The Shield: “Tar Baby” / “Insurgents”
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The Shield: “Tar Baby” / “Insurgents”

Passing the point of no return

“Tar Baby” and “Insurgents” (season four, episodes three and four; originally aired 4/12/2005 and 4/19/2005)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

There are times when season four of The Shield has all the dramatic integrity of a really good after-school special. With Vic on the chain for the most part—how delicious to see him playing nice with Monica, because in addition to being a bad cop he’s also a really good cop—there’s not an obvious illustration of police corruption on the show aside from Shane, who’s in way over his head whether or not he realizes it. So instead we have more abstract representations like asset forfeiture and now injunctions against pretty much all black men being together in public. Oh, The Shield puts on a show for us, seizing a house from a sweet old lady and busting into a church to warn altar boys that they’re legally not allowed to hang out in public anymore. But every other scene feels like Aceveda’s public forum, an airing of grievances, a principled debate. Season four has moments where it’s the most highbrow after-school special cable has ever attempted.

For starters Antwon Mitchell sees Farmington’s new campaign of error as a race war, and Julien can’t help but see it his way. Episode five is called “Tar Baby,” a Showtime title, a little kid trying to provoke his old man in the name of a weak pun on black tar heroin tied up with the obvious racial slur. The episode begins—after another Showtime-worthy stunt, domination play that looks like rape until we find out it’s Aceveda with his call girl—with a public forum. Monica spins her program. Antwon forces her to agree that either he’s rehabilitated or that the criminal justice system doesn’t work. He wonders why this is happening in low-down Farmington, home of the drug dealers, and not ritzy Brentwood, home of the drug lawyers. Julien says that the police are the solution to the problem, not the problem. And Aceveda says that assets forfeiture makes a citizen guilty until proven innocent with no right to trial. These are all fascinating issues, and here’s The Shield to…talk about them. Soon enough the injunction program will sink itself with visuals. It’s just that The Shield has never been this keen to explicate itself. It’s like a showrunner’s DVD commentary.

So after refusing to bust down a church door containing heroin and serving an injunction against two biological brothers who the government sees as One Niners first—meaning actual brothers are not allowed to hang out together without seeing jail time—Julien comes to the other cop of color, Claudette, but she’s too busy keeping her mouth shut. The scene is alienatingly hushed even at its most indignant, like they’re that afraid of being overheard, and Claudette just tells him that he has a voice and to use it. After all, so far he’s been using his voice to side with authority. (She also tells him not to lecture her about the struggle because she is the struggle in a killer moment that immediately makes Julien look like a rookie again and reminds us that Claudette’s skin color may not have been much of an issue on the show so far but is absolutely something everyone else in that place notices.)

The reasons go beyond Claudette’s traditional anti-insubordination stance. They go back to her relationship with Monica, who is kicking ass and taking names not only in the streets but back in the Barn as well. It’s unclear when she finds out about the D.A. using Dutch and Claudette and three pot plants to tarnish a witness, but from the long con way she plays it, I’d guess before the big scene where she spills the D.A.’s beans to Claudette and wonders who could have possibly made a deal with them if it wasn’t she or Claudette, nudge nudge. By the time Claudette tears a new hole in Dutch’s face, Monica’s watching them on the interrogation room monitor smiling like Regina George in the hallway. It’s not that she likes the chaos. She just likes seeing what her cops are made of. From there she goes to the assistant D.A.—another woman in charge, in case that’s relevant to Claudette’s feud—and stands up for her men, possibly brokering a less shady deal with her office going forward. She takes credit for stopping the three-pot-plants house seizure to prove her bona fides with Claudette and drops a line that both refuses to throw Dutch under the bus and gets Claudette’s noodle tickling. Her parting shot: “As far as it goes between us, I expect a sea change in your attitude.”

At The Barn she is on fire, all terrifying smiles and ice stares. She puts Julien on desk duty until he can come around on her policies, and if not tells him he needs to transfer. At a bungled One Niner bust (one intentionally bungled by Shane and Army, that is), she’s pissed, and when Shane tries to play it off as business as usual, Monica just gives him a death glare and then resumes her conversation with Vic. She even momentarily directs suspicion onto him, wondering why he’s afraid to dig deeper on Shane and Army. The best part about the season so far is interrogating the character of Monica Rawling. She’s a dog with a bone, like so many characters on The Shield, but a different kind from usual. She lives for the job, which would be great if she could see the honest opposition to her ideas. As it is she’s had at most two moments of passable doubt—the first where she considers not seizing the old lady’s house, the second where she puts a happy face on the D.A. stalling the three-pot-plants seizure—and she barrels through the first and can’t do anything about the second. She’s not actively trying to pursue a race war, but she’s so blind to anything but her own ideas that she can’t see the obvious problems with her policies.

It seems obvious that Monica would be all talk at the top of the food chain and Antwon would be all action at the bottom, that Monica would get all this spotlight while Antwon’s shadow Farmington affords him only a few scenes so far, but it’s an evocative structural choice nonetheless. What happens in “Tar Baby” is Angie, one of Lem’s juvie contacts, sells out one of Antwon’s operations while her mom’s high, and then Monica and Vic lead the biggest black tar heroin bust in the neighborhood’s history. Great for Monica. Not so great for Shane and Army. Antwon has them beaten. He takes their guns. And then he hauls out Angie, sold out by her mother and shot right there with Shane’s gun. These episodes aren’t all talk. Finally we see how far he’ll go. It’s like Marlo busting up the Barksdales. Antwon doesn’t play by the old rules. Whatever he preaches, he’s clearly as in it for himself as anyone else on The Shield.

Throughout “Insurgents,” Shane and Army have to play nice for Antwon, not knowing where Angie’s body is with their bullets in her. Finally there’s a real leak in the Strike Team, and even that’s abstract and conceptual. We’ve seen the body, but the threat of that body being exposed has no real urgency in the episode the way, say, Armadillo or the Armenian mob have. The Shield can still pack a punch, but the more it talks, the more it distances the audience. It’s the rehabilitation question. Is the show growing up or just fooling itself?

Stray observations:

  • Dutch and Claudette meet suspected Texas serial killer Kleavon Gardner. Dutch pegs him for a classic sociopath non-reaction when he shows him their latest corpse, but she was murdered by a co-worker. Claudette says, “We’ve got a suspect, no victim. That’s new.”
  • Iraq allegory continues to abound, and it goes well beyond Monica’s blinders. Dutch fantasizes about the power to put Kleavon in a hole and forget about him if he was in a dictatorship. “There’s an impulse I can understand.” This season is so conceptual! Just put him in a hole in the ground without due process already!
  • “Tar Baby” is also the infamous episode in which Vic has a camera in Dutch’s car on a cringe-comedy blind date wherein the date makes up a bad excuse (she’s going to Kansas City), she gives him the cheek, and then Dutch drives off singing, “Hungry Like The Wolf.” That man is so good at embarrassing himself, and he does it without the net of the comedy genre. That is, Dutch throws himself into cringe-inducing situations on a show that you haven’t already agreed to take as a joke. Respect.
  • When the cops have to evacuate the neighborhood, a black citizen is very protective of his child with health problems, which results in the guy being tackled and beaten. Later a group of white cops call him a soul brother and laugh about the most reasonable “bad guy” in the show’s history. Interestingly Danny isn’t very open to Julien’s complaints about the situation there. And she’s right about the church having heroin. Julien agrees they were right this time but isn’t so sure about all the other times in the future. Is he using the slippery slope argument? Be more homophobic, dude.
  • Some banger comes up with a retort for Vic, so Vic carries him up to Aceveda’s old office and slams his head against the glass for all to see. “Easy, man! I was, like, acting down there. You know, for the homies.” I’m telling you, The Shield is well aware of its Hollywood vicinity.
  • Really weak physical fights all season. Maybe it’s the preponderance of kicking, which doesn’t look easy to do convincingly on camera, but only the pained performances of Shane and Army sell their beating. Meanwhile Vic’s mostly just consigned to pinning guys against walls with his forearm like Andy Richter’s stunt double on Arrested Development.
  • Monica tells the press, “I’d interrupt my grandmother’s funeral if it meant taking dangerous narcotics off the streets our children walk on.” “Our” children, Monica?
  • Lem suspects Shane of giving up Angie, exacerbating their feud. Then Shane tells Army he’ll handle Lem. Another point of no return. Vic tells the other Strike Teamers, “It’s not about protecting Shane anymore. It’s about stopping him.”
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