Coordinate Your Colors
The wheels just keep on turning,
The drummers begin to drum,
I don’t know which way I’m going,
I don’t know what I’ve become.
—Coldplay, “‘Til Kingdom Come”
The hood needs a little reminder. You hurt us, we hurt you worse.
—Vic (Michael Chiklis), “Extraction”
“What the hell is going on here? This is, like, the second black and Latino brawl I’ve had this week.” A pale, young funeral home director can’t make sense of the violence he’s seeing at his place of business. His face arranged in a mildly pitying grimace, Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) asks, “Where do you live?” When the kid reveals he’s from Culver City, Shane (Walt Goggins) snorts. “Well, you better learn how to coordinate your colors there, West Side.” The kid doesn’t get it.
Vic explains briefly: essentially, the neighborhood is coming under threat of a race war, as black and Mexican gang members keep upping the revenge ante. Following a burst of crushed heads, knifings, shootings, and beatdowns, with cops unable to locate “reliable witnesses,” Vic asserts, “It’s gone sideways ever since.” Kids are getting killed in school cafeterias, Julian’s (Michael Jace) new partner Tina (Paula Garcés) is stepping in the blood evidence, and rioters are burning cars. City councilman David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) arrives on the scene just in time to exchange surly glances with Vic, whose signature dark glasses and black t-shirt here seem especially malicious when set against bright hellish flames in the background.
And with that, Vic takes charge, hauling out a hydrant hose and turning it not on the cars, but on the guys acting up. If you didn’t know it was L.A. 2006, you’d swear it was Montgomery 1965. Uniforms rush the crowd, Aceveda squints in the heat, and the school principal, a black woman, accuses both the suit and the detective of overreacting. With that, and within five minutes of Season Five’s start, The Shield‘s cops are working overtime, struggling to contain an escalation of “black-brown retaliation,” including a “kill clock,” meaning that someone’s about to be dead.
At the same time, Internal Affairs is heating up the investigation of Vic and the Strike Team, in particular, the murder (fro the series’ first season), of Detective Terry Crowley (Reed Diamond). Introduced in a dark office as he’s sending out Vic’s CI and calling in Aceveda, Lt. Jon Kavanaugh (Forest Whitaker, incredible again) is digging for dirt. “Mackey’s jacket is like a 20-page cautionary tale,” he tells Aceveda (who knows better than anyone). “This is a lawsuit waiting to happen.” On Aceveda’s tip, Kavanaugh decides to go after Lem (Kenneth Johnson), the Strike Team member “with a conscience,” not to mention a brick of heroin found in his vehicle. “Why is it,” he asks Lem, “the guy with the conscience always has to get caught holding the bag? And we never really want that guy.” But as Kavanaugh demonstrates, he’ll take him if he has to: anyone is fair game.
And so the season begins with three trajectories, all entwined: the race war, the pursuit of Vic (which, against all your best moral inclinations, makes you worry for him), and Danny’s (Catherine Dent) pregnancy, which has her stuck on desk duty (essentially running the Barn) and keeping mum about the father’s identity (the squad places bets, she smiles and rolls on). At first, you wonder how Danny became the most sensible person in the Barn, and then you get it: she was only getting her bearings during her training days, but has long been reading and responding to her environment with intelligence and a developing sense of confidence.
Though Vic has weathered all kinds of storms in the past—moral and legal—this time he’s up against it from a few sides. Chief Roy Phillips (Nigel Gibbs) hands Vic his retirement papers. “Anybody nearing their 20 or carrying a risky jacket is getting a push,” he tells the almost-15-year veteran, “It’s not personal, it’s policy.” For Vic, though, it’s always personal. And so, he says, ripping up the papers, “I’ll walk out the front door before I let somebody push me out the back.” One more fight that looks unwinnable.
Kavanaugh is an especially shady sort, sniffing around Vic’s kids’ school, as Corrine (Cathy Ryan) watches the Mackey children head inside. Kavanaugh pretends he has a son enrolled, tests Corrine on whether or not she accepts a stick of gum he offers (it’s a sign, he says, that she’ll “crack under pressure”), while pressing her on the stress of raising two disabled kids, without her husband’s help, fronting as if he shares a similar burden. Cunning and creepy at the same time, Kavanaugh seems almost a match for Vic, as conniving and cruel a protagonist as has ever appeared on tv.
Vic is already plotting ways to beat his forced retirement, get over on new Captain Billings (David Marciano), and get his piece of street action (to win over a local liquor store owner, he and teammates Shane and Ronnie [David Rees Snell] slam a young black man just for being in the store). At the end of the first episode, in an effort to squash the war, Vic and friends take down a suspect and beat him into oblivion—in long shot, lit in deep crystal blue, the scene is ghoulish and stylish at the same time.
Now that Monica Rawling (Glenn Close) is gone (beaten by the boys), Danny is acting like the experienced woman, trying to train Tina in details that Julian misses. “Guys like the girly girls,” Danny teases her when she catches Tina applying makeup in the bathroom—refracted into multiple images as she pats her face. “Who says you gotta look like Janet Reno, right?” Danny sighs, reminding her that removing her breastplate leaves her open to injury. “And lose those hoop earrings before someone rips your ears off,” she says, about to walk out. Tina acts worried, then massages the moment, suggesting that girls need to stick together among the judgmental macho swaggerers. When Tina does in fact lose one of her earrings and half an ear during a house raid in Episode Two, “The Enemy of Good,” she takes out her frustration on the perp, beating him with her baton until Julian has to stop her from her indulgence in “excessive force.”
As if to remind you that Vic is indeed a nasty-ass culprit, even despite his occasional vulnerability. Confronted with the colorfully named Doomsday (Lobo Sebastian), a neighborhood bully who scares a witness by decapitating her dogs, Vic hauls him off to the border and hands him over to a Mexican cop: “Possession of a weapon in my country is a very serious crime,” threatens Avilla (Luis Villalta), as Doomsday loses his strut and starts yelling for help. “You can’t do this shit!” he insists, while he’s locked in the back of the Mexican car and disappears into the night. Standing in the shadows, Shane speaks without even looking at Vic: “I know you hate passing the buck.” Yeah, well, Vic murmurs, “What are you gonna do?”
Back home, Vic finds Lem waiting. The betrayals work in all directions at once. Wired by IAD, Lem disconnects it so he can question Vic on the Crowley killing. “Don’t buy into their bullshit,” Vic insists, taking an unbelievable high road. “How can you even ask me that?” Kavanaugh and crew scramble with the tech in their surveillance car, even as Lem drives off in a sweat, angry he’s been lied to, manipulated, and feeling forced to “look out for [himself]”—by Vic and Kavanaugh. The end of the Strike Team has always been a likely outcome for this series inspired in part by the Ramparts scandal. The trick is, it makes you feel so uneasy. How did these bullies and punks come to be the heroes?