Lesson number one: never piss off the P.D.
—Vic (Michael Chiklis), “The Cure”
I don’t get played, and I ain’t your homey.
—Antwon (Anthony Anderson), “Tar Baby”
I feel like I started something with you and I didn’t get to finish it.
—Monica (Glenn Close), “Ain’t That a Shame”
“The energy around the set was amazing. It was always really light and up-tone,” says Michael Peña while watching the camera bounce around the Barn in an episode from The Shield. “It was a pleasure to come in here, all the time.” For all the show’s thematic darkness and smashmouth style, this sort of observation is common among the actors and guests. Peña joins Anthony Anderson, Michael Chiklis, and Jay Karnes for commentary for Episode Five, “Tar Baby,” and all are in stitches through most of the episode, even as they’re watching a brutal sex scene at its start, a devastating image of a mother jonesing for crack in front of her young daughter, and a woman describing the death of her stepmother. The set-off for this lively good will comes early, when Karnes, as Dutch, appears on a surveillance camera in his vehicle, dropping off a date and singing along with the radio: “And I’m hungry like the wolf,” he half-mumbles, half-wails while cruising. “It embarrasses me,” Karnes says. “It hurts me to watch it.” And with that, the commentating crew falls apart in laughter.
Most of the fourth season, now out on another stellar DVD set (including numerous and varied commentaries, deleted scenes with commentary, and a documentary, “Under the Skin”) is focused on the interplay of Vic Mackey (Chiklis) with the two single-season “heavyweights,” Glenn Close as Captain Monica Rawling and Anthony Anderson as local kingpin Antwon Mitchell. As Chiklis emphasizes, the show is not about the crime of the week, but about the characters. “You do become engaged in the crime, the multiple crimes, but as seen through the eyes of these very three-dimensional and evolving people. I just think it makes for much happier actors, that’s for sure.” This is apparent in their work, as deft and intriguing as the never-stop camerawork.
Though Chiklis notes that the season was “not the best” for him, as a performer, he was fascinated by what he saw around him, the phenomenal work by Close and Anderson, as well as Peña and the regulars, each achieving something new and compelling, again. As Chiklis phrases it, “I had to let other people act, actively passive. It was a very odd take on Mackey this year.” That’s’ not to say the season went Mackeyless: certainly, the scene at the end of Episode Eight, “Cut Throat,” is riveting: Shane (Walt Goggins) and his erstwhile mentor and friend Vic face off over Antwon’s demand that Shane kill Vic (the escalation to this point has roots in the previous season). Watching the scene, Cathy Ryan (who plays Vic’s ex, Corrine), notes that she anticipated Shane’s death, here or at some other point during the season.
Shane’s descent into cahooting with Antwon produces all kinds of tensions during the season. Though Shane imagines he can manage his relations with the crooks as well as Vic has, he soon learns that his new status as a father and lack of experience both leave him feeling vulnerable. In fact, he’s something of a pawn in the primary plotline, which concerns the struggle for power among Mackey, Monica, and Antwon. Never far from the action, despite his ongoing trauma over his rape last season, Councilman David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) continues to manipulate friends and rules to get what he needs. The squad spends the last third of the season pursuing the killer of a pair of cops (getting revenge for “Carl and Scooby” becomes a refrain), a case where Antwon is implicated, because, as he says, nothing happens in his neighborhood without his say-so.
“This is the first project I’ve worked on,” enthuses Anderson, “where I would call my friends and everyone I knew in the industry and say, ‘You gotta watch this.’” And with that, “Tar Baby” flips over to Antwon’s big scene, when he schools Shane and Shane’s partner, the newbie Army (Peña). Though Shane has for years watched Vic cut deals with outlaws, he’s in over his head with Antwon, who has his thugs beat down the uppity pair and then kill a 12-year-old girl in front of them, with their guns, to set up the blackmail he’ll use throughout the season.
Antwon is ferocious. “This is the little ho that gave up my block,” he charges, grabbing the girl’s hair. “I tried to pull her braids out,” adds Anderson, sounding a little surprised at himself. Antwon shoots her, the commentators go silent, and the camera looks up at the killer, taking Shane’s point of view, zooming in unevenly, as if in a panic. “From now on,” Antwon snarls, “When I say, ‘Suck my dick,’ you say, ‘You want me to lick your balls, Daddy?’” “That’s immortal,” says Karnes as the episode cuts to credits.
“Nobody wanted Anthony,” recalls creator Shawn Ryan on another commentary track, for the season’s first episode, “The Cure.” “There was resistance. We had Anthony audition twice for the network… they weren’t sure that he could play ‘scary.’” More than proven right about his choice, Ryan notes that the writers changed course slightly over the season, expanding Antwon’s role. “You never want to get too locked in to what you’re gonna do, because sometimes you see magical things that work.”
Though writer Glen Mazzarek admits during “The Cure” that he first thought Close might be wrong for the role (“I thought I wouldn’t buy her as a cop”), when she arrived on set and expressed precisely this concern, he was relieved. “I said, ‘Okay, great. Let’s go from here.’” Monica’s disruption allowed for all kinds of emotions to roil, from Vic’s control-freaky efforts spins to Antwon’s attempts at outsmarting her to Claudette’s resentment that Monica got the captainship instead of her. Claudette went through particular changes, as Ryan observes during “The Cure,” much like “letting her hair down” (which she literally does during the season). “What I enjoyed playing with,” he says, “was knocking some of the pretty off of Claudette, in terms of her being on a high horse, being the voice of wisdom.”
While Claudette makes a ragged peace with the immorality around her, David Aceveda embraces it. He engineers the legal system to get revenge on his rapist (while never admitting the rape), even at the expense of what seems a more comprehensive “justice.” During the commentary for “Cut Throat,” director Dean White and writers Jennifer Richmond and Randy Huggins discuss the difficulty of finding a “sympathetic strain” for Aceveda, watching him about to “act out” a rape with the prostitute Sara (Abby Brammell). White says, “He’s gone over the edge here.” He looks it, barely in the hectic camera’s frame as he asks Sara whether she’s ever “sucked dick like a cell bitch,” the same line used on him.
Aceveda’s violence is only one of the difficult issues The Shield grapples with on a weekly basis. “There is adult subject matter and there is consequence,” says Catherine Dent (who plays Danny) while watching the third episode, “Bang” with Michael Jace (who plays her former partner Julian), along with director Guy Ferland and writer Scott Rosenbaum. She points out the “horrifying” storyline in which Rawling institutes an assets forfeiture program, kicking families out of their homes to punish those who’ve paid for them with “dirty” money (“You don’t have kids of your own,” says one mother to Monica, “So you’re throwing mine out”).
Dent also recalls being outraged during the show’s first season, when they were shooting in a strip bar and the female dancers were “buck naked” for the shoot. Dent protested, the directors made some case about needing the shots, and she started to wonder what she had “signed on for.” Rosenbaum then runs through the seemingly arbitrary list of what, according to Standards and Practices, can be shown on tv, and what cannot: “We are not allowed to show a woman’s nipple, we can show the side of her breast, and the side of her rear end.” At the same time, he says, “We can write a scene about Vic burning the side of a guy’s face on the stove and not only do they love it, but in editing, they frequently say, ‘Can we see more of that?’” Dent is all over this: “I think it’s the perversity of the American culture,” she notes.
The fourth season includes multiple climaxes, including the extended episode, “Back in the Hole,” in which Monica interrogates Antwon, bringing up his own abused childhood, to the point of making him cry. For this 10th episode, Chiklis and Close comment, along with writers Liz Craft and Sarah Fain. Close remembers the intensity of the shoot: “It was a great tennis match… It was fun for me in this [interrogation] scene because I had secrets that neither of you [Vic and Antwon] knew.” Chiklis laughs, “Well that’s The Shield all over. We all have secrets that others don’t know. It’s personal agenda, you know, and how it affects the whole dance.”
Here, the “dance” focuses on Vic and Monica’s relationship, which never quite resolves (as Mazzara succinctly says in “Under the Skin,” “This show is about fucked up people and fucked up situations. Why would you wanna resolve any of it?”). Chiklis calls it “almost this weird love between these people. Love is the wrong word…. There was a definite connection between these two but all the circumstances of their lives prevented the trust they would need to be deeper friends.” Their scenes together are filled with this simultaneous possibility and impossibility. While researching the role, Close asked a woman captain, “What’s the hardest part of being a woman captain?” The answer guided her performance: “Being female and not letting it matter.” It does matter for Monica, but she refuses to let it show, her sometimes blank-seeming face conveying more emotion than any amount of histrionics might. (Measure this against Chiklis’ concern that, in his blue t-shirt after weeks of being unable to get to the gym following an injured toe, “I look like a big blueberry.” How can you not love this guy?).
While so many of her colleagues sing Close’s praises throughout the commentary tracks, she also underlines how exciting it was to do the show. “I felt smarter after doing 13 episodes with you guys,” she laughs. “Because all these synapses were popping in my brain every day, along trails that hadn’t been used for a while. So I felt really acute, smart, fast.” Watching the season again—so brilliant, so knotty, so surprising—you can almost see them popping.