The Shield (Classic): “Inferno”/“Breakpoint”

The Shield (Classic): “Inferno”/“Breakpoint”

“Inferno” (season two, episode 11; originally aired 3/18/2003)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon.)

“Inferno” brings back the darkness I’ve been missing and then some. A rape victim leads Dutch and Claudette down a dark alley. The Strike Team gets involved in some emotional stuff tracking down a federal fugitive. Tomas returns, and Corinne’s seeing a divorce attorney, and naturally both stories turn to shit. But the strongest aftertaste is disturbingly good. Is the Barn really the last bastion of decency in Farmington?

Who could complain about a functioning, internally loyal police squad? Vic concocts the plan to get this high-profile bad guy in part to salvage Aceveda’s political hopes. Lanie’s the interloper here, the one contacting federal agents who blow the Strike Team’s cover and put them in extreme danger. The next time the guys go out, Aceveda personally intervenes to keep Lanie from repeating her asinine mistake. Tavon proves his worth in every scene: First he lends the guys some much appreciated color in negotiation with Kern Little, then he flirts with a previously reluctant black landlady to get her help, eventually he pretends like he’s about to flip on Vic to Lanie and confesses that he caught Vic parking more than six inches away from the curb. Weirdest of all: Vic resists setting Kern up with police protection for his foray into the drug trade. “Me and my guys aren’t going down that road again. We’re out of the drug trade.” And it’s actually a little moving, Kern sitting there crying about how he has no other options. Vic offers him some solid pep: He’s pulled himself up before. He can do it again.

It’s not just that the cops at the Barn are a cohesive bunch with the moral high ground in every situation. Look at everyone else in Farmington. The rape story is really a prelude to a blackmail scheme. There was consensual sex, but then the alleged victim and her mom threaten the alleged attacker for money. The way it comes out is wicked, one last knife twist for this dark story, as Claudette tells him she can clear him in an hour if he consents to a blood test. His wife is so relieved, but then the camera keeps on pulling back to him, suddenly shadowy and upset. “What if I don’t give my permission?” The wife ends up being dragged out of the room, screaming at the man about never seeing his kids again, while he stands there crying.

Then there’s Tomas, who’s been bad news from day one. Julien actually strings him along at first—“I cannot do this right now. Maybe later”—and winds up giving him a credit card to get a hotel. Tomas plays that credit card until Julien cancels it. Julien pays for his mistake, but he’s not leading the guy on. He’s just trying to do the right thing, to help out an old friend in a time of need.

Normally the smooth operation of the Barn and the idealism of its officers is a goal to strive for, but it looks awfully strange to see a show, especially a show like this about the liberal costs of security in—forgive me—post-9/11 America, depict a world where the only good guys are the cops and everyone else is a Machiavellian survivalist. Maybe that’s why the Corinne story is so essential. At first blush it’s another tearful domestic screaming match when she shows up at Vic’s apartment at the end. But this is a genuinely emotional episode. The fugitive is captured when his best friend tearfully flips, Kern Little’s shock and dismay is palpable, and even Julien’s dilemma cries out for empathy. So it’s in that emotional headspace that we watch Corinne resolve the divorce story. She wasn’t actually planning to file papers. She thought they were working things out until she received Vic’s divorce papers. And then she spots signs of his romantic guest, and she’s immediately crestfallen. “Don’t touch me,” she says. “I can make you miserable, too.” There’s The Shield I remember. It’s surprisingly reassuring to see a Farmington cop wrong a Farmington citizen, even in these circumstances. Besides, the Armenian Money Train is in the background this whole time. It’s easy for the Barn to unite against outsiders like Lanie, but there are already cracks in that facade.

Stray observations:

  • “Inferno” is written by Kim Clements and directed by Brad Anderon
  •  The Times is going to endorse Karen Mitchell, erasing Aceveda’s lead.
  • Fun with Danny and Julien: Can’t get enough of her wide-eyed stare after Julien introduces Tomas to someone. “This is Vanessa. My wife.”
  • The rape case also brings out some cracks in the Barn. Dutch is used to play-acting opposite people he’s profiled for the camera, but there’s clear tension in his scene with the alleged rape victim. How much of his manipulated performance was performance?
  • Claudette tells it like it is: “The truth is your report is only gonna cause a few tremors. You’re not the first civilian auditor this department has had and in the end cops will protect cops. Outrage will turn to apathy turn to ‘Didn’t something happen there once?’ And it all goes back to the way it was.”

“Breakpoint” (season two, episode 12; originally aired 3/25/2003)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon.)

It’s amazing how well these episode work as couplets. Two weeks ago the episodes pivoted on Armadillo scarring Ronnie. Last week the episodes marked the return of Gilroy. This week, “Inferno” and “Breakpoint” revolve around Lanie’s report, the return of Tomas, and the Strike Team cleaning up their act except for that one loose thread, all amid a bramble of newly dark, thorny stories. (Speaking of which, “Homewrecker” wasn’t that long ago, so consider all prior complaints about the decline in visceral impact null and void.)

Take the main case. It starts with a teenager named Jeffrey getting kidnapped on the heels of two similar crimes, leading Dutch to assume there’s a pedophile at work. “Breakpoint” gets a lot of good mileage out of Dutch’s eagerness around a subject that makes everyone else queasy. “I hate to say it, but our best hope is that this deviant’s got our boy chained up to a fence somewhere, loves his ass so much, can’t give it up for a few days,” he says before getting tackled by the boy’s father. Dutch intellectualizes crime, which is extraordinarily helpful in disturbing cases like this, but less so in mixed company. The Strike Team investigates a nearby sex shop, getting into a fun debate with the owner about the legality and morality of digitally morphing hardcore porn to make the actors look underage. They haul in a registered sex offender in the area (he disputes the charge, claiming to be the sun and water for blossoming boys), there’s another kidnapping nearby, they find that second boy dead with a particularly gruesome head wound. The crimes are visceral, the issues are touchy, and the cops are a pretty blunt instrument so far.

Then the Strike Team cuts some corners with another sex offender, this one with a big shiner. He lawyers up and heads home, so Vic sends in Jeffrey’s father to beat on the guy so they have probable cause to enter his house. But the guy reveals a new wrinkle: He offered to pay Jeffrey for a blow job, but Jeffrey held him up. He’s slumped on the floor of his own house begging for them to leave him alone. Because Vic shoots off his mouth about the guy deserving such a beating for his past crimes, there’s a particularly challenging tension to the scene. After all, what’s a few bruises next to the boys he’s scarred? On the other hand, he’s supposedly paid his dues to society already. When the unfailing Claudette shows up to check on him, that’s when I really felt some sympathy for him, but even that’s counterbalanced by revulsion. A night before he was cruising for teenagers.

It turns out that Jeffrey and his buddy are troublemakers, routinely holding up guys like that and making trouble with the black boys in the neighborhood. Jeffrey’s buddy, a charmer with a swastika tat who throws around a surprising amount of unbleeped slurs for basic cable, flips on him when he finds out Jeffrey’s dad is black. And that leads to a traumatic shootout at Jeffrey’s place where Lem has to kill a kid. The first murdered boy was just the beginning of an intended spree. It’s a winding case, but “Breakpoint” considers every turn thoughtfully and humanely. This isn’t just darkness for the sake of darkness. If The Shield is serious about considering justice, then it must face up to these provocative cases of rejuvenated porno and relatively innocent sex offenders.

Only Claudette really gets it. After yelling at Vic about the assault—“But he’s innocent now! You just don’t get that, do you?”—she finally makes her move. Lanie’s recommended Claudette to run the Barn. At first she refuses, and she even tells Aceveda as much. She’s finally changed her mind. “I’ve kept my head down long enough. I don’t like what I’m seeing lately so it’s either do something about it or quit, and I’m way too young to retire. Enjoy your meal.” And that’s not just the first punch. Aceveda, ordered to downsize by 20 percent, performs a delicious act of self-sacrifice for the Chief. He refuses to cut the good cops from his department, so he only comes up with five trouble cases: Vic, Shane, Lem, Ronnie, and himself. Best of all he’s sent the list to the papers, even though it’ll kill his election chances. He tells the Chief, “It’s the only way to pressure you into doing something about the Strike Team once and for all.” Maybe the Barn is shaping up after all.

Stray observations:

  • “Breakpoint” is written by Glen Mazzara and directed by Félix Alcalá.
  • Tomas aggressively outs Julien from the pen. The supporting cast snicker, but Danny actually intervenes.
  • More examples of the kinder, gentler Vic: He also tries to buck up Julien, and he tells Jeffrey’s dad that the safest place he can be while they finish investigating is in the pen.
  • On the other hand, Vic gets arrested for questioning after he breaks into his own (Corinne’s) house and causes a hyperbolic Lifetime movie, all alarms and broken glass and scalding water and upset children.
  • Vic tells it like it is: “If there’s one thing this country’s good at, it’s incarcerating black males.”  
  • Next week: Just the season two finale, “Dominoes Falling.”

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