammers, “W-well, you have to do it.” And that lost stutter tears it. For a moment there’s this tremendous sense of defeat. Victory is right around the corner but the hero is already tapped out. Claudette’s drained, Dutch is rudderless without her, Kleavon’s gonna get to go rape and murder some more black women. This is the mood of the day.
Even after Claudette gets Kleavon, she collapses and falls downstairs unconscious. Everyone’s gathered round, fearing the worst. Claudette’s recovering, but her fall sets the stage for “Kavanaugh.” These episodes are giant drains on the most righteous characters. Claudette sacrifices her body for the win, and Kavanaugh sacrifices his conscience. It feels like good can’t keep up with bad right now.
- “Man Inside” originally aired on 2/21/2006. It was written by Adam E. Fierro and Emily Lewis and directed by Dean White.
- Danny’s out because of her pregnancy. Billings: “Goddammit. I knew that baby was gonna screw me.”
- You’re Welcome, Breaking Bad: “I took some for me. Me!” That’s Vic taking ownership of (some of) his crimes. Then again, Vic also says he’s not that guy anymore and the city got their money’s worth, so let’s hold off on accepting his little confession routine just yet.
- Fatima tells them about Kleavon’s upbringing. “We just wanted him to know he was special.” Dutch’s tone-deaf response: “Unfortunately that resulted in his narcissism.” Jay Karnes is a master.
- Cathy Cahlin Ryan gives one of her best performances in that Sopranos diner with Vic. After he tells her to get a lawyer and cooperate, she visibly relaxes. She looks down. “Menu hasn’t changed.” Gives this great wistful look. You can picture their dates once upon a time. You can feel how much has changed.
- Nice blocking: When Dutch needs to convince Claudette to go back in, first he appeals to her as good cop, then switches to her other shoulder and gives her bad cop.
- Claudette: “So those others, you killed ‘em?” Kleavon: “They were just…things. You could hardly call that killing.” Jesus Christ.
- “Kavanaugh” originally aired on 2/28/2006. It was written by Shawn Ryan and Scott Rosenbaum and directed by D.J. Caruso.
- Sadie implores her ex to break a rule for her: “Try bending one just once.” “I’m an Internal Affairs lieutenant. That’s who I am.” But try him again in an hour.
- SPOILERS: Kavanaugh arresting Lem nicely foreshadows another arrest in The Barn at the end of the final season.