“Strays” and “Riceburner” (season three, episodes 11 and 12; originally aired 5/18/2004 and 5/25/2004)
The closest Clark Gregg’s otherwise reasonable Cuddler Rapist William gets to describing why he kills is when he talks about the look in his victims’ eyes. He says there’s a moment at the end when a victim sees the abyss opening up and will do anything not to fall in. “Strays” revolves around several of those moments, desperate last-ditch moves to regain some control, starting with that interrogation. It’s an artificial scene, Dutch spending all day talking to someone who has already confessed even though the department is so swamped Aceveda assigns Danny and Julien to some detective work in the next episode. But that’s the charm. Gregg has nothing to lose, and he swiftly takes control of the situation. He sets the terms for both speaking to and dismissing his wife. He’s only speaking with Dutch to satisfy his own curiosity, a revelation that kind of knocks the audience off balance for a moment, like the mommy mule who falls backward in that intense opening scene.
From that point on, Dutch is the one who’s losing power, and that’s because the practicalities are already dealt with. (It helps that William has short hair and a clean, orange get-up while Dutch has easily mussed hair and a suit just begging to get rumpled.) William confesses to seven rapes and three murders, and Dutch has a closed case. What’s left is the head-game, and Dutch can’t crack it. At least, if you buy what William’s selling. He denies he’s an organized sociopath multiple times, but the shoe is pretty tight, and just because he says he doesn’t kill to feel power doesn’t mean it’s true. That said, there’s certainly a trace of unknowability behind his actions. Even if Dutch is dead-on, he still doesn’t really know what that means, what it is to be an organized sociopath killer. Eventually Dutch blurts out that maybe what William feels at the moment someone dies is compassion, another tantalizingly off-kilter idea. To which William falls silent, walks back to his seat, and asks to be taken back to his cell. Dutch is confused. “What?” “You can’t help me.” Dutch is useless to him, so William is done with him. Between that and his frustration at being pegged as impotent, it’s hard to believe power doesn’t get him off in some capacity.
But Dutch is so shaken up by his failure—he has a lot invested in his profiling prowess—that he can’t sleep. The crying stray cat doesn’t help. So he lures it to him and sets about discovering for himself what William was talking about. It’s another intense scene, a beautifully constructed horror. The closer we get to Dutch, the more frightening he is. The wide shots tell the story of this goof and this stray. The close-ups tell the story of this sad, white, male loner taking his first step. The profile shot of Dutch facing the cat is excruciating, the choking just off-screen, but the extreme oblique close-up where Dutch’s eyes fill the screen is the worst. Somewhat mercifully, “Strays” ends with Dutch in medium, neither psycho killer nor pale loser, totally dazed and upset.
Everywhere victims are making surprising stabs for personal agency to varying degrees. A homeless man has turned one lane into a toll road, Julien refuses counsel, Shane unconsciously replaces Vic with Mara, running off to Vegas to get married. He’s that desperate to feel that someone in his life will always be there. The other main story has two such moments, first when Danny makes a snap decision to stay undercover while she still can and comes back empty-handed to a dangerous dealer, and then when that dealer gets arrested and offers up everything he knows about everyone else in his organization. He’ll do anything to keep from falling into the abyss. Claudette even offers to take in stray Julien and summarily chokes the life out of him when he sarcastically rebuffs her. “I am not flushing out!” “Well, in a couple months Aceveda will be gone, and I’ll be making that decision.” The whole season, from Aceveda’s revenge to some upcoming crazy, has been about lashing out to regain power after an attack. Suddenly the Iraq allegory snaps into focus.
Except the Strike Team is on a perpendicular track: It’s cracking up in response to a windfall. Dutch comes back to work a confident detective, although he’d rather not talk about the cat that’s been keeping him up. Aceveda is still a little weary, but he’s PR-ing the hell out of the Barn. But Vic and the guys? From members literally fighting (though Lem assures us Tavon is getting better) to the final passive-aggressive blow-off in “Riceburner,” the team has never been less cohesive. At best, two people agree, and even then Ronnie hesitantly sides with Lem about not letting Vic dip into the Armenian money. After Shane gets shot at and the Strike Team works with the trigger-happy C.I. anyway, Vic tells Shane his fiancée won’t be here in a few months, and he does it as part of a pitch for Shane’s loyalty. It’s amazing they’re so functional on the streets, but the magnificently clear opening raid in “Strays” and the successive levels in the Koreatown video game in “Riceburner” show that the Strike Team works well with an opposing force. It’s when they’re left to their own devices that they fall apart.
As just-pre-Lost Daniel Dae Kim’s community leader says, gangs create order. There’s this pervasive feeling of resignation throughout season three that Farmington is falling apart, not just changing but segregating, not just holing up but battening down the hatches. In the middle of the police station, the Koreans conspire to protect a child-murderer simply because it’s more comfortable to deal with him internally. Eventually Vic knocks this particular despot out, spitting a celebratory, “Pussy!” at him on the way. Surprisingly, a lot of the topical plots end in that kind of wish fulfillment, as if The Shield refuses to yield to its own cynicism. Here’s a show about guys with guns terrorizing a neighborhood, but when it comes to guys with guns invading a nation, suddenly the hard line becomes a little softer. Instead an invading force really can put enough pressure on a foreign population to turn over its bad guys, just as there really are weapons of mass destruction and justice really can satisfy our thirst for revenge even after heinous assault. Then again, Saddam Hussein would ultimately be found hiding in a closet of sorts. But the stark ending puts the lie to that fantasy as Lem and Ronnie repeat, “We did the right thing,” over the credits like a mantra, hoping if they say it enough times they’ll believe it.
- “Strays” is written by Glen Mazzara and directed by David Mamet. Notice all the medium-length shots, bouncing between heads in a room instead of cutting up a storm. “Riceburner” is written by Adam E. Fierro and Scott Rosenbaum and directed by Scott Brazil.
- Again, the Strike Team is back, at least on the streets. Not five minutes into “Strays,” they’re beating some guy all over a yard.
- Another great Strike Team moment: the second silence-to-celebration scene (after the season two finale) after the Treasury guys haul in the framed ex-con.
- Mara’s mother: “I don’t like this, lying to the U.S. government with the Homeland Securities.”
- This week’s You’re Welcome, Breaking Bad: “Ain’t no half-steppin’.”
- I can’t overstate how much I love stupid lines like, “It’ll set crime in Farmington back 20 years.” Like, what does that even mean?
- Meanwhile Autism! continues to be not just a burden for a struggling family but a tabloid scare. Matthew’s biting kids now, and the realization that his little sister is equally antisocial is basically the end of Rosemary’s Baby. The idea that this is karma for Vic’s behavior and/or a direct response to a man like Vic as their father has some thematic juice, but it’s indirectly proportional to how compassionate the treatment of Matthew is.
- Lem unwittingly cuts to the quick: “Yeah, well, Terry was part of this team, too.”
- Vic tells his newly inducted C.I. there’s no set number of tips she has to provide. Have things really gotten more relaxed since Connie?
- Claudette: “Got any insights on his psyche?” Dutch: “I’d say he’s just an asshole.”