The Shield (Classic): “Dawg Days”/“Blowback”

The Shield (Classic): “Dawg Days”/“Blowback”

“Dawg Days” (season one, episode four; originally aired 4/2/2002)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

“This is America. Nothin’s free,” Vic Mackey tells his drug-dealer serf toward the beginning of “Dawg Days.” The Shield isn’t big on proclamations. Too busy dropping dead dogs into the middle of the shot. But “Dawg Days” is positively meditative compared to the usual. It’s all about this shadow United States. City councilmen aren’t elected so much as hand-picked by plutocrats. Migrant labor is exploited in more ways than one. And Vic Mackey tries to settle a gang war away from the interrogation lamp. Inasmuch as The Shield shines a light on a shadow justice system, “Dawg Days” flashes a quick preview.

A gang war between hip-hop mini-moguls threatens the Strike Team’s retirement fund because Mackey’s main man Rondell Robinson grew up with one of the warring factions. So for most of the episode, no matter how clearly he’s incapable of keeping the peace on his own terms, Vic tries to keep Rondell out of bracelets. He makes him cough up some fall guys. He tries to get Danny to misremember after she positively IDs Rondell. He negotiates a sit-down between the rappers, T-Bonz who nobody’ll remember in an hour and Rondell’s boy Kern Little. For some reason Vic thinks he has things under control, but The Shield has a way of knocking people on their asses. Danny gets threatened at gunpoint by a self-proclaimed cop-killer Rondell sent. That’s the final straw. “Cops are off limits.” Partly because it’s Danny, partly because a calm Farmington is good for business, but also because going after cops makes Rondell unprotectable and potentially incriminating. Vic and Lem lock Kern and T-Bonz in a shipping container overnight to settle their feud once and for all. They do. Only Kern walks out the next morning. “Dawg Days” isn’t just laying out the plots and themes for the show’s higher-octane years. Even the cynicism is concentrated. Vic and Kern stand there, looking out at their city in the hazy sunrise. Don’t worry, Kern says, he’ll take care of the mess.

Dutch and Claudette make the usual contrast as dutiful detectives, up early for a stakeout, going man-to-man asking por información, reading Miranda rights as well as they can. The Strike Team bust heads and cover their tracks. Dutch and Claudette debate illegal immigration. But the biggest difference between them and the Strike Team: They get the job done. It’s a convoluted story involving Mexican migrant labor, a disappearance, and a past crime with no witnesses, all impeded by language barriers, but Claudette recognizes the behavior of a rape victim and Dutch pushes their suspect Eduardo until he confesses that the guy they’re looking for, Manuel Ruiz, died of an accidental on-the-job injury. The guy who owns the property couldn’t be hassled with reporting the death, so he orders Manuel buried on-site and threatens Eduardo with murder charges unless he keeps his trap shut. His defense: “Woulda shut down business for weeks, put these guys out of work.” Everyone’s trying to circumvent the rules.

The Shield is rarely so prestige-drama, but the American dream of opportunity providing mobility soaks through the whole episode. Dutch thinks America’s rule of law fosters prosperity, which lures immigrants. Claudette rolls her eyes. “$40 for a full day’s work isn’t prosperity, son. It’s exploitation, and you wouldn’t do it.” Everyone’s finding his price at the end. Dutch hires Eduardo to do some construction work. Señora Ruiz is going to sue the property owner who buried her husband for “mucho dinero.” Kern’s hip-hop empire is intact. Rondell’s drug-money luxuries have been given to charity, forfeited via Vic the moment Rondell went after Danny. When Vic closes the container on Kern and T-Bonz, he makes sure they hear him. “I am never for sale.” But it’s that final shot of Vic and Kern standing outside T-Bonz’s roomy casket that sears. Nothin’s free.

Stray observations:

  • “Dawg Days” is written by Kevin Arkadie and directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal. If it’s more chaotic than usual—think of the swinging sequence of shots following Aceveda at the party or the undisguised running cameraman approach for the strike team on the streets—it’s also remarkably composed in the steady shots. There’s so much weight in that push on the attempted ransom victim as she realizes who’s tormenting her followed by the oblique mug shot. Better still, the shadows on Danny when Vic asks her to change her story.
  • For the second episode in a row, celebrity culture is a target. Similar angle, too, although the basketball player’s buddies aren’t shooting up the neighborhood.
  • Foreshadowing: Claudette discerns that Manuel raped Eduardo. Dutch is confused. “Raped in a truck sneaking into this country? How is that possible?” Aceveda: “It’s possible.”

“Blowback” (season one, episode five; originally aired 4/9/2002)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Blowback” is an even stronger taste of things to come, a thriller like the out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fryer avalanche The Shield would become. Vic’s trying to stay one step ahead of Aceveda, and Aceveda smells blood. It starts with the Strike Team operating an illegal wire-tap on an Armenian drug deal. It’s all fun and games at first. The guys quickly discover the flaw in their plan with the appropriate drollness: “Huh. The Armenians speak Armenian.” Vic physically borrows an Armenian student to translate and pays off a driver to supply “probable cause.” The bust goes swimmingly, and Shane takes two packages of pink heroin for Rondell, but he stops for some celebration sex. In that time, his police-issue vehicle is stolen, along with the drugs and their guns, leading to the greatest car chase in television history: Shane getting increasingly exasperated shouting at a black Navigator to pull over while his bored hook-up sits annoyed on the passenger side. It’s the wrong car. Meanwhile Julien saw Vic’s team skim those packages, and he tells Aceveda. The race to the Navigator is on.

It’s breathless how fast the balance of power shifts back and forth toward the end. Aceveda puts out an APB on the car. Danny and Julien happen to find it. Danny tells Julien not to report it quite yet because she owes Vic one, but as soon as she turns her back to arrest the thief, Julien calls it in. Aceveda shows up and searches the car, but it’s clean. At the station Danny checks the thief’s cell phone to see where she might have gone the previous night, and she tells Vic. He finds the heroin packages next to an OD victim. Just then Aceveda shows up outside the window. The Strike Team clean up the drugs and even make out with one package. So many close calls in a row it hurts.

One of the Armenians arrested at the original bust, Margos Dezerian, adds a disturbing background to the proceedings. Played by Kurt Sutter, who also wrote this episode, he’s introduced by snorting a line, rising, and shooting the guy who snorted before him in one sinuous motion, like a deranged dance. He’s dressed in flowing white, and he’s completely silent. Except for when he possibly says, “Delicious feet,” at Danny in Armenian. He kills a man in lock-up with him for calling him a faggot. At the end, Aceveda tells Claudette that he escaped out the back of a paddy wagon going 40. So that’s what’s in our heads as someone prowls ever so slowly by Danny’s house late at night. She’s with Vic, but it’s not Kurt Sutter come to dine on her toes. It’s Dutch, neither humiliated nor compared to a murderer for the last time. The episode ends on that humorous moment, but the fact remains: Margos Dezerian is still out there.

In between all the jockeying, “Blowback” has some time to question every character on the limits of police loyalty. Julien’s strict moral code leaves him no question, but he knows there will be consequences, and he knows what his training officer would say, so he goes to Claudette first. She doesn’t tell him what to do. She counsels him: “You’ve gotta ask yourself if it’s something bad enough it’s worth risking that kind of heat, if it’s something you can’t live with holding.” Smash cut, I shit you not, to Aceveda’s office after the deed’s been done. Julien has enough trouble with gray areas as it is. Practicing for the sergeant’s exam, Danny gets an answer wrong, and Dutch tells her, “You have to report the infraction immediately.” She says, “Stupid rule. Would you turn in your partner like that?” And he says, “I know how I’d answer on the test.” Danny’s loyal to her police. She defends Vic to Julien, and she defends Julien to the Strike Team. Vic and Shane are murderously loyal; Lem and Ronnie are maybe a step below. Dutch and Claudette are nuanced in their approaches. There are degrees of expediency.

Stray observations:

  • “Blowback” is directed by Clark Johnson. My favorite visual touch is in the scene where Dutch leaves Danny. From his perspective, they’re a lot closer than from hers. 
  • Ronnie gets a couple of lines! Apparently he’s allergic to everything. 
  • Vic tells the student, “National security. Don’t tell a goddamn soul.”
  • Vic tells Aceveda, “Believe it or not, you and me want the same things: Taxpayers safe, bad guys behind bars.” Lotta mission statements flying around this week.
  • Interesting in a Carmela Soprano sort of way that Corinne dismisses herself to check on Cassidy as soon as Shane not-so-subtly tells Vic their drugs have been stolen.
  • I forgot how much I love Danny, but she is kicking ass this week. “Stop staring at my feet, you Balkan freak!”

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