Do you know what a moral compass is?
—Dutch (Jay Karnes), “Bottom Bitch”
So much of the content of this show is so dire, so argumentative, so sometimes downright anger, there’s so much conflict… I think that’s why it’s so fascinating to guest stars. They come onto the show a little nervous, I think, that it’s just going to be a horrible show experience… Then they come onto the stage and we’re laughing our asses off and making dick jokes or whatever. And they’re like, “Wow, we’re on the set of Friends!”
—Michael Chiklis, commentary, “Bottom Bitch”
For me, I hold my authority and my power close to my vest, and I know that that moral line, for me, changes, but not necessarily in front of [my detectives]. My moral line changes, often, behind closed doors, with a lot of other interests at stake… And I don’t have to explain it to them, because I am the boss.
—Benito Martinez on Captain Aceveda, commentary, “Mum”
Watching themselves in close-up on The Shield, actors Michael Chiklis (who plays Detective Vic Mackey) and Michael Jace (Officer Julien Lowe) remember getting bumped by cameras on set. “The show is shot so different than other shows, shot obviously very much like a docudrama,” observes Chiklis. “You have the cameraman literally, right next to you. As an actor it’s a challenge, because you have to sort of just accept like they’re there, and make like they’re just another cop.”
The Shield is all about this kind of too-closeness. Not only is the “subject matter very, very tough,” as Chiklis notes (in one case, the rape of a grandmother, in others, child abuse, brutal murders or torture), but the imagery means to unnerve you. Now available as a four-disc DVD set (offered only in full screen, though the show is shot in wide), the third season is as rough, provocative, and well-crafted as anything on tv, not just sensational, but full of menace and detail. (In addition to the terrific commentary tracks, the DVD set includes the series’ usual plethora of deleted scenes (35, with creator Shawn Ryan’s commentary), as well as an 80-minute “making-of” featurette on the last episode, titled “Breaking Episode 315.” The focus here is on the efforts by the writing team, including Ryan) to bring together some six storylines, which they term A through F.
On the “Bottom Bitch” commentary track (which features as well director Scott Brazil and writer Adam Fierre), Jace points out that the raped grandmother storyline includes the point that the repeat rapist “cuddles” with his victims after he assaults them in their bedrooms. Such grim business has become the familiar on The Shield. Indeed, the third season brings features some of the series’ most arresting storylines to date. Following their successful robbery of the Armenian money train last season, Mackey’s Strike Team—Shane (Walton Goggins), Lem (Kenneth Johnson), and Ronnie (David Rees Snell)—must figure a way to hide their wealth and cover their asses. This even as fellow detectives at the Barn, Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder) and Dutch (Jay Karnes), are assigned to investigate the murders of two Armenian gang members tied to the robbery. Worse, perhaps, they learn that the money is marked by the Treasury Department.
Imagining they might keep some vague control of the situation, they start making mistakes. While for the first few episodes, “Playing Tight,” “Blood and Water,” and even “Bottom Bitch,” they all pretend to play fair with their newest Team member, Tavon (Brian J. White), as well as the morally upright Wyms and their politically ambitious captain, Aceveda (Benito Martinez). And their personal lives are increasingly impinging on their primary relationship, that is, with Vic. Shane, for one, is still struggling with last season’s love interest, flinty, slightly edgy Mara (Michele Hicks), whose pregnancy, thievery (of the Team’s money), and impossible mom; during a commentary track for “Mum,” along with Martinez and Kurt Sutter, chronic web-surfer Ryan asks her, “[Do] you know your character is universally hated?” Yes, she admits, “I think someone has referred to me as the Yoko Ono of the group”).
Vic, as always, has his own issues. He strains to manage the ups and downs of his autistic son Matty (Joel Rosenthal), his wife Corrine’s (Cathy Cahlin Ryan) nursing career and developing romance with another man, and the emerging rebellion in his preteen daughter Cassidy. As Chiklis watches one scene featuring Cassidy, he sighs, “My daughter Autumn,” as Cassidy is in fact played by his own real-life daughter. “You know, I just want people to know that I’m very hands on…. People have said, ‘How can you have her be in the show, and not let her watch it, and it seems like such a no-brainer. You know, she’s 10, it’s beyond her years to comprehend all of the different psychological things that we go into.”
Just so, “Bottom Bitch” careens into morally fragmented nightmare, as Vic uses a strung-out, needy, tougher-than-she-knows prostitute, Farrah (Mageina Tovah), in order to make a case against her pimp, without much attention to her risk (this following the previous season’s heart-wrenching episode, “Homewreckers,” in which the junkie-prostitute Connie [Jamie Brown] is shot dead in front of a horrified Vic). Farrah finds her own to resist, as she comes to understand Vic is no more her friend than any other man on the street. When she calls him on his cocky prejudice, he claps back, “You all find ways of killing yourselves. Go find yours.” Startled at his bold cruelty, Farrah slams up against the glass door he’s just shut on her: “Asshole!”
Farrah is right, and then some. Vic’s assholeness extends even beyond his own comprehension, as he tends to frame his choices as tough, inevitable, and mostly righteous. He’s walking mean streets, and the action is fast, he tells himself, and so he must respond in kind. When, in “Streaks and Tips,” the Decoy Squad—an undercover team including Trish (the excellent Nicki Micheaux) and Waylon (Gareth Williams)—arrives, the Barn’s usual roster is partly impressed, partly pissed off by what they see as Aceveda’s end-run around their turf claims.
By Episode Five, “Mum,” the series takes a hard turn. In a storyline unseen on previous primetime tv, Aceveda is forced to suck a dealer’s dick, then must deal with his sense of lost masculinity over a sequence of episodes. Ryan begins the discussion of this turn on the commentary track by rightly commending Martinez’s work (which is stunning), while the actor recalls his first efforts to learn what this “new” line was about: “What, is it a love scene?” And as he recalls the moment, Ryan said, “It could be called that.” Ryan advised Martinez, “talk to your people,” that is, his agent (who was stunned), manager (who told him not to do it), wife (who was supportive), and mother (who told him, “It will be the bravest thing I have ever seen”).
Ryan asks Martinez about his “process” for the scene that becomes an arc, and Martinez describes lengthy rehearsals and preparation, including tears and dread, none making him quite ready for the shoot (the director is the remarkable Nick Gomez, who reassured both Ryan and Martinez that he was good, that in fact he’d directed a couple of oral rape scenes, as he’d worked on Oz). This leads to a conversation about the choice Aceveda makes, to live, to be raped rather than be shot dead. While men, as Ryan suggests, tend to say they’d rather die, women assert their desire to live even with being raped. “It is as bad as it could possibly be,” says Martinez, “when David is at the height of his career, of his life.”
Even aside from the character’s trauma, Martinez was dealing with the crew’s discomfort with the “graphic nature of the scene.” That day, reports Martinez, the crew “hated you guys” (the writers, namely, Ryan), they were “very guarded, that they were doing this and that Benito was going through this. I just felt a quiet respect on set.” At the same time, he concedes, the dimensions of the cost were multiple, a stigma in particular for Aceveda, who “has built his image as a star of the Latino people, in a sense,” as well as the loss of human dignity, beyond cultural identity, beyond male or female. “It’s something you can’t get back, ever,” he says. The aftermath—which leads to a kind of “redemption thing” in Episode 10, “What Power Is…,” where Aceveda gets violent payback—can’t possibly make right this devastation.
While this plot takes up much of the season’s emotional and political space, so too do the fragments of plots inhabited by the uniforms Julien and his partner Danny (Catherine Dent), up against other cops’ increasingly aggressive harassment of him (for being gay), as well as the domestic calls that can turn ugly in a minute. More coherent, perhaps, is Wyms’ ongoing effort to achieve the captain’s status promised her last season (Aceveda ended up keeping his post, when his election to City Council was put on hold). For “Cracking Ice,” Episode Eight, Wyms works with the Decoy Squad to bring in a dealer, even as she’s still trying to seek out the extent of Vic’s corruption. As Pounder describes the character’s situation on the commentary track for “All In”—dug deeper and deeper into trouble with the self-defensive guys stacked up on all sides—“I think she got blindsided by her own sense of what she thought was right. She jacked herself up, and she got derailed… She seemed very neutralized by the final episode. I felt kind of sorry for her.”
When Chiklis answers by observing that every character suffers a similar sense of loss (the Team loses their money, Aceveda is forced to “start over”), Pounder disagrees, saying that Vic’s survival is expected by fans who watch him do it each season. This sort of discussion—unresolved and challenging—lies at the bottom of the series. Noting the ways that self-righteousness tends to rub viewers the wrong way (and touting the usefulness of ambiguity), Chiklis says, “People don’t like people who purport to be more pious than the next. Pounder agrees, “Good is never interesting on film. I’ve never seen it as good as bad has been.”
The Shield‘s moral center perpetually shifts, as the Team members struggle to maintain their sense of balance, caught between the outright villains and their own dishonesty. This comes to a head when Vic and Lem visit Tavon—hospitalized, in a literal coma for much of the season after Mara slammed him in the head during a fight at her and Shane’s apartment. Covering up the crime (Mara nearly kills him), they convince Tavon, just awake, that he attacked her, a pregnant woman, to the point that “there was some bleeding.” Tavon’s horror at what he believes is his terrible act indicts Vic and Lem even as it saves their asses. Once again, they’ve emerged from certain disaster with their self-images and egos intact. And once again, you’re left to wonder about your own closeness to characters who can’t get out of their own way.