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The Shield

Cynthia Fuchs

The Shield remains, shot for shot, TV's most compelling hour.

The Shield Season 3 Premiere

Airtime: Tuesdays 10pm ET
Cast: Michael Chiklis, Catherine Dent, CCH Pounder, Walter Goggins, Michael Jace, Kenneth Johnson, Jay Karnes, Benito Martinez
Network: FX
Somebody say warrant? Need me to knock any doors down?
-- Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), "Playing Tight"

In a very public way: you change perception, you change reality.
-- Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder), "Blood & Water"

I'm not gonna judge the life you chose, but I'm not gonna get sucked into it either.
-- Vic, "Bottom Bitch"

The Strike Team begins their third season "playing it tight." When last seen in 2003, L.A. Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and crew were staring, slack-jawed and unbelieving, at their Armenian Money Train haul. Now, despite and because of their good, illegal fortune, the Team -- including Shane (Walton Goggins), Lem (Kenneth Johnson), and Ronnie (David Rees Snell) -- must be on their best behavior -- keep a "low profile, business as usual." With their usual slipsliding all over the rules on hold, they pull routine duty, including a drug stakeout that Shane, ever sneery, calls "babysitting a third-string dime-bagger."

But The Shield is not about routine. Even this seemingly trivial set-up -- complete with "The Piña Colada Song" on the team's undercover car radio -- leads to near-disaster. The dime-bagger speeds off (the Team maintaining what they think is a safe distance) and crashes almost immediately into a van carrying stolen automatic weapons ammunition that explodes every whichway, shooting all over Vic and his team. They hit the ground, rolling with guns drawn as the camera cuts to an overhead view: they're under fire even without a single finger on the trigger.

The Shield's previous two seasons laid out the shifting battlegrounds against which the Team makes its best efforts to sustain an illusion of order. This season, all sorts of storylines are established early, each liable to detonate at any moment, not least being the fact that a $50,000 of the Money Train cash is marked by the U.S. Treasury, unbeknownst to Vic, and very known to Captain David Aceveda (Benito Martinez).

Aceveda has decided not to leave his job, following his election to City Council at the end of last season, which means that moral-minded Detective Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder) impatiently awaits the Captain's gig she was promised. In the meantime, Aceveda steals her ideas for increasing arrest rates, like bringing in a decoy squad, assigned to share the Clubhouse and some assignments with the Strike Team, much to the latter's mighty dismay (though it does appear that a friendship has begun between Vic and the Trish [Nicki Micheaux], who goes undercover as a prostitute). When Wyms accuses Aceveda of "padding his resume" at her expense, he declares he only wants to clean up Farmington. She doesn't believe him.

Distrust is everywhere in The Shield, and beyond. A U.S. Treasury Agent offers to help track the stolen money and solve several murders of Armenians (presumably committed in retribution for the Money Train robbery). When he makes the call to Greece, where the man in charge appears to be within easy grasp, the Greek police refuse to help. "The Greeks don't want to help us. Why?" asks the exasperated Agent. Claudette understands, because she's living in a mini-version of this dilemma every day: "Because we make up reasons for going to war and then act like the world's policemen."

Questions concerning moral rightness and practical expediency, as well as political machinations, emerge frequently in The Shield, and each character juggles his or her own answers. At the series' center is the urgent and unanswerable question that Vic asks concerning another set of criminals he's staking out: "What separates them from us?" From the shadowy backseat, Detective Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) replies, "Loyalty, that most disposable of virtues." But Dutch's quippy approach to "law enforcement," where lines are easy to define, if not always to see, is hardly sophisticated enough. For Dutch, perps are "losers," victims are sad, and heroes have perfect closed case records, like his.

The oddly off-key Dutch has developed something of a reputation for interrogation techniques, even though he repeatedly reads his interviewees badly, As much as he tries to shore up his status, every case tests his mettle, usually showing his creative and empathetic limits (when he tries calling the Greek cops and gets a run-around, Dutch goes off, typically stupidly: "If my tone sounds superior, it's because I'm American and you're Greek!"). When he gets the answers wrong, as when he misjudges a young Latino gang member (thinking he shares with the kid a history of being bullied), or pegs a registered sex offender as a current rapist ("You know what a moral compass is? It's a thing in people that tells them what's right and what's wrong... Only it gets broken in some people, smashed") results in disaster that he can't quite explain.

Also in search of a sense of location, and to save damaged souls when she can, perpetually harried and right-thinking Officer Danny Sofer (Catherine Dent) returns to work, but only with some obligations to Aceveda that you know will come back to haunt her. Her first project back on the job is to help her former trainee, Officer Julien Lowe (Michael Jace), who is still trying desperately to repress his gayness by "being a man" in every egregiously conventional way he can find. This even if it means horrific beatdowns (in retribution for the one he took last season, from homophobic cops, and encouraged by Vic, whose preferred mode of dealing with "problems" is notorious) and engagements in malevolent humor with "the guys," including the creepy Tommy (Matt Gerald). Julien remains a time bomb, about to detonate, and Danny can't seem to help but put herself in the way.

So far, Danny has stayed away from Vic, the freeform cop. He assumes all his own methods righteous, so long as he gets scumbags, drugs, and guns "off the street," Wyms is more interested in crafting and maintaining a code of honor, a means to respect and Vic's excesses make him increasingly scary. Early this season, he puts his gun in a prostitute's mouth ("Take it!" he commands, fiercely), the camera tight and high on her frightened face, Vic as bad-ass and frankly frightening as any pimp on the street (indeed, she reads his treatment as if he's taking her on as his "Bottom Bitch," the episode's title). Though Vic's brutality can hardly be read as seduction, he does use it to get what he wants, insidiously more than blatantly. Like any effective leader, he depends on his charisma and reputation to maneuver his way around rules and expectations.

During another escapade, Vic threatens a gun dealer selling stolen military MC5s with an "instant court martial," meaning, Vic will send him running down the street and shoot him as an escaped suspect if he doesn't give up his buyers. "Taking guns from our soldiers to sell to gangbangers?" growls Vic. "You must be very proud, asshole." As soon as the seller essays a snappy retort ("God bless America"), his options are suddenly reduced to one. Vic is very patriotic, in his way.

This "way" is more visibly complicated by the minute, primarily, in terms of race. Again, the series seems hyper-attentive to current tensions, particularly those unvoiced by most mass media. As the series continues to exhibit the corruptions and end-runs that define U.S. legal and penal systems, it also reveals those social and cultural tensions that prevent lasting resolutions. Seeking to regain control over the local gangs scene (which he lost during last season's conflicts with the malicious Armadillo Quintero [Danny Pino]), Vic turns again, and more aggressively, to Kern (Sticky Fingaz). His gang is buying up weapons ("Our boys just looking for a balance of power") in order to fight the Byz Lats. Vic makes a deal, though Kern has no love for him, following the loss of his boy Slappy due to the cop's treachery: Vic says this was "a one-time war crime, and," he adds, "I apologized."

Vic has so many balls in the air he can't keep track of whom he lied to last. He arrests the banger who ordered the hit on Slappy, and names a new leader for the Byz Lats, Diagur (Frankie Rodriguez), whom he brings to a motel room, to meet Kern. He hands them a map and says, "Draw some lines and we all go home happy." Diagur resists: "You havin' a chronic moment, homie," he tells Vic, "I ain't trucing with no spook." Kern comes back with force, and Vic steps in, "There's no need to go racial here. No one wants to settle this thing in a locked steel container with their bare hands" (this last a reference to a scheme for another truce that he came up with in season one). The moment -- resonant of the hands-on, hands-off inconsistency that characterizes U.S. foreign policy, ends with Vic's exit, as he locks the door behind him.

This scene cuts to the Clubhouse, where Vic's own guys are "going racial." Namely, Shane and Tavon (Brian White), last season's addition. The new guy has reason to feel left out -- he's not part of the Money Train scheming or the general yuckery that goes on among the white guys (Tavon: "I didn't mean to interrupt your secret Klan meeting," to which Shane answers, "We left our hoods at the dry cleaners"). While Vic sees this as containable tension ("Hey, you two done pissing?"), the camera suggests otherwise, as the mutual aversion escalates.

The Shield remains, shot for shot, tv's most compelling hour. The visual track augments and often elucidates the dialogue and action, close-ups and mobile-frame compositions (bars or windows enclosing an expression, chain link fences and doorways blocking full views, Vic's icy blue eyes set off against an icier t-shirt and fluorescent bathroom lighting), exposing characters' "feelings" even if they're not quite aware of them.

The early part of this season focuses on Shane's efforts to discover how he "feels" about anything. Asserting himself with Vic (at least occasionally), he's also trying to negotiate a new relationship, with Mara (Michele Hicks), whom he tells Vic is "the first girl I've been with who's better than me" (Vic steps up immediately, insisting that she's not "better than you!", defending his boy even to himself). Though they've only known each other a couple of months, Mara has just gotten her realtor's license and moved in; she also has Shane making the downpayment on her Lexus. To make her case, Mara asks, "Would you buy a half million dollar home from someone driving a '97 Neon?" (besides, the car he's buying is not new, Shane insists repeatedly, but "pre-owned").

Predictably, Mara and Vic dislike one another on sight, as they compete for Shane's loyalty. She tells him, "I don't like the way you treat Shane," a complaint for which Vic has the only possible answer: "You don't understand the world Shane and I live in." Shane tries to explain, "This thing between me and Vic, it's complicated, you know? Sometimes brothers fight." It's hard to read her intentions yet. When Mara asks, "So why is he always making you the little brother?" she might be genuinely worried for Shane, or she might be gunning for Vic, so obviously cruel and selfish. What she can't know, of course, is that the boys have a covert crime tying them together. (By the end of episode four, Mara has her own dire secret.)

Mara's inability to understand "the world" inhabited by Shane and Vic goes to The Shield's broader interests, its investigations of political frictions and cultural convolutions. On one level, their beat remains a white masculine one in the most extreme and nasty sense, one that bars entrance to women, gay men, and anyone of color. On another, however, it is an experience premised on fear, of losing that predominance and of seeing another way. The show itself asks you to see so many different ways, consistently realigning your identifications with characters and your understandings of situations. Posing quandaries rather than offering respite, The Shield never "plays it tight."

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