Taking Another Bash At the Shield, Part 1

I could have done the black square thing for Black Lives Matter today, but instead I am going to link you to this list of places you can send support and post a review of a TV show about police corruption as a reminder that this has been a long time coming.

One of disgraced LAPD policed chiefs Daryl Gates’ innovations was the CRASH program – giving each LAPD district a specialist CRASH team with a brief to suppress gang activity. It was the sort of tough-talking, dogwhistling deal which Gates had made his trademark, and it paved the way for the Rampart scandal, one of the biggest police corruption cases ever, when massive corruption in the Rampart district’s CRASH unit was exposed.

The full measure of what happened is still unclear, with numerous investigations having petered out and the city authorities allegedly obstructing a lot of the investigations into what happened, but what was proven was more than enough to put the name of CRASH beyond the pale and prompt its disbandment and replacement.

This inspired a brief flowering in the 2000s of media works taking the idea of the CRASH unit as inspiration for the depiction of police brutality. Grand Theft Auto 3: San Andreas did it in Rockstar’s characteristically flippant fashion; more thoughtfully, The Shield was a seven-season exploration of the subject, focusing on a single badly-underfunded LAPD precinct house in the fictional LAPD district of Farmington (or “the Farm” for short, so the police HQ is known as “the Barn”).

For this review, I’m going to take a look back at the first season. Content warning: this is about a cop show which is unflinching about showing the worst of police corruption and brutality on the one hand, and the worst stuff the police have to deal with on the other, and in this season there’s at least one episode which deals with the subject of child pornography.

The central figure of The Shield is Vic Mackey, the leader of the Strike Team unit. Posted out of the Barn, the four-man team (all male, all white – a striking difference from the substantially more diverse department as a whole which I assume is intentional on the part of show creator Shawn Ryans) talk up their reputation as badasses who kick down the doors other cops are afraid to. In fact, as the CRASH equivalent, they’re astonishingly corrupt, with Vic showing a terrifying level of cunning in finding ways for the Strike Team to enrich themselves and to get their fat out of the fire when official attention comes sniffing around.

Vic is the sort of cop who’ll beat a suspect without thinking twice about it, but he’s just as happy to do business, within limits. (Cherrypoppers, the child pornography episode, establishes that child abuse is beyond the pale for him.) In fact, the Strike Team maintain order in Farmington largely by treating it as their gang turf – choosing which group of drug dealers to give their protection to whilst cracking down on rival gangs to give their allies a clear run at the market, protecting prostitutes in the same manner a pimp would, and generally being a law unto themselves.

Over the course of the show a pattern will emerge: Vic and the Strike Team will do something terrible and lose the audience’s sympathy, then we’ll start liking Vic somewhat despite ourselves because he sometimes takes down even nastier people and some of his scams are more amusing than traumatic and his knack for evading investigation and enforcing his will in the streets often has this tricksterish element to it. (You can’t help but smile despite yourself at Vic’s approach to settling a feud between two drug gang rivals in Dawg Days, for instance.) Then Vic will do something terrible again and we remember he’s a bad dude.

Shawn Ryan, in other words, realised that the Walter White Effect – the tendency of an audience to identify and sympathise with a show’s protagonist because of the amount of time they spend with them, even if they aren’t meant to – years before Breaking Bad was even a thing, and he not only accepted that it would happen with Vic, but he used it as a technique in the show itself, a means of showing how viable it was for a snarling brute like Vic to become a beloved fixture among his colleagues and how it is to become accommodated to corruption before you are reminded of who you’re dealing with.

In addition, Ryan made sure to dial back on the Walter White Effect by giving him a compelling set of co-protagonists who are actually trying to do the right thing to act as a constant reminder that Vic’s way is not the only way. Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder) and Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) are two plain clothes detectives, and are by far the cleanest of the protagonists (which isn’t the same thing as being perfect, they just aren’t ones for bribery or police brutality and they follow the rules).

Dutch is a college-educated smartass who, as of the start of the show, has big dreams of being an FBI-style profiling expert but hasn’t yet pulled off the sort of arrest which would justify his slightly superior attitude. Claudette is a black veteran of the force who got where she was by pushing past multiple glass ceilings. Both of them have, in their own way, a knack for interrogation technique which allows them to obtain confessions and convictions without using the sort of brutality Vic deals with as a matter of course. Most episodes will usually prominently feature a case being worked on by Dutch and Claudette; usually it’s a mystery-of-the-week to give each episode a satisfying self-contained story next to the more intricate ongoing plots involving the Strike Team, but the pair of them do get some cases which are more persistent.

Uniformed cops are represented in the core cast by Danny Sofer (Catherine Dent) and Julien Lowe (Michael Jace); Sofer’s an experienced officer and she’s been assigned Lowe as her partner as part of his training process. Danny and Julien are what I’d call “minor protagonists”, which sounds like a bit of a contradiction so let me explain it further: because the focus of the episodes tend to on the Strike Team’s shenanigans and Dutch and Claudette’s current case, Danny and Julien usually get less screen time than the others, but they are the main uniformed cops we follow, and when we do follow them they’re the protagonists of their own stories.

Often these will be tiny little self-contained side stories, usually but not always with a slightly comical side to them to act as a palette-cleanser between the nasty shit the Strike Team are doing on one side and the nasty shit Claudette and Dutch are trying to unravel on the other, but sometimes these will be interwoven with other stories – so a situation first encountered by Julien and Danny leads into an investigation for Dutch and Claudette or the Strike Team – and over the course of the series as a whole they do get their own ongoing plots.

These characters allow Ryan to tell stories unfolding at multiple different levels of the police department – from the unformed cops to the interrogation rooms where Claudette and Dutch do their best work to the Strike Team itself. Rounding out the main cast is David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), the newly-appointed captain of the Barn, who provides us our insight into the upper reaches of the Barn’s politics. Politically ambitious, Aceveda knows that Vic is corrupt – and reckons he can get his political career kickstarted by exposing that. But because he’s more concerned with appearing heroic than being heroic, Aceveda ends up making some murky compromises – and it turns out he’s even better at avoiding their consequences than Vic is.

It’s the chess game between Aceveda and Vic which drives much of this season; the Ryan-penned pilot episode, Pilot, opens with a press conference from Aceveda, just as the season finale (Circles) closes with one, in both cases juxtaposed against what Vic is doing. In Pilot, we’re introduced to Aceveda giving a bland, optimistic, smiling speech by Aceveda at a press conference – in which he’s clearly engaging in political self-promotion off the back of the Barn’s accomplishments – – juxtaposed against Vic and his team chasing down and humiliating a drug dealer before bringing him in.

The action here kicks off around 4 months after the establishment of the new police precinct at the Barn, Farmington project, which feels like a good call. On the one hand, most of the characters (outside of the tight-knit Strike Team) are still getting to know each other, so we aren’t missing too much of the development of their relationships, but at the same time there are enough ongoing relationships going on to make it compulsive viewing and we’re spared any sort of extended “everyone introduces themselves to each other” sequence.

In particular, the episode makes a good habit of using the already-established dynamics in the Barn to good effect in getting the viewer up to speed. For instance, the fact that Vic and the Strike Team call their backroom in the Farm “the clubhouse” just underscores the often-juvenile attitude they have to policing; the whole thing is a huge fucking game to them and when they aren’t out there doing crimes in the name of fighting crime, they spend their time in there laughing it up and playing cards and doing no serious work. Likewise, there’s a bit where Vic is openly defiant to Aceveda in front of the entire open plan office section of the Barn, which aptly demonstrates just how far the Strike Team act as a law unto themselves – and that most of the police in the Barn admire the Strike Team more than they do Aceveda. (The overall dynamic is of a class clown needling a teacher who doesn’t have the rest of the class’s support or sympathy.)

Likewise, Dutch and Claudette’s chemistry is already established and is brilliantly communicated to the viewer. Dutch’s glib wheeling-out of trite armchair psychology to make himself sound like a hotshot FBI badass is quickly undermined by him being astonishingly awkward in dealing with grieving relatives, whilst Claudette’s willingness to call him on his shit and do the actual work underscores that she’s probably the best detective on the show.

We also get an interrogation sequence in which we get to see both Dutch and Claudette’s chops, with a particular focus on Dutch’s willingness to temporarily present any point of view or persona it takes to get inside someone’s head in interrogation – a plasticity and a capacity to adopt the mindset of others which will spell trouble for him later, as will his attitude that it’s all about a game of wits between him and the suspect.

The case Claudette and Dutch are working on also leads to Aceveda’s first of several moral compromises of the season. Specifically, Aceveda reveals a willingness to let Vic loose on a suspected pedophile in order to track down a missing girl – much to Dutch and Claudette’s disgust (both of whom propose viable alternatives to flat-out police brutality, albeit with their own methodological downsides and risks). Coming at a time when the US was very ready to accept torture as a means of collecting information, this is troubling, though it’s pretty clear from Dutch and Claudette’s reactions that this isn’t something that the show is unambiguously endorsing.

In fact, I’d say that this decision by Aceveda sets out, right in this episode, his major failing as a character: as much as he dislikes Vic and would in the long term prefer to put him away, at the same time Aceveda is all too ready to persuade himself that Vic can be useful. Vic’s techniques offer a tempting shortcut in situations where doing things by the book seems too difficult, and the fact that this can occasionally yield results (they save a child somewhat sooner than they would have otherwise) only reinforces this – but this is at the cost of bolstering and reaffirming Vic’s place in the Farm.

The most shocking feature of the pilot, however, is the Terry Crowley plot, which would go on to become a recurring issue in the series – an albatross about the Strike Team’s neck which keeps coming back just as Vic and the Team think they’ve pushed past it. Terry Crowley (Reed Diamond) is a new member of the Strike Team – having been recruited by Aceveda and the Justice Department to join the Team and gather evidence on them. When the show originally aired, Crowley was presented as though he was a main character – possibly even the main character, since a version of the show about Crowley heroically infiltrating the Strike Team to take it down from the inside is certainly a direction that could have been taken.

Aceveda persuades Terry Crowley to put himself in the firing line.

This didn’t happen. (I am now spoilering you, but this show debuted 18 years ago so statute of limitations, pal.) Instead, the episode ends in a raid on the home of Two-Time (Jalil Jay Lynch), the main rival in the narcotics trade to the Strike Team’s business partner Rondell Robinson (Walter Jones). Vic and Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins) shoot Two-Time dead after he shoots at them… and then Vic takes Two-Time’s gun and calmly shoots Crowley dead with it.

Aside from being a fantastic fakeout, the Terry Crowley plot also establishes the overarching big picture situation when it comes to investigating the Strike Team. In discussing the case with Crowley, Aceveda explains that Vic has established enough contacts higher in the chain of command that there’s no point bringing a case against the Strike Team which won’t absolutely crush the Strike Team, otherwise they’ll wriggle out of it and anyone involved in bringing the case will get sidelined. This is important for setting ground rules for the rest of the series: whilst Vic and the Strike Team’s behaviour is often deeply, deeply suspicious, the persistent pursuit of a truly damning piece of evidence will regularly frustrate those trying to bring them to heel.

Shawn Ryan also writes the followup episode, Our Gang, to use the immediate aftermath of Terry Crowley’s to tease out further details. Most particularly, it establishes that there’s wheels within wheels when it comes to the Strike Team. Two members, Curtis “Lem” Lemansky (Kenneth Johnson) and Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell) are on a secondary tier, both in terms of Vic’s confidences and in terms of screen time. They’re both dirty as hell, mind – but Vic didn’t bring them in on the killing of Terry, just Shane.

Lem would later gain increasing prominence in the series, first getting significant spotlight time in the episode Throwaway, in which the Strike Team engage in the age-old dirty tactic of planting a gun at a crime scene to cover up an ill-judged shooting. This time around it causes more problems when the situation didn’t turn out to be as clear-cut as they thought. Since the plant was intended to cover for Lem’s hasty shot, it’s a natural opportunity to give him some much-needed spotlight time. (It also reminds us that we’re not meant to like Vic – with the Strike Team committing a whole new outrage in order to cover up their dirty deeds.)

Conversely, Ronnie would largely be a quiet-spoken, also-there kind of guy who mostly keeps himself to himself, though he’d have his moments here and there. (This would have fantastic payoff in the series finale of, in a scene which wouldn’t be as powerful as it was if Ronnie hadn’t spent seven seasons being the quiet man of the group.)

It’s Shane who is Vic’s true right-hand man, and this is a critically important episode for the development of Shane’s character – it establishes him as feeling the most guilt about Terry’s death, as well as being the more psychologically vulnerable of the two Strike Team members responsible. This sows seeds which yield fruit all the way to the end of the series, because Shane has just the wrong level of conscience; it’s just enough to make him torture himself about shit he’s done, but not enough to stop him doing that shit in the first place – and not enough to stop him doing even worse shit as he scrambles to get away from the consequences of the shit he’s already done.

Beyond the Strike Team, Our Gang also starts shining lights into the rest of the cracks in the Barn’s institutional structure. Danny’s comments to Julien about how they need to strike back hard when a cop is killed push things underscore how the Strike Team didn’t get that way all by themselves – they’re the product of a police culture that watches its own back and which in the wrong circumstances acts like just another gang (hence the title!), with the pushback here being uncomfortably like the sort of reprisals gangs mete out when they are attacked.

Julien’s failure to understand that you’re meant to turn out when one of your fellow officers is dead or in critical condition, thinking that just saying a prayer by himself was the appropriate response, establishes him early on as a bit of an odd duck – he doesn’t quite seem to get what it means to be part of a community or grasp the expectations of his peers. Likewise, the way he overplays the whole “do a show of force” thing a bit later – messing up a crime scene in the process – suggests a dangerous unworldliness, a difficulty judging where the line is and figuring out social cues that in the long run will lead to him making a number of moral compromises over the course of the series as he tries to fit in with the police culture.

This is made particularly difficult because the culture in the Barn – especially among the uniformed officers – is hetereonormative and often homophobic, and Julien is gay. Julien is also a devout Christian in a denomination which is itself homophobic – and that sets up some difficulties for him. This comes up in The Spread, which otherwise has a fairly light-hearted main plot involving the Strike Team picking up an NBA basketball star when they raid one of his buddies’ homes, and plotting to keep the player occupied long enough to put massive bets against his team, who they figure will surely lose tonight’s game without him.

The Shield would often use episodes like this as a chance to give more development to ongoing stories in the B-plot; for instance, this is the episode which introduces Tomas Motyashik (Brent Roam) – who at first just seems to be a random dude whose smooth talking gets under Julien’s skin, but it turns out his gaydar and Julien’s are pretty well-calibrated, and this kicks off a romance arc which ends up properly heartbreaking in the long run.

You see, some shows would take that opportunity to run a plotline about a self-hating gay man to depict him coming to terms with his sexuality, reconciling it with his religion, and living a happy life. The Shield does not take that route with Julien – not because it doesn’t believe that this is possible, but because its writers know that dangling this possibility in front of us and then having it be destroyed by Vic’s actions is crueller.

See, in the episode Blowback Julien ends up witnessing the Strike Team sneakily tucking away some enormous bags of drugs obtained on a raid for resale via their contacts, rather than logging them into evidence. Over the coming episodes, Julien discloses this to Aceveda, who uses it as the central pillar of an Internal Affairs investigation into Vic. Then, in the episode Pay In Pain, Aceveda leaks the existence of the investigation to the press – because it will give him headlines portraying him as standing up to corruption within the force, which is precisely the message his political patron Jorge Machado (Efrain Figueroa) think will play well with the voters.

Vic does some digging, discovers that Julien is the one who’s giving the testimony, and then in the episode Cupid and Psycho he turns the screws: having discovered Julien’s romance with Tomas, Vic busts in on the two of them, arrests Tomas on an outstanding warrant, and then blackmails Julien, threatening to expose his sexuality to the entire Barn if Julien doesn’t retract his testimony. (The show makes it very clear that this doesn’t come down to Vic thinking being gay is necessarily cause for condemnation – it’s Vic knowing that Julien believes that, and being willing to exploit that belief to get what he wants.)

As the series as a whole pans out, Julien never actually comes out or accepts his sexuality, and narratively you can trace it back to Vic’s actions here. If Vic had never done this, then not only would Julien have been able to spare a lot of people a lot of pain by helping to put Vic away, but he may also have been able to come out on his own terms at some point in the future. However, by blackmailing Julien into recanting his testimony on a false basis, Vic has done a horrific psychological whammy on Julien: now Julien’s sexuality is all caught up with the blackmail. For Julien to admit who is is now will also mean dropping a pretty strong clue about how Vic cajoled him into keeping quiet.

It is not Julien’s fault, though: his religion has seriously failed him here. Julien’s internalised homophobia is reinforced by the homophobia of his reverend and the congregation he attends. Moreover, far from bolstering him with the true moral courage necessary to continue telling the truth about the Strike Team and accept the consequences, Julien’s religious outlook has left him vulnerable to Vic’s blackmail.

In effect, Julien lies to protect Vic so that Vic will stay quiet about a lie Julien tells about himself, which exposes his faith as not a matter of his own personal conviction, but a matter of performative self-righteousness, just as Julien’s participation in the more dubious side of the Barn’s culture in episodes like Our Gang is a matter of performative going along with the group. Julien would rather maintain his reputation of being a good straight Christian boy than publicly admit to his sins; as a result, his opportunity to stop the Strike Team in their tracks and avert six seasons’ worth of future tragedies is squandered.

You aren’t left wanting to condemn Julien here so much as the culture that did this number on his head, mind – it’s not his fault that he exists in a corrupt world in which hypocritical religious philosophies are endemic. Christianity, if it’s doing what it says on the tin, should help its adherents find the strength to do the right thing even when it has negative consequences to them. Instead, Julien’s religious convictions torment him, make him vulnerable, and leave him less able to do the right thing – not because of any sort of “slave morality” as Nietzsche put it, but because of an emphasis on homophobic scapegoating and performative righteousness instead of the core message of the Gospels.

It’s particularly tragic set against Julien’s rhetoric in Cherrypoppers, where he declares he’s more concerned about how God will judge him than how his peers in the police view him; his capitulation in the face of Mackey’s blackmail suggests that despite talking this fine talk, he can’t actually walk the walk. Perhaps the best way that Cupid and Psycho underscores this is the way Julien lies to his pastor, Reverend Cook (Dick Anthony Williams), both by omission (he won’t admit his struggling his sexuality to him at this stage) and directly (repeating the cover story he uses to retract his Internal Affairs complaint), with the result that his pastor isn’t really able to give him any useful advice beyond praying and showing up to services on Sunday.

The ugly side of Julien’s internalised homophobia is highlighted in the episode Dragonchasers when he joins in on a “blanket party” on a male prostitute who bites Danny in the process of being arrested. (It’s not clear whether the character in question is supposed to be trans or simply a very femme-presenting dude; they use “he” but let’s face it, the odds of cops under those circumstances in 2002 misgendering someone are basically 100%.) Later, in the episode Two Days of Blood, Julien levels with Reverend Cook about his struggle with his sexuality, and Cook recommends conversion therapy – which, as we’ll discover in future seasons, does nothing except train Julien to cover up his feelings better and go through the motions of heterosexuality – but even then he doesn’t confess to lying in order to defuse the investigation.

This prioritisation of the external appearance of ethical behaviour (by the standards of Julien’s church) over genuine ethical behaviour (I am 99% sure that, though Reverend Cook’s Covenant church is a homophobic outfit, they’d agree that bearing false witness and enabling evil in high places is seriously bad news) cuts to the core themes of the show, a concept which is also brought out in Aceveda’s disgustingly two-faced handling of the situation. After Julien persuaded him that he’s serious about making an Internal Affairs complaint, Aceveda encourages this to the point of coaching him before he gives his interview to IAD in Pay In Pain, but whilst he’s happy for Julien to face the consequences of telling the truth, he’s playing a sleazy political game in which he leaks information about the investigation to the media whilst at the same time pretending his hands are clean of that, and it’s blatantly for his own gain.

There’s a delightful meeting-of-the-hypocrites in Cupid and Psycho, in fact, when Assistant Chief Gilroy (John Diehl), one of Vic’s most important friends in high places, confronts Aceveda about the leak. Gilroy has seen through Aceveda’s shit and accuses him of precisely what we’ve seen Aceveda do, Aceveda acts like he has the moral high ground whilst flatly denying any involvement in prompting the investigation. By the end of the episode he’s dining with local politicos and planning his election campaign for city council, and the derailment of the investigation doesn’t slow things down one bit. Again, appearance is more important than reality; Aceveda’s patron Machado isn’t the least put out about the investigation collapsing, since getting the headline in front of people is more important to him than actually bringing it to a successful conclusion.

Vic, too, operates under the principle that appearance is everything. Another serious ongoing plot introduced in The Spread is Vic’s family issues, when his son Matthew – played by Joel Rosenthal for the first three seasons – is diagnosed with autism. Vic is sceptical about enrolling Matthew in a specialist school, fearing that this would cause Matthew to regress, and is extremely sensitive about any suggestion that Matthew is other than “normal”. To Vic, so long as Matthew isn’t singled out as being unusual, everything is fine.

As far as other ongoing plotlines go, one less steeped in social commentary and more focused in telling a damn good police procedural story is the serial killer angle that kicks off in Cherrypoppers,  in which evidence emerges that Dutch’s theory about a serial killer operating in the Farm targeting prostitutes might actually have something to it.

This eventually pays off in Dragonchasers, providing a much-needed moment of glory for Dutch in which he finally is able to win the respect of the Barn by catching the killer – even when everyone thinks he’s gone out on a limb and made an utter fool of himself over the matter. If you’re at all a fan of the “Claudette and Dutch solve crimes” dimension of the show, the interrogation sequence in Dragonchasers is a true standout moment of the show, in which Dutch deliberately allows himself to look vulnerable and made it look like the suspect’s psychologically broken him in order to trick the suspect into making a fatal blunder.

Lem, Vic, and Shane find Dutch’s interrogation technique must-see TV.

What’s particularly interesting about the scene following, in which the massed cast congratulate Dutch on a job well done, is how Vic acts as the main voice of the Barn’s approval here, tainting the moment with an indication of just how much the Strike Team have become central to the Barn’s culture. As far as most of the Barn is concerned, if Vic thinks you’re alright, you’re alright, and you’re not truly accepted until Vic accepts you.

Dragonchasers also reveals that Aceveda was implicated in a rape case back when he was 21 – another feature he has in common with today’s crop of American politicians. The story he feeds his wife Aurora (Camillia Sanes) about how it was a bit of rough sex which he wasn’t into with a “crazy ex”-type who tried to use the rape charge to get back at him for dumping her is, whilst apparently heartfelt in the moment, so close to the sort of bullshit denials we are all used to seeing, and so based on deflecting all responsibility and agency away from Aceveda, that on my rewatch I genuinely didn’t think we were supposed to believe it at all.

It’s kind of shitty, and a mark against the show, that in Carnivores Aceveda’s accuser is depicted coming onto him in order to try and get a recording out of him admitting to raping her, but the show steers out of total disaster by making it clear that she was raped – by two of Aceveda’s friends, after Aceveda had spoken out of turn to them about his interactions with her and they barged into her home and assaulted her, which she assumed he’d encouraged them to do. Still, running an “accuser makes wrong accusations against politician” plotline is still not great; I can only assume they decided to shut down this plotline in a hurry when they realised that they couldn’t have the rape be real without either entirely writing out Aceveda as a character or compromising him to such an extent that it takes heat off Vic.

The end of the season deals with the downfall of Assistant Chief Gilroy, which kicks off when he’s behind the wheel in a hit-and-run incident. Naturally, he turns to Vic to make it go away – but there’s some problems when Gilroy goes too far in emulating Vic’s tactics. In parallel, Aceveda and Claudette try to deal with a double murder that’s kicked off intense resentment in the Grove neighborhood of Farmington – not least because it’s two black victims slain by a white suspect, in a situation where it took an hour for the police to show up after the victims first called 911.

As it turns out, Gilroy diverted policing resources away from the Grove to deliberately drive down property prices in the area as part of a real estate scam he’d been working – a scam which the hit-and-run investigation may expose. Desperate for a distraction, Gilroy leaks the damning 911 tapes to the press in order to create enough controversy and confusion to allow him to save his skin; this succeeds all too well, after gunfire at a protest prompts first panic and then full-scale rioting.

The season finale, Circles, takes place in the wake of the riot and the plot set up by Two Days of Blood, and culminates in Aceveda teaming up with Vic to take down Gilroy – which sounds all heroic until you realise it means that the important thing for Aceveda’s political ambitions was that he be seen to be taking down a corrupt cop, and whilst taking out Vic was plan A, tearing down Gilroy is a perfectly acceptable plan B, even if it means Vic is off the hook.

The grubby nature of his compromise is capably highlighted by the way the collaboration kicks off in  a devil’s deal that Vic reaches with Aceveda in the toilets – which, painted red for an extra-Hellish spin, are also the site of Vic cutting his deals with Julien earlier in the season. It also entails Aceveda turning down an offer from Gilroy to collaborate to take down Vic, with a manufactured charge primed and ready to go, when by the end of the episode Aceveda actually has all the intelligence he needs to arrest both Vic and Gilroy, should be choose to.

Why doesn’t he do it? Well, that would rob him of the chance to get some delicious media kudos by participating in the raid on the ambushers’ squat. Perhaps the ultimate symbol of how Aceveda has been compromised by Vic comes from him collaborating with the Strike Team in this raid, since after all under very similar circumstances Terry Crowley was murdered – only unlike Terry Crowley, Aceveda comes back alive, demonstrating that whilst Vic saw no reason to leave Crowley alive, he sees plenty of use for Aceveda. Again, for both appearance is everything.

Though Vic gets out of the crosshairs again by the end of the episode, the finale proves that he’s not untouchable: the episode ends with the discovery that his wife Corrinne (Cathy Cahlin Ryan), who’s been a regular supporting character but not too proactive in the show so far, has left home with the children because she’s terrified for their safety, so even as Vic’s managed to keep his criminal and police life intact his home life has collapsed. This is an apt foreshadowing of the way the greater conclusion to the series ends up panning out. In a similar vein, Gilroy only survives the episode because Vic is willing to kid himself he’s morally superior to Gilroy; by the end of the final season we’ll likely have a different view of him.

One thing which is reassuring about this season finale is that it’s the 911 ambushers rather than the rioters who are depicted as beyond the pale – it’s one thing to protest,  it’s entirely another to deliberately lure people to a place where you then snipe at them. That goes beyond self defence and making a point and into the realm of murderous aggression for the sake of killing people.

This, then, is the first season of The Shield. Whilst the show can get astonishingly grim, there’s an argument that it has to. This isn’t escapist fiction like fantasy or SF or horror or even the gentler end of crime fiction or police procedurals, this is a drama that intends to have a comparatively realistic depiction of terrible things which actually happen. To flinch would undermine that. What’s impressive is the way the show manages to depict a community which has serious problems and where terrible things happen on the regular but doesn’t pin the blame on the community but on the systemic issues that community is facing – and the police are part of the problem.

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