The Shield (Classic): “Barnstormers”/“Scar Tissue”

The Shield (Classic): “Barnstormers”/“Scar Tissue”

“Barnstormers” (season two, episode seven; originally aired 2/18/2003)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Barnstormers” is a moody string of duets, notwithstanding the jolts of the beginning (Lem singing Hall & Oates right into a shooter’s bead) and the ending (Vic finding a lit burner and Ronnie with a new cheek brand). The showdowns are hushed, and the glances freighted. The Strike Team are still looking over their shoulders thanks to Armadillo’s greenlight. Dutch and Danny get backhanded by the unseen god-brass. Julien’s fiancée physically retreats from him, questioning him as both a lover and a potential father for her son. Like much of this seven-season exercise in inevitability, “Barnstormers” bears the weight of history.

That’s how you turn a filler episode—what else would you call the auspicious return of The Penis Flytrap?—into a meaningful chapter. There isn’t much here on the page. Shane gets yanked around by his barnstormer into an easy win for the Strike Team. Dutch gets his groove back by indulging his inner fat-shamer, and Claudette patiently coaxes him into proving it to Aceveda. Julien’s fiancée Vanessa takes a day or so and accepts that Julien is still the man for her. And Vic and Emma debate nonviolent resistance when it comes to another battered woman. The Armenian Money Train opens the episode and Armadillo closes it, but the immediate conflicts aren’t very difficult.

So the first thing that powers “Barnstormers” is history, and not only with Shane. Dutch’s showdown with Marcy is a quiet, little bomb. “I didn’t fool you,” she says. “I just let you fool yourself.” The tight closeup on Dutch singlehandedly sells his utter lack of confidence at the beginning of the episode. Julien confesses that his prayer group is also sexual reorientation therapy, and it goes better and worse than you’d expect. She says hateful things, and she’s immediately repelled by Julien. But she can’t bring herself to leave, and she doesn’t completely recoil from his embrace. Later, in a bit about insufficient state burials, Vic reminds us all that Connie died tragically. He’s paying for her to have a nice funeral, and he bails Emma out of the pen after she pushes a wife-beater off Chekov’s balcony in self-defense. So at least some of that illicit cash is going to good causes.

Which brings us to the second animating tension of the episode: Vic’s corrupting influence. Vic’s conversation with Dutch alone is worth the price of admission. Dutch opens a discussion about knowing people are guilty but not being able to prove it. Suddenly there’s a lot more going on than just some detective feeling sorry for himself. The whole reason Dutch is trudging through this funk is because he knew someone wasn’t guilty and let her go. Now he just knows Fatso is guilty? What’s more, he’s asking Vic, who plants evidence at the drop of a way-too-easy reference. Vic’s cool reply: “You wearin’ a wire?” But Dutch isn’t on planet Earth. He’s not even looking at Vic. “I’m tired of people getting away with murder.” So Dutch arrives at Fatso’s house, plants a substitute bra clasp for Danny to find, and instructs her to do one last search, real thorough this time. He’ll even sign for over-time. (There’s a lot of cost-weighing in “Barnstormers.”) He sits in his car with one last chance to reconsider, and then he drives off. It actually seems like Dutch is going through with his evidence-planting scheme, but halfway down the block he stops his car and personally recovers the clasp. Turns out Fatso is the killer, and the clasp is likely somewhere in his possession. But Dutch gets him legally by getting a confession without any evidence whatsoever.

And in the other corner, Emma debates Vic’s plan to man-handle a battered woman into helping herself, and naturally she winds up protecting the woman with her fists, or at least her hands. Don’t worry, though. It was self-defense. It’s a convenient Get Out Of Serious Debate Free card, letting Emma find a little efficacy in Vic’s methods after she points out all the holes without having her seriously give in. But The Shield isn’t really about serious debate, at least not in words. It’s about push coming to shove-off-a-balcony. It’s about principles yielding to exigencies. It’s about actions vs. words. For Emma, for Vanessa, for Vic and Aceveda and Dutch and everyone else.

Stray observations:

  • “Barnstormers” is written by Scott Rosenbaum and directed by Scott Winant.
  • Lanie’s been gone for a few weeks, but at least Aceveda noticed.
  • Claudette worries that Dutch is moody and distracted. He protests. It’s Danny and Julien all over again. She’s exactly right. Still, their initial search of Fatso’s home is fascinating. Dutch pegs the guy as a possible serial rapist or murderer even though he may have only killed one or two people so far. Long story short, Dutch is a precog.
  • “Barnstormers” really lets loose with the fat jokes—The Shield just loves to indulge bad taste in the name of fighting crime—but the best part is how Dutch finishes his speech (“Now you’re just a goddamn whale”) by hulking into frame, filling it up just with his skinny, little chest.
  • Shane’s worried about Ronnie’s ability to hold up under the pressure of the Armenian Money Train. “Money does strange things to people.” Mark his words.

“Scar Tissue” (season two, episode eight; originally aired 2/25/2003)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

By contrast, “Scar Tissue” is a much livelier episode, all jagged edges and sunburned scalps, but who wants to talk about that when Claudette has the entire Barn figured out? Someone needs to hook her up with Julien so she can spare poor Vanessa some heartache. In light of Armadillo’s attack on Ronnie, Aceveda unleashes the Strike Team on him. Lanie returns to play wet blanket some more, but nobody cares; she slinks into the background to thesaurus-ize her strongly worded letter to city council. So Vic and the guys work their way up the food chain (and up paintings of scantily clad women) from an informant to Armadillo, threatening one unlucky entrepreneur with his fingers in a paper-slicer at gunpoint. And just when they get to Armadillo’s house, Claudette shows up. Armadillo called the cops on himself. Then Danny lets a vigilant pot-smoker into the pen alongside him, Armadillo gets what’s coming to him, and Claudette lets everyone know how good they are at covering their tracks.

At this point, Claudette knows pretty much everything. She’s kind of a know-it-all anyway, but “Scar Tissue” lets CCH Pounder really fly. She takes a panicked Corinne into an interview room to calm her down and silkily pivots to Vic. Corinne talks until he shows up and then storms out, throwing all her shade at her husband. And he doesn’t have time to do much more than grimace at Claudette. Her “debriefing” with Aceveda is riveting: “Wanna know what I think happened? Vic was T.O.’s drug landlord, gave him protection. T.O. gave him favors and a cut of the business. When Armadillo killed T.O., Vic fried his face on the grill, and that’s why he didn’t want me to find him. Why’d you get in my way?” Aceveda says he made a mistake, which certainly makes for a fine punchline (“You’re just now realizing that?”), but the truth is so obvious she shouldn’t have to ask. Next she dresses down Vic. It’s a satisfying release after an episode of rivalry, each staking out territory on the same case. Claudette can’t legally hold Vic accountable yet, but she can speak to him like a grown-up. “We both know what happened to Ronnie. That’s on you. It’s all on you.” For his part, Vic lets Claudette scold him. He knows he deserves it. The question now is where do they go from here? Claudette knows Vic is dangerously corrupt and that Aceveda shields him. Vic knows she knows, and that she wasn’t even actively trying to investigate him. Maybe it’s time to reassess how airtight his schemes are.

Elsewhere Dutch and Danny crack a Thai Town murder that turns out to be the result of a centuries-old blood feud straight out of George Takei’s episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s mostly spice for the Vic-Claudette rivalry. The killer talks about his good intentions, a Shield staple: He just wanted to scare the victim away so the blood feud didn’t result in his death. But the victim wasn’t having it, and the killer fought back, and something took over. He was seduced by violence. It’s easy to stand back and judge Vic, but when push comes to shove, people in Farmington consistently behave like him. He’s singular in one way—he hasn’t been caught—but he’s more the rule than the exception.

Stray observations:

  • “Scar Tissue” is written by Kurt Sutter and directed by Paris Barclay. It’s difficult to know who does what, exactly, on a television show, but the paper-slicer and the dog-shooting seem like Sutter touches (commentaries reveal he’s known for pushing the sick, visceral stuff), and the opening carnival of flourishes immediately distinguishes the episode from the quieter “Barnstormers”: the foreshortened shadow-figures reflected in the car’s grille, the cut from the cool, conspiratorial huddle to Vic’s profile against a burning red when he remembers the sight of Ronnie, the low-angle of Vic against the turquoise-lit brick wall before he steps on his cigarette into the credits.
  • Breaking Bad owes plenty to The Shield, but which show goes heavier on the southwestern sunlight?
  • Well, at least the Flogging Molly montage gets an “E” for effort. I guess Julien just stares at his ring in the locker room after work?
  • As always, I give the last word to Shane: “The, uh, cripple called. I mean, the, uh, handicapped guy called.”

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