Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Shield 3-13: Fire in the Hole

The third season of The Shield has had this frenetic element of impending doom to it, like everything is about to fall apart and the characters are rapidly scrambling to hold it all together with increasingly tenuous threads. In this way it can be seen as an antecedent to Breaking Bad (returning tonight! Holy shit!), which takes the standing-on-a-rickety-bridge-over-an-abyss plotting and extends it to the entire series. At the beginning of the series Vic used his shady and sometimes brutal tactics to gain more power, whereas now he is forced to use them merely to hang on. Becoming an honest cop, as he tried to do earlier in the season, is no longer an option. In “Fire in the Hole”, as in several previous episodes, the strike team has to get to a criminal before the legitimate police do for fear that if the criminal enters the system alive he will reveal too much. By stepping outside the system for their own ends, they have found that they are now trapped outside the law, and whatever initial goals they had are consumed by the endless cover-ups and cover-ups of cover-ups of what they did. Criminality becomes not a means to an end but means, end, and universe.

This is also a description of a good percentage of all crime stories, including the aforementioned Breaking Bad. Walter White and Vic Mackey have similarities both superficial (baldness and disabled sons) and deeper (their prevailing narrative arcs, as discussed above, and the fact that both come from trusted public-servant professions). While Walt is driven by stubborn pride and ideology, Vic's urges are baser and more animal. So even as he lives in constant danger, Vic puts another pot on another burner by starting an affair with an engaged police dog handler (the animalistic imagery is obvious). The entire money train robbery which is causing Vic's current problems was motivated by a mixture of naked greed and a macho need to be his family's sole breadwinner.

Vic may be a whirling ball of id bound together only by a mass of schemes and self-rationalization, but lately he's become strangely sympathetic. This is simply the human inclination to sympathy: when we see a person in a bad situation, even if they're a bad person and may have contributed substantially to their own troubles, we feel bad for them. Just as Breaking Bad positions White's personal precariousness as a symbol of the nation's economic struggle, The Shield emblematizes the psyche of the Bush era: we have wealth and power and something like success, but it comes from something terrible, and we all know it won't hold together for long. This makes Vic much more sympathetic than the early seasons' heavy-handed attempts to portray his heart of gold (helping out his pet hooker or his autistic son) ever could.

Fire in the Hole” opens, as every episode of The Shield does, with rapid cuts between a scene and the opening title cards. This is an immediately disorienting and claustrophobic experience, and helps to establish the panicking, uncertain mindset that underlines the show, especially in its third season. This time the opening scene is a fire in Corrine's kitchen, accidently set by Matthew. This is a typical in media res opening, common in The Shield, but the sudden appearance of another problem on top of everything else creates the sense of mounting tension and the slow but inevitable slipping away of control out of nowhere. After a long week between episodes a TV show needs to quickly re-establish its atmosphere, and The Shield's opening sequences almost always do the job. In the previous episode, “Rice Burner”, Vic asked his team to use some of their stolen money to help pay for Matthew's counselling, but was turned down. This is, then, the immediate result: another issue Vic was juggling, his children, spiralling out of control as his fumbling for a solution fails. The fire also foreshadows another, more important fire that occurs in the climax of the next episode. On top of all this it creates a very striking visual: the burnt kitchen, a symbol for Vic and Corrine's ruined domesticity.

Immediately after this scene we have another problem that's been left on the back burner for a couple of episodes rise to the surface: the ill-fated fifth Striketeam member, Tevon, who we discover has just woken up from his coma and remembers the fight with Shane that lead to his accident. The following scene introduces another problem, this week's major episodic plot: a planned biker gang robbery revealed by the police force's ongoing hidden-camera scheme. After that we have another plot thread introduced, where Danni and Julian discover a car crashed into a storefront full of bootleg liquor. The next scene continues the biker gang plotline, but ties it into the season-long power struggle between Vic, Claudette and Acaveda. These kinds of interwoven plots are textbook television, although tieing them to season-long arcs is a more recent invention. However, there's something distinctive in the way The Shield structures its multiple plotlines, throwing all its balls up in the air with a lot of doubt as to whether it will catch them on the way down.

But no sooner has “Fire in the Hole” established its structure, getting the audience used to the idea, then it begins breaking it. After spending ten minutes setting up these four plotlines, another is thrown into the mix: the escape of O'Brian, the strike team's designated fall guy, who they then have to track down before he can be killed by the Armenians. This added complication, seemingly going against the narrative flow, creates a sense of chaos, a disordered world in which even television convention can't be held onto. The return of the Decoy Squad, whose plot seemed to have concluded several episodes ago, both further disrupts narrative expectations as well as reinforces one of this season's major themes: nothing ever truly ends, and every problem you thought was solved will resurface and create further complications.

This atmosphere is heightened by the series' distinctive directorial style. In addition to the washed-out colours and almost grainy video quality, the camera in The Shield frequently shakes, hovers, and zooms in and out abruptly. It never stays still, cementing the aura of instability that affects all of the series' characters. Series regular Guy Ferland, who directed thirteen episodes of The Shield in total, continues this style and does it well here. For an example of this style in action, look at the video below – a fairly regular scene from the show, but filled with small but constant camera movement and shifting.

Fire in the Hole” is written by Charles H. Eglee and Kurt Sutter, both veterans of the show as well as TV in general. Sutter in particular would go on to create Sons of Anarchy, which inherited the “gritty FX crime drama” spot from The Shield. There's a possible link between this episode's biker gang plotline and that show, although The Shield's horde are more similar to the Nords than the righteous rebels that Sons of Anarchy centres around. Looking at the crew lists for each season there are an awful lot of co-written episodes. The Shield has been praised for its consistency of both tone and quality, and that may stem from this process, sublimating individual writers' voices into a communal one. While some television shows are the product of a single creative vision – Babylon 5 stands out as the most obvious example, although that didn't lead it to quality – most are produced along these lines. This is what makes an auterist television criticism so difficult, although that hasn't stopped some from trying.

Still, this kind of communal consistency is key in a serial drama. When I was much younger I used to be interested in “impros”, stories where one person would write the first chapter then hand the reins over to another writer, who would write another chapter and let another write the third and so on and so forth. They were fun, but the tug of different writers was clear – characters would act different from chapter to chapter, plotlines would be dropped without notice, and there was no hope of a consistent tone or style. On an episodic show this isn't really an issue – one episode can be more serious than the norm while another can be raunchier and it won't make the show seem any worse. (Such variety can even help.) But major shifts in style in the midst of an ongoing storyline demands. And so an episode of The Shield becomes less of a product of Shawn Ryan or any other single writer's vision but a collectively authored entity. The trend towards co-writing only reinforces that.

The re-emerging storylines first two scenes, despite forming a dramatic opening, are not really the central focus of “Fire in the Hole”. These two plotlines – Vic's family troubles and the Tevon dilemna – are both thoroughly serialized storylines, in large part because they're about slowly shifting family relationships. (The strike team functions as more of a family for Vic than his actual family.) Tevon's plotline could be theoretically condensed into one episode – a new guy joins the strike team, does well but gets into a fight with Shane, and Vic has to deal with the fallout. But this is a kind of pat and obvious plotline when put in episode form, precisely because the viewers expect any “new team member” to be gone by the end of the episode. The Shield is very clever about undercutting viewer assumptions – see putting Reed Diamond in the opening credits only to kill him off in the first episode. By serializing the Tevon plotline The Shield allows him to settle into the series space and make it seem as though he might just stick around. Vic's family is serialized simply because it's something that will never go away, short of the show simply choosing not to focus on them any more. Another plotline introduced early that doesn't make up much of the episode is the bootleg liquor storyline, although that's just because it's an insignificant C-plot thrown towards the resident insignificant C-plot characters. (That seems to be especially true this season. Danni and Julian have always been heavily involved with trivial and comic subplots, but in previous seasons they also had more substantial character arcs, which despite some attempts have mostly vanished in the third season.)

After all these we are left with the episode's two major stories, both of which are classic The Shield: a mostly episodic story based on an ethical dilemna, and the latest chapter of a serialized narrative in which Vic Mackey desperately scrambles to fix his mistakes and conceal his crimes, trying to stay one step ahead of both other police and more typical criminals.

The episodic plotline centres around the question of whether the Farmington cops should compromise the decoy squad's investigation into child porn in their hunt for a lead on the Horde's planned robbery. The decoy squad has enough evidence to convict the producer of the videos but not the procurer, a corrupt social worker. They decide to give up on the procurer in order to quickly arrest the producer in hopes that he'll flip on them and lead them to the Horde gig. On the surface this is presented as a turf war: the Farmington cops getting even with the decoy squad by pushing their case ahead, no matter who it hurts. Even Claudette, normally the show's moral clarion, goes along with it. And yet to me it seems like a bad bargain, letting go of a sure conviction of someone responsible for victimizing many children in order to possibly get information to stop a robbery that will only possibly result in violence, even given the Horde's apparent propensity for bloodshed. I think beyond inter-department strife, there's also the issue of which victims matter. In this case, business takes priority over black children who are already in perilous situations even before the pedophilia comes in.

(I should note that I love the moment where Waylon shows up seemingly out of nowhere. It's played perfectly here, with the camera positioned so that we don't notice his true identity until Vic does, with him appearing to simply be a regular hobo at first. The sudden reappearance of a character whose involvement in the story appeared to be over, as mentione above, cements the idea of past troubles being constantly dredged up again. It's also remarkable to see his transformation, which is later contrasted with Claudette's undercover guise that is convincing despite basically consisting of Claudette putting an old jacket on. Then again, as she monologues about hating her job and ex-husband, it seems like Claudette doesn't have to act too hard for this role.)

The other major storyline concerns Vic Mackey as the centre of a crime story, which is a lot more interesting than Vic Mackey as the centre of an ethical dilemna, which is what the first season or so attempted. Vic and company now have to save their fall guy for the money train robbery, a lowlife named O'Brian, from the vengeance of the Armenian mob. For a tantalizing moment it seems like it will work, then O'Brian's greed gets the best of him and he remains in town long enough for the mob to catch up with him. The strike team then has to dispose of the body in a scene that seems like a predecessor of Breaking Bad's second episode, body horror and all. The Shield is in itself following from The Sopranos' long tradition of “how are we gonna get rid of this body?” storylines, the most notable (read: most horrific) of those occurring in the fourth season episode “Whoever Did This”. This is basically a scenario designed to produce heebie-jeebies.

Both O'Brian and Margos Desarean, the murderous leader of the Armenian mob, fall under The Shield's usual characterization of the criminal. Unlike a show like The Wire, where crime is driven by circumstance and social conditions, in The Shield crime is for the most part caused by base desires grown out of control – it is essentially a personal and not a social phenomena. O'Brian's suicidal greed is one example, but a better one is Margos (played by the aforementioned Kurt Sutter) who is mainly known through his kind of psychopathic foot fetish, cutting off the feet of his victims. It is then natural that O'Brian goes back for the money and Margos kills him and takes his feet: neither man can control the impulses that make them a criminal.

O'Brian's death is also yet another crime that can be laid at the feet of Vic Mackey. For all Vic talks about how O'Brian was a criminal and a bad guy, we've basically seen him do nothing wrong in the show: he takes the bag of marked money he found outside a bar, as just about anyone would, and is reluctant to leave town at the proddings of a group of abusive policemen. Vic is basically responsible for his death. There's a paralell between him and the procurer in the episode's other major plotline: just because you don't commit the crime yourself doesn't absolve you of setting up the conditions for it to happen. Once again we have the feeling of everything spinning out of control, and this time someone's wound up dead.

At the end of “Fire in the Hole” the strike team have disposed of O'Brian's body, ensuring that the police will keep looking for him and not pursue other leads. However, Terry points out the grim reality: the Armenians know that O'Brian is dead, and the strike team has really not solved any of their problems. Despite all the events of the episodes, at the end all of the core problems still remain: Tevon's testimony, Vic's children, and most of all the careening consequences of the money trainf c robbery. Even this week's episodic plotline ended with loose ends: the procurer is still out there and probably still exploiting children. Like so many episodes this season, “Fire in the Hole” briefly creates the sense that problems have been resolved, before ultimately reminding the viewer that things are more out of control than ever.

Next Week: It's a new anime season, and that means more giant monsters and mythological weirdness. I take on the premiere of Kamisama Dolls.

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