“Safe” and “Cracking Ice” (season three, episodes seven and eight; originally aired 4/20/2004 and 4/27/2004)
After a moodier pair of episodes, “Safe” is a jolt of that classic Shield energy. A slow day turns into an eight-person graveyard and a missing girl. The combo to Aceveda’s safe doesn’t work and it takes another three or four plans for the Strike Team to finally break in. Adam E. Fierro’s script zips along: “Since when does eight dead women not fire your engine?” Director Peter Horton must have spent an extra week shooting all that coverage from across the Barn, not to mention the drive-by local-flavor B-roll, and the editors steer into the skid. The average shot length might beat that of Chuck’s Intersect. This thing is uncrackable.
There are even some topical bodies buried in this rip-roaring potboiler. It all hinges on a narcocorrido’s misinformation after all. Everyone refers to the singer as a journalist. Here we have a misled media making a case for something (a dead girl) that isn’t actually there (although, naturally, there’s something else to justify the search). In the same episode Aceveda absent-mindedly—in the worst sense of the word—orders Claudette to hold a suspect even though they have no reason to. “What did he tell me to do,” she asks Vic. “Drum up charges to hold him?” Another case with no evidence. Oh, and the president’s in town. Odd that nobody calls him by name, but that might be too obvious this season.
Meanwhile Vic and his team debate what to do about the list of tracked Armenian bills in Aceveda’s safe. Lem, suffering from an ulcer ever since severed feet became a possibility for him, just wants the anxiety gone, just wants to have the stash of Damocles settled one way or another. He’s also upset about the idea, the principle, of breaking into the captain’s office. He says, “There are other ways.” Vic says, “Which are fine if you want a huge risk and 30 cents on the dollar. But I want a dollar on the dollar.” It’s such a Heisenberg line that it’s officially ridiculous that the HBO trinity and their AMC heirs so rarely make room for the FX king.
“Safe” is just bulletproof, give or take some Spanglish more appropriate to a spring breaker (or screenwriter) trying to remember his vocab than a Mexican woman trying to communicate with a cop (“Pero the funeral”). The episode has a perfect combination of tension and humor: A person of interest shouting for help from the interrogation room just because Vic stands near him; Dutch and Claudette having chain-of-command issues when she orders him around, him saying he’d pursue the same course of action, but it’s nice to be asked; Mara bursting in on Shane via cell-phone (“Guess who I just spent four hours on the phone with”) just as he watches Aceveda discover his combo doesn’t work on the decoy safe.
All the while Aceveda is trying to regain some power in his life, and Benito Martinez is still breaking my heart. He makes Vic play good cop after wailing on someone in the interrogation room. He chews out Vic and turns on Claudette in public, shouting, “I am still captain here!” He’s in the wrong, legally and probably strategically, but that doesn’t inspire anger or frustration. You feel sorry for him. He’s been victimized, and he’s trying not to feel so powerless. At the end he finally talks to someone, an old friend, and it’s one of those conversations like the opening S.O.S. in “Cracking Ice” where every line matters. First the friend implicitly blames him, asking why Aceveda couldn’t do anything about it. Then he comes to his senses, though he can barely look Aceveda in the eyes, as his friend loses it. He tells him to take some power back, and Aceveda breaks into this high-pitched cry that kills you. “I don’t know how.” The guy tells him he has power. He has a gun. “If it was me, I’d kill ’em.” Finally. Someone has to pick up the slack for the newly reformed Mackey.
“Cracking Ice” isn’t quite as insanely constructed—that long shot of Vic and Shane driving would never have survived the “Safe” cutting room, for instance—although things are off to the races in a bad way again. On the heels of that perfect “Safe” finale comes a delicious cold open when an unusual ring comes through on Claudette’s phone. It’s something called the hello line. Claudette quiets everyone and answers warily, “Hello?” It’s Trish, undercover somewhere, playing this beautifully bubbly gangster groupie. “Holler at Walon for me, alright?” And then Claudette pauses for a line that’s gonna sting in an hour. “I love you too, Mama.” After the hang-up, Claudette translates for Aceveda and the audience. “Trish is in trouble. Walon, too.” Duh duh-duh duh-duh dun! The credits make such a perfect button sometimes.
Turns out Walon’s cover has been blown, Trish is stuck with an ex-Marine hit man, and it’s all because Claudette overlooked the fine print in Walon’s report that there’s a mole in the judge’s office. The worst thing about either of these episodes is this comic relief runner about Shane getting Mara a ring, which eventually lets some air out of this intense distress storyline, but Nicki Micheaux is such a rock star she keeps things from getting too light. After she physically bungles the Marine’s hit and then tackles him through the driver’s side door, clawing at his eyes and trying to get a stranglehold, she debriefs at the Barn in this matter-of-fact bombing raid. She informs Aceveda, with Claudette in the corner, that she had to ingest some coke to stay alive, and that she should probably get tested for STDs and take the morning-after pill. She walks out proud to have gotten a murderer off the street, and she lets Mama stew in her own fuck-up. Claudette goes to apologize, and still Trish doesn’t give her the satisfaction of dressing her down. The trust is totally gone. How does the Undercover Decoy Squad operate without being able to rely on their supervisor back at the home base?
As if that’s not enough, Tommy blows his brains out in the parking lot. Danny tries to talk him down in another beautiful sequence, first pleading with him, then sneaking a door pull, and finally deliberating on whether Tommy will kill himself before she can get Aceveda. The suicide itself is heard from inside the Barn. Danny walks in and yells about an officer in distress outside, then there’s a gunshot, then a swarm of officers rush past her and she just crumples. The cast, the writers, the directors, the lighting, and the editing and the art department people who made those hilarious porno mags for Julien to pass over (Honeydippers and Nekkid) in favor of Men magazine—The Shield itself is at the top of its game.
What “Safe” and “Cracking Ice” set up, though, is a Barn at maximum conflict. Both episodes involve the whole department working together in a sprawling, sort of way. Claudette and Vic take on the narcocorrido crimes from different sides, and she brings in Dutch, and he’s working Danny on the cuddler rapist case. Later it’s a blast to see the whole cast converge on Walon to get him out of the field. But by the end, the leadership is untrustworthy. Aceveda’s lashing out, acting out of transference, and Claudette made a huge mistake. The great thing about it being Claudette is we know how generally meticulous she is, so when Walon threatens her about Trish (“I don’t get her back in one piece, I’ll use every goddamn favor I’ve banked for the last 14 years to get your lazy ass fired”), it’s complicated. He should be angry, but Claudette is not lazy. It’s just a shitty error. On the other hand, when Vic says she belongs behind a desk, that does provoke some rage, because he knows how good a detective she is. Vic just wants to get back on the streets. But the Strike Team is full of in-fighting, too, right now, with seven grand missing from the stash and all signs pointing to Shane. There are even little moments of dysfunction heightening the tension, like Nina reporting Dutch’s hot laptop to IAD, a comic note with potentially damning repercussions, and Julien completely missing the signs that Danny wants to talk about what happened with Tommy. The only people that are functioning effectively right now are the Undercover Decoy Squad. Too bad they’re stuck in Farmington.
- “Cracking Ice” is written by Charles H. Eglee and Diego Gutierrez and directed by Guy Ferland.
- Every new development in Ronnie’s character is something to savor. Today he has tickets to Journey, and he offers to try to crack the safe without any experience.
- The action-movie opening of “Safe” has some pretty great lines. “We get one shot. After the president’s gone, that’s it.”
- Another great cut to credits: “I need more flags.”
- Does it scan that Vic would return the videotape of Aceveda so easily? At first you think he’s taking some leverage, but then he plays it in return for something so small (read: off-screen). Maybe he’s just trying to curry favor to get his guys back on street duty?
- Danny found Dutch’s laptop. “Also found your renewal card for Tiger Beat. I mailed it in.” Dutch isn’t amused. “Funny later. Not funny now.”
- Lem and Shane. You can guess who’s who. “A ring lets her show the rest of the world that you love her.” “You getting your vagina waxed next week?”
- “Cracking Ice” keeps hammering in the numbers. Seven Gs, Section Eight, size-11s, 12s, 90 minutes to the meet, and rolling out in 10. What’s that about?
- Shane’s charming ring dealer: “Listen, you give a bitch a rock like that, she will get on all fours for you and bark like a dog.”
- Great scene at the judge’s office. Vic quickly figures out who’s likely to have grown up with some 12s and intimidates her into confession, and his blustery entrance provokes some guy into getting the judge, which is what he wanted in the first place.
- Another great scene is Dutch and Claudette decompressing after the day from hell. Claudette asks Dutch about the cuddler case, and the two get into a rhythm. She bolsters his confidence, and he gets her back to doing what she does. Detective work is her home.
- Vic’s informant Desiree is a keeper. She gets her boyfriend to do what he needs in thirty seconds or less. “Now you call him, or I’m out the door!” “Cracking Ice” is all about women exerting sexual power: Trish with the jarhead, Mara whining her way into a ring, Natalie Zea’s Lauren sneaking around on her long-term boyfriend with Vic.
- Isn’t it convenient that the Marine doesn’t shoot Trish after their struggle?
- I feel like “Do you need anything? We’re closing up in five minutes” isn’t the best way to facilitate results at a fertility clinic.
- Toward the end, Shane lures Mara into the living room, and she’s ungrateful for his attention and that he’s playing her favorite song. She slumps forward in the big comfy chair, refusing to find joy in this moment. She opens the present, and it’s a baseball mitt. “It’s for the baby,” he says. “What if it’s a girl?” Jesus Christ, Mara. Here’s what we know about this person: She’s placated only by expensive gifts. She’s childish about wanting her own way. She can lie at the drop of a hat, but not well enough. She has no life outside of Shane. And she can’t even imagine teaching her daughter baseball. I’m sympathetic to her having a creature inside her draining the life out of her (or whatever fetuses do), and that she’s constantly alone, but Mara is such a one-dimensional drain on this show so far.
- Shane’s optimistic once Mara starts to calm down. He talks about how happy their family’s future will be. “This thing’s gonna work.” It’s the biggest “I love you, too, mama” of the series.
- And, just like “Safe,” “Cracking Ice” ends in a moody closing shot: Claudette answers her normal line thinking it’s the hello line, afraid she has another child in distress.