Inner city realism wasn’t sellin’. People like to be titillated.
— Street muralist, “Scar Tissue”
Let’s see what kind of a stand-up guy you are.
— Officer Danny Sofer (Catherine Dent), “Dominoes Falling”
Recalling Michael Chiklis’ audition for The Shield, Shawn Ryan says, “When he left the room, it was like it had been vacuum-sealed.” It’s easy to imagine that seeing Vic Mackey for the first time was intense, even for the man who wrote him. Two seasons later, the character has lost little of his notorious edge, and even gained some complexity. Where the show’s first season let him loose all over basic cable — spewing, raging, and cop-murdering — the second reveals Vic under incessant pressure. His wife leaves him, a drug lord targets him, his boss is replaced by the formidable Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder), and then (who knew?), the money train comes through.
In the season premiere, “The Quick Fix,” Vic and his Strike Team — Shane (Walton Goggins), Lemonhead (Kenneth Johnson), and Ronnie (David Rees Snell) — head over the border to Tijuana to find a drug dealer who’s wronged them. Swinging into town, they expect to own it like they do Farmington; when they’re unable to buy guns (in fact, Shane and Lem are themselves robbed by local toughs instead), follow Vic’s ferocious lead. They boom down the street, unarmed, and attack the dealer and his bodyguards, prevailing by sheer will and dumb luck. The younger Team members do as they’re told, good soldiers without reasoning. Hours later, they’re driving home, the unconscious dealer in their trunk.
This scene takes place about a month after the previous season’s conflagratory finale: frantic that Corrine (Cathy Cahlin Ryan) has run off with their kids (she’s understandably worried that he has placed them at risk), Vic has hired a private detective to find her, for $50,000. The dealer in the trunk stole business from him, so Vic came for his money, then went ahead and brought him back to L.A. anyway. Back at the Barn, Wyms suspects that Vic and is in cahoots with a local dealer, and Captain Aceveda (Benito Martinez) is running for City Council and feeling besieged by civilian auditor Lanie Kellis (Lucinda Jenney), come to poke around following last year’s riot at the station.
Neither would admit it, but Vic and Aceveda are a good match. By turns charismatic and appalling, presuming control but never quite exercising it, Vic acts under color of law but rarely legally (Aceveda tells him in no uncertain terms, “You have no jurisdiction across the border,” just before he takes off after the dealer). For his part, Aceveda is ambitious and resilient, suffering occasional pangs of conscience and frustrated by the racism of the institution he represents. By the end of the first episode, he and Vic strike a mutually distrustful deal — each will help the other get past Kellis and Wyms, in order to protect his own ass. As raucous guitar rises on the soundtrack, they nod at one another. The Captain leaves Vic in his kitchen, alone, standing as he eats reheated casserole out of a baking dish.
Chiklis says of this exchange, “Benny I looked at it like a dance, [though] not quite dancing with the devil, because, who’s the devil and who’s the angel in this situation?” The commentary on this episode (by Chiklis, Ryan, and Martinez) echoes that on others (the DVD set includes commentary on four episodes, not so grand as the 13 commentaries for the gorgeous first season set), in that it is organized by Ryan’s questions (some from viewers, asked on the website). The DVD’s many extras — 37 deleted scenes; a “Director’s Roundtable” with Ryan posing questions for Scott Brazil, Peter Horton, and Paris Barclay; “Sound Surgery” (a breakdown of the sound mix for a scene; “Wrap Day” (a doc on the season’s final day); “Raising the Barn” (concerning the set); and “The Editing Room” (a scene called “Connie Gets Shot,” concerning the death of the much missed Jamie Brown, from “Homewrecker,” with Ryan explaining differences between the “editor’s cut” and the “final air” cut) — all reflect this focus on process and general structure, rather than particular episodes or characters.
That said, the series’ second season spends as much time on character development as on any plot or ideological trajectory. Just when Vic’s many abuses of the system and the trust of others, from Corinne to his lover, the young uniform cop Danny (Catherine Dent), to his doggedly loyal boys on the Strike Team. Everyone around him knows just how sharp Vic is — when he tries to explain a bit of noncompliance as a paperwork oversight, Aceveda cuts him sort: “You’re a lot of things, but sloppy is not one of them. You’d better find your game.” Mackey never quits, smirking on his way out the door, “I never lost it.”
At season’s beginning, he does lose some territorial control, however, due to the incursion of Mexican dealers headed by the sadistic Armadillo Quintero (Danny Pino). A monster of broad proportions, Armadillo begins his offensive by poisoning Vic’s cocaine supply, then escalates by murdering Vic’s street dealer, Tio (Cedric Pendleton). (Armadillo’s less toxic brother [Emilio Rivera] is the one who ends up in Vic’s trunk in that first episode, following a beatdown scene in Tijuana with a pair of dogs copulating in the background, an accident Chiklis calls “so Shieldian.”)
Armadillo’s awfulness is increasingly overstated. In “Scar Tissue,” it turns out that even Vic’s seemingly out-of-control decision to burn his face is part of the dealer’s nefarious plan: “You wanted me to hurt you,” snarls Vic. Armadillo retorts, “Every scar is a victory.” On the commentary for “Homewrecker” (2.6), Ryan and writers Kurt Sutter, Scott (Skeeter) Rosenbaum, and newcomer (and first girl on staff) Kim Clements consider the drawbacks of this decision. Ryan says, “Armadillo was overwritten,” noting his own distractedness as one reason (following the first season’s humungo success, he took on film-writing deals, among other projects). Whereas the first season focused on Vic’s own complex relation to violence, in the second, “He was more affected by external choices… arch villains that aren’t necessarily realistic.”
“We got into a trap [the second] season,” says Sutter, “where we kept trying to ‘out-Shield’ ourselves, looking for more of those individual events rather than really focusing… on bigger character arcs.” At the same time, the writers were finding different routes through Vic’s aggression. Sutter notes that the writers’ room was “was a real boys’ club that first year, and part of that boys’ club was necessary to sort of channel the Strike Team and the sort of uber-male thing that I think happens in the show. But,” he adds, laughing, “It needs to be done in a non-sexual harassment kind of way.” Because “Vic’s violent nature attracts people to the show,” Sutter says, it’s more effective to “work against that” in a script, to find an “interesting emotional line” for the character. (Ryan backs this up, claiming that his work with Joss Whedon, as a writer on Angel, taught him to “approach stories first from an emotional standpoint.”)
The second season continues to refine the “quasi documentary” shooting style that Ryan attributes to first season director (and Homicide: Life on the Streets acting veteran) Clark Johnson. During the “Roundtable,” Horton observes, “It’s an addictive experience, so spontaneous and controlled chaos… It’s like Chick Corea in the ’70s, this sort of fusion of jazz and rock.” It’s also useful for portraying the characters’ daily focus and turmoil, on the street and in their emotional lives. No one looks very well adjusted here, save for Wyms, who’s doing her best to hold up: “I don’t like not liking my job,” she declares, just before she decides to accept a promotion to Captain. Wyms’ difficult situation is established, along with everyone else’s, in “Co-Pilot” (2.9), which flashbacks for a week to the first day at the barn, showing the Strike Team’s origins, as an “experimental” mobile unit. On their first day, Vic and Shane find a way to cheat, then pause to wonder at how “easy” it is. “Yeah,” snarks Shane (who always thinks he’s more on top of situations than he is), “A little too easy.”
Even aside from the sincerely moral Wyms, Vic is now dealing with a range of challenges to his macho posing. This includes a series of run-ins with the Danny (who ends up getting fired as a result of a stunt he pulls, to get Armadillo murdered), Corinne (“I’m protecting myself from you, from divorcing me,” he whines, uncomprehending, when she complains that he’s served her papers), and Vic’s latest sex partner, social worker Emma Prince (Marguerite MacIntyre). When Vic tries top blow off Wyms with an aphorism, “It’s an ugly world,” she mutters, “More and more.” And when, in “Barnstormers” (2.7), Vic offers to take on a wifebeater living in his building, Emma asks, “Stop violence with violence? Why do men always have the answers?” The critique makes no dent in Vic’s performance, but her face suggests that, for a moment, someone else sees the same unnerving excess that you’re seeing in Vic. As his agitation about Corinne wears on him, he looks more and more haggard (this not so much because he’s shot in the third episode, “Partners,” because, as Ryan and the writers observe, they drop this plot point in an awkward hurry, the only trace left when Vic “sort of sits down gingerly at the end of Episode Four”).
Vic’s ornery potency compares variously with postures adopted by other cops in the Barn, including Wym’s awkward partner, Dutch (Jay Karnes), who fancies himself a profiler (or at least an enthusiastic student of the process), essentially dismantled by Marcy (Melanie Lynskey), who takes advantage of his desperate desire to read her as a victim. Another opposite point to Vic is found in the gay uniformed officer Julien (Michael Jace), who decides this season to join a sexual reorientation group, rejecting his needy lover from last season and marrying a single mother he meets on the job, Vanessa (Monnae Michaell). While his partner, Danny, tries earnestly to protect him at headquarters, the other cops are merciless when the ex-lover’s outburst exposes Julien’s long-held secret.
The new guy this season is the Captain’s addition to the Strike Team, Tavon (Brian J. White), more than willing to get aggressive to prove himself to Vic. When one of Vic’s associates, a hiphop producer/dealer named Kern Little (Sticky Fingaz), spots Tavon, he smiles, “I see you’re adding a little color to the team.” The other guys are divided in their responses to the change. In “Coyotes” (2.10), Shane — ever eager — sees Tavon as a potential asset, arguing with the more skeptical Lem, “I’m just saying that he could open up new avenues for us, being black and all.”
Shane is closer to the truth than he can know. The Shield doesn’t shy away from dealing with race-based expectations and racism (this season featured a storyline where Danny shoots an unarmed Middle Eastern man, then finds herself accused of profiling). And the introduction of a black member onto the Strike Team immediately complicates not only the image they present to the street (to bangers and other cops alike), but also their brash self-image and presumption of self-knowledge. Their heroism isn’t assured, but neither is their immorality. What’s at issue is their assumption of rightness. Bullies and connivers, they’re looking increasingly like the U.S. administration playing globocop — frustrated by their isolation and unable to parse out the nuances of their altered world. Whether Tavon will bring another perspective is still unknown.