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Final season begins 10 p.m. Sept. 2 on FX.
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Will he suffer a bloody death? Will he land in prison? Will he get off scot-free?


The same tantalizing questions we were asking about Tony Soprano just over a year ago now apply to another great television antihero: Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) of “The Shield.” As this ground-breaking crime drama prepares to launch its seventh and final season next week, loyal devotees are antsy to see how it will all turn out for the rogue cop.


At least one thing is for certain: When the end does come for Vic, he won’t be munching on onion rings in a roadside diner as the screen goes blank. Creator Shawn Ryan is promising a much more definitive finale - and one that stays true to the form of the show.


“It will feel like the ‘Shield’ universe,” he told reporters at the recent TV critics press tour. “It will feel completely appropriate, and we hope that you’ll be knocked over by it.”


CCH Pounder, who plays Claudette Wyms, takes it even further. “I think it’s the greatest finale ever, hands down,” she said. “It blew my socks off. This finale is what Vic Mackey deserves.”


Oops, did she let a major spoiler slip? Maybe not, considering that what Mackey “deserves” could be open to debate. And, of course, Pounder offered no details.


But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves with this finale talk. After all, there are 12 weeks of “The Shield” to savor before the swan song arrives, and if the first four episodes provided by FX for review are any indication, they will be gritty, gut-wrenching, shocking and thoroughly engrossing.


When we last left Mackey, he was facing high-stakes challenges on every front, most notably from his former wingman Detective Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), who infuriated Vic when he killed their beloved Strike Team partner Curtis Lemansky to save his own hide.


Vic was also in danger of losing his badge as Wyms, fed up with his corrupt (yet effective) ways, was pushing him toward a forced retirement. Meanwhile, Vic’s immediate family members had been “greenlit” - or marked for death - by an Armenian mob boss for the cop’s part in an brazen heist.


“He’s in that vortex, and he’s swimming,” Chiklis explains.


Yes, that’s a lot of stress, not to mention plot points, to deal with. Consequently, the early episodes of “The Shield” are almost too dense with expositional dialogue and scripted maneuvering. Also, by now if you’ve been along for the whole ride, you can’t help but roll your eyes just a bit at how Vic, with his Houdini-esque ways, continually - and improbably - wriggles out of trouble.


Still, the show retains its dramatic oomph. One of the true rewards of these episodes is watching the delicate dance between Vic and Shane, who no longer trust each other, but nevertheless need each other to deal with the intricate mess they’ve created for themselves. As things spiral more and more out of control, the mind-game tensions rise and the bad blood boils.


It all seems to be building to a spectacular display of farewell fireworks for a series that has earned a spot among television’s great landmark shows.


But even now, Ryan, who wrote the pilot script on spec, finds it hard to believe “The Shield” made it through seven seasons, let alone made it on the air.


That’s because it so brazenly defied television conventions at the time. Cops who can be just as ruthless as rapists and murderers? Crazy stuff. Edgy imagery, scalding dialogue and moral ambiguity on basic cable? Seemingly suicidal.


But as it earned critical praise and prestigious industry honors, “The Shield” became a game-changer, redefining a genre that had grown stale and empowering ad-supported cable networks to compete with the big boys when it comes to creatively ambitious shows.


And now, the character at the center of it all seems doomed to pay - in some way - for his vile sins. Or does he? Just as much as quality acting and sharp writing, the element of unpredictablity has been a key trademark of “The Shield.”


“What thrills me about the finale is you will not see this coming,” Chiklis promises. “You will not know what we do. Then, when you look back at it, you’ll go, ‘Holy cow. Yeah, that’s exactly right.’”

Tagged as: the shield
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