The Shield (Classic): “Co-Pilot”/“Coyotes” 

The Shield (Classic): “Co-Pilot”/“Coyotes” 

“Co-Pilot” (season two, episode nine; originally aired 3/4/2003)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

I’m having trouble understanding why this flashback episode exists, beyond the fact that someone came up with the clever title “Co-Pilot.” Not that it operates like a pilot at all. It doesn’t introduce the characters to the audience, just to each other. And tonally, thematically, and viscerally, the episode is some weak coffee. The Shield pilot is an all-time kick in the gut. “Co-Pilot” is kind of a fun lark, you know, for all those fans who were dying to hear more about beloved characters like Ben Gilroy, Rondell Robinson, and Joe Clark.

Connie falls into that category, too, but I can’t bring myself to speak ill of someone who died so recently and so tragically. And at least Connie gives the episode some teeth. Vic listening to her get beaten during sex with a banger she’s only visiting to plant some drugs on him for Vic is seriously tough to endure. And that’s an appetizer next to season three. Since you bring it up, what happened to all the creepy pedophiles and twisted consequences? There’s been plenty of violence lately, but it’s all so blunt, the usual shootings and beat-downs and knife-fights. Surely Armadillo raping and tattooing a child isn’t the last time The Shield went for the gut, but nothing is ringing any bells. Connie, though, makes Vic see exactly what he’s getting into.

Which is reason enough to dedicate an episode to the Strike Team’s first trespass. And it’s not like the resurrected characters don’t bring some gravity: All-time loser Ben Gilroy sets the stage for his return in the next episode; Joe Clark’s “enjoying his retirement,” an obvious lie given what’s come of him; Connie still evokes a little twinge of grief. But mostly “Co-Pilot” dramatizes the Strike Team hopping on a trash-can lid and setting off down the slippery slope. Mackey’s on shaky ground because he colors outside the legal lines, and Aceveda’s looking for a reason to get rid of him. So he needs a big win to keep his job, to earn some street cred, and to keep the team together. Lem naturally resists, and Ronnie’s busy combing his facial hair or something (“Ladies love the stache”), but Shane gets on board pretty quickly. After a few “just this once” words from Vic, the guys make their first bust. It’s a complete sham—although Vic is sorta right in that their criminal is a criminal even if they couldn’t prove it; the Strike Team wasn’t founded on a total lie—but Aceveda gets his press conference, so he’s fat and happy. And the Strike Team never framed anyone again.

But the really great thing about “Co-Pilot” is the camerawork. It’s difficult to assign credit for things like this on a television show, but the episode-to-episode look of The Shield is so variable that the directors must have some visual latitude. Here, director Peter Horton takes advantage of exploring this newly converted church. Wide shots and peculiar angles of the empty Barn establish the dimensions, and from there the camera just keeps exploring every nook and cranny. Vic is pushed back into the scene by a jutting piano, Shane sits off-center against an upturned couch, Aceveda opens the internal windows on the second floor like it’s a saloon. And the lighting gives the place dimension, assaulting a man in interrogation, reflecting a busy background on a window shot of Claudette’s first partner Tom Gannon, smearing out of the dim overhead lamps. “Co-Pilot” is essentially a map of the main set. The episode may not illuminate much, but it’s a hell of an introduction to the Barn.

Stray observations:

  • “Co-Pilot” is written by Shawn Ryan and Glen Mazzara.
  • The episode takes place on the opening of the experimental Barn 14 months before the “present day” of season two. Does that jibe with what we know about how long Danny and Julien have been partners?
  • Before I run my mouth off some more about the show settling down, I should mention that “Co-Pilot” features a naked woman with blood smeared all over her back running through a yard shouting, “Ayuda me!” before she grabs hold of Danny for dear life.
  • I don’t know if this is intentional or not, but I love that everyone—or at least Gilroy and Vic—is winded when they walk up the Barn stairs. They’re clearly not used to that place yet.
  • Julien checking out Lem’s ass sets the new Shield record on shifting from fun to frustrating.
  • Gannon’s a real son of a bitch, huh? He can’t wait to spill the beans about Dutch—how he put his alcoholic wife in AA and she ended up screwing her sponsor—which he takes as good reason to haze the guy. If even Vic Mackey thinks you’re being kind of a dick, you’re being kind of a dick.

“Coyotes” (season two, episode 10; originally aired 3/11/2003)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

Round two with Gilroy is even worse. The guy is just a toilet. He sucks everything into a waste spiral. The plotting is reasonably exciting, although even by that measure it could stand some more tension. It starts with Gilroy showing up outside Corinne’s door. He’s supposed to be on bail under house arrest, but he tells Vic he cut his ankle monitor and wants to go to Mexico. His reasoning is he won’t last in jail, and he refuses to flip on Vic, so this is his only option. Yeah, right. Anyone could see this guy would flip on his own kid, but Vic has a special attachment to Gilroy, and he has Corinne freaking out and the Strike Team freaking out about Lanie’s leaked report. Oh, did I bury the lede? “Coyotes” has everyone on edge after Lanie’s notes get turned into a newspaper article about how dysfunctional the Barn is. She’s the real villain here.

I’m talking in narrative terms. Vic Mackey is a dirty cop, and he deserves to be outed. But he’s also the protagonist, and Lanie is his enemy, and doesn’t he deserve a worthy opponent? With that little voice, monotonous style, and a presence so sporadic you forget she’s supposed to have been monitoring the Barn while all these Armadillo scandals have gone down, Lanie Kellis just isn’t a threat. What she is is a prototype, the first (well, second, may he rest in peace) in a small string of outsiders who come to the Barn looking to take down Vic and get churned up by his corruption instead. She secretly spearheads the Gilroy escape as a sting on Mackey. That’s the first twist, although even after Shane reveals that no cops anywhere are looking for a man who escaped house arrest, Vic is still wandering through a swamp of “Something’s not right” instead of seeing the set-up clearly through the water.

The question now is what is Vic going to do. Does he turn Ben in and risk more Internal Affairs investigations, or genuinely help him flee to Mexico, or kill him and rip off this loose thread once and for all? At least, that’s what I was asking myself. “Coyotes” doesn’t play up the tension at all. Instead it’s very straightforward as Vic instructs Gilroy to lose his tail and meet them later, alerts Aceveda and Lanie to the Gilroy escape like a good little cop, and then meets Gilroy outside the van that will take him to Mexico. There’s no subterfuge or subtext. Everything’s on the up and up. But there is one juicy twist. The coyote is in the van, so Gilroy wants to know who Vic made him pay on the subway there. Vic holds up a note and says, “That was the hit man you paid $10,000 to to kill you if I ever call this number and tell him this code.” So Gilroy’s out there, but with a sword over his head, and Lanie’s sting fails to produce much evidence against Mackey. The scene where the police chief dismisses her is a beauty. Even if I’m relatively on her side, ideal-wise, she was never my champion. And that’s an exciting, productive tension that will play out over the remaining seasons. I like Vic Mackey, and I want him to be taken down. Just not yet, okay?

Stray observations:

  • “Coyotes” is written by Reed Steiner and directed by Davis Guggenheim. The one shot that gives “Co-Pilot” a run for its money: Shane in the passenger seat shot through a window reflecting all kinds of city-block activity. Now that’s an image with dimension.
  • The chief turns out to be quite a player in his first episode. Aceveda tries to talk him out of firing him over the leaked report, and he cuts him off. “I’ve heard about this kind of slick shit of yours. You’re running for office. It doesn’t work on me.” Instead he issues an ultimatum: Aceveda’s out of there in six months, whether by election to public office or by quietly resigning to spend time with his family.
  • With season two almost over, and the cracks revealing themselves, I find I keep wanting to talk about season three. Now that’s a roller coaster.
  • Welcome to the Strike Team’s new minority member, Tavon. He pulls off a sting on a car-jacking ring they’ve been after for a while. Interesting how Lem appreciates Tavon while Shane’s suspicious. Looks like projection to me.
  • Oh, Danny cuts ties with Vic in another spectacular stand! She knows (well, suspects) that Vic is behind the knife that killed Armadillo, the one she got blamed for missing in her pat-down, and that he hung her out to dry. That betrayal is so much more dramatic than anything with Gilroy.
  • But Ben does supply some parting thoughts to take us into the Armenian Money Train. “I got greedy. I lost everything. There’s a lesson there, Vic.” And they lived happily every after.

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