“Of Mice And Lem” would make any episode look like a snoozer—well, almost any, says the finale—but “Smoked” is so low-key that the best part is the case of the locker room pics of Tina. It starts with a folder of glossies showing up on Dutch’s desk, and he really takes his time visually examining each photo of Tina in her underwear for any possible clue that could lead him to the culprit. Claudette’s gone for one week and already Dutch is losing his way. Next Dutch brings the pictures to Tina but then resolves to track down the perv. He puts on his “trust me” face. “I should probably keep those. Stick ‘em in a drawer for evidence.” Next thing you know he’s sidling up to a uni in the bathroom. “Dude, sweet pictures.” Jay Karnes is the man. Dutch is just convincing enough to work through the plot and just transparent enough to make it funny. It’s a one-episode, comic relief look at compromise.
What happened was Billings installed the hidden camera to see who was stealing from the vending machines. Almost nothing about his story makes sense. He installed the camera in the locker room because he couldn’t hide one well enough in the hallway with the vending machines and he thinks the thief is storing bags of chips in a locker? He pulled the pictures of Tina to keep them from falling into the wrong hands and left them on his desk? His camera produces still photos on film that he had to get developed? No, this is a man who got caught after the fact jerking it to a subordinate at work.
Billings, who almost becomes a tragic figure himself over these episodes, is all set to wash Tina out for her latest blunder. “She’s just so damn popular,” he laments. (Footage not found.) And then Dutch confronts him about the photos, and now he can’t wash her. But don’t worry, he tells Dutch. “I have a plan. If this thing goes away, everybody wins, including you.” Dutch all the while has been distracted, to the point where he’s letting Vic interfere with his and Claudette’s investigation. The Strike Team spends the episode trying to scrounge up bail for Lem, and they do in one of those classic Shield scenarios: Shane and Ronnie are dispatched to steal a cash-bag from underneath a buzzing banger’s sleeping body with Claudette hot on their tail and Vic trying to obstruct without looking like he’s trying to obstruct. It builds to the perfect release, Shane climbing out the back window and flashing Vic the “OK” sign. It’s great for the Strike Team, but it means a trail gone cold for Dutch and Claudette. She even calls him on bringing Vic into their case. But he’s distracted enough by the fantasy of seducing Tina with his knowledge and dorky smiles that he rationalizes.
So, just after Becca Doyle tells Vic she wants him to get his second chance, Billings and Dutch sit Tina down for a reprieve that she has no idea she’s getting. They couldn’t find the guy with the camera, but they did track down and destroy every photo, and besides, Tina’s shown such progress that she could use some late night detective training under Dutch if you know what I mean. She takes a moment and says, “I see. So I keep my mouth shut, I climb the ladder?” Think about that. Tina of all people sees what’s going on here, and she starts the episode violently missing what was going on there. All three of them compromise their integrity, two of them for their jobs and one for his dick. Naturally, Tina accepts their deal. She’s known all along how she has to play this game. And now Farmington is stuck with another terrible cop, and she’s stuck in this terrible system. It’s not the Strike Team controlling the drug trade. But it’s not a healthy institution either.
Everyone is compromised in his own way and to his own degree. Lem’s a sweet puppy dog with a conscience and such integrity that he set fire to a pile of his own cash, but he still committed armed robbery in the first place, as well as excessive force and drug dealing. Kavanaugh’s in an unpopular position playing watchdog on the police, but in Claudette’s words, he takes intimidation to a whole other level. Almost everyone on The Shield is tainted, and the most righteous—Julien and Claudette—are unable to counteract that taint out of pride. Episodes like “Smoked” stir up relativism, forcing you to see everyone individually and enticing you to excuse wrongdoing either out of entertainment or small potatoes or ends justifying the means.
“Smoked” and “Of Mice And Lem” make a smart pair. As Kavanaugh takes a curtain call—seriously, he goes door to door and takes off his mask and all but bows to his audience—the theme of performance is laid bare, as when Corinne reluctantly manufactures an appearance of distance between herself and Vic for the courts. Second, as Vic and Kavanaugh find strange bedfellows, the walls between the different moving parts on the show are dropping, like when Vic knows the undercover officer or when Corinne confronts Danny about her baby daddy (who is Vic or else Danny is really standing on principle for some reason, i.e. writers yanking us around). We finally get Claudette’s opinion about Kavanaugh. Even The Chief comes to play. And the first episode is as much about the past as the second is about the future. We get two reenactments, or at least walk-throughs, of the shootout at Two-Time’s house, Shane belligerent and Vic trying to win an Emmy, setting the stage for the physical reenactment with the One Niners the next week. Smitty makes an appearance, followed by Kern Little. Monica, Army, and Angie come up, and Antwon becomes a major player. Like the man said, it’s all about history.
“Of Mice And Lem” is just one great sequence after another. Claudette taking no prisoners as Billings amens and hallelujahs. Julien owning up to his own self-loathing in an interrogation with the glory-hole rat trapper. Billings facing demotion and suddenly becoming very human and so forth. It’s got drama, comedy (“I like hanging with my cops”), music. “Disarm” isn’t exactly the sound of everything turning to shit. Claudette’ll be the best captain that place has ever had, and Danny’s having her/Vic’s/probably not Vic’s baby! But the tone could hardly be more rueful. What does Claudette see when she looks out over her station? Tina flirting with Dutch and him eating it up.
The Strike Team does the heavy lifting. In fact, Ronnie says his, like, third serious line: Maybe Lem’s “taking the deal because he knows eventually Kavanaugh’s gonna get him to crack.” That is kind of what’s happening. Lem is so sick over not knowing what will happen to him that he takes control by making a deal with the DA. It seals off Kavanaugh’s investigation, since he only ever had Emolia’s testimony, a brick of heroin, Aceveda’s suspicions, and a really good nose. It suits the brass, because they have their example, and they’ve lost faith in Kavanaugh anyway. Everything’s settled. Kavanaugh has 48 hours to wrap up and leave. Claudette gets appointed captain, and she makes damn sure it’s on her terms. The rest of the Strike Team is gonna skate and embarrass Kavanaugh in the process.
It’s an episode of game theory. Vic thinks Lem isn’t really in danger in prison because Kavanaugh’s too straight to make a pinky promise to Antwon. He also says that Kavanaugh clearly has nothing on them and is getting desperate. He’s right, but he doesn’t know he’s right. And as an audience member, I don’t actually know how right he is. It does seem like the real Kavanaugh when he talks about wanting to be friends with Lem and apologizing to Corinne. But it’s also obviously the real Kavanaugh when he flips out about his investigation getting derailed. I’d bet on him not putting Lem into Lompoc in a cell next to Antwon, but I’m not certain. It doesn’t matter anyway, on either side. Vic doesn’t trust his gut and instead tries to cut a deal with Antwon. And Antwon says he can reach every prison in the state anyway. Which sure dulls the teeth on his initial deal with Kavanaugh, but then, we’re back at the whole point of the episode: How can we trust what anyone is saying?
That’s everywhere in these episodes. Vic goes behind his team’s back to fall on his sword for them, and that’s not the only thing Vic does that would surprise Kavanaugh this week. Meanwhile, his men are talking about individual lawyers and worrying about Lem’s ability to hold up. Aceveda is so ambiguous that his story feels like writers wandering. I guess he’s playing both sides, but what does he really want? Why is he involved at all? It’s certainly not to see Vic taken down anymore, and if he’s just trying to back away slowly from the whole mess, why does he play go-between? Maybe the finale will clear things up. Nobody can see the full picture yet, including the audience.
Hence that action scene where the Strike Team leads Kern Little and some One Niners on a raid of the warehouse containing Antwon’s seized assets. It’s almost done, but there’s just one more thing. The One Niners shoot Kern Little and the security guard. Vic, Shane, and Ronnie freak out. Later Kavanaugh looks at that crime scene and sees Vic shooting Kern on orders from Antwon. It’s easy to write that story, to kill off another character, to give the protagonist another notch in his belt. What Kavanaugh doesn’t realize, what The Shield does, is that murder isn’t so easy. Even Vic, who has committed premeditated murder, can’t just up and kill some guy, and if that were an option, wouldn’t Antwon be his target? Not only is Vic shocked by the blindside, but he really truly struggles with what to do afterward. Remember Margos’ house? That wasn’t just a quick hit. Eventually Vic leaves the guard to die and calls it in later, to obviously no avail. If they had called in time for the guy to be rescued, he could probably identify them. So that’s the cost, and the benefit is keeping his deal with Antwon and letting Lem live.
Except the game of leapfrog is already in motion. Vic sleeps with Sadie to make it personal with Kavanaugh, so Kavanaugh initiates a DOC investigation of Lompoc that upsets Antwon, and the price of losing all his little benefits is Lem’s life. We know what Antwon’s capable of, and we know what Vic can do. You want the real Kavanaugh? He willfully pissed off Antwon knowing Lem was on the line just because a case didn’t go his way. That’s not a tactic. The game is over. That’s revenge, plain and simple.
- “Smoked” is written by Sarah Fain, Elizabeth Craft, and Glen Mazzara and directed by Dean White. It originally aired on 3/7/2006.
- Vic has to bring in Dijon for questioning, but they dirty him up first: Cut from polo and slacks to baggy jeans, a white tee, and a hoodie.
- Weird blocking and pacing at Becca’s house. First Vic just walks in and ambles to the living room? Then she says, “I’ll see if I can wake up a clerk, get things fast-tracked,” without even reaching for a phone, much less getting up. Way to get a move on. I’m sure Lem appreciates it.
- “Of Mice And Lem” is written by Charles H. Eglee and Kurt Sutter and directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton. It originally aired on 3/14/2006.
- Only on The Shield: “Ah, Jesus, his dick’s gone. Somebody find it.”
- Love the scene where Dutch and Claudette find Mr. Trujillo, the first rat trap victim. “I told you people everything.” Wife pops into frame: “You didn’t tell me about no car accident.”
- Lem: “I just cut a deal with the DA.” Kavanaugh blinks.
- Chief tells Claudette he’s responsible for the whole Barn, which is why she’s on desk duty until a physician okays her. Claudette is very understanding: “Maybe you oughta do something about the epidemic bullshit in this place. Don’t interrupt. This man, Kavanaugh, that you’ve just given the place over to. I understand he’s got an investigation to run. But have you any idea what he’s doing to morale? IAD is arrogant and intrusive. It’s the nature of the beast. But this man takes intimidation to a whole other level. He’s got every officer in this place spooked. They spend more time looking over their shoulders than they do doing their jobs.” Billings plays backup singer: “That’s a fair assessment.” “Our last captain had unpopular policies so you stuck us with an interim jellyfish that won’t rock the boat. Then you cut resources that we need to do the job. Talk about putting people at risk.” Now Billings stands up for himself, but Claudette doesn’t back down. “Look, if you aren’t out to lunch, passing the buck, or leaving every day at 4 o’clock, you’d know that our citizens aren’t reporting half of what’s going on out there because they know that we can’t or won’t do anything. If you want me to go pee in a cup, I’ll be happy to fill it. But I’m not your problem.” Billings: “Pretty loopy. Maybe that’s why they call it lupus.”
- More great Billings: Dutch needs more time to prove a suspect is guilty, so he suggests losing him in the system for a few days. Billings responds, “With IAD bivouacked in my colon?”
- Let’s hear it for Kenneth Johnson. From bloody vomit to serenity to complete disorientation in 50 minutes. Everyone has his own skin in the game, but for Lem, it’s just that he can’t keep twisting in the wind, and now he has to. I get choked up every time. That goodbye scene is a moving taste of what’s to come.
- SPOILERS: What an episode title. It barely makes sense for this one, but it’s about to.