Late in my recent binge-rewatch of the early-mid aughts police drama The Shield, I social mediaed, “The Shield is underrated.” A friend of mine who likes to start pop culture debates instantly responded: “How can you say that? It was critically acclaimed!” He’s right, The Shield has a solid critical reputation as a good-to-great show. And yet, it is not just underrated, but highly, extremely, and criminally underrated. Watching the show in a single stretch convinced me that it was far better, deeper, and more consistent than it appeared when I consumed it week to week in its original run. Put simply, the story of Vic Mackey and the rest of the cops in the fictional LA barrio of Farmington is a staggering achievement in serial art and is one of the greatest television shows of all time.
For those who haven’t watched the show (and seriously, go watch it now, it’s fucking incredible), The Shield is a gritty, caffeine-addled Shakespearean drama about the true measure of sin and the ultimate fate of those who try to claw their way out of urban hell. Also, there are cops and shit. Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) is the leader of the Strike Team, a corrupt anti-gang unit, and the kind of male anti-hero that pops up in nearly every acclaimed show in the previous decade. Episodes split time between the various characters in the station (called the Barn, because, you know, Farmington) as the lurid cases of the day come in and the guilty (and often innocent) are brutally punished. On one end of the scale, Vic and his guys are the action heroes, the ones everyone looks up to, while secretly they’re as bad or even worse as the criminals they’re bringing in. On the other end of the scale, Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder) and Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) have a more cerebral approach to crimefighting, and are regarded as awkward nerds at best and tacit traitors at worst.
Whenever conversation turns to the greatest television shows of all time, four titles are consistently named both by critics and fans: The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men (I quibble with two of those selections for different reasons, but this isn’t what I want to talk about here). The Shield is often unfavorably compared to The Wire, due to the fact that they were both cop shows that were on at the same time with the latter consistently getting the nod because of its realism (as though this were the only criteria that matters when judging scripted television). The Shield is actually more of a sibling to Breaking Bad, since both shows are ultimately about choices and morality. The Shield takes this theme a step farther into the paradox at the heart of the question of free will.
Vic Mackey’s story starts at a different phase than Walter White’s, which is where the paradox begins. When the series begins, Mackey is already highly corrupt, and it’s more or less an open secret in the LAPD. He’s a walking excessive force complaint, he takes payouts from drug dealers and gang bangers, he plants evidence he needs, and is happy to beat a confession out of a suspect. He’s so bad, the LAPD has put an undercover Internal Affairs officer on the team, and in the pilot’s stunning twist, Vic murders this man — a cop — in cold blood. In essence, The Shield picks up at the moment in which Vic violates his last inviolate principle, and the next seven seasons are him dealing with the fallout of that act.
It doesn’t look like that at first blush, and especially not when watching the show once a week over the course of seven years, but in that singular moment when Vic chooses to murder this man, he consigns himself to hell. A hell of his own making. In fact, after the second season, Vic stops being actively corrupt. Oh, he’s still a brutal, racist asshole who cuts corners, but that makes him like, what 99% of the LAPD? He stops his most egregious sins, though he keeps committing crimes. Why? Because he’s trying to cover up what he already did. He’s already stuck in the spiral with no escape. This is the central paradox inherent in The Shield’s sophisticated understanding of morality. You can make the choice to do evil, as Vic (or Walter White) did, but after that initial choice, you’re trapped. You have to keep doing evil or you will suffer the consequences of your previous actions — death or imprisonment. In essence, the exercise of free will robs you of free will. It’s a fascinating story device and one that bears incredible, bitter, and incredibly bitter fruit throughout the show.
If Vic was a flat villain, he would make no sense, either realistically or more importantly, thematically. So it’s of vital importance to remember that his morality makes twisted sense in the first season. One of the cornerstones of his method of crime prevention is that he picks a single drug dealer and takes a cut of the man’s earnings. That guy can operate freely. Every other pusher gets the full force of the law. Vic’s a pragmatist in this case. He understands that he’s not going to eliminate drugs from the hood, but by creating a monopoly, he can drastically reduce violence and line his pockets in the process. As the show moves along, the team engages in more questionable activities, each one crossing a line that the others thought was inviolate. Because once you cross one line, the others become that much blurrier.
This line is first referenced by Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins doing some of the best acting anywhere, let alone on TV), who was the only other team member fully complicit in the cop’s murder. He is shattered by the act, because there is no worse crime to a police officer than the murder of another police officer. Vic pushed Shane over that line, and as Shane’s character unravels over the course of seven years, it always comes back to that moment. Shane is what I call a golem — he is a character whose inner life has been shaped by another, but at the end, the creator cannot control his progeny. Shane spins out of control and it’s all Vic’s fault. As Shane leaves Vic’s close orbit and Ronnie enters it, we see Vic once again shaping a golem for his own purposes, and when Ronnie offers his chilling opinion on the murder of a fellow police officer, it’s clear Vic picked the wrong horse when he backed Shane.
The show finds Shane’s echo in the character of Dutch. He is presented as a socially awkward, arrogant, and a wee bit racist in that condescending way only middle-aged rich white people can be. At a couple points (including one moment that manages to be one of the most disturbing on the show) Dutch peers into the abyss and each time he recoils in horror, but the hint is that Dutch himself is a golem. Instead of Vic’s poisonous mentorship, he’s nurtured by Claudette, the show’s moral center. She turns Dutch into not just a better detective, but a better man, and keeps him from falling into the abyss that fascinates him.
During my rewatch, I indulged in some serious geekery by creating an alignment chart with different characters for each of the nine classic D&D alignments. It was fun assigning people, and yeah, it didn’t always work perfectly, but the surprising thing was how well it did work. I ended up with Claudette at Lawful Good and Vic at Chaotic Evil, and the show agreed somewhat when it cast the two of them as the two sides of justice. It’s tempting to talk more about this, but I’d like to avoid the worst spoilers if I can.
The amazing part is that I’ve rambled on and not even touched upon the canonization of St. Lem, the moral rise and fall of David Aceveda, what Billings represents (easy to see if you imagine him on The Wire), and the various uniformed cops. The Shield is an incredibly rich viewing experience and appears to be somewhat forgotten in the world of great television. And if none of this convinces you, two final points. The first is that I ranted about endings not long ago, and The Shield boasts the greatest one in history. The second is that Kurt Sutter, the showrunner of Sons of Anarchy cut his teeth as one of the main writers of The Shield, and the world of SAMCRO and the Barn are one and the same.
And in the interests of full disclosure, a good chunk of the series was shot within blocks of where I grew up.