[25 September 2008]
This thing’s going to get a lot uglier before it gets better.
—Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), “Back to One”
I sometimes just get hit by the little things. Give me a serial killer and I’m fine.
—Detective Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes), “Spanish Practices”
Lowe: We shouldn’t be playing God.
Mackey: God creates all men equal. But once they get out of the womb, he starts playing favorites.
—Officer Julien Lowe (Michael Jace) and Detective Vic Mackey, “Chasing Ghosts”
Season Six of FX’s acclaimed police drama The Shield contains ten episodes of engrossing, superbly acted scenes, including 36 deleted clips, but there’s one specific scene you absolutely have to watch. It’s better than two of the set’s three insightful special features, one about the behind-the-scenes work of two awesome directors (Frank Darabont and Paris Barclay), and the other about Franka Potente’s guest appearance as a tightfisted Armenian mobstress in sheep’s clothing. It might even be as thrilling as Dallas‘s “Who Shot J.R.” cliffhanger was back in the ‘80s. Seriously, this scene alone is worth the cost of Season Six’s four disc, slender-cased, commentary-filled DVD package.
The scene appears in the sixth episode, “Chasing Ghosts”. Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) has been hunting the person who, in Season Five, used a grenade to kill his colleague and friend Curtis “Lemonhead” Lemansky (Kenneth Johnson). Mackey’s intensity is matched only by his grief, which in turn fuels his desperation to find, capture, and destroy the culprit. When Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh (Oscar winner Forest Whitaker) tries to frame Mackey for the Lemansky murder, Mackey just gets more determined, refusing to even answer questions about the manufactured evidence against him and opting instead to spend his freedom chasing his suspect. After nabbing, torturing, and icing the man he thinks is responsible, a Salvadoran named Guardo Lima (Luis Antonio Ramos), the score seems to be settled. That is, until Mackey learns that the man he nabbed, tortured, and iced was out of the country at the time of Lemansky’s murder.
Shaken, Mackey begins his search anew, first with a visit to Lompoc prison for a chilling sit-down with Antwon Mitchell (Anthony Anderson), the incarcerated leader of a gang called the One Niners. Mitchell, whose clout enables him to live as much like a King as prison life will allow, is unmoved when Mackey accuses him of killing Lemansky. He responds coolly, “I didn’t off your boy. Wished I did. And so do you, because if you’re coming after me for this, that means you lost…your last clue.”
But one more clue surfaces that, at long last, sets Mackey on the right track. Unfortunately, the real killer turns out to be one of his closest friends. In the scene I’ve been bragging about, Mackey invites his friend to meet him at the site of Lemansky’s death. There, cloaked in darkness but surrounded by the sounds of the city, they talk. At first, it’s quiet, with the two men circling, pacing, feeling each other out, cagey. Mackey, his face quaking under the strain of keeping his emotions in check, explains that Guardo didn’t kill Lemansky.
“Which means that you,” says Mackey, “pocketed a grenade… Before I even started to question Lem, you were looking for a way to shut him up, to make it look Salvadoran.” From there, the emotion swings back and forth, from anger to remorse, from accusations to bargaining, from acceptance to bitterness. The darkness, the grainy cinematography, the choreography between the actors, the delicate tension between loyalty and betrayal, even the sound of the insects in the background—all of it is absolutely marvelous. It’s a thing of beauty, really.
Even first-timer viewers of The Shield can appreciate this scene, but it’s all the more perfect when you know the back-story. Detective Vic Mackey has been the leader of an elite detective squad (“The Strike Team”) in the fictional district of Farmington in Los Angeles, California. Farmington is no walk in the park. You don’t go to Farmington to have brunch, chill out, and enjoy the pleasant scenery. It’s a place where The War on Drugs is still being vehemently fought, where rival gangs battle for turf and status, where prostitution runs rampant, and where hardworking folks live in fear of both their neighbors and the police.
And that short list doesn’t include the bizarre scenarios. Season Six brings us tales of grandmothers appearing in cheesy porno flicks to make a buck, a child counselor who sexually assaults teen runaways because he’s acting out his grief that his own went missing after he molested her, and the high profile stabbing of the City Controller’s daughter, who turned to drugs and turning tricks and “had no love for her pops”.
Throughout The Shield‘s tenure as one of TV’s most provocative shows, Mackey and his crew—Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), Curtis Lemansky, and Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell)—have ruled these means streets by a mixture of force and deceit, using the iron fist of fear to push forward their agenda, while using the velvet glove of lies and disinformation to throw suspicion elsewhere. No, they are not model cops. They manufacture and plant evidence, deal drugs, beat suspects, coerce confessions, and skim cash from the streets.
The Shield‘s pilot episode showed us two important things about Vic Mackey, the hub around which much of the show revolves, when: (1) he cheats on his wife and (2) he murders Terry Crowley (Reed Diamond), a detective who joined the Strike Team to gather incriminating evidence about Vic and his boys. Right off the bat, we knew Vic Mackey’s life was a mess of contradictions and divided loyalties because, in actuality, he loves his family and will do anything to protect his children and their mother and, further, he takes his duties as a police officer seriously. He also shows great compassion for the downtrodden and especially for children in undesirable situations.
You know, Vic Mackey loves the kids! Add to all this the fact that, for all their controversy and shenanigans, our friendly neighborhood Strike Team members experience occasional pangs of conscience and often score big when it comes to stopping the most distasteful and despicable of the criminal element, and the result is a series as morally complex and intricate as anything ever brought to the tube.
In Season Five, Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh launched an aggressive Internal Affairs investigation into the Strike Team’s activities. Kavanaugh’s plan was to leverage drug charges against Team member Curtis Lemansky in hopes of driving a wedge between Lemansky and his Teammates. Kavanaugh was convinced he could nail Mackey for the murder of Terry Crowley, generally cited by critics and fans as Mackey’s “original sin”. Rumors about the Strike Team’s involvement in the robbery of an Armenian money train were also in the air, a rumor that intellectually-gifted-but-socially-challenged Detective Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) suspected to be true.
And, yeah, it was true. Mackey and company did rip off the Armenian mob, who, as we see in Season Six, can be a decidedly vicious and vengeful bunch. Doggedly focused on his quarry, Kavanaugh forced Lemansky to wear a wire, commandeered the Strike Team’s precinct (a refurbished church nicknamed “the Barn”) for his operational base, bugged the Strike Team’s workspace, and elicited (see also: coerced) cooperation from Farmington’s former-police-captain-turned-city-councilman David Aceveda (Benito Martinez).
By the end of the season, Kavanaugh had transformed himself into the very evil he sought to eliminate, intent on operating on Mackey’s terms through fear, intimidation, deceit, and backdoor dealings. Kavanaugh’s plan for leverage deteriorated into a personal war. As the Strike Team desperately sought to save Lemansky from disgrace and a long prison term that would certainly be cut short by death at the hands of Antwon Mitchell’s incarcerated gang members, Season Five took an astonishingly tragic and Shakespearean turn. Shane Vendrell pocketed a grenade from a raid on a Salvadoran crew and used it to kill his friend and partner by dropping it in Lemansky’s lap.
My disdain for the “Shane Vendrell” character runs deep. I despised him in the first season, and I despise him now. If the quiet, Mr. Spock-like pragmatism of Ronnie Gardocki represents Vic Mackey’s ego, while affable and guilt-ridden Lemansky is Mackey’s conscience, or superego, then Shane Vendrell is an unabashed manifestation of Vic Mackey’s id. For much of the series, I’ve seen Shane as a wild man with long streaks of bigotry and greed. His main concern has been with putting “another one in the win column”.
Nevertheless, I almost feel for him when he murders Lemansky. For that, part of the credit goes to the show’s stellar writing of Shane’s character development and the other part goes to the wickedly sensational portrayal of Shane by Walton Goggins. Without question, there’s a tremendous imperative for self-preservation in Shane’s act, but there’s also a sense of urgency to protect his family, and a desire to keep Mackey and Gardocki from being implicated.
In a twisted form of logic, there’s even the sense that he’s looking out for Lemansky. Better for him to die with a friend, Shane seems to say, even if it’s at the hands of that friend, than to die in prison at the hands of a gangbanger. Better to die a loyal comrade than to live with the guilt of turning state’s evidence against the Strike Team. Shane is definitely taking that “no-snitching” code of the streets to an extreme. But this is no cold-blooded execution, because, despite previous disagreements, Shane Vendrell and Curtis Lemansky were more than partners on a police force, more than teammates. They were family members bonded by love and friendship, and driven by the blood and dirt their hands had accumulated.
He didn’t want to do it, but he believed there was no other way. We watched him plead with Lemansky, listened to him explain that the Team had figured out a way for Lemansky to steal away to Mexico where he’d live peacefully on a “goat farm” and his buddies would funnel money to him at opportune intervals. Lemansky, however, was exhausted. He was tired of the secrets, sick of running from the past, and fed up with being squeezed by Kavanaugh, not to mention the physical toll from his stomach ulcers. Disappearing across the Mexican border might have been the best way to save Lemansky from prison and insulate the Team from further incrimination, but Lemansky refused to go along.
Shane’s actions are both heroic and cowardly, selfish and selfless, and it’s utterly compelling because the only thing more wrenching than watching Shane cry at the sight of his friend’s exploded, dying body is seeing Mackey’s anguish when he discovers Lemansky’s body at the official crime scene. After a heated tussle with Kavanaugh, Mackey walks away and vows, with Ronnie and a frightened Shane listening, “We’re gonna find out who did this…and we’re gonna kill him.”
We, the viewers, knew what Shane had done. Some of us hate Shane for it, and some of us see it as part of a larger context of moral decay. Vic Mackey, on the other hand, had no clue. He and the rest of the department had their sights on Salvadoran grenade tosser Guardo Lima. And so we watch in suspense, beginning with the Season Six prequel bundled with the Season Five package (which includes Mackey doing an awkwardly funny Dirty Harry impression), as Mackey begins to quench his bloodlust.
Oblivious to the truth, Mackey hunts Guardo, taking enormous risks and putting himself in jeopardy, like when he’s outnumbered in a Mexican gang’s stronghold but delivers this bad-ass gutsy line as he points his gun at the gang leader’s face, “Either you and I are gonna leave this basement together, or we’re gonna leave this life together.” After using Guardo’s girlfriend as bait, Mackey at last captures Guardo, ties him up, beats him for hours with a metal chain, and finally shoots him and burns his body. Shane watches in agony, unable to convince his friend to delay his vengeance and unwilling to reveal his responsibility for Lemansky’s demise.
Lemansky’s murder looms over Season Six, which is not surprising given that Seasons Five and Six were originally intended to be a single season of 21 episodes. The DVD package’s cover art reinforces Lemansky’s importance with its depiction of Mackey’s stern face partially obscured by his right hand. Mackey’s right wrist is handcuffed to Lemansky’s limp, grayed-out wrist, and Lemansky’s index finger looks like it might point at something—his killer perhaps—if only he could summon the life force necessary to make it happen.
Along with Detective Claudette Wyms (the always fabulous C.C.H. Pounder) and Officer Julien Lowe (Michael Jace), Lemansky’s character operated as a type of moral compass, especially for the Strike Team, in the face of the moral relativity and downright lawlessness seen in The Shield‘s universe. The artwork suggests that Mackey is inextricably attached to, and haunted by, his conscience.
Lemansky’s absence triggers the major plotline of Season Six (Mackey’s hunt for the killer) and forces a shift in the Strike Team’s group dynamic. To protect himself from Mackey’s wrath, Shane distances himself, while Claudette Wyms, the newly appointed police captain, adds Julien Lowe to the Strike Team and seeks to replace Mackey with Kevin Hiatt (Alex O’Loughlin), a former federal agent. Last season, Mackey was notified that he’d be forced into early retirement.
This season, his time is running out, as his retirement is imminent and Claudette temporarily dupes him into thinking he can save his job by being a team player. “I lied to Mackey,” she tells Hiatt. “In three weeks, he’s gone. Period. But if he knows that, he’ll start working some angle, looking for loopholes.”
Claudette Wyms’s promotion to captain sparks similar adjustments. Although she’s been interested in running things on a higher ethical plane, Wyms is confronted by administrative politics. Due to unsolved murders and inter-district jockeying for resources, she’s facing the prospect of having her headquarters shut down for good if she doesn’t achieve statistical results. Wyms has always championed qualitative results over quantitative and statistical outcomes, and here her challenge is as acute as ever.
Without Wyms, Dutch Wagenbach, her old partner, is forced to team up with the previous interim captain, the observant but lackadaisical Steve Billings (David Marciano). There’s comic relief in this new pairing, as well as some truly engrossing storylines and thoughtful detective work. Still, the humorous tension of the Dutch-Billings combo parallels, on a smaller scale, the more intense rift between Vic Mackey and Shane Vendrell. Just as the Mackey-Vendrell camaraderie devolves into enmity and blackmail, Dutch squeezes Billings over the latter’s ill-gotten profits from the vending machines he installed in the stationhouse.
If Billings becomes overbearing, Dutch’s relief is a phone call away to Internal Affairs. In response, Billings hatches a plan to humiliate Dutch by manipulating Dutch’s crush on a young attractive trainee, Officer Tina Hanlon (Paula Garcés). The maneuver is self-serving, but ultimately funny, and it underscores The Shield‘s preference for character development and thematic design over merely feeding us a storyline.
Thematically, the Mackey-Vendrell showdown of Episode Six is most instructive. When Shane explains why he killed Lemansky, he tells Mackey, “You think you’re looking at me through some window, when all you’re really doing is looking in a mirror.” Mirror and window motifs of self-reflection and karmic reckoning figure prominently in Season Six, providing a touchstone for almost every character.
Steve Billings and Dutch Wagonbach, for example, act as constant reflections for each other, as when Billings tries to sell the virtues of their partnership to Dutch: “Well, if you think about it, your weaknesses are my strengths, and vice versa.” Dutch chuckles a little before asking him what his weaknesses are, to which Billings provides a list, “Arrogance, overconfidence, inability to credit those around you,” before shaking Dutch with an interesting theory: that Dutch fears Claudette was a superior detective who carried him in their partnership, so Dutch treats Billings “like a piece of shit” so everyone will see Billings as a liability if the effectiveness of their partnership is called into question. Later, Dutch tries to share his thoughts on Billings’s weaknesses, but Billings isn’t interested (“I don’t need that kind of head trip”). There’s no use trying to critique a mirror anyway.
Careful examination reveals many physical examples of mirrors and windows, not only in Season Six, but also throughout the series: a glance in a rearview mirror here, a silent conversation through a window there. In the opening episode, “On the Jones”, Mackey corners David Aceveda in a public restroom about his role in Kavanaugh’s investigation. Last season, Aceveda fed Mackey a bogus story about Lemansky ratting everyone out. Mackey’s indignation is met with Aceveda’s contempt, “So it’s my fault? When do you ever take responsibility, Vic? When is anything your fault?” When Aceveda leaves, Mackey takes a cold look at himself in the bathroom mirror. It’s reflective, contemplative, and sobering. Mirrors illuminate life’s chronological facets, such as our memories and regrets, because, in mirrors, we often compare what we look like today with the way we looked in the past.
Sometimes, mirrors represent the way we look at the past itself. Using them symbolizes the search for clarity. Before Mackey confirms Shane’s culpability for Lemansky’s murder, Shane tries to shut down further pursuit of the truth, saying, “Just put this in the rearview mirror.”
Windows are also powerful symbols of reflection and clear vision. In the fourth episode, “The New Guy”, Mackey and crew receive a delivery of books Lemansky ordered online while he was on the run. At the same time, the case of the week involves four youngsters who are desperate to leave the trappings of gang life. Trouble is, gang affiliation isn’t so malleable. The gang would rather kill them than let them out, especially Cervantes Carter, the ringleader of the exiles. Mackey, still grieving for Lemansky despite having executed Guardo Lima, vows to find and protect the young men and, when he does, he’ll give Lemansky’s books to Cervantes.
Mackey’s good intentions are thwarted when Cervantes is shot. Mackey scoops him up, drives him to the hospital where his wife Corrine (Cathy Cahlin Ryan) works as a nurse, and watches in horror as Cervantes bleeds to death. Overwrought, Mackey loses it, grabs his baldhead wearily, and mumbles about Lemansky. In his emotional stupor, he punches a wall, tosses chairs and tables. Through a large glass window separating hospital work from the emergency waiting room, Corrine Mackey sees her husband’s anguish and witnesses his meltdown, although she can’t hear what he’s saying. It’s agonizing, and Mackey’s denting of the glass signifies the breakdown of his ability to compartmentalize his job and his personal life.
Psychologically speaking, The Shield‘s nihilistic, morally blurred world mirrors Mackey’s inner turmoil. Season Six is filled with examples.
Jon Kavanaugh, after conceding that he had indeed “framed a guilty man”, earns a jail cell for feeding an informant a bogus story and planting evidence against Mackey. Behind bars, but finally at peace, Kavanaugh waxes philosophical, “It isn’t your time yet. But it’ll happen. The universe will take out its trash when it’s ready.” He treats his guilty behavior as a mirror to Mackey’s transgressions, saying, “I learned from the master.” Mackey decries Kavanaugh’s “existential bullshit”, but Kavanaugh’s fate as a prison inmate could, and probably should, be Mackey’s.
In true reflective fashion, Kavanaugh highlights Mackey’s influence and his Midas touch of corruption: “You corrupted everything around you. Turned a good man like Lemansky into a thug and a thief and you got him killed for it. I tried to become you for a minute, but it wasn’t worth it.”
Kavanaugh lost his heart, fell to his baser instincts, and realized he couldn’t continue. His exit is similar to that of the “Miracle Joe” character in the finale, “Spanish Practices”. Miracle Joe was a homeless man who had roamed the Farmington streets for years, a permanent fixture in the daily bustle. He had endured countless indignities and physical attacks, and Dutch Wagenbach had assumed Miracle Joe’s death was due to foul play. The coroner’s preliminary report, however, proves otherwise. “In the end, his heart just quit,” remarks a slightly astonished Dutch Wagenbach, to which Claudette Wyms retorts, “Maybe he figured this place wasn’t worth sticking around for any longer.”
Shane Vendrell, Mackey’s closest mirror, believes his murder of Lemansky is no different than Mackey’s murder of Terry Crowley. “All I was doing was following your game plan, coach,” Shane taunts. When Mackey doesn’t buy it (“Get in your truck, drive away. Leave here before I kill you.”), Shane calls him a “goddamn hypocrite”. It’s interesting that Mackey’s encounters with Shane and Kavanaugh don’t motivate him to rethink his complicity in all this mayhem.
It never occurs to Mackey that Lemansky, the man whose death he’s avenging, might have been uncomfortable with Mackey’s threat to rape and kill Guardo Lima’s girlfriend with Guardo listening on the phone, or his subsequent torture of Guardo himself. When he does try to shoulder the blame, Mackey chides himself for not going far enough! “I had the chance to pull the trigger on you once before,” he warns Shane. “I didn’t do it, and Lem lost his life because of it.”
Opinions differ as to whether Mackey’s original sin (murdering Terry Crowley) begat Shane’s fruit of the poisonous tree (murdering Lemansky). In the commentary, Walton Goggins relays the heated rehearsals he shared with Michael Chiklis regarding this. Despite my animosity toward “Shane Vendrell”, I wonder if he has a point about the similarities between his crime and Mackey’s. Crowley, like Lemansky, was a Strike Team member, although he wasn’t as much of an insider as the others.
Like Crowley, Lemansky might have eventually incriminated the Strike Team. After Lemansky’s murder, Shane, like Mackey after the Crowley killing, concealed his involvement and his guilty conscience, rationalizing the murder as a protective measure. Just as Mackey pinned Crowley’s murder on a drug dealer, Shane used a grenade to make Lemansky’s murder look like a Salvadoran hit. Both men profited from their murders, both career-wise and personally, and accepted misplaced sympathy on both fronts.
Perhaps Shane Vendrell took Mackey’s duplicity to another level, since he managed to kill Lemansky and then meet Mackey and Gardocki at the designated location to await Lemansky’s arrival—an arrival he knew would never come. In Season Six, he says so many things about finding “Lem’s killer” and challenging other people’s grief over Lemansky, it makes you think, “Wow, this dude’s got a lotta nerve!”
In the fifth episode, “Haunts”, Vic Mackey is visited by his ex-partner Joe Clark (Carl Weathers). Joe is a different type of mirror, a glimpse at Mackey’s possible future, which makes his appearance all the more chilling. The last time we saw Joe, it was Season Two, and Joe was bitter about his disgraceful exit from the force. He’s still bitter, but he’s settled into a life of running odd security-related jobs to make ends meet.
This time, he wants Mackey to help him roust a crew of disruptive drug dealing Jamaicans from an apartment building. Eventually, Mackey tags along with Joe and his unbalanced wingman, Lester. Given the fate of Joe’s police career and Lester’s wild antics and racial epithets, Joe and Lester look awfully similar to what Mackey and Shane Vendrell might look like in the future. Yikes.
I could almost accept Season Six as the end of the series. It wouldn’t be neat and tidy, but it might be passable. The finale at least leaves us with a way for Mackey to keep his job, a couple of classy and tender moments by and between Dutch and Danielle “Danny” Sofer (Catherine Dent), and some assurance that the Barn has performed sufficiently well to avoid being closed down.
However, there are a mess of details that deserve to be worked out, including: Shane’s slip of the tongue regarding the Strike Team’s involvement in ripping off the Armenian mob, the extent of real estate developer Cruz Pezuela’s stake in illegal activities, the success of Claudette Wyms’s reign as captain, Julien Lowe’s stint on the Strike Team, and Danny Sofer’s attempts to balance her police career with being the mother of Mackey’s baby (although I keep thinking it might have been slicker if Lemansky had been the father). And I’d love to see Dutch Wagonbach end up with some sort of big win, either personal (like courting Tina Hanlon or Danny Sofer) or professional (like catching Mackey, maybe?). We’ll just have to wait and see what develops by the end of the series finale in Season Seven.