The first time I ever turned on The Shield, it was the final act of “Postpartum.” Great timing. It must have been a rerun while I waited for Rescue Me, but I had heard enough from Alan Sepinwall to leave the TV on. The act begins with some guys nervous about whether a third will make their meeting. You can imagine how little that grabbed me. But by the end I was more eager for the next one than in Rescue Me. How could you not be? “We’re gonna find out who did this, and we’re gonna kill ‘em.” Now we’re talking.
When you watch “Postpartum” as the emotional climax of a five-year story like a normal person, you see how much is contained in that final act after the bomb. Crushing narrative fallout. Despair amplified by the sparse soundtrack of radio chatter, distant sirens, and bugs chirping. Even the big brawl is wordless. I count six performances in “Postpartum” so furious and intricate that they bring tears to my eyes, starting with Kenneth Johnson at the end of his rope. He’s so spent he’s hoarse. Every time he speaks it’s a reminder he’s running on fumes. Then comes Walton Goggins pacing back and forth, trying to put a happy face on tears, finally becoming the show’s second lead. When he rediscovers the body, he has to take reaction cues from Vic to know how he’s supposed to look, but also to punish himself by seeing his carnage reflected back at him by a friend. And there’s Michael Chiklis at his most vulnerable and Forest Whitaker finally cut down to size.
Right there with them are Jay Karnes and David Marciano. “Postpartum” catches both batons from the last two episodes: first that the Strike Team and company are flailing at game theory (“The truth is we can’t know what’s in Lem’s head until we see him face to face”), and second that the other side of the show is a sad, small reflection of the first. Billings is so petty and human that even as an asshole threatening to take Dutch down and make Claudette’s life hell, he’s a tragic figure. Sounds familiar. But Dutch offers hope. He’s one of the good guys, mostly. He gets leverage over Billings. There’s no reason he couldn’t be lead detective from now on. If everything else weren’t so fargone, I wouldn’t need Dutch to stick around and do good so badly. But I do, and he doesn’t. It’s like he gives up on The Barn, and then he gets sucked back in, and then he just gives up on goodness in general. He wants to leave, and Claudette barely tries to stop him. He brings up how different things were even before her promotion, and they don’t really discuss it. No resolution. Then Billings throws him under the bus. “Oh, please. You helped cover up this mess for a shot into Hanlon’s panties.” At the end Dutch calls Hanlon over to him to discuss their little deal. Maybe he’s ready to do the right thing? And then he launches into this little speech straight out of the pimp’s playbook, playing a part like he does in interrogations, only with a subordinate, and not for a confession. He identifies the hole inside her and offers to fill it in exchange for a little something. And he does it out of vegeance against an assault victim he has the hots for, insecurity, and part just to see if he could. And he could. It’s so creepy and sleazy and there’s no trace of Dutch’s post-cat remorse. Usually Dutch and Claudette balance the Strike Team with a workable model of justice. Not in “Postpartum.”
Speaking of that title, Danny had her baby, and it’s Vic’s. The parents spend a quiet, loaded scene together in the hospital. “When he’s old enough and he asks, I’ll tell him.” Getting confirmation here just sucks. There wasn’t much anxiety beforehand about who the actual father was, but now that we know for sure, there’s only that dull deadening feeling that Kavanaugh was right, Corinne was right to be hurt, and so on.
Claudette takes to the captaincy like a pro, expertly negotiating first the DEA and The Strike Team, then the Strike Team and Emolia, later Dutch and Billings. She’s smart, her authority is uncompromised, she cares about doing good but she sees life outside of the job. Any other day this would be cause for hope. But instead of waiting for the new season, the writers end this one by splitting Dutch and Claudette apart, preparing to send him away, and then following him down the abyss. Putting Claudette in charge is great but that’s one less sharp detective on the ground, and two if you count the effect on Dutch.
And then there’s Lem, sitting in that car so grateful for a measly sandwich from a friend. Even on the lam he can’t help but answer a distress call and risk his cover to help a child. Then he’s ready to turn himself in, regardless of whatever plan the guys have for him that night, and he’ll even cop to new charges, including the Armenian Money Train. The icing on that cake is that Aceveda uses that exact crime to suggest to Vic, and in turn Shane, that Lem was talking, but Aceveda was just making plausible-sounding shit up with Kavanaugh by way of Dutch’s idle suspicions. Lem was ready to talk, and to take sole credit for the heist gone wrong, but Kavanaugh didn’t know that exactly.
That’s what gets it in Shane’s head to evaluate Lem’s loyalty. Ronnie’s been in his ear for episodes about how they should get individual lawyers and how maybe Lem’ll crack under pressure. Vic tells him everything to that point is on Vic, not him. Even Terry was Vic’s decision alone. Well, Lem is Shane’s. 20 minutes out there’s this great, quiet, methodical driving scene where the guys are heading to their rendezvous point but they have to shake their tails first. If Lem’s there, Vic says, they’ll tell him their plan and whether he’s started talking or not, they’ll ferry him to a goat farm—alas, not rabbits—in Mexico. If he’s not, they’ll know he’s talking and come up with other arrangements. Shane gets there first, and he leads Lem to a new spot. He tells Lem the plan. Their voices echo off the garage walls, cutting the scene down to these two men and their stage. But Lem is sick of running, sick of living Pepto bottle to Pepto bottle. Besides, he has it all figured out. It’s gonna be okay. Shane knows what that means. So he brings Lem some food, gives him one last look, and then drops one of Guardo’s grenades in his lap.
It’s the moment that clinches The Shield’s ascension to the top tier. In a great year for really tough, baroque drama—The Wire’s school year, Deadwood’s knock-down drag-out brawl with Hearst, The Sopranos’ Kevin Finnerty period, Battlestar from the Pegasus to New Caprica—Lem’s year stands tall. It’s not just a shocking shake-up or a violent amusement. It’s this inevitable moment that everyone’s trying to resist, five years of story ramming into this garage, setting the final act of The Shield in motion. Shane makes his decision and stops pleading. He whines at Lem for showing up even though he wasn’t going to run. And then he tells him Mara’s pregnant. And at last he gathers the nerve. If only Lem could explain, right? Well, no. The whole episode people have been saying that Kavanaugh’s not going to let Lem off without a piece of the others. A clearer head would be able to see that. But Lem’s so exhausted he trusts the mirage. And Shane’s ready to stop running too in his own way. Except he’ll still be running. But this time from Vic.
- “Postpartum” is written by Adam E. Fierro and Shawn Ryan and directed by Stephen Kay. It originally aired on 3/21/2006.
- Vic checks on Corinne. “Kavanaugh probably figures I had something to do with it.” She just stares. He finds his teenage eye-rolling voice. “No, I didn’t.”
- Emolia tries to appeal to Vic’s protective side by showing him the bruises she got acquiring the grenade info. He looks at her and slowly exorcises his own demon. “If you…made different choices…from the beginning…none of us would be ripped up right now.” Shane flashes a smug smile. All through these episodes you see a certain thought in Vic that you don’t get from Shane. And then when it comes time for him to really think things out, he sees an easy out and takes it.
- Lem to Becca in another moment that just floors me: “Open your goddamn eyes to who we are.” “People got killed?”
- Kavanaugh asks for more men to hunt down Lem before he turns himself in so Kavanaugh can set the terms. Aceveda: “You burned your bridges with the Chief.” Claudette: “I need my guys on the street.” She’s not even looking at him, moving folders on her desk.
- Billings: “If she’s a hooker, she had me fooled, and I can usually smell ‘em.”
- After Aceveda plants the Armenian Money Train lie, the guys regroup and the mood is down. Vic’s squinting, feeling out concepts to make sure he believes them. “Lem trusts us. He trusts us.”
- Next week: no review (I’m moving, and these breaks are tradition by now anyway). The following week: the first two episodes of season six, feat. “Wins And Losses,” the interim webisode.