If you were to look back over the history of television, you’d see an awful lot of shows about doctors, lawyers, and cops. Seriously, do it! Tons of shows based solely around the idea that people are doctors, lawyers, and cops. What a concept! Because these are such ordinary ideas, Hollywood has to get creative. The main character can’t just be a doctor; he has to be a brilliant and misunderstood doctor. She can’t just be a lawyer; she has to be a single mom lawyer who is balancing work, career, and dating. And a dude can’t just be a cop; he has to set himself apart by being the biggest asshole cop the world has ever seen. Thus, I present to you: FX’s The Shield.
Remember The Shield? It debuted in 2002 on FX and was immediately a hit. Created by Shawn Ryan, The Shield took a cue from The Sopranos and hopped aboard the Antihero Train. Tony Soprano was a crook and a bad guy, but he was also a good dad and we rooted for him. Similarly, The Shield gave us Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), who was a crook and a bad guy, but he was also a good dad and we rooted for him. For every shitty thing Mackey did during the course of the series (and there were countless shitty things), there was sometimes a decent motive behind his actions. When it debuted, I was a wide-eyed 23-year-old; at that time in my life, complicated dudes were intriguing, so I loved the show. But would I feel differently now, at 36 years old – an age at which I find complicated dudes to be exhausting?
Oh – um – spoilers ahead. But seriously, this show went off the air nearly 7 years ago. You’ve had time to watch it.
As soon as I started my marathon, I was excited, especially when I heard the theme song snippet at the beginning. It goes, “Yeah-yeah-yeah-yaaaaaaaaaay!” So good. I hadn’t seen a single rerun since the series finale aired, and I was looking forward to learning about these characters all over again. Right off the bat, I relearned something about Vic:
Ok, I’m not proud of myself for thinking Vic looks like a thumb, or perhaps even a big toe, but there it is. Anyway, welcome to the “Barn,” also known as the police headquarters for the fictional Farmington district of Los Angeles. The squad of the Barn is headed up by David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), whose time is split between political ambition and hating Vic. The problem, of course, is that despite Vic’s dickish essence, he gets results – and results, for a political hopeful, equal elections. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Shield was really one of the first shows – if not the first show – to really examine South Central Los Angeles. It was gritty and raw and gave the general public a glimpse into how tough these neighborhoods really are. The Shield also covered some other ground that was heretofore unmentioned on TV: things like being a gay man in an often hyper-macho profession, the utter bullshit that is “conversion therapy,” and the idea that vaccines could be linked to autism. (Even in 2002, Shawn Ryan wanted us to know that there was no link; doctors were just better at diagnosing spectrum disorders. Good job, The Shield!) What’s more, some of the episodes dealt with crimes so heinous that they were often difficult to stomach. This wasn’t Law & Order, with episodes based on high-profile events that were, “ripped from the headlines”; rather, it had episodes that dealt with things that you hoped you would never read about in a paper. But like Law & Order, The Shield opted not to use a traditional steadicam for filming, which was pretty annoying at times. Using a Frenzy Cam instead (for lack of a better term) led to some pretty interesting POV shots though, like the “tiny person hiding behind the desk, in a corner, peeking out of the windows, crouching next to a sofa, in a closet, or right outside the door.” In that way, the audience really does feel as though they’re right there, in the middle of the action, hiding behind a potted plant.
Let’s talk for a minute about Vic’s aforementioned dickishness. Aceveda refers to him as, “Al Capone with a badge,” which I’m assuming means, “ruthless lawbreaker with a badge,” and not, “syphilitic moron with a badge” (although Vic pulls a lot of tail on this show, so it could be both). Perhaps one of Vic’s more irritating qualities is that nearly every episode of The Shield contains some variation of him saying, “I’ll handle it,” or, “Let me do what I do,” or, “We’re doing this my way.” What is Vic’s way, you’re wondering? Well, in one episode, it’s forcing a kid to ingest so much mustard that he vomits up the drugs that Vic knew he’d swallowed. MUSTARD: THE MACKEY WAY.
Vic is, of course, the leader of the Farmington Strike Team – a collection of macho dudes who want to wear jeans to work, kick some ass, and perhaps steal money and/or drugs. In the pilot episode, we learn that Aceveda is suspicious of the team’s activities, and suspecting that laws are being broken, he convinces Nice Guy Terry to be his mole, and help him gather evidence to use against the team. Pretty good plan, except for the fact that Vic knows everything, and he shoots Terry in the head at the end of Episode 1, and covers it up as a shootout gone wrong. (Note: I’d say about 90% of the “previously on The Shield” episode recaps show Terry getting killed, as though there was the slightest chance that you’d forget it ever happened.)
Everyone on the Strike Team is great. Ok, maybe Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell) is a little boring, but he does get his face melted off in season 2, and grows a sweet beard as a result. Then there’s Curtis “Lem” Lemansky (Kenny Johnson), who was like a big doofy golden retriever. And, of course, Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins). How great is it that Goggins has had 2 amazing roles on FX shows (the other being Boyd Crowder on Justified)! Shane was a lot of things: he was a piece of shit, he was a racist, and he had the most exceptional set of chompers to ever reside in someone’s skull. (One of the best moments was when rapper/actor Kirk “Sticky Fingaz” Jones looks at Shane and says, “Why don’t you relax, Teeth!”) Shane did some funny things, like use the pseudonym “Cletus Van Damme,” and he also did a whole lot of terrible shit that I thought I’d gotten over since the show went off the air. I was wrong. More on that later.
You can’t have a show about bad cops unless you have some good cops, too, and that’s where Claudette Wyms (the amazing CCH Pounder) and Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) come in. How good are these cops? Basically, they’re the only detectives who really get anything done throughout the course of the series. Nobody solves more cases than Claudette and Dutch, and they have some of the best scenes on the show. They’re not perfect, though – especially Dutch, who you’ll recall murdered a cat with his bare hands because he wanted to know how it felt to kill something. WHO DOES THAT. Pretty fucked up thing to do, my dude. Still, if you totally ignore that he strangled a cat, and you focus solely on the fact that Dutch wants to spend his non-cat-murdering time being a good detective, he’s not so bad. I don’t know, maybe it’s his ill-fitting suits and single expression that make me like him.
Another terrific thing about The Shield: the guest stars. Season 4 gave us Glenn Close as Captain Monica Rawling, who didn’t mind Vic’s penchant for rule-breaking, because they had the same goal in mind: to clean up the streets. Good on ya, Rawling! Just one problem – she pissed off the entire community when she implemented a property seizure program. Hard to get support from the public when you’re taking somebody’s grandma’s house. And actually, she had another big problem – drug kingpin Antwon Mitchell (played exceptionally well by Anthony Anderson). Mitchell is one of the best characters ever written for this or any other television show, and he finally gives the audience a worthy adversary for Vic. This season was really where the show hit its stride, at least for me, and each episode had more tension than the last.
Continuing the momentum into season 5, Shawn Ryan introduced the character Lieutenant John Kavanaugh, an Internal Affairs officer played by Forest Whitaker. I’m not a huge Whitaker fan, and that actually worked out ok for me here because he plays one of the most unlikable characters in the entire series. Kavanaugh’s sole mission is to bring Vic down, and he goes to great lengths to try to get there. As I sit here now, looking through my notes and thinking of how much I hated this character, I can feel my blood pressure rising. He isn’t just unlikable – he’s fucking awful. He’s paranoid, obsessive, and has zero qualms about ruining people’s lives. “Vic Mackey kills cops! He deals drugs! He beats suspects!” Kavanaugh declares. All true things, by the way! But when those things come from a man whose obsession is unending, they sound crazy.
When you’re trying to bring someone powerful down, you look to those closest to them. In this case, Kavanaugh goes after Vic’s ex-wife Corrine (Cathy Cahlin Ryan); when that doesn’t work, he focuses on sweet, lovable, Golden Retriever Lem. As Lem is the only person on the Strike Team in possession of a conscience, he crumbles under the pressure fairly quickly. Of course the Strike Team finds out, and Vic does make some efforts to protect Lem and get him out of the country. Unfortunately for Lem, Shane has other ideas, and he handles the problem by tossing a grenade into Lem’s lap. Ok. When this episode first aired, I was devastated. And guess what? Watching it a second time wasn’t any easier! And in that moment, any good feelings that I or anyone else had for Shane were obliterated along with Lem’s lower half. DAMN YOU SHANE.
Lem’s death really sets the perfect stage for the final two seasons of The Shield. Unaware that Shane was the killer, Vic goes into overdrive trying to solve Lem’s murder. This leads to all sorts of insane theories, spurred on by Shane as he attempts to conceal the truth until he can no longer bear the weight of his own guilt. The scene in which he confesses to Vic is brutal, especially as they realize that there will be no happy ending for anyone. Vic wants Shane dead, and Shane knows it.
Back at the Barn, Claudette has been made Captain of the Farmington division, and she’s ready to drop the hammer on old Vic. Season 7 is incredibly frantic and has a lot of moving pieces: Claudette and Dutch zeroing in on the Strike Team, Shane and his TERRIBLE wife Mara on the run, Vic and Ronnie out for blood, and – behind the scenes – Vic arranging a deal that will grant him immunity from prosecution. What’s that? You’re wondering where Ronnie’s deal is? Well…
The last couple of episodes of The Shield are some of the finest in the history of crime dramas. And goddamn, some of them are truly difficult to watch. I had forgotten that, as the police closed in on Shane, Shane killed his pregnant wife, their young son, and then himself. Jesus, was that ever awful to see again. I mean, we all knew that Shane wasn’t going to make it out alive, but good lord. Claudette and company have enough evidence to move in on the remaining members of the Strike Team, though, and they arrest Ronnie maybe 10 seconds after he learns that Shane and his family are dead. That scene is actually pretty funny; Vic knows they can’t touch him because of his immunity deal (a deal he failed to secure for Ronnie), and he yells Ronnie’s name, as though he’d be able to run out of a police station and escape. Then Dutch drops this bomb:
DUTCH: “Ronald Everett Gardocki, you’re under arrest.”
RONNIE: “For what?!”
DUTCH: “The last three years!”
Dutch! That line was almost enough to make me forgive him for killing that cat. Almost. And then we’re left with Vic. Vic, whom you rooted for for 7 years. Vic, whom you hoped would make it out ok. And he did, but it cost him everything and everyone he cared about. In the final scene of the series, Vic sits quietly at his desk at ICE. He looks troubled. He looks tense. He’s not used to wearing a tie and sitting at a desk. He wants to be out in the street. The first time I watched this scene, in 2008, I thought that Vic was going to kill himself. It would have been a fitting end to the mess he created, and to the show. But we’re talking about Vic Mackey, damn it – the man who does things his way. And in the last seconds, he sort of smiles smugly to himself and the screen goes dark. He got away with everything, just as we wanted him to.
So my final thoughts: The Shield is still a really good show. I’d forgotten how entertaining it was, and I’m glad I took the time to watch each episode again. It might not be the most realistic cop show ever (that would be Southland), and it isn’t the best cop show ever (that’s The Wire, duh), but it certainly belongs high on the list of all-time great crime dramas.