The Shield

Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) is back. Still gung ho and tripping over their own outsized egos, he and his Strike Team roam the streets of L.A., as bangy as any gang, as ruthlessly self-interested as any imperial force, as wily as coyotes. The second season premiere of FX’s The Shield, “The Quick Fix,” has them driving down to Tijuana to find a drug dealer, Navaro, who’s wronged them. They stride into town expecting to buy some guns on the street, only to be robbed and chased off like little kids, a couple of local punks now proud new owners of LAPD shields.

No matter. Within minutes, Vic inspires his boys to even more extreme behavior. Spotting their prey, they hurtle down the street, teeth bared, arms pumping; even unarmed, they attack with such speedy ferocity that they get the jump on Navaro and his bodyguards, prevailing by sheer will and dumb luck. The younger Team members — including Shane (Walton Goggins) and Lemonhead (Kenneth Johnson) — do as they’re told, good soldiers without reasoning. Their power is thrilling and fleeting, and that’s fine with them.

Vic is another story — or, as he famously stated last season, he’s “a different kind of cop.” As played by new Emmy winner Chiklis, he’s casually racist and homicidal, by turns charismatic and appalling, presuming control but never quite exercising it, acting under color of law but rarely legally (he’s told in no uncertain terms, “You have no jurisdiction across the border,” then hauls in Navaro anyway).

This season, Vic’s incessant liminality takes a toll. Whether Stateside or in Mexico, on the job or at home, he’s increasingly unable to keep order, even to know the distinctions between right and wrong that he’s set for himself. If last season garnered attention for its hero’s zealous violence and balls-out corruption (as when he murdered a would-be snitch detective), this one is shading his sharp edges, undermining his sense of control. Not that he’d ever let on. Early in the first episode, Vic’s captain, the politically ambitious David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), advises, “You’re a lot of things, but sloppy is not one of them. You’d better find your game.” Mackey smirks on his way out the door, “I never lost it.”

So he says. In fact, Vic’s losing all kinds of things, including his family, as his wife (played by Cathy Cahlin Ryan, creator-producer Shawn Ryan’s wife) has disappeared with the children, so that now he’s repeatedly interrupted by calls and visits from the seamy PI he’s hired — for $50,000 — to find them. On that tip, he’s also lost his illegal money stash (“the retirement fund” he and the Team stow in the basement at the Barn, their station); clueless Shane’s invested it in a ruinous coke deal (“I’m just stepping up the shipments,” he whines self-defensively). As well, Vic’s sex-only relationship with uniform cop Danny (Catherine Dent) is in danger of “turning into a ‘thing.'” And his hands-off, mutually antagonistic arrangement with Aceveda has suddenly become mutually dependent: each needs the other’s trust, or at least his cooperation, in a series of sticky situations. Neither is happy about it.

This vigorous rearrangement of relationships among central characters suggests that, rather than settling into last year’s critical acclaim, The Shield is upping antes. The new episodes are subtler, more pointedly political, and more engaging than last year’s — a significant feat, considering the show was among 2001’s sharpest.

Created by Ryan (recently tapped to translate video game shooter Max Payne to the movies) and developed by FX as a flagship series, to establish its basic-cable cred, The Shield has been extra-attentive to aesthetics, with scathing scripts, minimal soundtrack, sharp handheld camerawork (often by Ronn Schmidt), and incisive direction by co-producer Scott Brazil and well as Homicide: Life on the Streets alum Clark Johnson, as well as D.J. Caruso, Gary Fleder, Nick Gomez, and this season, John Badham (who directs the uncompromising second episode, “Dead Soldiers”). It also takes its setting seriously, populating its criminal and cop ranks with members of communities who actually inhabit L.A. — Iranian, Korean, Chinese, Armenian, and Arab, as well as Hispanic, black, and white.

Judging from the first episodes, The Shield is taking current race and nationality anxieties just as seriously. Working past its notorious early shock values (inspired by the L.A. Rampart Division, these were considerable: obnoxious violence, all-gender nudity, nasty language, abject poverty, explicit racism, and dirty cops storylines had advertisers like Taco Bell running), it’s taking on more complex, more immediate themes — political infighting, citizen rage at inept government, domestic mayhem, porous U.S. borders (when the Team crosses back into the states with their captured dealer in the trunk of their shot-up car, inspection procedures appear ridiculous), and anti-Arab profiling.

When a black woman (Lisa Renee Pitts) calls the cops on her “terrorist” neighbor (Navid Negahban), he complains, “You people pick on me for no reason.” No, says Danny, who’s white, “You’re a suspect because 19 guys who look like your twin brothers killed 3,000 Americans.” The camera catches the uneasy glance of Officer Julien Lowe (Michael Jace), black and caught between the “suspect” and his partner.

The Shield makes no bones about the frightening prospects of this post-9-11 universe, where individual rights are sacrificed for a pretense of “security.” The cops here, even those who mean well, like hapless Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) or the usually levelheaded Danny, tend to victimize the people they’re supposed to be protecting and serving (recall Dutch’s crack a corpse’s breasts last season, trying so hard to fit in with the “cool” cops).

But The Shield doesn’t just present cruel or monstrous action. It also points out why and how such attitudes evolve, and without condoning them, makes bigotry and fear visible, more normal than exceptional. That Vic — an exceptionally angry white guy — doesn’t see himself as “bad” is The Shield‘s most salient characteristic. However vile his tactics appear, he has a rationale: he’s taking care of his family, keeping toxins off the streets, putting scumbags in jail. The fight against outrageous crime demands outrageous methods, he deduces. He knows what he’s doing is illegal, of course, expending all kinds of energy to cover it up. Still, he doesn’t see it as wrong, just pragmatic; anyone who disagrees is naïve or ignorant, in either case, a pussy.

At the moment, Vic’s up against a few new opponents, all tough, two women. Initially, civilian auditor Lanie Kellis (Lucinda Jenney), sent by the city council to investigate last year’s riot at the Barn (precinct headquarters) and rumors of the Strike Team’s nefarious activities, can’t pin him down for an interview. When Aceveda tells her Mackey’s “in the field,” she fumes, “Is that code for he pretty much does whatever he wants without any supervision?” The captain shrugs; that’s exactly what it means — Vic doesn’t answer to him, much less a pretty lady with a notebook. But Lanie tends to lurk, in corners and near doorways. She’ll be trouble.

Also on Vic’s case is Detective Claudette Wyms (the superb CCH Pounder). Tiring of his end-runarounds and chafing at the new pact between Mackey and the captain, Wyms begins to challenge them, together. Reliably sane and patient amid the guys’ elaborate posturing, until this season, she’s pretty much allowed Vic and his gang to carry on, resigned to the fact that most Americans want tough “policing,” even if it means giving up a few civil rights. Referring repeatedly to her own experience, as a mother (“If you had kids…”) and a black woman, Wyms is increasingly unable to let the rights part go.

While the women object to Vic and the Team’s trampling of procedure, and are, so far, inclined to stick to it themselves, his scariest adversary this season has no such compunctions. The massively malevolent Armadillo Quintero (Danny Pino, remarkably transformed from Men, Women & Dogs) is the vengeful brother of Navaro (the guy Vic tracks down in Mexico). More to the point, he tramps across borders — ethical, legal, national — as easily as Vic. Despite a conviction for raping his teacher when he was 11, he enters the States with paperwork intact. Apparently embodying the threat of the “evil” alien, Armadillo may well deserve reprisal (the very first scene of the new season shows him killing rival dealers with “burning necklaces,” he repeatedly rapes young girls), but Vic’s brutality is breathtaking.

The Shield has taken a visible turn this season, structuring its horrors so that they pertain acutely to current anxieties. It’s about “policing borders” in multiple senses — borders that take policing, borders that repel policing, the ideological and ethical limits of policing. Not to put too fine a point on it: all pose crucial questions for the self-appointed “world’s policeman,” the U.S., right now.