The Shield

But don’t let it be a black and a white one.
Cuz they slam ya down to the street top.
Black police showin’ out for the white cop.
— NWA, “Fuck Tha Police”

You wanna smell my gun?
— Shane (Walton Goggins), “The Cure”

The streets of L.A. teem with activity. A Latin tune booms alongside traffic sounds and conversations, while moms and their young children, a shopper with a protective surgical mask, an old man on a bicycle, all pass through the frame. None seems important, all seem ordinary. But then it’s not. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and a coterie of unis head toward and past the camera, and suddenly the lively sidewalk scene turns ominous.

With a guitar grind swelling into the soundtrack, the camera is suddenly not just observing, but tracking, rushing to a doorway with the gathering cops. They unholster their weapons, and then Vic takes center stage, dark glasses, bald pate, and black jacket all shiny in the sun, as he crouches, ready to pounce, unable to stay still. Informing his straight-laced compatriot (David Marciano) that everyone’s good to go, he grimaces, slightly. Taking orders from this schmuck in a grey suit is hardly Vic’s style. But he’s been busted down since last season (the time is six months later), from leader of the daunting Strike Team to pseudo-regular dick on the street, good to send in first, less good to follow.

Season Four’s first episode, “The Cure,” begins with this: Vic and company enter a hot electronics dealer’s apartment, slam him into his table, and then one of the newbies shoots the dealer’s dog. This is bad. “You would have been better off shootin’ the suspect,” Vic instructs. “The ass-chief [assistant chief] thinks it’s just a matter of time before someone mistakes some kid coming around a corner for Rover.” The kid looks worried. “Don’t fret it, Scooby,” sighs Vic. “We’ll figure something out.”

What they figure out — they place a gun near the dog’s paw, as if the kill was self-defense — demonstrates the ingenious absurdity and antic brutality of The Shield. As much as the series has made its PR mark by its insistent violence and Vic’s moral ambiguities, it is at base a show about characters, utterly troubled, terrifically original, and frequently disturbing. They bring a hard, post-9/11 tv-cop style, digging into storylines rarely even broached, such as last season’s rape of Captain Aceveda (Benito Martinez), whose marriage in “The Cure” now appears to be unraveling. This at least in his mind; his longsuffering and ambitious wife Aurora (Camillia Sanes) appears less inclined to leave the partnership quietly, especially as he’s now ascending to the City Council.

As discomforting as Aceveda’s drama has been (and apparently, will continue to be), it’s hardly the only or even the most extreme case at the Barn. The new season introduces a high-voltage extremity right off, Aceveda’s replacement as captain, Monica Rawling (Glenn Close). Her first moment on screen has her appreciating Vic’s “kill-or-be-killed” joke about the dog, taking his side against the skeptical ass-chief. From here, she glides into HQ, greeting Aceveda and asking to “meet the troops,” eager to deflate predictable rumors. The squad members check her out and respond as you’d guess: Claudette (CCH Pounder) resents that Rawlins has the job she was promised, and while her partner Dutch (Jay Karnes) also disapproves, his effort at “support” is gauche as ever (“Wasn’t expecting to go for another woman, you know, I mean, after they torpedoed you”). Claudette sighs. She’s surrounded, as ever.

Consigned to a dullsville custom cars sting with Ronnie (David Rees Snell) — — Lem’s (Kenneth Johnson) working Youth Authority and new daddied, terminally inept Shane (Walt Goggins) is digging himself deeper into deceit and corruption — Vic is a bit adrift, looking for someone beside Aceveda to hate and exploit. He and Monica hit it off, in their way. Or make that her way. She figures him for the guy who gets things done, and attaches to him for the day, riding along for a “tour,” then again when he muscles a banger for info on a quadruple drowning in a motel room that has left an infant missing. She’s right to check him. Vic is the man in every way: mean, impulsive, voluble, in love with his authority but resentful too, resisting his own responsibility, except when it comes to kids, especially little helpless ones. Then he gets responsible. And mad.

This season, Vic looks angry all over again. The Shield lobs him like a how-you-like-it grenade at a public so mad at the world that it’s willing to lump all evil-doers together, all deserving of a nationally identified retribution. If it were up to Vic, the precinct would be all Patriot-Acted out, no rights for suspects, no doors closed to cops. Up against enemies who don’t have “rules,” he might as well clap back. That’s not to say that he won’t make use of any available “code of honor,” the street cipher by which criminals conjure their own order, as arbitrary and arcane as any afforded by the legal system. He cheats, steals, and lies, abuses suspects and the law. No wonder Monica sees in him the most effective way to achieve big-bust numbers and better, to garnish actual money off stashes retrieved. Though she has ideas about revamping the Barn and bringing glory to her reign, she’s both seasoned and cynical enough to know strictly legal means don’t get it done. Witnessing the Barn crew’s harassment by ADA Encardi (Anna Maria Horsford), Monica’s already looking for ways to get around.

One such way might be found in the group enthralled and cajoled by Antwon Mitchell (Anthony Anderson). Monica and Vic walk into a meeting right on cue: “Re-spect!” roar the men inside, responding to Antwon’s call. His preachment today: live up to your masculine obligations, don’t leave to your women to handle the home and babies. (Don’t be like Vic.) As the cops skulk along the perimeters — only white folks in the vicinity — they catch Antwan’s notice: “You put more than two black men together and look who shows up!” He takes it as a teachable moment, announcing, “We commit the crimes. I did myself. I slung rock, messed people up. But I don’t fight the power anymore. We need to be about changing that power.” It’s great rhetoric and good enough reasoning. And Antwon’s got lots of it. When Monica tries to correct him during a litany of notorious police abuses of black men, he knows she doesn’t get it. Specific dates and places are not the point. “It’s all white America, lady.” She’s got nothing. Vic watches her take it.

Back at the Barn, Monica sees exactly why Vic’s her ticket: he takes the bait she’s planted (he’s missed out on a transfer to a prestigious street crime detail) and blames Aceveda (who has, admittedly, put a foul letter in Vic’s file: “You goddamn buried me!”). The guys face off like the angry chest-beaters they are (Aceveda: “You really thought after everything, I wouldn’t get the last word?”) and this time it’s Monica’s turn to watch. She’s got his number, and Aceveda’s. He didn’t get rid of Vic, she observes, despite numerous opportunities, and so she asks, slyly, never taking her eyes off the interview monitor where Vic is bullying Antwon: “Was he too effective?”

Vic’s effectiveness has always been a function of his sheer force — crashing and kicking, pistol-whipping and punching. By episode’s end, he’s taking after one of his custom cars perps, not for the crime at hand, but beating up his (the perp’s) young son — he’s caught on tape. Though no one is supposed to know how or why the villain lands in the hospital, Monica knows (she has sources beyond Vic’s current knowledge). And she’s odiously impressed by this Tasmanian bedeviling of Vic, his absolute dedication and hellzablazing self-certainty. Yet she demands his confidence and control. Vic looks almost bunnylike when she dangles her carrot, offering him the leadership of her own career-making innovation, a task force to target gangs, funded by that forfeiture program she has in mind. For Vic, it’s another swipe at power, a new reason and means to run the streets. For you, it might seem another Ramparts in the making. But repetition trumps lessons learned. It’s the American way.