During the final season of The Shield, retribution comes in many forms. For some characters it’s death, while for others minor victories reveal themselves as lifelong triumphs. But for corrupt cop Vic Mackey there’s a special kind of comeuppance. This makes the excellent Series finale directed by Clark Johnson all the more involving, because Mackey finally sheds his false image of American hero and reveals himself to the viewer exactly how Dutch and Claudette have seen him the entire tenure of the show; as a lethal disease. Mackey infects everyone around him and Shane’s final note lyrically states that he “wishes he never met Vic”, a closing statement of great weight and honesty. Moments like these finally complete the disturbing mosaic The Strike Team has created over the years. Despite the arrests they’ve made, the drugs they’ve confiscated, or the innocents they’ve saved, it was all done with a plagued moral objective that favored vice over virtue. Series creator Shawn Ryan avoids tying up every loose end, even allowing Vic one last moment of antiauthoritarian rage. Cornered and alone, Vic retreats to his two instruments of power; his gun and his street smarts, succumbing to the reality that his fatal flaws are the only traits that have kept him alive this long. For all the many fascinating characters of The Shield, Season 7 ultimately shows the ties that bind family together and the moments that break them apart forever. It’s a thin red line between one or the other.
I lump these two shortened seasons together because Forest Whitaker’s Lt. Tom Kavanaugh appears over the course of both, becoming the lighter fluid to Vic’s fire. Cavanuagh, a manipulative and forceful Internal Affairs officer, sets out to prove Vic was behind the murder of Terry Crowly, the inciting incident in the Pilot episode three years before. The battle between both men gets incredibly personal and dirty, challenging the loyalty of the Strike Team and ultimately leading to the tragic and horrific demise of one member. After the emotional roller coaster ride of Season 5, it’s predecessor feels like a bit of a downturn, as Kavanaugh exits and a new, more universal force becomes Vic’s key adversary. However, both Seasons expand the universe of The Shield to new heights, giving credence to Claudet’s lasting strength (and CCH Pounder’s incredible performance) and Dutch’s weaknesses, while solving a few notorious cases that have been haunting The Barn for years. The finale of Season 6 promises a great ending to the show, forcing Vic and Aceveda to align in the face of insurmountable odds.
Season 4 belongs entirely to the compelling Glenn Close as new captain Monica Rawling, a forceful presence who mandates a key seizure program that ruffles feathers with the general public and police brass. During the many contradictions within city ordinance, institutional hierarchies, and back room dealings, The Shield finally delves into the territory of The Wire, but still devotes itself entirely to the intricacy of this particular war zone. Rawling gets results by using Vic as a spearhead to battle brutal drug dealer Antoine Mitchell (Anthony Anderson in a devilish performance), but it’s the tension between community pressure and reform that drives almost every narrative burst between this brilliant character triangle. Social issues begin to creep into a show that previously had little room amidst the shocking moral ambiguity and violence. The addition of Close, Anderson, and Michael Pena lends new layers of credence to the already crowded and complex Farmington landscape, uprooting previous relationships between the now defunct Strike Team and new Councilman David Aceveda. Performance takes precedent over plot for the first time, and as the seasoned veterans grow deeper, the expanded cast exhibits a fresh angle on this universe. We get a sense that the idealistic global perspectives battling inner city realities is beginning to take a toll within every dark corner of The Shield.
A return to form, if not a return to the sadistic, brutalizing narrative gambit established in Season 1. Season 3 takes on an uncomfortable obsession with sex, intimacy, and friendship, showing how the subversion and perversion of each resides on both sides of the law. Dutch spends a goodly amount of time investigating and solving a devastating serial rape case involving old women, which leads him down a dark path of his own (the crescendo episode is brilliantly directed by David Mamet). Shane falls in love with a Maura, a young woman who at first seems like another inconsequential tart, but turns out to be a raging force all her own when challenged for attention by Vic and the Strike Team. Aceveda comes face to face with a sexual act that confounds his very grasp on sanity, driving him deeper into a well of repressed horrors. Season 3 re-establishes the stakes of The Shield by forcing its anti-heroes to the edge of reason, a place where ambiguity overwhelms any clear cut notion of good and evil and each character begins to crumble under their own personal tremors.
It’s strangely ironic that The Wire and The Shield, two vastly different but equally influential cop shows, both premiered in 2002. If David Simon’s Baltimore-based urban mosaic is a sprawling, intelligent, and insightful window into the contradictions plaguing modern day institutions, then Shawn Ryan’s L.A. cop show is its schizophrenic, brutal, and raging younger brother, a West coast beast consumed by horrific representations of good and evil and the blurring of ethical and moral lines post -9/11. If anything, The Shield never pulls punches when it comes to characterizations and story. The Farmington Police Force provides the focal epicenter for the show, a group anchored by a special Strike Team led by Vic Mackey (played to perfection by Michael Chiklis). Drug dealers, pimps, murderers, and rapists are the local flavor of the week, but the narrative runs on the fuel of deception, greed, corruption, and guilt within the departmental ranks. Unlike The Wire, Ryan’s vision centers specifically on cops, both dirty and clean, ambitious and contentious, and the devastating stories they both solve and create. It’s almost never a pleasant world to inhabit, but shards of light fill the frame every once in a while, complicating what should be black and white judgements. The first season of The Shield uses shock and awe tactics to create a chorus of long-lasting visceral moments, however it builds to a startling crescendo through the audience’s connection with each character, and the complexity of their plight. It’s hard to imagine six more seasons of such a draining story, for the characters and especially the viewer. But the beauty of The Shield lies in it’s desire to keep pushing genre toward the edge, both curious and frightened at what will happen when the entire whole tips over the side. Objects of heroism have never been more clouded with doubt.