“Our Gang” (season one, episode two; originally aired 3/19/2002)
When Vic Mackey planted a bullet two inches south of Terry Crowley’s left eye, The Shield changed the story twice over. Cops get shot in pilots. Hill and Renko walk into a dilapidated building half an hour into Hill Street Blues, and they get carried out. Sipowicz stands up and taunts his shooter into squeezing the trigger in the première of NYPD Blue. After The Shield pilot, the headline for the audience is that Terry got hit by one of his own. But that isn’t all. Hill and Renko return to duty in the second episode. Sipowicz wakes up by the end of his first hour, the tenacious beast. Terry Crowley gets buried in the first act of “Our Gang.” This main character actually dies.
Terry’s murder consumes the episode. Everyone (except Julien) waits outside the hospital that night. Internal Affairs interviews the Strike Team. Then Aceveda and Dutch do. Lem and Ronnie get some lines if not names. Lem’s the one who busts a car window in guilt. Turns out only Shane and Vic were in on the hit. Shane’s about to confess to Aceveda when Vic rescues him, the first of a thousand close calls. Vic’s haunted by Terry but hardly upset. In the end, everyone confirms his own biases. Aceveda may be right about nailing Shane, and both of them may know it, but he’s also just looking for proof of his own theory. Ditto Dutch, who puts on a tough offense but doesn’t actually believe Vic or Shane had anything to do with Terry getting killed.
“Our Gang” is Vic’s big performance. The genuine tragedy of Terry’s death submits in every scene to the comic suspense of Vic putting on a show. The more moving the 911 call, the more Vic Mackey wows you. The hospital scene keeps floating between the sincerity of Danny comforting a grieving, guilty Shane and the irony of Vic’s public demonstration. After the funeral, Vic tells Shane to put the cigarette away until they’re out of sight. He’s giving him notes. It works insofar as Vic convinces Internal Affairs. But he doesn’t convince Aceveda. And weirder, he plays it cool enough to give Assistant Chief Gilroy plausible deniability without actually convincing him he’s innocent. Expediency is the name of the game.
Maybe that’s why Danny and Claudette get on better than Julien and Dutch in the frathouse dynamics at the center of “Our Gang.” Danny goes with the flow. Claudette keeps her head down. Julien’s a rookie and a bit uptight. Dutch is a nerd and a bit above it all. They’re hazing targets because they’re not alpha males like Vic’s guys or this Jackson dude. Bros swap raunchy stories over poker. Outsiders are fags and pussies. Or worse, rats. Violence laces conversation. It’s an episode about cops reasserting their dominance, after all. Plenty of posturing to go around.
When Julien helps a fist of the white establishment administer justice in a town of Rodney Kings and OJs, he gets called an Uncle Tom and filmed by a family auditioning for Cops. There’s a sly suggestion of Hollywood beneath the scenes outside the barn. An audience shows up to watch a violent gang initiation. When Vic chases a shooter into a tunnel, headlights produce rainbow lens flares around the silhouetted men. It’s all about performance.
- Shawn Ryan wrote “Our Gang,” and Gary Fleder directed it. His grace note: framing Claudette and some mope she’s interrogating inside a heart in the ironwork on the grated widow.
- Also, the Barn is abuzz with activity in this episode. As soon as Claudette steps out of frame, Fleder pushes in on the break room and finds another plot already in motion. It’s a whirlwind.
“The Spread” (season one, episode three; originally aired 3/26/2002)
In “The Spread,” Aceveda sets his sights on a new high-level target: a creaky clerk he wants to quit. Meanwhile Shane Vendrell spends an episode babysitting a basketball star. And a parent-teacher conference is more ominous than both stories combined. The noose is so loose you can’t even feel it anymore. “The Spread” is soft, but it ain’t pretty. Shane fires a racial slur at the player. A kite-high dad jumps into a pool with his baby. A deranged, middle-aged Jean-Ralphio knifes Vic’s prostitute friend Connie. Dutch cottons onto a serial killer. In the end it turns out the guy didn’t kill three prostitutes. He raped 12.
It’s an interesting, revolting case. It starts with a slash wound from Connie’s shoulder down her upper back. She happens to ID the guy out of a database, which leads Dutch to a bare ass squeaking on a vinyl couch cover and a fridge full of semen. Naturally he spills a glass all over the kitchen. They arrest the supplier, and Dutch immediately pegs him psycho. Claudette flirts with the rapist. It’s the usual sick excitement. What’s fascinating is how committed The Shield is to that crucible. With the right manipulation, people invariably confess. There’s no need for violence. In fact, Claudette physically inserts herself between Vic and Dutch when the former wants to have a go at the suspect. She’s given in once, under desperate circumstances, but she knows she can win this one right. Connie wants the guy to hurt the way he hurt her, but that doesn’t happen. Claudette scores a confession. The rapist is going to jail. Justice, not revenge.
“The Spread” also shows some new spots. Julien hauls in someone who’s seen him hanging around outside a West Hollywood club (if you catch his drift). When it turns out he was arrested due to a clerical error, Julien walks him out as the guy asks for his number. In the end, Julien shows up at his place to tell him that he’s not gay, as you do, but kisses him back and follows him inside anyway. He’s conflicted, but not very. He came to this guy’s apartment for a reason. Suddenly that hand he put over his eyes during the blow job in “Our Gang” looks completely different.
But where Julien is buttoned-up, so to speak, Shane lets loose. The Shield gets us hooked on adrenaline even though that tends to mean the Strike Team is up to no good, but after the high-stakes baseline, the only reason this game-fixing plot is tolerable is Shane enjoys it less than we do. He isn’t just being a dick. He’s a guilty conscience dying to confess. So he’s acting out, smoking at the funeral, pushing the player’s buttons, crying to Vic that they’re executioners now. Since Walton Goggins hinted at future greatness in the interrogation scene, Shane’s whole character has come into focus. The philosophy of the interview room has taken over. Under the right pressure, people tend to sink themselves.
- “The Spread” was written by Glen Mazzara, who would go on to write and eventually run The Walking Dead. It was directed by Clark Johnson.
- Before he opens the fridge, Dutch asks Danny, “You wanna bet on how many heads he’s got icin’ down in there?” “No thanks.”
- Danny tells Dutch that waiting for back-up was the longest two minutes of her life. I wish we could have felt that, too. It’s a little scary when that low-life actually lunges toward Julien’s gun, but once they’re all on the ground and Julien’s standing over their stash, we stop feeling Danny’s fear, and the episode cuts away instead of stewing in suspense.
- Vic tells Aceveda, “You know how these rich pricks are. He’s probably on his face snorkel-deep in some broad’s snatch. Give him a few hours. He’ll come up for air.” So Aceveda tells the guy’s lawyer, “You know how these celebrities are. He’s probably with a female admirer. Give it a few hours. He’ll turn up.” Once again, it doesn’t matter if Aceveda believes Vic. All he needs is the appropriate ass-covering.
- I can’t get enough of Dutch’s exasperated, “No,” in response to the rapist asking for some time alone with Claudette.