Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Shield 4-01: "The Cure"

The third season of The Shield ended in a suitably apocalyptic fashion. The strike team dissolved in a fight over the now-mostly-destroyed money train cash, while Claudette's sense of justice destryed her chances to become the new captain. The end of the show's second season was similar in promising major changes (Dani's firing, Claudette replacing Acaveda) but pulled back on them in Season 3 and maintained a kind of status quo.

“The Cure” wants to reassure us that this won't happen again, that significant things have changed and will continue to change. So we are introduced right away to Monica Rawlings, Acaveda's replacement as captain of the Farmington division. The disruption starts even in the credits, as we see Glenn Close suddenly appear second on a title sequence that hasn't had anyone added to it since the first season, with even major characters like Corrine and Ronnie stuck at guest star status. She directly appears in the first scene, joking around with a rookie cop and letting him off the hook for killing an attack dog in the line of duty. Close plays Rawling with a soft, almost motherly demeanor that directly contrasts with the show's other two female cops, but with just enough inner toughness that she seems believable. For Vic Mackey being all-business means being a tough guy who doesn't take anyone's shit or follow niggling things like the law, whereas for Rawlings it involves putting aside that tough guy posture and just levelling about things. Her way of turning a potentially stressful situation into a joke also differentiates herself from the serious Acaveda, obsessed with the rules when he isn't breaking them himself.

(Another sign that times have changed: when Vic breaks into the guy's house, makes a lame joke, and arrests him, he actually has a warrant for once! Woah.)

The first several scenes of this episode are dedicated to introducing Rawlings, a decidedly noticeable focus for the usually ensemble-driven series. We see her joking around with pretty much everyone, establishing her gentle outside discussed above. It's also established that she worked as a beat cop in the past, placing her in direct contrast with the “paper-pusher” Acaveda. Already this positive portrayal complicates things due to the fact that Rawling's very presence is a result of Claudette's failure to get the post promised her due to, well, “giving a shit when it's not your turn to give a shit.”[1] We may like Rawlings, but that clashes with the fact that strictly speaking, she's here because of corruption and politics.

There's a further, more pragmatic layer to her character, which is revealed during her sit-down with Vic late in the episode. She wants to put Vic at the head of her new anti-gang initiative, but she says she needs to trust him first. Her emotional honesty is placed in direct contrast with Vic's frequent lies and tough-guy facade, and is its own kind of bravery. From this early scene it seems like the clash of personalities will be less violent than the one between Vic and Acaveda, but still significant. She also goes behind Acaveda's back to start negotiating with a criminal, looking to continue the AGC sting despite not being captain yet. For all her outward friendliness, there is also a cunning, take-no-prisoners side to Rawling's personality, and “The Cure” poses the question of which of these sides, if any, is the true Rawlings that will emerge in the season to come.

This scene also begins in an interesting way: instead of cutting directly into the action, we see shots of a crowd passing through the street. The main focus here seems to be on the diversity: an Asian woman in a SARS mask, a rasta dude on a bicycle, and some guys in cowboy hats are all thrown at us rapidly. It's only a few shots that take up about twenty seconds interspersed with the opening credits, but it does a lot to re-orient the viewers in Los Angeles. The Shield has never transformed its location into a defining characteristic the way a show like The Wire or Treme or even Breaking Bad does, but here it's taking a step in that direction – Los Angeles is portrayed as a meeting point for all sorts of cultures and societies, and in The Shield this is not a gentle meeting of cultures but a violent collision, less of a melting pot and more of an exploding pot. We see our police officers walking among this crowd, headed to their job, just another culture warring with all the others.

There's a significant time gap between seasons 3 and 4, and to a certain extent “The Cure” is about filling in that gap and dealing with the fallout from it. Other than the strike team's disbandment the most obvious gap is the AGC sting Vic has been running that started in the last season, which has taken up a lot of resources and been a total bust. The sting is the dull time-consuming type of police work which rarely makes it into TV shows. Vic Mackey, so we are told, has spent the past six months sitting in an office watching video tapes trying and failing to find any criminal activity on them. This is an effective use of the ellision of time that usually falls between TV seasons. Plotwise this is something that has to take place, but at the same time it would not really make riveting viewing material. It would be possible to make a TV show out of this kind of boredom and fruitlessness – in a time long ago, this was the premise of The Office – but it is difficult, and if The Shield steers away in order to do something more to its strengths then it can't really be begrudged for that.

In any case, with the absence of the strike team Vic appears to have finally been tamed. At the same time, his work during this period turns out to be useless: the police department has itself been scammed through the AGC sting, with the perpetrator quietly hiding genuine criminals from the investigation. Vic, usually always half-expecting betrayal, was completely taken for a ride here. He also finds out in this episode that he's missed a job opportunity due to a scathing letter from Acaveda that has pretty much ruined his chances of any position outside the Barn. As the season starts we see Vic as powerless as we ever have. The dead dog at the start of the episode seems especially symbolic here, seeing as how Mackey has been implicitly compared to a dog throughout the series (see my previous post on The Shield for a good example.)

The changes we see in “The Cure” reveal just how strongly the characters, no matter how much they want to picture themselves as individual heroes, rely on each other. Without his loyal followers Vic is reduced to doing desk work, and doing it poorly. The male bond between the strike team has become an increasing focus throughout The Shield's run, and it is clear that without it Vic can't get up to any of his old tricks: it's hard to bend the rules if your partners will eagerly report you for it. For as much as Vic was the clear leader of the strike team, he needed them as much as they did him. Claudette and Dutch also find out how much they were reliant on others when those others explicitly shun them, leading them to do the grunt work in their homicide case and not receive any credit for what they do accomplish. Even the criminals in the case-of-the-week play into this – one relies on another to finish the job by drowning a little boy, but the other relents, leading at least in part to their capture. This feels like a necessary corrective for the show that has valorized the lone wolf working against the system. Vic, Dutch and Claudette all essentially picture themselves as this lone-wolf hero in different ways, and while often The Shield has given credence to this, now it seems to be panning back to reveal that mavericks, for all the good they can do, require their own intense support system behind them, or else they'll just be out lost in the wilderness.

On the other side of the equation gang members, the criminals Vic specializes in, are powerful precisely because of their social bonds. Without his own gang Vic can't truly tackle them. This kind of dangerous community is seen with the introduction of Antoine Mitchell, immediately positioned as this season's long-term villain. The Shield has been experimenting with this character role since the second season. In the first season The Shield followed a kind of cop show standard – the crime plotlines were episodic but the character-based plots centred around the police officers were at least to an extent serialized. Introducing longer-lasting villains was a part of the transition towards full serialization. The first attempt at this was the psychopathic Mexican drug lord Armadillo. This didn't go too well, as Armadillo quickly became something of a cartoon supervillain. The role was then passed to Margos Desarean, who was more ominous and less heavy-handed mainly by staying off screen for most of the time.

Antoine Mitchell, however, is different from Armadillo or Margos. Instead of being a lunatic driven by base desires, he's more of a silver-tongued manipulator. Although The Shield pretty much instantly confirms that he's not the reformed humanitarian he makes himself out to be[2], there's still some degree of ambiguity over Mitchell's actions – he makes several actions in this and the next couple episodes to try and bring peace to the neighbourhoods even as he rules over them, which is not that different from Vic's mandate for his drug-dealer partners in seasons past. With that said, there's also a bit of dog-whistle racism that his character unfortunately brings up. When we first see him Mitchell is in the centre of a black anti-gang rally. Although their message is anti-crime, his speech is distinctly racialized, focused on the hip-hop-inspired chant of “Respect!”. Of course, this ultimately turns out to be a front for criminality, dismissing the idea that the black community can save itself instead of being saved by Vic Mackey.

The fact that Mitchell turns out to be a criminal and not the leader he presents himself as could just be viewed as The Shield's usual cynicism, and that was probably the way the writers justified it in their discussions and their minds. But it also cultivates the idea that the racist mistrust of black leaders and black communities is at its root justified. The Shield rarely engages in out-and-out racism (the only major exception I've come across so far is “Rice Burner”, in which we learn that Korean gangsters play Starcraft, have restaurants with filthy kitchens, and have every Korean in town on their side, even the cops). However, it portrays almost all of its criminal characters as foul and instinctively evil, and – true to American crime demographics – the majority of those characters are Black or Latino. Of course, there are also positively portrayed characters of colour, mostly in the police force. But it's still a combination that makes for a lot of problematic scenes and plotlines.

“The Cure” is directed by Scott Brazil, one of The Shield's regular directors and a veteran of the crime genre, having started off on Hill Street Blues, the show that made gritty serialized cop shows like The Shield and The Wire possible. Brazil directed more episodes of The Shield than anyone else, so if anyone can be credited with the series's distinctive directorial style it's him. I've described the style in my previous Shield post (linked above), so I'll mostly note here that it continues without any major differences in “The Cure”. The episode is written by Glenn Mazarra, another Shield regular. The consistency of tone and style that using such a regular crew establishes is quite evident here. Despite the many changes in plot, this is still evidently an episode of The Shield, with all its gritty cynicism and sudden camera movements. By the fourth season both creators and viewers are completely accustomed to this house style, and it creates a distinct and familiar world that the series can call its own despite being set in LA, the most filmed city in the world.

I'm not entirely sure how to end this review, so I'll end it where the episode itself does: with Shane Vendrell. Shane has been a sidekick for the past three seasons, Vic's loyal partner whose instability frequently caused problems. Walton Goggins has done a great job hinting at a more angry side of him, and with him finally removed from Vic's command that side seems to have taken control. Vic comes across Shane unexpectedly when going to talk to a new CI, who turns out to be dead. Whether or not Shane killed the guy is left open, but in any case Goggins has turned the creepy instability in the character up to 11, and it comes across in the awkward conversation with Vic. The two make small talk over the dead body, and then Shane steals the victim's Blackberry while implying a connection to both him and Mitchell's gang. The whole scene is shot in deep shadow, increasing the dark and uncertain atmosphere.

Shane's turn to the dark side shows the other side of the time-skip between seasons. For Vic, it's used to skip over a dull part in his life, watching tapes all day, that is important to the plot but not really thrilling television. For Shane, we want to know what's happened in these six months, what's led him even further down the path of corruption, but that information is elided. By this late in the series the creators of The Shield know thoroughly how to use the conventions of the crime genre, and this mastery is evident throughout “The Cure”.

[1] There was quite a bit of moral ambiguity regarding Claudette's decision to report the DA for drug use at the end of last season, but whatever the situation was she was playing by the rules and her punishment for it is a pretty clear case of corruption.

[2] It would have been funny – and a lot more realistic – to see Vic harassing an innocent community leader for several episodes, but The Shield can really only maintain its ambiguous morality by making all of the people Vic really goes after guilty anyway. This is why I've said and continue to say that the thematic question central to the show's premise – whether or not Vic is justified in his brutality – is actually The Shield's biggest weakness, requiring unrealistic plot contortions to maintain some degree of nuance, and the show is a lot better the more it gets away from this question.

Next Week: The roaches... the roaches...

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