The first six episodes of The Shield’s sixth season build to a scene that we’ve seen coming from the very beginning. It’s well photographed (the cameras capture the inimitable late-night glow of L.A.), beautifully and subtly written, and the actors underplay it nicely. Thanks to the gradual accretion of time, the scene plays out with the sort of intensity you can only find in the best serialized television. But it takes a lot of heavy-lifting to get there. When The Shield is firing on all cylinders, it’s like nothing else in television, the cop show reimagined as a violent testosterone opera. Yet it’s never quite as good as it could be; it often lacks subtlety, and it’s a little too impressed with its sense of daring.
The Shield has been telling the story of Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and his strike team. In the pilot episode, Mackey’s murder of a new strike team member (Reed Diamond) set most of the series’s events in motion; the question of whether the crime would ever be discovered has hung over the series ever since. In many ways, Mackey is worse than even Tony Soprano. While Tony has been indirectly responsible for the deaths of innocents, the murders he handles directly are those of people who all have blood on their hands. Mackey has killed (and will, so it is implied, kill again) just to better his own station in life, and that gives the show’s attitudes towards him a problematic strain.
Mackey is undeniably the main character of The Shield, and it must be awfully tempting for creator Shawn Ryan and his writers to make him a straightforward, misunderstood antihero. It’s hard to do a television show and not have the protagonist grow more sympathetic over the series’s run, simply because of the amount of time we spend with him. Aside from one or two missteps over the years (mostly having to do with the writers pointing at criminals and seeming to say, “Look, Vic Mackey’s bad, but he’s not as bad as THIS guy!”), The Shield has largely managed to make Mackey a loathsome figure who is understandable simply as a borderline sociopath. This is the show’s finest achievement, and we bear it in mind even when The Shield is having a lackluster episode or season.
Mackey has also frequently been compared to Jack Bauer of 24 in that both characters are willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. But this is a wrongheaded parallel as it implies that if the ends are defensible, they justify any means. The Shield’s writers understand this, and nowhere is that clearer than in the new season’s third episode. Mackey and his crew are seeking out the man who they believe killed former strike team member Lem (Kenny Johnson) with a grenade in the lap. The true culprit is strike team member Shane Vendrell—played by Walton Goggins in a performance that manages to match Chiklis’ livewire antics without ever going as big and bug-eyed—who killed Lem because he was going to rat the team out to internal affairs investigator Kavanaugh (Forest Whitaker). In a horrific scene, Mackey strings the man up and beats him endlessly, the sequence only flinching when it cuts away to show Shane nearly vomiting from guilt and horror. In a later episode, Mackey goes on a rampage in a hospital waiting room. While the other characters seem a bit too bemused by this (“Oh that Vic Mackey!” you expect one of them to say), it’s another scene that shows just how dangerous the people asked to defend our streets can become if their power goes unchecked (perhaps the foremost theme of The Shield is the age-old question of who, exactly, watches the watchmen).
The Shield’s other great success is in how it plots out its stories and uses its characters. While other shows with similarly large casts will have characters disappear for episodes or arcs at a time, The Shield always has multiple storylines, at varying stages of development, running at all times. This allows the show’s main setting, the squad room, to feature a variety of fairly well-developed characters pursuing different goals that occasionally dovetail. CCH Pounder’s Capt. Claudette Wyms, finally promoted to the position she fought to attain for season after season, finds herself trying to close enough cases to keep a job higher-ups don’t want her to have. Jay Karnes’ Dutch ponders a mass murder and tries to make time with Tina Hanlon (Paula Garcés). And so on, all through the large cast. Mackey and the strike team’s attempts to find out who killed Lem (and Shane’s gradual realization that he needs to dissuade Mackey from ever finding out the truth) form the center of every episode; but the fact that these aren’t the only storylines keeps The Shield from turning into an unbearable melange of every hard-boiled pulp fiction detective story in history. The writers and editors are also smart in how they shuttle and cut between stories. The plots never boil over all at once and this lends the show a deeply addictive pull; there’s a lot going on, much of it interesting, and you want to know what happens next.
The Shield’s biggest problem is its complete lack of subtext and subtlety. The characters are all hardnosed, and they’re more likely to yell what they’re feeling than keep it tamped down (Shane’s slow-building guilt, which it begins to inform Goggins’ performance through the course of the first six episodes, is a notable exception). One particular example: Mackey and Kavanaugh have a shouting match in the premiere, and in a later episode Mackey’s ex-wife (Cathy Cahlin Ryan) shows up in the squad room to inform seemingly everyone there that Kavanaugh tried to get her to go to bed with him as a way of getting back at Mackey for seducing Kavanaugh’s wife. It’s a strange development (why wouldn’t she just tell one or two people?), but the characters in The Shield seem to spend every moment with their hearts on their sleeves. Mackey’s bluntness isn’t just a character trait—it’s a defining characteristic of the show itself. This pulp plotting and characterization means that everyone gets something interesting to do, but it also means that the fine points of emotion and psychology are sublimated in favor of shouting matches.
That’s too bad, beause the show is capable of quieter, more reflective scenes, like the one that closes episode six, or the scene that ends the Mackey-Kavanaugh story. The Shield has scenes and moments like these sprinkled throughout its history, and that’s what keeps the show fresh after all this time. If The Shield was just the straightforward action show that it so often threatens to be, it would have run out of steam long ago (as 24 seemingly has of late). But these quieter, subtext-laden scenes (and the show’s visual style, all grain and grit in the picture) also make the show frustrating, especially when it just settles for yelling. It could be The Sopranos on the side of the law, but it’s just as content to be a mindless brawler.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.