One of Ronnie’s first scenes in “Back To One” is a Strike Team pow-wow at the safehouse with Guardo’s girlfriend. He has, like, one line, and the camera keeps edging him out of the conversation. Makes you wonder how long The Shield can keep sidelining the third leg of the Strike Team. But then Claudette drafts him to help beef up Dutch and Billings’ investigation of an ex-sailor knocking over pharmacies. And he has to go because, in a moment that is just so perfectly Ronnie, he’s already used up his personal days on his wisdom teeth. That’s the Ronnie we know so far. Ordinary. Vic is all high octane, Shane’s all high drama, and Ronnie’s high cholesterol or something. If any of them eats slightly too much red meat—slightly, I’m saying—it’s Ronnie. But “Back To One” is Ronnie’s coming out party.
Dutch and Billings make a good, solid, beta background for the Ronnie show. Never mind that Dutch does most of the work. There’s a perception that Ronnie is the one tilting this case toward closure. Billings is as moony over him as Tina. Ronnie looks the part, first as a beefy action star, then as an undercover cook. And he does at least bring the tactical experience of the Strike Team to this investigation. He takes lead on the raid of the sailor’s house. As the action builds, Dutch hilariously takes a moment to roll his eyes about Ronnie ordering them around. It’s not like Dutch has never done anything like this before. And that’s the thing. Ronnie’s taking center stage, but Jay Karnes and David Marciano act David Rees Snell into the background. This is Snell’s chance to step up and fill Lem’s slot in the cast hierarchy, and he seems hesitant. He gives good exposition, but you don’t get much more from him. Whereas Jay Karnes is letting you know Dutch’s reaction to every last thing that happens. It’s a full performance.
Instead, Billings is the one who soaks up the spotlight in these two episodes. Sure, David Marciano gets a lot of easy stuff, like pantomiming his giant jugs when he walks in on Danny filling a bottle for Vic, Jr. Who couldn’t land that joke? But between all that basic idiocy (“I love the smell of underage sexual assault in the morning”), Billings finally gets to flash a little insight, with the same seriousness as his speech about demotion. “We’re on the verge of making a pretty good team,” he tells Dutch. Naturally, Dutch goes all, “Too slow,” because he desperately wants to be an alpha. And then Billings breaks down exactly what flaws Dutch has that he makes up for. Okay, so they’re all spins on “arrogant son of a bitch,” but he’s right. And then he even gets in Dutch’s head by saying he’s afraid he was just drafting off Claudette and is trying to frame Billings as dead weight, so when things go south, he can blame Billings. It sticks for Dutch, although we know it’s not true, and Claudette agrees.
In the next episode, Billings breaks down Dutch’s sleazy reputation, the way he leans on unis, a colleague’s ex, murder victim’s wives. “Face it: You took advantage of [Tina’s] vulnerability, just like our mystery psycho. Except your drug of choice was power and the false hope of career advancement.” And that we know is true. So Billings, it turns out, is actually quite observant, and he has a gentle touch thanks to his family life. He might make a decent detective after all. Unfortunately, revealing that also brings up the fact that Dutch’s aggression toward Tina in “Postpartum” was dropped, or at least dialed way down. Even as a momentary lapse, it plays like a narrative dead end.
There’s a more important story, however. Vic has kidnapped Guardo, renditioned him to some shitty safehouse, and strung him up in the middle of the room. He’s even put his black jacket over Guardo’s head to complete the iconography. In case it was ever unclear that The Shield is a story about The War On Terror, here’s our police officer role-playing Bagram with a suspect that we know is innocent of this particular crime. Vic beats him with his fists and then chains and at last suddenly shoots him. At first Shane tries to justify it, because we all know Guardo’s guilty of the backyard barbecue massacre. Doesn’t he deserve what’s coming? But at the end, Shane tearfully begs for Guardo’s life at least, because he knows he didn’t kill Lem. Because he can’t bear to have one more body on his conscience. That’s when Vic suddenly shoots Guardo dead. Shane can only muster the words, “We just killed somebody.” He says it out loud, makes everyone think about what that sounds like. (Michael Chiklis throws him this hilarious double take. Vic knows that Shane knows this isn’t their first rodeo.) Shane’s more haunted than ever. Or rather, he’s desperate to get caught, to come clean. But Vic, well, he’s all good now. He knows Guardo didn’t kill Lem, but he’s still comfortable with this scapegoat. Which suggests its own psychological quirk: Vic was looking for a way out, too.
“The New Guy” is the Kevin show. Yes, America’s next top CBS show-killer Alex O’Loughlin is finally here to pretty-boy up the Strike Team. He’s not Lem’s replacement, though. He’s Vic’s. Claudette is really taking to the politics of administration, isn’t she? The promotion is a little disappointing as a viewer, because it splits up Dutch and Claudette, it takes Claudette off casework, and it runs the risk of minimizing her role on the show. But these two episodes give her some quality Dutch time and let her play off the whole cast. It’s interesting to see her put on a smiley face with the guys. She’s honey whether giving Shane a message for Vic, preparing for Vic’s retirement, or coaxing Julien to join the Strike Team. She even smiles through Aceveda’s weekly oozings. Only with Dutch does she get real. Which is reward enough, because usually she’s giving him news like, “You have to keep working with Billings,” and “Suck it up.” Meanwhile she’s got Vic thinking she might try to save his job if he shows he can work well for her, and she’s getting in good with Kevin.
As for Kevin himself, like I said, O’Loughlin brings some pretty boy to the table. Like Ronnie’s time on JV, that counts for something. He projects a certain cool and authority, but he’s also not trying to make any waves with the guys just yet. Quite the contrary. It’s so easy how quickly he goes from wondering how all these people who come into contact with Vic keep winding up dead or hospitalized to giving the guy the benefit of a doubt. But that’s a writing thing. Season six is about the shaggiest season of The Shield, and I mean that in the carpet, not story-telling, kind of way. It’s the season with the most little hairs coming off it that don’t fully cohere, especially coming between seasons five and seven. So we’ll see what happens with Kevin.
There’s another gang war at hand, but this one’s revolutionary. Some One Niners led by a guy named Vantes are trying to get out, and One Niner head Moses isn’t so keen on that. Vic tries to stanch the bleeding (with a fake deal like the one Claudette gave him, which is what continues to impress Kevin, who is easily impressed). But Moses doesn’t keep his side of the deal either, and most of the refugees get got. Which leads to this intense final sequence where the Strike Team finds Vantes in some hideout late at night bleeding of a morning gunshot. He was afraid to go to the hospital.
Everything is so stark. The only lighting in the house is flashlights, giving everyone campfire portraits. Then Vic picks up Vantes and decides to get him to the hospital himself. The elliptical editing takes us in and out of consciousness. We cut from the house to the car and see Vic in the driver’s seat looking back at us unexpectedly saying something moving: “Your mom wants you to come home. She wants you to stay alive for her, all right? For the revolution!” Shane’s back there with Vantes trying to keep him awake. Cut to the hospital and Vic is running through the hall with Vantes in his arms. A nurse goes to get a doctor but he rushes to the lobby outside the E.R. where Corinne’s at work. The glass is basically soundproof, so we watch Vic scream and shout but no sounds come out of his mouth. Like I said, stark. Shane discovers Vantes is dead and the look on his face is just drained. That’s when Vic breaks down, first blubbering, then exploding, pacing back and forth in the lobby he’s destroyed like a trapped animal.
It’s disarmingly moving as it is, but what’s also going on is Vic working out his feelings about Lem (and Guardo and himself). Maybe he was genuinely all good with the Guardo scapegoat, but some combination of Corinne’s dream about Lem, Shane’s self-destructive picking at the scab, and residual guilt all bubble up when he sees Vantes, who just wanted to get out. Both “Back To One” and “The New Guy” end with Strike-Team-related murders, but the rising body count isn’t carelessness. Shane’s reaction to Guardo and Vic’s reaction to Vantes mostly defuse the excitement of violence. As always, The Shield takes death seriously.
- “Back To One” is written by Adam E. Fierro and directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payon. It originally aired on 4/17/2007.
- Vic tells Guardo he has his girlfriend: “The next word out of your mouth better be ‘when’ or I will rape and kill that bitch while you’re listening.” He sounds distraught more than angry, but that threat still grates.
- These episodes have a serious streak of Cops-style misanthropy, like the sister who’s upset that her brother will be arrested because then she’ll have nobody to take care of her or the peeping tom watching a rape from his balcony.
- The season also has a clear feminist undercurrent, regularly showing examples of where women are treated unfairly: a rape victim Dutch and Claudette didn’t believe, Dutch’s brusque treatment of another rape victim in the hospital, Dutch’s abuse of authority with respect to dating, Danny’s truncated maternity leave. Claudette explicitly says that last one is what happens when men make the rules.
- Just The Facts: Guardo was out of the country when Lem was killed, and the name he dropped, Prieto, has been in jail a month. Meanwhile Dutch keeps hearing the name Hernan in interviews. An ICE agent shows up on his doorstep to cock-block him (not that he had a shot anyway) and tell him that Hernan is deep undercover. Instead of looking into Hernan, she says, focus on why Guardo would have come back to Los Angeles.
- “The New Guy” is written by Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft and directed by Clark Johnson. It originally aired on 4/24/2007.
- Dutch to the (second, non-serial) rapist: “Either way, she became unconscious.” The guy: “What? I’m supposed to stop?”
- Billings badmouths profiling and then hoists Dutch with his own petard: “I think a profiler would call that a pattern of shitting where you eat.”