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I used to think Mackey was the luckiest son of a bitch alive—how things just fell into place for him. And then I realized he was creating his own luck. So what you see as a simple microphone malfunction. I see as calculated.
—David Aceveda, The Shield: Season Five, “Jailbait”

Detective Vic Mackey: “Ah, you must be ‘Doomsday’.”
Doomsday: “Who are you?”
Mackey: “I’m ‘Armageddon’. Say hello to the Hounds of Hell.”
Detective Shane Vendrell: “Ruff.”
The Shield: Season Five, “Enemy of Good”


The Shield is elbowing its way into contention for the title of Best Cop Show Ever. There’s The Wire. Hill Street Blues. NYPD Blue. Barney MillerCagney & Lacy. Whichever permutation of the ubiquitous Law & Order you want to throw into the competition: the original, Criminal Intent, Special Victims Unit. Stiff competition. Still, the fifth season of The Shield‘s proves that this show is unstoppable, rich in acting talent, character development, and plot progression.


cover art

The Shield: The Complete Fifth Season

(Fox; US DVD: 27 Mar 2007; UK DVD: 27 Mar 2007)

In DVD form, it’s equally formidable, working its braided story arc across 11 intense episodes.  You’ll love every minute. In addition, the package overflows with extras: extensive and insightful commentaries by cast members and creator Shawn Ryan for every episode; 25 deleted scenes, also with commentaries; a panel discussion with Michael Chiklis (“Detective Vic Mackey”), Forest Whitaker (“Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh”), and Shawn Ryan; a tribute to the late director/producer Scott Brazil; a documentary (“Delivering the Baby”); an Internal Affairs Department feature; a Fox Movie Channel presentation (“Making a Scene”); a prequel to Season Six; and a partridge in a pear tree. For fans of The Shield, Christmas came early this year.


I am convinced that The Shield‘s main man, Detective Vic Mackey (played to perfection by Emmy winner Michael Chiklis), is one of the roughest and meanest bad-asses in TV history. Where Dallas‘s J.R. Ewing (the inimitable Larry Hagman) was the oil tycoon you loved to hate, Vic Mackey is the perp-busting cop you hate to love. Oh, how different a movie like, say, Silence of the Lambs would have been if Vic Mackey had been leading the investigation.


Scene: the infamous flesh-eating Hannibal Lecter, has information about a serial killer. The police need Lecter to help pinpoint the suspect’s whereabouts.


Mackey: [kicking in Lecter’s cage door] Dinnertime’s over, asshole. Now, where’s the serial killer?


Lecter: [smiling] First principles, Detective. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing—


Mackey: [punching Lecter in the gut, grabbing his face, and pressing his firearm into Lecter’s cheek] Cut the shit! I’m only gonna ask this one more goddamn time! Tell me what I wanna know or I will beat you half dead and then cut off your arm and make you nibble on it.


Lecter: [coughing] Okay, okay! The killer is staying at his cousin Wayne’s house. He’s about five feet ten inches tall, 180 pounds. He has a mole on his cheek, blues eyes, and he drives a sedan. His mama lives on the North end, in a cul-de-sac…


Or picture Vic Mackey in Star Wars:


Scene: the Rebel Alliance is searching for information about Han Solo, who was frozen in Darth Vader’s contraption and handed over to the bounty hunter Boba Fett.


Mackey: [kicking in Darth Vader’s private chamber door] Looks like the Force is with me, asshole. Where’s Solo?


Darth Vader: And who might you be? Another good Jedi from Master Yoda?


Mackey: No, metal head. “Good Jedi” and “bad Jedi” left for the day.


[Mackey shoots Vader in the leg, and then jabs at the wound through Vader’s body casing with a baton.]


Mackey: I’m a different kind of Jedi.


The Legacy
Interestingly, I think the show’s legacy, and its ultimate ranking in the pantheon of cop TV, rests on the shoulders of one character, Vic Mackey.  It’s a tricky proposition because, while many shows depend on the outcome of a storyline, the achievement of a specific goal, or the consummation of an inevitable romance, viewer satisfaction with The Shield will likely depend on where Vic Mackey lands—psychologically, professionally, family-wise—at the end of the series. Will he go to jail? Will he run off to Mexico? Will he get shot by a suspect he leaned on too hard? Will he retire and collect his pension? The ending for Mackey can influence the meaning of the show’s entire run.


Even trickier is the fact that this character demands that you throw out everything you think you know about portrayals of police officers on television. Nothing about this dude is predictable. The bald-headed, tight-lipped detective has been compared to everybody from the Commish (also played by Chiklis), connoting Mackey’s gentler side, to Dirty Harry and Tony Soprano, indicating how tough and callous Mackey can be. To borrow the slogan from the reality show Big Brother, you have to “expect the unexpected” whenever and wherever Vic Mackey’s involved.


But The Shield has never been solely concerned with simply “getting the bad guy”.  Rather, The Shield poses questions of character, asking, “What does it mean to be ‘bad’?” and the show continually varies the contexts and perspectives from which the question is raised. This was true when the series began and Season Five is no different.


In fact, Season Five is vital to the show’s ultimate resolution—whenever that resolution finally arrives and whatever it may be. But don’t discount it as merely a transition season. Where previous seasons developed the show’s main characters through new adventures, aided in kind by consequences of past actions, this season brilliantly dredges up the nasty nooks and crannies from Seasons One through Four, and churns out a tale as tragic as Shakespeare’s Othello and as gripping as The Godfather movies. Fittingly, “Conscience is a Killer”, the season’s subtitle, seems to include the idea that past actions won’t stay buried forever.


The World of Vic Mackey
Mackey heads an elite unit (called the Strike Team) that specifically targets gang and drug activity. “The Strike Team” is a compelling name for the unit, given the fact that “strike”, as a verb, can mean “to attack”, “to pierce”, and “to work diligently”, all good things for a police unit. Yet, there’s an ambivalence to the word as well—in bowling, you want a strike; in baseball, if you’re up at bat, you don’t. Likewise, the Strike Team’s aggressive style may boost arrest rates but in past seasons it has wreaked havoc on public relations. 


As for the Strike Team’s roster, Mackey is joined in his work by: Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), the flamboyant, hot-tempered sideman who, as the actor himself adeptly notes in the commentary for the finale (“Postpartum”), “walks with a swagger that’s not really there”; Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell), whose silent and shadowy presence might make him TV’s most underrated police character; and Curtis Lemansky (nicknamed “Lemonhead”), the most personable of the crew, almost universally beloved by viewers, and the closest thing the Strike Team has to a conscience.


If you prefer, we can get Freudian with it: the freaky world of The Shield is Vic Mackey’s psychological playground, and his three partners in crime-stopping represent his id (irrational and bigoted Shane Vendrell), his ego (realistic and prudent Ronnie Gardocki), and his superego (morally conflicted Curtis Lemansky, nearly universally beloved by viewers). In Season Five, Mackey’s conscience (Lemansky) takes quite a beating.


Unleashing the Strike Team was an extreme measure calculated to address an extreme world. In Season Five alone, we find: criminals who prey on hardworking residents, madmen who intimidate witnesses by cutting off their pets’ heads, scumbags who run sex slave operations, peddlers of bootleg prescription drugs, smugglers of explosives, not to mention rapists and murderers and so on. In Machiavellian terms, the officers of The Shield are surrounded by “bad” people, making it impossible to be “good” 100 percent of the time.


But these “guys” push being “bad” over the limit.  In the pilot episode, Mackey’s captain, David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), and the Justice Department, recruit Detective Terry Crowley (Reed Diamond) to infiltrate the Strike Team and uncover their corrupt dealings. Later, a drug dealer is shot and killed during one of the Strike Team’s drug raids, with Crowley onboard. Mackey, having learned of Crowley’s assignment to bring him down, shoots Crowley in the face. Mackey and Detective Vendrell, the only witnesses, cover their tracks by framing the dead drug dealer for Crowley’s murder. Mackey tells Vendrell, “Get over it, and don’t bring it up again.” 


The Strike Team spends the remainder of Season One selling drugs, manipulating gangs, beating suspects, and even kidnapping a professional basketball player to ensure a gambling win.


In Season One, the show also established its major figures: Mackey and the Strike Team; Councilman David Aceveda, who was the precinct’s well-intentioned Captain, but whose thirst for political success lead him to accept compromises rather than full adherence to the rules; ethical but cynical Detective Claudette Wyms, who rises to the Captain’s position in Season Five (CCH Pounder); Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach (Jay Karnes), Wyms’ partner, a self-congratulatory suit-wearing detective who behaves like he’s the second coming of Sherlock Holmes; Officer Danielle Sofer (Catherine Dent), whose sexual relationship with Mackey rears its head in Season Five and who seems to have honed her ability to navigate the male-dominated terrain of the force, hence her either-gender nickname “Danny”; and Officer Julien Lowe (Michael Jace), whose religious beliefs bring him into conflict with his homosexuality, both of which complicate his life as a cop.


In Season Two, The Strike Team hijacks a truckload of money (the “money train”) from Armenian mobsters. And the next thing you know, ol’ Mackey’s a millionaire. 


Seasons Three and Four introduce discord within the formerly harmonious Strike Team, as loyalties are tested and trusts are violated. Season Four also gave us incredible performances from Glen Close as the supremely focused and committed Captain Monica Rawling, and Anthony Anderson as Antwon Mitchell, a street gangsta who makes New Jack City‘s Nino Brown look like a cartoon villain from Disney Channel’s Kim Possible.  I’m telling you, whenever I see Anthony Anderson on TV or in a film now, I recoil and go, “Oh my God! It’s Antwon Mitchell!”


Season Five’s Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh (also played to perfection by Forest Whitaker) launches an Internal Affairs investigation into Mackey’s unclean hands.  The results are thrilling from beginning to end.


Life & Irony in the Barn
So much mayhem, committed by those sworn to uphold the law? The Shield, like life, is not without irony. And so, Season Five ends where the series began, steeped in the tragedy of a cop’s murder at the hands of a fellow officer.  This time around, the pill is even harder to swallow, exacerbated by pangs of friendship and loyalty.


Season Five is filled with irony and humor, often drawing from the show’s vast reservoir of character material: the rookie cop Tina Hanlon (Paula Garcés), who tries to juggle her femininity with the demands of being a cop. Meanwhile, Danny Sofer, who appears to be pregnant with Mackey’s baby, is schooling Hanlon on in the force’s testosterone-filled environment. Officer Julien Lowe, who began the show making rookie mistakes as Danny Sofer’s trainee, opens Season Five as Tina Hanlon’s inflexible training officer. At the same time, Lowe’s struggle with his homosexuality resurfaces, first in his relationship with trainee Hanlon, and later when he’s almost accused of being anti-gay in his handling of an investigation. Even Jon Kavanaugh’s moments with Lemansky are ironic, with Lemansky being interrogated, negotiated with, and bluffed like any other “perp”.


The Strike Team officially operates in a fictional district of Los Angeles, California, although they’ve done unofficial dirt in places like Mexico. Their district is “Farmington”, significantly named because the cops on the show operate from a refurbished church affectionately referred to as “The Barn”. Get it? “Pigs” in a “barn” in an area called “Farmington”? Nice.


More importantly, the “Barn” is like a character on the show, as distinctively quirky and recognizable as Miss Patty’s barn on Gilmore Girls, where the town of Stars Hollow holds its town meetings; The Practice‘s office of Donell, Young, Dole, & Frutt, which grew from a messy rat hole to “the law firm across the street”, with an ornate conference table; or the courtroom Shark‘s defense-attorney-turned-prosecutor Sebastian Stark (James Woods) built in his home to simulate live testimony. 


The “Barn” has two floors. On the top floor, there’s the Captain’s office, with its glass windows sometimes compromising the ability to be discreet. Despite its vantage point over the bottom floor, and the significance implied by its location at the top of the stairs, the office tends to isolate captains from the Barn’s flow of information.  This is how Mackey often becomes a critical middleman, trading tips and disinformation between the isolated parties. In Season Five, the Captain’s office becomes a lair of disappointment. Interim Captain Steve Billings (David Marciano), focused on decorating the office with a leather couch, finds himself ousted when Jon Kavanaugh takes over the office for his Internal Affairs investigation. In the finale, Kavanaugh gets kicked out of the office as Detective Claudette Wyms ascends to the position of Captain.


There are also second floor interrogation rooms, containing a desk and a couple of chairs. In the first season, Mackey beat up a suspected pedophile in the interrogation room. In Season Five, Mackey elicits information from a gang member by electrocuting his handcuffs, attached to metal bars fastened to the desk. The significant feature is the surveillance camera in the corner of the ceiling, allowing others to watch from a monitor in a separate room, also located on the second floor.


The interrogation rooms figure prominently in the show’s matrix, as when Detective Mackey learns that Kavanaugh’s ex-wife is the Lieutenant’s “weak spot” by secretly soaking up their interaction in on the other room’s monitor.  Kavanaugh, realizing the camera’s presence, reacts with horror, as if the room and the camera have minds of their own and they’ve chosen to betray him.


On the bottom floor, you’ll find a holding cage for arrestees and a mess of desks for almost all of the cops, no cubicles. It’s crowded, noisy, and almost constantly moving, except when something dramatic happens, like when a suspect almost pushes detective Claudette Wyms over the second floor balcony or when Kavanaugh finally arrests Curtis Lemansky with the whole Barn as spectators.  The Strike Team’s space, by contrast, is private, cozy, and privileged.  It’s a modestly furnished clubhouse with two doors, both of which were removed by Kavanaugh to take away the Team’s home court advantage and disturb their seclusion.  Disrupting the clubhouse was such a good idea, I’m surprised previous captains, like Aceveda, didn’t think of it as a method of keeping Mackey in line. The point is that the Team’s clubhouse, like the rest of the Barn, participates in the drama, changing and adapting to plot developments like the human characters.


The Drama
As Season Five opens, Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh aims to bring down Mackey. Kavanaugh builds his crusade on two beliefs. Belief Number One: Mackey is responsible for Terry Crowley’s death. As we know, Kavanaugh couldn’t be more right about that. Belief Number Two: Since Curtis Lemansky is the “conscience” of the crew, pressuring him is Kavanaugh’s best bet for driving a “wedge” between the Strike Team members; a wedge he hopes will lead to Mackey’s arrest. “Why is it,” Kavanaugh asks, rhetorically, “the guy with the conscience always has to get caught holding the bag? And we never really want that guy, do we? We want the guy who put it in motion.” 


The logic of the premise is undeniable since Kavanaugh is basically one guy against four and, later, against the entire cast, and he needs a way to even the odds. Yet, it’s also shakier than Kavanaugh originally thought it would be, as Lemansky, though troubled by his Team’s guilty past, remains loyal to his buddies (his “family”, he calls them). 


Season Five, then, is the story of the past meeting up with the present, meted out in a twisty, knotted plot of intrigue that ups the ante with each episode, escalating the tension into a chess match between the detective and the lieutenant.  Kavanaugh forces Lemansky to go undercover inside of his own Team, providing a tantalizing parallel to Season One’s Terry Crowley. “Vic did not kill Terry!” Lemansky insists, to which Kavanaugh presses, “So prove it! Wear a wire! Ask him as a friend. Let’s see what he has to say.”


Lemansky, however, purposely obscures the wire in a staged tussle with Mackey, then warns him about Kavanaugh’s investigation. Mackey and his Team strike back, isolating Lemansky from key conversations, communicating through gestures, laptops, and notepads, even having Lemansky excuse himself to the restroom while one of the other Strike Team members actually takes the wire to the bathroom, leaving Lemansky in the Team’s clubhouse to speak freely.  Mackey also hires Becca Doyle (Laura Harring) as the Team’s lawyer. Kavanaugh, in turn, plants a bug in a trophy in the Team’s clubhouse, figuring that while the Team might be privy to the wiretapping of Lemansky, he could still trip them by eavesdropping from a more secret, though less mobile, vantage point. 


Wrong. Mackey and crew have been sweeping the clubhouse for exactly this sort of trap, and they use the opportunity to spring a trap of their own. Through conversations in the clubhouse between themselves and with their attorney, they convince Kavanaugh that they are arranging a crooked deal with a Russian who deals underground prescription drugs. On the night of the deal, Kavanaugh watches with his battalion in tow, waiting for the opportune moment to make his bust.  Mackey takes his “bribe”, but then the deal takes a turn, with Mackey appearing to commit a cold-blooded execution of one of the dealers. Kavanaugh swoops in, hungry for his win, only to discover…


It was all a ruse.


The “dead” man was working undercover as a rival dealer. Kavanaugh stands empty-handed and dumbfounded as Mackey and Vendrell explain that they had set up a sting and were trying to set up a relationship with the Russians. “Killing the competition would have been the tie that binds,” says Mackey.  Interim Captain Steve Billings (David Marciano), the perfectly unwitting pawn, backs him up, “Prescription drugs is just the tip of the iceberg. This shit bag’s got ties going back to the Kremlin. Would’ve been a huge win for us.”


Then Mackey moves in for the punishing blow, “You think I was making a deal with the Russians? That I’d actually kill someone?…I guess [Internal Affairs] will spin any kind of fiction to stain good cops bad.”  Mackey and crew had to spend a few minutes in handcuffs. But the look on Kavanaugh’s face, as the realization sets in that he’s been duped: priceless. Totally worth the cost of the DVD.


Devastated, Kavanaugh allows his prey to get under his skin, and thus begins his gradual transformation into the very evil he’s trying to destroy, an aspect of the role that Whitaker, in the special panel feature, says attracted him to the character. He even cuts his facial hair and sports a bald cut like Mackey. He’s a hunter who knows too much about his quarry, yet also knows too little.


“I’m going to know everything, everything about Vic Mackey,” to which Aceveda informs him, “You still don’t know what you’re dealing with…You’ve never looked Mackey in the eye, had him lie straight to your face, and made you doubt yourself even though you know he was full of shit.”  It’s what Kavanaugh doesn’t know that destroys him because, in order to learn, he has to get close to it, to see it and experience it. In doing so, he becomes infected by it.


As the action escalates, the questions keep popping up. Does Kavanaugh have the stomach for this? Can he be “bad” enough to do a “good” thing? Can he make good on his threats to send Lemansky to prison to be devoured by Antwon Mitchell (Anthony Anderson), the super-thug and coldhearted cop killer from Season Four? And if he succeeds in doing all this, is his cause still righteous if his methods aren’t righteous? Has he corrupted his cause?


It’s this contest of motivation that fascinates me, as much for the off-screen reactions as for the onscreen execution.  Forest Whitaker, in the panel discussion, describes the bizarre feeling of hearing his character, the man trying to stop a dirty cop, being described by viewers as the “bad guy”. The I.A.D. special feature discusses the show’s depiction of Internal Affairs officers, balanced by real life impressions of them. One opinion sums it up neatly, “Being the great actor that [Forest Whitaker] is, he’s probably the most hated person on television right now…in the police world.”  Chiklis says people would approach him on the street, asking, “How are you [Mackey] going to kill him [Kavanaugh]?” Viewers seem to enjoy Forest Whitaker the actor, but they can’t tolerate Jon Kavanaugh the character.


Even Shawn Ryan, the creator and executive producer of the show, expressed his surprise at how unanimously Vic Mackey was adored over Jon Kavanaugh. People love Mackey, despite his sins: murdering a fellow cop and federal agent, robbing the Armenian money train, committing adultery, selling drugs, beating suspects, and orchestrating involuntary deportations to Mexico for overly persistent crime bosses. 


In the finale, faced with the frustration of having his investigation shut down, Kavanaugh characterizes Mackey like this:


Vic Mackey kills cops! He deals drugs! He beats suspects! You know what he did yesterday? He screwed my ex-wife for the sole purpose of making this investigation seem like a personal vendetta. He may have assassinated a gang leader. And that’s just all in one day. I wonder what he’s gonna do today! I wonder what he’s gonna do tomorrow!


 


Mackey’s dirty, that’s for sure. Yet, Kavanaugh’s efforts to take Mackey’s badge are met with disdain, by characters and viewers alike.


“I learned a real big lesson in point of view,” Ryan admits. “‘Cause I fully expected people to sort of be torn by, ‘Should I root for this guy against Vic or not?’ And they weren’t torn. They were rooting for Vic. And what the lesson to me was, was that if you present a point of view of a person and you make that person human enough, no matter how much bad stuff they do, people will appreciate and grasp on to that humanity and root for them.”


Ryan’s observation might be right. But is that all there is to it? Why do people cheer for a thug like Mackey and boo a righteous (originally, at least) homeboy like Kavanaugh?


Mackey vs. Kavanaugh
Part of the reason why viewers love Mackey is Mackey’s status on the show. If the de facto main character gets taken out, it follows that the show itself is over. Nobody wants that. Kavanaugh, then, must be the ‘bad” guy because success for him means disappointment for the viewers. Along those same lines, viewers have enjoyed four seasons of history with Vic Mackey, especially a relatively sympathetic fourth season, compared to zero history with Kavanaugh.


More than that, some may see Mackey as only being cruel to people who “deserve” it. In this light, Terry Crowley was a “snitch” and Mackey’s murder of him is understandable in the context of protecting himself and his Team. Leaving a double-crossed gang member to die after participating in the heist of a police station safe in Episode Ten? Well, that’s okay because Mackey only agreed to the heist to save Lemansky—plus, the gang member was probably not going to pull through. Plus, he’s a criminal, right? And there have been some really disgusting criminals on this show. So there’s a sense that Mackey’s brand of justice is reserved solely for society’s most despicable villains. Is it easier to stomach dishonorable behavior when the “victims” are unsympathetic?


I don’t think so. And I don’t like Vic Mackey or his Teammates.  I’ve been rooting for Mackey’s demise since his murder of Terry Crowley in the pilot. And that Shane Vendrell? I can’t stand that dude. Every time Mackey and his Team break down a door, I’m wishing there’s an army of thugs on the other side waiting to mow them down. My emotional investment in the Strike Team’s demise fuels my viewing, keeps me on the edge of my seat, “This week, those s.o.b.‘s are gonna get it.”  Looking beyond my bias, however, I have a theory as to why viewers may prefer Vic Mackey to Jon Kavanaugh.


The adoration of Mackey and the loathing of Kavanaugh are the results of the differing methodologies of the two men, on paper, coupled with their onscreen portrayals. Mackey is Machiavellian (or “Mackey-avellian”, if you can stand that), because he is aware of what people need to hear in order to ensure that he is not hated by those around him. He always had the “it’s better to be feared than loved” thing going on, as a storeowner taunts him in Episode Two, “Shit, the name Vic Mackey used to have some juice around here. Up to no good, lookin’ to run and hide from Vic Mackey? Oh, naw, he’d find you and you’d get yours.”


But, in spite of his domineering persona, Michael Chiklis plays Mackey as a man struggling against adversity, doing whatever it takes to survive against forces beyond his control: he has an autistic child at home; there’s a never-ending stream of criminals on the streets. Part of Mackey’s draw is how he keeps fighting, constantly angling to keep himself in the game.  He also boosts the morale of his peers, like when he rallies the Barn in the face of continued budget cuts, “Hey! Cheap bastards don’t wanna cough up a half a cent of sales tax, screw ‘em. Next time somebody bitches [that the police] didn’t show up,” Mackey pulls out a penny and puts it on a desk, “tell ‘em that could’ve bought two cops on time…So, let’s keep showing up. Everything else will even itself out.”  And the Barn loves it. You can hear people cheering, “Right on, Vic.”


While Officer Julien Lowe faces resistance from his trainee Tina Hanlon because he barks instructions at her, Mackey can get her clean up a suspect’s vomit with a smoothly delivered, “Got a little job for you.” He smiles at her, she smiles back, “Anything you need, Detective.” Once she sees the grunt work he’s pushing her into, her expression changes, but she doesn’t get angry with Mackey. 


He has people skills. He courts the ladies. He strokes egos when necessary. He makes other cops believe that, if they’re in the field with him, he’s got their backs. In the finale, “Dutch” Wagenbach takes notes from a street player’s “pimpology” lesson, explaining his strategy for getting women to do anything for him.  His soliloquy is worthy of The Mack, really. Wagenbach, as woefully uncouth as ever, practices his newfound techniques on impressionable Officer Hanlon. Mackey, on the other hand, has been “macking” everybody since the pilot episode.


Compare that to Forest Whitaker’s interpretation of Jon Kavanaugh. As unpopular and conflicted as his Internal Affairs job is, he doesn’t act like he’s under anyone’s orders to investigate Mackey. He behaves like he chose to do it.  He performs his task with gusto and free will. Far from reluctant, he’s juiced by it, excited even, to the point that Lemansky has to ask, “How did you go from riding with cops to hunting them?” Mackey acts out of necessity, whether real or imagined; “hunting” suggests that Kavanaugh’s actions are sport. Where Mackey looks for a “weak spot”, Kavanaugh looks for a “wedge”.


Check Kavanaugh’s demeanor. In conversation, he looms and hulks over you. Notice how he often speaks in low, hushed tones that are almost creepy as he gets right into people’s faces, violating the social conventions of proxemics, invading one’s sense of personal space. 


Upon their first meeting, Kavanaugh offered Aceveda a stick of Juicy Fruit as a means of testing Aceveda’s resolve, “You hold this out long enough, some people feel compelled to take the gum. It’s a sign they’ll crack under pressure.” Aceveda, who has already refused, replies, “I know,” but later, Mackey’s estranged ex-wife, Corinne (Cathy Cahlin Ryan), accepts her stick, and chews it at the end of the episode. While offering the gum to her, Kavanaugh pretends to be a parent of an autistic child (like Mackey’s son) who attends the same school. In both cases, the ploy comes off as cunning, deceitful, duplicitous; it’s a conniving move dressed as a gesture of kindness. On the other hand, Mackey’s random acts of kindness are sometimes calculated, but he carries an air of sincerity about it.


One minute Kavanaugh is demanding that Lemansky “get attached” at the hip to Mackey to get incriminating statements on tape; the next minute, in the same scene, he’s giving Lemansky a birthday present after overhearing Lemansky’s interest in fly-fishing. Manipulative? You bet. 


He needles the people who should be his natural allies, like David Aceveda, saying stuff like, “You suspected Mackey all along [when you were Captain], and you just let him go!”  Aceveda eventually says, “Stop playing me and start worrying about Mackey.” When Kavanaugh wants “Dutch” Wagenbach to accompany him to investigate the alleged sexual assault of Kavanaugh’s ex-wife Sadie, he knows Wagenbach doesn’t want other officers to think he’s cozying up to an Internal Affairs agent, but Kavanaugh overdoes it, humiliating the guy in the middle of the Barn rather than insulating him, “Do I have to remind you how many rungs ‘detective’ falls below ‘lieutenant’ on the department ladder? You get your ass outta that chair, and you meet me in the motor pool before I open an insubordination file on you, and put your picture up on my wall.”


Kavanaugh vs. Kavanaugh
Kavanaugh severely undermines his effectiveness in Episode Eight, when he loses his cool and screams his announcement that Lemansky, probably the most well liked person in the Barn, is under arrest. With everyone watching, he yells at reluctant officers to make the arrest.  Then he drags Lemansky off to be fingerprinted, to which the officer expresses the Barn’s rebellion, “We’re out of ink.” Kavanaugh barks, “You stick him in the cage until you’re ready.”


This, after Lemansky saved Kavanaugh’s life out in the field, diving for a grenade and tossing it away to keep Kavanaugh safe? Professionally, Kavanaugh was doing his job and pursuing his target. But he was acting out of personal anger and alienating people in the process. The people who work in the Barn, especially those without speaking parts, are like us, the audience, experiencing the drama as onlookers as much as we do through the screen. If they can’t take Kavanaugh, viewers are likely to be turned off as well. Claudette Wyms speaks for her coworkers when she says of Kavanaugh in Episode 10,


Have you any idea what he’s doing to morale? [The Internal Affairs Department] is arrogant and intrusive, it’s the nature of the beast. But this man takes intimidation to a whole other level. He’s got every officer in this place spooked. They spend more time looking over their shoulders than they do doing their jobs.


In grade school, I bet Kavanaugh got the report card that read, “Does not work well with others”.  People will do “bad” things for you if you treat them right, and they will refuse to do “good” things for you if you bully them. Kavanaugh’s being a bully shouldn’t outweigh Mackey’s being a killer, but therein lies the lesson—the ends don’t justify the means automatically; you have to include people and convince them that your “ends” are theirs too, even when those “ends” are in their best interests. 


When we learn Kavanaugh’s ex-wife has pretended to be raped (with the aid of a soda bottle) just to get his attention, we have to ask, “What’s going on here?” And then the pieces start to fit. He’s a man who ratted out his own partner before he worked in Internal Affairs. He’s a man who won’t bend the rules, not even for his ex-wife, who personalizes and adheres to “the rules” like they are a religion and can’t fathom why others aren’t doing the same. In the end, rigid application of the law is perhaps as dangerous as wanton lawlessness, and the results can look the same. The Shield suggests that you arrive at Justice when you figure out how to balance those two extremes.  The trick is learning how to soothe your conscience along the way.


Quentin Huff is an attorney, writer, visual artist, and professional tennis player who lives and works in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In addition to serving as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, he enjoys practicing entertainment law. When he's not busy suing people or giving other people advice on how to sue people, he writes novels, short stories, poetry, screenplays, diary entries, and essays. Quentin's writing appears, or is forthcoming, in: Casa Poema, Pemmican Press, Switched-On Gutenberg, Defenestration, Poems Niederngasse, and The Ringing Ear, Cave Canem's anthology of contemporary African American poetry rooted in the South. His family owns and operates Huff Art Studio, an art gallery specializing in fine art, printing, and graphic design. Quentin loves Final Fantasy videogames, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, his mother Earnestine, PopMatters, and all things Prince.


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The Shield: Season 5 - Kavanaugh
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