Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Shield 6-10: Spanish Practices

As it's gone on, The Shield has found its heart, which is the relationship between Vic and Shane.  Shane is the failed mimic of Vic, attempting to walk the police/criminal line and play the dangerous schemes like he does, but always ending up a little worse, a little more onto the side of definite darkness.  Through the foil of Shane Vic becomes more defined: we can see that it is only precisely a man like him who can (and would) do the things he does, and the people who follow his footsteps inevitably end up in over their heads.  This is reflected in the complex bond between the two partners, one that is equal parts love and envy.  Of course, this could be an easy out for the show: it's okay for Vic to do this because he's really good at it, but other characters are evil for doing the same thing.  But it also shows just how tenuous these moral compromises are, and how vile they can seem from just a slightly different perspective.  Moreover, opposing Vic and Shane makes Vic into a character I can grudgingly accept as the protagonist in a way that none of the first season's dog-petting did.

This is in large part due to Walton Goggins's performance.  He inhabits Shane with puerile aggression and instability, making him eminently human but also someone who could realistically snap at any moment.  In this episode, when Shane is running around switching sides in an Armenian mob dispute that he's managed to jump right in the middle of, he seems like less of a manipulator and more of a flailer.  And again, a large part of this is due to performance -- if it was Vic, with Michael Chiklis's cool demeanor and detatched humour, we would probably come away from the scheming with quite a different impression.

"Spanish Practices" is the sixth season finale, which means it should theoretically bring the season's plotlines to a close, but it's also the season finale going into the last season, which means it needs to set up the storylines that are going to bring the show to a close.  Truth be told, the heavy serialization of The Shield has moved beyond even the season model at this point.  Whereas normally in even serialized shows the end of the season brings things to an at least temporary conclusion, the seasons of The Shield (with the exception of the fourth, probably the most conventional (and my least favourite) of the series) don't feel the need to wrap things up that neatly.  For instance, the Kavanaugh storyline that dominated the fifth season was allowed to continue to the second or third episode of the sixth.  This is the series-as-novel method David Simon always shouts about taken to its extremes.

There are a couple of stories taken care of, although they're generally minor ones.  Kevin Hyatt, the frat boy-esque cop brought in to replace Vic as leader of the strike team, ends up being shown the door.  Hyatt, like Shane, is defined as a character as not Vic, and this episode shows that as much as Vic's warped brand of intelligence is necessary for his underworld scheming, it's also needed for his effective police work as well.  In this episode Hyatt enforces a kind of broken windows strategy by going after a gang initiation, which spirals out into disastrous consequences [1].  His error shows how vital a more nuanced and perhaps shady approach is than simply enforcing the law as written.  It's perhaps unfair that he gets demoted over this when Vic managed to keep his leadership over five seasons of shady deeds, but Kevin's decision to simply leave afterwards doesn't help his case.

What Hyatt shows in this episode is a distinct lack of appreciation for fallout, the future consequences of his actions.  This is one of the predominant themes of The Shield, and a key to its structure -- in many ways its characters are still dealing with the aftereffects of things that happened in the first season, not the first episode.  Whereas Kevin views actions as quickly over and done with (his break-up of the gang initiation or his one night stand with Tina, both of which have longer-ranging consequences he doesn't want to deal with), Vic acknowledges that nothing really ends, and that every action has a seemingly endless string of reactions.

I don't want to go into too much detail on the Tina subplot, but it shows that the show has gotten better at its comic relief as well.  Instead of Danni and Julian's wacky case-of-the-week, we have the awkward courtship between Dutch and Tina, and Billings's police hackwork and petty jealousy.  (I have to give a lot of credit to David Marciano here, who turns what could have been a one-note character into something hilarious.)  Watching this episode and the last, with the constant gossip mill about who Tina is sleeping with, one can't help but be reminded of high school.  From Dutch's awkward seriousness to the frattish atmosphere of the strike team (maybe extending even as far as Vic's bad one-liners), none of the characters (except maybe Claudette) seem to have matured out of that selfish and emotional stage.  The Shield isn't as explicitly critical of police as an institution as, say, The Wire (which it was tremendously unfortunate to be a contemporary of), generally presenting them as a necessary force to contain the evil in this world, and with any abuse being motivated only by good intentions.  But on the other hand it doesn't really seem like a good idea to place the kind of power Vic Mackey wields into the hands of a bunch of oversized teenagers.

We can see that immaturity in the way they relate to their families.  Vic (and Shane imitating him) is constantly talking about protecting his family and doing all of the terrible things for him, but at the same time his actions and personality increasingly estrange him from that same family.  This is another idea that Breaking Bad would take from The Shield -- the man who claims to do everything for his family, until it becomes a false mantra that only he believes in.  When Shane tries to protect Vic's family from the fallout of his failed scheming, he ends up kidnapping them and locking them in a shipyard container -- for their own protection, of course.  It becomes distinctly hard to tell who is the protector and who is the threat.

(This scene, while great, was remarkably difficult to take a screencap of.  The trademark directorial style of The Shield is alive and well here, with everything in constant motion, and in this scene it becomes even more swimmy than usual, conveying the panic motivating everyone in the scene.)

Vic, meanwhile, has gotten himself involved with a bad guy distinctly higher up the food chain, namely the corrupt developer Pezuela.  Pezuela is being set up here as the ultimate Shield villain, embodying both the vicious gangs and the beauraucratic officials that have been attacking Vic from both sides.  He's also a quintessential Shield villain in that he's essentially a fantasy, the racialized super-predator white suburban folks stay up at night worrying about.  In truth there's no one that's as easy a villain as Pezuela, a convenient fiction to patch together disparate villainized groups that seeks to break down a complicated situation into a dualistic struggle.  Of course, things are still pretty complicated in The Shield, with both sides of the struggle fractious and self-defeating.  But it still reminds me of Machete, where the plot contrives to put American racists and Mexican cartel killers on the same side.  The difference is that Machete was self-conciously a dumb action movie whereas The Shield presents itself as a realistic cop show.

Still, there are some nice notes in this plotline.  It brings the series full circle by forcing Vic and Acaveda into a reluctant partnership once again.  The trunk full of evidence implicating all of the important local politicos in sordid affairs is a nice example of the series's well-humoured cynicism.  But what's most interesting is how Pezuela only comes to the attention of Vic and Acaveda because he wants to ally himself with both, believing they will be useful to his cause.  There's more than a hint that the kind of man both are, the guy willing to break the rules for what he thinks is right[2], can ultimately be a very useful pawn.  The Shield is at its best when it's emphasizing the thin line between Vic and the criminals he despises, and that line is appearing thinner by the episode.

And that's ultimately why Vic has been able to survive so long, both in his department and out on the streets: he's a useful evil.  Claudette wants him gone, but still relies on him to solve the San Marcos murders and save her own job.  Acaveda wants to wash his hands of Vic, but somehow keeps having to rely on him.  The same goes for his wife Corrine.  If one of the main ideas in The Shield is that sins keep reoccuring and dragging the sinner back into the dark, then Vic is the living embodiment of those sins.

But ultimately Vic can't be summed up that easy.  He does have a moral code, albeit a strange and hole-ridden one, and this is exactly what makes him dangerous and not just another thug.  In this episode, despite pulling all kinds of shady and illegal business in an attempt to keep his job (including attempting to blackmail Acaveda over being raped and a city official over his dead daughter's drug use), he refuses to use his autistic children to garner sympathy in front of a review board, a tactic that is at worst a bit exploitative.  The man who claims to be doing everything for his family walks out on the hearing, preferring to do more off-the-grid justice than lose his dignity in an attempt to save their livelihood.  Vic would probably present this as caring for his family, but Corrine's expression certainly doesn't show appreciation.

And this brings us back to Vic and Shane and the family locked in the back of a truck for their own protection.  I've argued above that Shane is a dark mirror of Vic, all of his brutality without the smoothness and the vener of benevolence, and this scene -- abusing Vic's family to protect them -- certainly plays into it.  But a dark mirror still shows a reflection, and it's clear that the choices Vic makes are trapping those he cares about as much as they are protecting him.  It's not a dirty truck, but it's about as dark.

Next week: The technicolour dream of The Bob Newhart Show.

[1]Rewatching the episode I found it remarkable that this whole plotline didn't even start until about 40 minutes into the special 60-minute (of running time sans commercials) episode.  Another example of how The Shield is willing to play with TV narrative convention without entirely abandoning it.

[2]Stating it this way is probably being too flattering to both.  As the series goes on Vic claims more and more to be doing everything for his family, but is willing to hurt many others to do so -- isn't this really just a kind of displaced selfishness?  Although we haven't seen enough of Acaveda in recent seasons to have a clear motivation other than a thirst for power, this would seem to apply to him as well.

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