“On Tilt” (season three, episodes 15; originally aired 6/15/2004)
The three lingering portraits of Michael Chiklis at the end of “On Tilt” amount to a slow interrogation. First he shoots his unarmed (but let’s face it, still pretty armed) foe Margos Dezerian to the sounds of dog howls and moans, a parallel to the cat cries from That Other Scene. An earlier conversation connects the dots to Terry. “We gotta take him down in a way that clears departmental review.” No bones about it. It’s murder, and this time Vic gets the whole team to sign off, but he takes responsibility himself. Or is it not responsibility that drives him? He stands there looking at Margos, and he’s overcome. With shock, confusion, relief. Lost, like Dutch in the sickening aftermath of a meaningless experiment, with the obvious exception that Vic Mackey could never be as flamboyantly pathetic as Dutch Wagenbach (See also: Dutch’s all-time worst comeback, “Pussy’s said yes plenty,” followed by a smarmy laugh to himself as he desperately searches for a friend in the audience). Whatever Vic expected to feel isn’t what’s flooding him.
Then he does the other Vic Mackey thing, passively resisting before gradually giving into something he knows he shouldn’t, in this case sex with his informant (Stana Katic). Eventually she stops fucking and starts to cry as everything—the lifted weight of Margos, the freedom to return to Armenia—finally sinks in. Vic holds her, and the camera holds on him as he plays the comforting shoulder. He wants to make her feel safe. But that’s not it at all, is it? Margos was for him.
Finally the Strike Team gets back together with just enough time left in the hour for everything to turn to shit. It’s beautiful the way the Shane-Lem feud gives way to the real battle at the heart of the season between Shane and Vic over Mara. Vic thinks Mara could never love Shane the way he does, and he has a Dutch-style list of grievances in support of his working theory that she’s a one-dimensional harpy, er, a slippery, poisonous liar. So that’s rich on multiple counts. Meanwhile Shane has been secretly nursing a grudge against Vic for suspecting him of stealing the missing Money Train cash, never once completing that thought about who actually did steal the cash and cause him this strife. “I looked you in the eye, and I told you the truth, and you still thought I was a liar in your head!” Shane then politely observes that Vic’s parenting leaves a little to be desired, which is the last straw for a man whose entire self-image is wrapped up in protecting children and defenseless women like some knight-fucking-errant.
That’s a big moment, actually. Vic talks a big game about doing everything for his family, biological and fraternal, but does he? He says he went after Margos alone to protect Shane, which is maybe not the best choice of words after the Lem fiasco, but Vic is a pretty blunt instrument sometimes. Does he really believe that? Maybe. Vic has always had a certain nobility, and in “On Tilt” he takes personal responsibility a few times. For example, he tells his guys not to blame Lem for burning the money. “Money Train was my idea. Everything that came after started with me.” But going after Margos alone is a reckless gamble (see the title), a high-risk, high-reward situation resulting in Vic saving the day. The alternative would have been to put his team in danger, but in danger together. It might have saved them. But the season ends with the camera trained on Vic practically weeping as Shane walks away. Alone again. The Strike Team is done. All of this is over. At least he has that 65 grand.
So season three ends as it began, with an across-the-board restructuring, and this one really sticks. The Strike Team is done because its bad press outweighs the increase in crime. Let that sink in. I mean, Jesus. Danny gets a promotion, but honestly, who can tell the difference between promoted Danny, snitch Danny, and wannabe detective Danny? Aceveda’s on his way to his own promotion, but Claudette officially loses hers.
“On Tilt” is one of those statement episodes that lets you know where everyone stands, starting with Claudette’s crusade. She magically transforms into the least popular person in the Barn when she starts digging into the cases counseled by the addict attorney. She’s just as dogged in her interview with the wrongfully convicted robber, no bleeding heart is she, but right on cue she walks into Aceveda’s office with a case that needs to be reopened. Aceveda responds accordingly. “What do you think you’ve achieved here?” “We freed an innocent man.” “And how many guilty ones have to go free, too?” “As many as it takes to fix a wrong.” She adds, really, David, this is Civics 101. Remember when I said it was nice to see him acting like himself again? Double-edged swords hurt. He tells the ADA, “She means well. She just doesn’t see the big picture.” No! Opposite!
And then there’s Julien, who stops making love to his wife for a moment to deal with a store owner (Andre Benjamin’s Robert Huggins) who is harassing the sources of vice on his block. Back at the Barn, Julien admires his efforts. “If the other people on that street stood up like him, the drugs and the girls would already be gone.” Spoken like a Mackey Man. Practical Danny’s not so sure, but she leads a raid to arrest the dealers and prostitutes anyway. This Vic foil is the weirdest stealth hero of a show since that kid from St. Elsewhere. He takes justice into his own hands, but he stays within the law. Hell, the video-camera attack is delightful. Add another entry in The Shield’s Hollywood file. In the end, he cleans up his neighborhood creatively, safely, and legally. Vic, Claudette, Robert: One person can make a difference. All it takes is bravery. Or recklessness. One of the two.
- “On Tilt” is written by Shawn Ryan and Glen Mazzara and directed by Scott Brazil.
- This week in domestic drama, Cassidy’s going to live with Vic during the week now, and Corinne nags Vic to a premature death about it.
- Vic makes an Armenian write, “Life sux,” on his potential suicide note. “Looks like you’re gonna die a bad speller.”
- Claudette lets Dutch off the hook, but she’s really testing him. “You don’t have to put your job on the line, too.” “Okay,” he says immediately, but she’s disappointed. Has she met Dutch?
- Dutch and Aceveda on the stairwell is another great scene. “You know she’s just trying to make sure nobody innocent’s sitting in jail.” “We’re all trying to uphold the law, Dutch. It’d be nice if she remembered that.” “Speaking of which, whatever happened with you looking into Vic?” “I didn’t find anything.” “Did you try?”
- Ronnie Watch: “You don’t dry-clean Oriental rugs!”
- “On Tilt” is a Mussolini-esque marvel of great timing (e.g. Claudette interrupting Aceveda and the ADA with proof of a mishandled case), but the best example comes when Lem is feeling uneasy about murdering Margos. Shane tells him, “Look if this is too much for you—” but Lem interrupts him by vomiting blood.
- Who were those guys in the background of every Claudette shot watching her as she leaves the frame, and why does the camera keep lingering? Graffiti artists? Secret admirers? Touched By An Angel angels?
- Lovely end-of-the-day vignette between Dutch and Claudette. Dutch decides to adopt the runt left on Claudette’s desk. “Something for me to take care of.” Phew. Claudette the kitty crawls up his torso while Claudette the human puts some pictures back on her desk.
- Someone should tell Shane “I don’t need protecting” Vendrell that he literally just said, “The only way to protect us was to kill Margos, what Vic did.”
- Speaking of which, does Shane telling the enforcer that he doesn’t need protecting wrap up Iraq?
- Hiatus: Since the fall shows are about to start, this will be my last review of The Shield for now. Thanks for reading, and thanks for the general ownage of the comments. I can hardly wait for season four!