Is season two elegantly structured or is “Dominoes Falling” just so damn good it looks like it? Not to be vulgar about things like Armadillo or Connie’s murder, but the small payoffs have been cresting pretty regularly even before this final, epic wave, and now every storyline connects in this moody, pulse-pounding climax. Aceveda’s refusal to fire more than the Strike Team leads the Chief to make cuts: Julien, who denies his homosexuality to the point of getting married to someone he barely knows and battles repression to the point of some serious suicidal urges on the job recently, survives the culling while Danny, a model cop who’s been harassed all season and framed for contributing to the Big Bad’s murder (and is also, yes, a bit of a racist), gets canned. Even the victories are unsettling, especially if you count Julien getting a blanket party from all his freshly fired tormentors. Aceveda wins the election, Claudette’s on her way to running the Barn, and the Strike Team actually skate off with a pile of cash that reaches into the millions, but Aceveda and Claudette are openly gunning for Mackey, and both are soon to be in positions of power over him. And as for that enormous windfall, the guys aren’t whooping for joy. They’re wondering what now. Episodes like this are why they came up with the word “game-changer.”
If only Dutch and Claudette had been chasing an Armenian mobster—or, hell, Vic—all season, they’d be more strongly connected to everyone else, but as it is the second leads are in this mostly standalone mirror plot that embarrassingly grasps at gravitas by killing off someone close to Claudette whom we’ve never seen. Isn’t everything else in this episode enough without manufacturing extra drama? Her ex-husband lies slumped in a car while her daughter sits crying nearby. Now, as the gangland connection becomes clear, the subplot does tie into everything else. In fact, it’s a crucial piece of the puzzle that makes up Vic Mackey, and secondarily, it pulls back another layer on Tavon. But “Dominoes Falling” is a Very Serious episode full of Very Serious conversations. This subplot exists so Claudette can tell Dutch she doesn’t want her daughter to be an eyewitness at a banger’s trial. It’s a challenge to find another way to nail the shooter, an echo of the Chief’s Act One challenge to Mackey to maintain his arrest rate while following standard operating procedure. I’m not sure Tavon’s deliciously smooth Russian roulette routine qualifies, but Dutch playing the three potential shooters off each other absolutely does.
But Vic is consciously trying to do the right thing nowadays, too. That’s partly thanks to the scrutiny of Aceveda, Lanie, and Claudette. Even the Chief calls him in basically to say he’s got his eye on Vic, which has some force after the Chief threw his weight around, or rather slowly stuck out his belly, a couple episodes ago. But I also wonder how much of Vic’s rejuvenated conscience comes from Lem. There’s a telling moment during the Armenian Money Train robbery when the Strike Team is discussing what to do with the wounded Armenian. Lem says, “We didn’t shoot him, but we can save him. I don’t want that blood on my conscience.” After a moment, Vic says, “Me either.” Contrast that with the early preparation scene in which Vic explains to the guys exactly why stealing this money doesn’t trouble him. It comes from illicit operations and goes to fund even more violence. He’s rationalizing armed robbery—and there is something beautifully complicated about seeing the goofballs we hang out with each week dressed in ski masks and pointing some serious firearms at people—but he could not care less about some gangster’s life, and instead he risks his getaway to help the guy.
Speaking of beautiful complications, Shane and Lem switch roles as soon as Lem finds out the other guys had a contingency plan to pull the robbery without him. Suddenly Lem’s the one who pushes to follow the plan at all costs while Shane absolutely freaks out, chattering and fidgeting with anticipation. Just watching him makes me nervous. That’s one reason the robbery is so suspenseful. Everything goes wrong, as expected, but Vic isn’t even there to cool everyone down. The mobsters start fighting among themselves, guns are drawn, and bodies are dropped. The patrol van gets spooked and tries to flee. The aforementioned Armenian is bleeding out. But everything works out, at least in the short-term. The Strike Team doesn’t kill anyone, they seize a few million in cash, and they get away in time to maintain their alibis.
And that victory parade is when “Dominoes Falling” gets really tight on Vic Mackey, supposedly trying to course-correct for a season and a half of careless violence. First of all, Michael Chiklis is hilarious when Vic first gets back to the clubhouse, overcompensating for his adrenaline by playing it extra cool, totally clenched, nothing to see here. For his part, Tavon’s starting to get suspicious about the conspiratorial moments he keeps interrupting, but that’s just a tasty appetizer for season three. Then Vic finds out about Danny. She challenges him to do the right thing, to prove his commitment to fraternity. He doesn’t, although the terms of this conflict are wrong; Vic has been genuinely supportive to guys like Julien and Dutch who have helped him. Not for nothing, she gives Aceveda the same challenge framed as due diligence. He fails. And the third chance to right this wrong is when Aceveda challenges Mackey to confess right then and there, this time framed as a contest between courage and cowardice. It’s an incredible moment. Vic is genuinely—sort of—trying to straighten up and fly right these days. He just found out that Aceveda’s going to be around for the next six months until he takes office, a constant thorn in Vic’s side. And he just, uh, inherited enough money for him and his family to be set for some time. He likely couldn’t confess, and wouldn’t consider it, but he could certainly offer to resign or something. Instead he keeps his mouth shut, Aceveda calls him a coward, and Danny gets sent packing.
Next he visits Claudette. Their conversations are brilliant displays of one-upmanship. He brags about his part in cracking the gang murder. She says her mantra: “Results don’t excuse bad behavior.” He growls about turf. She says the whole Barn is about to be her turf. Eventually he walks away, and his cocky smile has never looked more affected. He skips Julien, which is unfortunate, because the guy could use some muscle right about now. Instead Vic checks in with Corinne. The more I think about it, the more dangerous it sounds to tell a woman who had him arrested the night before that she’s going to be set for life, wink wink, but it makes perfect sense for Vic. Not only is he high on victory, but he’s been trying to win her over all season, and money has been a huge strain on their relationship. This is the closest Vic gets to satisfaction. Tavon, Danny, Aceveda, Claudette, and Corinne are all nursing grudges, but Corinne’s starting to thaw.
Finally Vic meets up with the guys to finish up. He’s the last one there, the last one to behold the insane pile of cash they actually managed to steal and celebrate. But his energy level quickly matches the others’ as he realizes all the new pressures he’s under. It’s a spectacular closing sight, and the stage is set for a very different season three. Aceveda’s on his way out and Claudette’s on her way up, Dutch is unknowingly on Vic’s case, and the Strike Team has just pulled off its one last heist. Armadillo was just a prelude. The real exercise in inevitability starts now.
- “Dominoes Falling” is written by Shawn Ryan and directed by Scott Brazil.
- Another Farmington gang tries to fill the vacuum this week. Welcome back to the fray, E-Park Johnnies!
- Again, let’s hear it for Tavon’s gun trick. Dexterous guy.
- Danny gets fired for the Armadillo murder. She says, “I got suspended for that. I paid the price. You’re firing me for it?” Not much time to explore that, but I love how she brings up justice and penalty.
- Julien’s such a pitiful contrast to the Strike Team. He also gets a victory (the lone surviving uni with lines, an ostensibly happy family) that’s mostly terrible (blanket party, repression). Only he ends the season bleeding all over the ground outside his house.
- The closing montage is set to Live’s “Overcome,” which is making me nutty since the song is associated with 9/11 and The Shield is such a powerful allegory for the ensuing tension between liberty and security. Also there’s the episode title. And that’s just what’s sitting on top.
- The cash-pile scene is a very specific example of how much Breaking Bad owes to The Shield.
- Next week: No new review. But the week after: The mighty return of Vic Mackey and Cletus Van Damme. Season three is so good. Tell your friends.