“Slipknot” and “What Power Is...” (season three, episodes nine and 10; originally aired 5/4/2004 and 5/11/2004)
“Slipknot” is a pretty obnoxious title for an episode about a lynching, but that’s The Shield for you. The lynching is a false flag operation, a black-on-black crime staged for the benefit of retaliation. It’s a way to manufacture evidence for the One Niners to go to war with Las Profetas (and the Latin Kings and the Byz Lats). The increasing Hispanic population isn’t just something two guest performers talk about. We’ve experienced it. Race has always been an important piece of The Shield, from Aceveda’s charmed career to Tavon’s hire. But thanks to the lynching of a budding graffiti artist and the ensuing murder of a priest friendly with Las Profetas, suddenly The Shield is wildly racially charged, the better for the four white men on the bench to get back on top.
Vic’s plan is pretty supervillain if you believe he actually has a plan, but all Vic really needs to do is be there with a smile when the Decoy Squad goes packing. All the tension is just to help his superiors make bad decisions. And it works. Claudette has to keep reminding everybody the kid wasn’t just murdered but lynched. Shane agrees with Claudette’s sarcastic assessment: “Guilty until proven white?” There’s even a scene where Vic tries some community outreach, and the two aging black business owners tell him the cops haven’t exactly inspired confidence in their ability to protect and serve. They even cite the Watts riots in their decision to throw in with the One Niners. There’s an interesting comparison to another scene of community outreach: The episode opens with Julien responding to a 911 call, telling a group of black kids, “You guys did good by calling us.” Where Vic conquers the community, Julien’s there if they need him. Vic threatens the citizens, and Julien thanks them. Both Vic and Julien show up too late, but only one is establishing in-roads.
But things really kick into high-gear back at the Barn, that triumph of integration. Hispanic Aceveda gets fed up watching white Dutch and black Claudette interrogate a Hispanic banger, so he bursts in, hisses a bunch of unsubtitled Spanish at the kid and leaves. For her part, Claudette understands exactly what he said, and she challenges his decision to bluff. She refuses to let racial segregation get in the way of her doing her job. Instead she succumbs to pride, sidelining the Decoy Squad when they complain about her pulling them off a homeless-killer investigation. As in the best scenes, they all have good points (except Aceveda, who offers nothing for Claudette to stand on but some still-wet Cheney bullshit: “The job gets done when we trust the decisions of our superiors”). White Walon points out that a fourth homeless person is going to die now, and nobody’s looking into it. When he needles Claudette about the hello-line incident, she shoots back, “I made a mistake! I start digging in your jacket, I’m not gonna find a few?” “None that almost killed a cop.” Hard to argue with that, but Claudette is by far the most qualified to run the Barn. If she’s getting drummed out, it’s a step down no matter what happens. Not for the cops. For the community.
Down below Vic white knights for the Decoy Squad, negotiating Trish and Annie’s cooperation in exchange for their prompt transfer out of Farmington. Up above, black Assistant Chief Phillips shows up to castigate Aceveda and Claudette. It’s amazing how everyone gets sucked into the tension, even though they should know better. Phillips spins some creepy political-speak into a serious scold: “The truth is whatever it looks like. And this looks like racial prioritizing, councilman.” And Dutch stands up for Claudette, hitting every nail on the head: Claudette is the best, Aceveda’s the one who hasn’t been demonstrating leadership, Aceveda clearly has something else going on lately that’s draining him. There’s always been a practical reason for those positions on the ladder. Aceveda makes his superiors looks good on diversity. But more importantly, he disguises the concept of a bunch of white men with guns running a mostly black and Hispanic neighborhood. Director Michael Chiklis (yes, fittingly he directs his own return to power) turns that ladder into a striking visual analogy. In the end, it’s Aceveda who slinks off to the corner room, disappearing into the bedroom at the home where his unsympathetic wife won’t even look at him after he confesses the rape, and it’s Vic who stands up tall on the balcony of Farmington, overlooking his dominion. Meanwhile Claudette’s been demoted and the half-black Decoy Squad’s been reassigned. Progress!
“What Power Is...” is another one of those high-octane chase episodes where Aceveda makes it impossible for Vic to cover up his actions without arousing suspicion. The best part is that Vic doesn’t even have a day on top of Farmington. As soon as he orchestrates a new landlord arrangement with the One Niners in “Slipknot,” he’s back to constantly covering his ass. It’s always out of the frying pan and into the fire with these guys. There are two narratives to this main story. The first is that Aceveda is trying to track down the Byz Lats who assaulted him (Juan and Ricky, one of whom Vic assaulted with a bong and both of whom are tied to the marked Armenian bills). The second is that Vic is trying to keep things copacetic with the Byz Lats and maintain his Armenian Money Train holdings without Aceveda finding out about either. But that second narrative is all in Vic’s head. This is all about Aceveda.
And boy, does Benito Martinez own, from the opening robbery to the final interrogation. At first it’s hard to see what his plan is. He shoots Ricky, the camera-phone guy, in a robbery he’s preventing and pockets the phone. But Juan the rapist gets away. He eventually tracks down Juan, again one-on-one in a house that’s strange only to Aceveda. He holds Juan at gunpoint for a while and doesn’t shoot, just long enough for the Strike Team to show up (originally to take out the guy they assaulted before he can tell Aceveda). And then, in interrogation, everything finally makes sense. Aceveda unplugs the camera and locks the door from the inside. Juan’s babbling, hoping to hit on the right thing to intimidate Aceveda, but nothing works. “You put it on a disc? How? . . . You’re too stupid to change a light bulb, let alone figure out how to download.” Aceveda is relatively collected. “Did you forget? I killed the only witness you had.”
When Juan realizes Aceveda’s been following him, Aceveda lets rip a barrage of things he knows about Juan. His detailed report about Juan’s girlfriend cheating on him finishes with one final objective assessment: “She likes it, too.” One of the things Aceveda knows about Juan is that his uncle molested him when he was 12. Not sure how one comes by such information, unless the uncle was prosecuted, which seems unlikely, but it’s a great complication to this legal revenge scene, a reminder that Juan didn’t get that way on his own. It’s also a glimpse into the cycle of violence, how one harmful act begets another and on and on. Only Aceveda ends the cycle. “You think I couldn’t find the courage to kill you? I spent the last three weeks finding the courage not to kill you.” When he walks out of the interrogation room, there’s a very important throwaway line. “Where’s my gun?” Contrary to his cousin’s beliefs, his gun is not his power, after all. He still looks shaken and exhausted—it hasn’t hit him yet that it’s over—but he’s already breathing easier.
- “Slipknot” is written by Kurt Sutter. “What Power Is...” is written by Kim Clements and directed by Dean White.
- Corinne’s dating Matthew’s teacher, Owen, and it’s the most exhausting plot this side of Mara. Corinne’s used to feeling morally superior, with good reason, so the one time she crosses the line it takes her forever to realize it. But there is one interesting comparison when Corinne gets attacked at the hospital. Vic wants to pursue the case. The teacher says, “It’s not worth it.”
- I love Ronnie. Before Vic can even question him about the missing bills, he interrupts. “I counted right the first time. I counted right the last time. And I didn’t take the money.”
- Vic negotiating with the One Niners. “Come on, Mackey, everybody knows you’ve been shut down. You’re not on the street enough to landlord.” “I’m getting the keys to the city back,” Vic says, in full Don Draper pose.
- It is pretty delightful to see Vic all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for an episode. He gets Claudette to thank him for his support, he walks in with the murder weapons smiling.
- You can pinpoint the moment I stopped caring about Aurora. “You’re a cop, you’re a trained—oh, David. How could you let that happen?” “Because I wanted to live.” Corinne gets a bad wrap, but Mara and Aurora are just so hate-ably self-centered. And none of the female regulars are married, so there are no wet blanket husbands to balance, although Julien and Shane help. It’s mostly a writing problem that the supporting women are so one-dimensional (this on a show with Claudette, Danny, and Trish!), but the actors don’t exactly compensate.
- Speaking of which, Mara: “You’ve been lying to me. What did you expect me to do?” If I may speak for Shane, I think going to the storage locker, rummaging through everything, finding the false bottom in the box, stealing some money, sending it to her mother, and keeping up smiles at home isn’t what anyone would expect her to do. If Betty Draper can confront her husband over his secret box, so can Mara. “I just took what I needed. For us!” That’s not even remotely true, is it?
- Claudette asks Aceveda, “So strike one, and I’m out?” “It was my fault. I had you half in and half out.” That’s the argument Dutch used in her defense. It backfired, but you gotta love the lower leadership getting changed out while the real people in charge stay in power.
- “God’s decided to put me back in business. My streets, my rules.” Or, as it’s known in history books, divine right of Vic.
- Steve Earle montage! The best part is the Steve Earle. The worst part is that falling-off-my-chair jump zoom in on Juan’s mugshot.
- The other plots in “What Power Is...” are just as riveting as the Aceveda story. Dutch and Claudette catch the cuddler rapist together, another glorious triumph. And the Strike Team plant a purse of marked bills on an ex-con to take the Treasury attention away from Grendel’s, I mean Mara’s mother.
- At the rapist’s home, Dutch and Claudette speak to his wife about the photos: “Cute kids.” “They’re from my class. I teach third grade.” Why doesn’t that ping anyone’s radar? The guy’s supposed to be impotent without murder, remember?
- Vic tries to get Diagur (forever engaged in cunnilingus) to cut Juan loose. And Lem hypothetically flips Mara in 30 seconds or less. They’re both stories of how people with greater loyalties (himself, her husband) make them expendable to an organization.
- Shane asks, “So we’re planting money on an innocent?” It’s a weird reversal. You don’t get the feeling Lem thinks that deeply about things, but he does feel deeply, and he normally feels when something over the line is going down. On the other hand, he does have a way of justifying his actions by separating good guys from bad guys.
- I love Danny’s WTF faces at Julien’s life. Tumblr, please.
- Dutch has a pissing contest with some new hotshot, who became a detective two years younger than Dutch did. Dutch asks what he got on his exam, and then laughs, and then gets uncomfortably serious. “Come on.” It’s transcendently awkward. “Uh, uh, 97.” Dutch pretends to be impressed, then tells Claudette he got a 98, repeatedly. He’s so awkward with everyone except sociopaths. Jay Karnes is the best.
- Julien tells his wife they’re going to have a baby because God spoke to him, which God was doing a lot to people in the mid-2000s, and the episode cuts to violent, manly sex or something. Neither one is enjoying it. It’s ugly. And it’s also a little annoying: I can’t get over how Julien’s sexuality is pathologized like the average Shield rapist. As if gay men have not been having sex with women for centuries.
- And Aceveda ends with a press conference that doesn’t make me squirm for once. “I’m inspired on a daily basis by the bravery exhibited by the men and women who work under my command. I just tried to live up to their standards.” Mission accomplished!