Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Shield 7-05: Game Face

Despite all the (deserved) focus and praise that gets heaped on the Strike Team and their antics, my favourite character on The Shield is probably Dutch.  He's a character who's obviously flawed -- arrogant but with a fragile ego that needs boosting through intellectual accomplishment and puerile chest-beating -- but also one who's basically a good guy.  It's the same balance the series tries to strike with Vic Mackey, but one that seems to fit together into a more real character, although that may just be because Dutch never falls near as far as Vic does.  Dutch is a "good cop", but in the sense of The Wire, in that he's motivated more by the intellectual rush of outsmarting criminals than material reward.  He's the kind of overcompensating beta male that's difficult to like, but at least manages to avoid the corruption of Vic and the complacency of Billings.

But in another way Dutch is just an alternate universe version of Vic.  It's worth noting that in their police work the two deal with very different criminals: Vic and the strike team deal with gangs, whereas Dutch's plotlines tend to involve serial killers and crimes of passion.  And while the strike team becomes more and more of a criminal gang, Dutch comes to resemble the killers he profiles.  This is an old trope, but it's well-executed here.  There's the scene a few seasons ago where he kills a cat, but more generally he begins to resemble a serial killer in his obsession, his preening and his ability to dehumanize the people around him (his relationship with Corrine a season or two ago being the best example of this).  And yet this is what makes him a good cop.  It's like Dexter, but less ridiculous.

"Game Face" deals with this dynamic a lot, along with the usual strike team maneuvering and flailing.  I want to focus on the serial killers for now.  First there's Kleavon, the killer Dutch and Claudette dealt with two seasons ago, who returns in this episode to confront Claudette with a legal challenge[1].  The second is Lloyd, a teenager Dutch suspects but can't prove is a future serial killer who's just committed his first murder.  Together these two plotlines present not just a before-and-after picture, with Kleavon as the potential future of Lloyd, but also presents a direct challenge to the characters of Dutch and Claudette.

Unlike most of the cast, Claudette doesn't have much in the ways of obvious moral or character flaws -- sure, she can be self-righteous and stubborn sometimes, but that mainly stems from her intense moral compass, one that just about everyone else on the show lacks.  She's the only one who views morality as more than a justifying pretext.  So instead of a moral flaw she's been given a physical one: she's been struggling with a hidden case of lupus.  Her disease has mainly been in the background, exactly how she or Dutch would see it: a looming problem, but one under the surface.  Kleavon, acting as his own attorney, returns to try and dredge this problem up to the light.

There's an interesting parallel with Claudette's actions at the end of season three, in which she revealed a public defender was on drugs, forcing all of her cases to be retried and earning the enmity of the top brass.  Obviously it's not the exact same situation, but Kleavon is making the same case: if the mechanisms of justice are flawed in any way, then they are illegitimate.  Whether or not he has a legal leg to stand on, it momentarily places Claudette in the same position as Vic -- the representative of flawed justice, who raises the question of whether it's better than no justice at all.

(There's an argument that could be made that the stresses of the chief's position have corrupted or at least worn down Claudette -- after all, her reign hasn't exactly been the radical change we'd been led to believe it would be.  I'm not sure whether this is a flaw in the character or a flaw in the show though.)

On the other side of things we have Dutch dealing with the potential future serial killer in Lloyd.  He's butting up against the natural limit of police work -- the police are there ostensibly to maintain order, but they do that by catching and punishing people after they commit crimes.  This may be justice, but the deed is already done.  The serial killer actually presents the clearest case of how arrest can be preventative, as they'll clearly kill again otherwise.  It's more questionable whether locking up a crime-of-passion case actually does much good, aside from deterrence.  Of course, there's no alternative, unless one wants to talk of Minority Report-style future crime.

So Dutch decides to go beyond the bounds of his job to deal with Lloyd.  The role he envisions is not criminal like Vic's extracurricular activities, but more of a social worker, trying to save Lloyd (and his future victims).  And yet it involves using the powers of his job for other means, as the strike team does repeatedly, and involves the same "I can't prove it but I know he did it" logic we see routinely on this show.  Problematically, this intuition almost always turns out to be correct, as if evidence is just a burden to confirm a cop's gut feeling.  Everyone Dutch talks to about the case expresses doubt about it.  On the other hand, Kyle Gallner plays Lloyd as a smarmy sociopath so well that it seems believable -- although to an extent he's just drawing out the sociopathy present in all teenagers.

Michael Chiklis wrote this episode, stepping into a star-auteur role a la Louis C.K., Bryan Cranston, and (to a lesser extent) Michael Imperioli.  Despite this, it's not really a showcase episode for Vic, at least not any more than the rest of the show is.  The strike team is mostly involved in an episodic plot involving rescuing the daughter of a Mexican drug kingpin who's about to flip.  There's nothing really wrong with this plot, but it feels like filler.  This is a bit of a reversal -- usually it's Dutch and the other "straight" detectives who get the one-off B-plot, while Vic and the strike team are involved in a serialized storyline.  Of course, all of the running plotlines advance in small increments, both in Vic's "professional" life (his conflicts with Shane and Pezuela) and in his personal one (the rebellion of his daughter Cassidy and Danni's attempt to get him to sign away paternity rights for their child).

In a way, it's remarkable how the show juggles all of these balls without it ever being confusing.  This is probably best seen in the scenes on the floor of the Barn, which switch rapidly between plotlines, managing to hit up nearly everything in five minutes or less, both recapping and advancing plots.  Even the visual aspects of these scenes reflect this through the chaotic jumble of figures in the background.  If you watch closely (which I usually don't) you can even make out tiny stories and actions going on silently behind our main characters.

(Catherine Dent isn't looking so great in this screenshot, but mainly I'm just trying to figure out what the old guy in the background is doing.)

And the sheer multiplicity of these storylines is not just a case of overstuffing -- it's a very conscious effect.  Vic has to juggle all of these dilemmas in the same way that the show (and the audience) does, and as the plots pile up his life spins out of control, with a thousand forces tugging him in different directions.  Even his family, the golden ideal that he says all of his actions are for, is beginning to come apart at the seams.  When Danni wants Vic to sign away his paternity, he reacts badly because she's threatening to take away the only thing he can use to justify his actions.

In large part this is because he chooses to do things for them (or at least things he says are for them) instead of actually being with them.  The Cassidy plotline in this episode is a great example.  Vic discovers that his daughter was at a rowdy, drug-and-sex-fueled teenage party, and instead of talking to her about it decides to deal with it the Vic Mackey way -- i. e. abusing his authority to punish some guy.  The problem arises when the teenage boy he interrogates reveals that Cassidy herself was the organizer of the party.  Vic has by this point lost the ability to deal with problems outside of the cop/criminal paradigm, and as a result he's beginning to lose his family.

This could only happen in the final season of the show -- there's really nowhere to go from here, no way that things could spiral out of control any worse.  That's more obvious by the time we get to the midway point of the season, but even here in the earlier episodes, we have a sense that everyone is on the edge, that the usual tactics aren't working, and that doom is on the horizon.  And, like Dutch with Lloyd, we can't prove it but we know bodies are about to drop.

Next Week: I do my best Phil Keoghan impression.

[1]I've probably mentioned this before, but I really like how The Shield brings back characters from the past just when you'd started to forget about them.  This really ties into the series's main idea of recurrence, how the effects of your actions never really stop, and how there's no such thing as safely in the past.  (For instance, despite being dead for several seasons Ben Gilroy still manages to make trouble for Vic every once in a while).  Deena, a carjacker from an earlier season, shows up in a more damaged and scarred form in this episode as well.

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