“Cherrypoppers” (season one, episode six; originally aired 4/16/2002)
The first image in “Cherrypoppers” is a suggestive flash that accumulates horror as the episode goes on. There’s just enough detail for you to get it in the two seconds it’s on-screen without the face-revealing cheat distracting from the scene. A girl is on her side lying dead in the woods, her face taking up half the frame. The blood on her mouth mats some of her hair as the rest covers the grass. Claudette’s peering at her from the blurry green-brown-black background shining a flashlight on the subject. Next there’s a bleary shot of the girl face-down with a light on her pink purse and a photo-booth strip spilling out. It’s so revoltingly typical, these underexposed markers of Dead Girl In A Forest stories. Over the next 24 hours Claudette and Dutch determine that the girl is a 12- or 13-year-old who goes by Sally Struthers. Her virginity was sold to some middle-aged creep and filmed by a porn outfit, and she worked as a prostitute unbeknownst to her student boyfriend. The cherry on top: For the first time on The Shield, the killer gets away.
Well, technically second. The other killer that got away is one reason this one gets away, too. Vic Mackey’s a blunt tool, and instead of following Dutch’s orders, he hits the streets on his own. He brings down the cherrypoppers video ring and a sex club with underage girls, at least for now. He even has a club prostitute deported to Korea where she’ll likely be put into foster care, despite her vows to return, to keep “acting.” But all this is Iraq to the serial killer’s Afghanistan. The Barn has a target, 24 hours to find him before they lose the scent, and an FBI consultant. Dutch and Claudette wind up indisposed thanks to a prank known as obstruction of justice, and Vic is out spraying all over the toilet. He even helps cover up another murder when a spooked Connie shoots an insurance salesman client. It’s the Vic version of Dutch trying to pin all the prostitute murders on the guy who slashed Connie while Claudette lectures him about focus. Whatever good he does, even temporarily, Vic’s ego keeps him from searching for a serial killer while the trail is hot.
“Cherrypoppers” is unusually focused for The Shield, the better to admire an iceberg like street prostitution. Besides the overarching story, which drafts most of the cast and slows down to fill up a single day, there’s a subplot with Vic and an underage prostitute he rescued named Sun-Lee. Vic’s family-man side is one of his most charming qualities, the way he tells addicts to keep their kids away from their drugs and the way he spends time with Sun-Lee trying to re-route her emotions. When she misunderstands him and asks, “Vic mad at Sun-Lee?” it’s an upsetting peek into her world. Meanwhile Connie’s frightened, both because she has recently been attacked on the job and because Vic warns her about the serial killer, and she begs Vic to punch her in order to corroborate her made-up self-defense story. And that’s just one of the scenes that’s hard to watch. There are two cherrypoppers sequences with excruciating build-ups, one being performed live with a crowd of men rubbing their bulges and another being performed on DVD with a girl who is now dead. The Shield is practically stacking the deck for Vic at this point. Then there’s the ending. Nothing gets solved. A little girl is dead and her murderer will strike again. A man is dead and eternally slandered because Connie has kids. And the final image is no quick flash at all, but a sustained, distanced look at johns rolling past prostitutes on the corner. It’s David Simon-esque, an institution roaring on in the face of a few people trying to do good. There's no thrill of excitement or revulsion, no provocative extremity or innovation. The Shield has never felt so hopeless.
- “Cherrypoppers” was written by Scott Rosenbaum (Chuck, V) and directed by D.J. Caruso (The Salton Sea, Disturbia). One striking shot: As Vic awaits the sex club client, he sits in profile on a bench that divides the image in two as the john approaches on the other side. Vic's sitting still in the dark; the guy’s moving under a neon sign. Whatever else Vic is, he’s not a pederast.
- The most interesting discovery on rewatch is how often Hollywood plays a body-and-soul-withering Pleasure Island. Even though she’s not exactly an image of psychological health, Sun-Lee cites acting as the reason she’s committed to her lifestyle.
- As Dutch is leaving Danny’s, she stands there facing the camera and the only part of him that fits in the frame is his crotch. Caruso is on-point.
- I have never been more grateful for a toilet backing up. The flood is probably the only funny thing that happens in both episodes this week.
“Pay In Pain” (season one, episode seven; originally aired 4/23/2002)
“Cherrypoppers” and “Pay In Pain” are both directed by D.J. Caruso, and both take it easy on the usual popcorn editing. These episodes rely more on images and movement than momentum, and no wonder: “Cherrypoppers” is an extended lament and “Pay In Pain” is a kind of western mystery. It's easy to see Caruso in the flashier moments like the perspective-warping ground shots and the extreme high-angle of Vic in the alley, but he also brings a steady hand to these episodes. Think of Connie standing just outside her halo light as she awaits Vic’s fist, the camera just over his shoulder for maximum impact. Or the wide shot of Connie alone in the pen, her back to us, diagonals going every which way. The in-your-face melee gives power to the quiet distance. It’s a trick Caruso repeats in the one-two punch opening of “Pain.” First some maniac shoots up a shooting range. Caruso pulls the screws tight with dramatic individual hits and a winding tracking shot of the killer. Then some woman walks into the Barn and unloads. Dutch tries to pass her off on a uni, but he’s the only one there, and she starts venting. She’s been robbed seven times, her niece was raped after a creep got off on a technicality, her neighborhood is shot up so often she no longer ducks at the sound. Maniacs are hijacking airplanes and crashing them into buildings. America is capable of surgical strikes across the globe but can’t keep a domestic neighborhood safe? Caruso’s in the action between her and Dutch, but he intercuts other officers crawling out of the woodwork. Finally she asks, exhausted, “What are you doing to keep us safe?” A wide shot shows a now crowded room with all eyes on her, rapt, and it’s the most moving moment in the episode.
That’s the epigraph for “Pay In Pain.” The shooter turns out to be a white racist driven over the edge by the rise of Latinos in his neighborhood, and when a shop owner subdues him with a baseball bat, he and his neighbors opt to give the killer to the Toros. The Toros respond by taking the guy’s family hostage and killing a couple. Vic gets there in time to save a couple others, after pulling a gun on the shop owner in the interrogation room, but the body count is high. What’s more, Shane harasses, beats, and pees on a bystander. It’s this perfect Los Angeles postcard, staring down the grill of a car on a street lined with palm trees and skyscrapers in the background, with a racist cop peeing on a black man. Meanwhile Dutch is running himself ragged trying to find a new clue to Sally’s killer. He and Claudette take a low-priority case to clear the cobwebs, but all they can do is threaten a psychic who’s bleeding some grandparents dry to find new marks. Julien is working to take one danger off the streets. Even Gilroy’s sweating, although he lets himself buy Vic’s story about stealing the bricks for an undercover bust and not having time to do the proper paperwork. But in the end Vic gets some leverage over Julien, interrupting a tryst to arrest Julien’s clingy fuck-buddy in front of him. The Barn has seen better days.
Vic defends charging the shop owners as only he can. “They conspired to kill a man and then tried to cover it up.” It’s delicious. Vic also calls off his new pal when the guy tries to kill the shooter. Vigilante justice is only okay when Vic does it. Comfortably framed in an adobe archway, Vic surveys his handiwork from the balcony. It’s an old west image for a wild west tale. The shop owners in lock-up are distorted by two layers of chain-link fence. Only their pensive faces stand out in the gray.
- “Pay In Pain” is the first episode written by Shawn Ryan since the first two.
- Dutch is cracking up, but the best part is how The Shield gets us to root for him. It’s comforting to see the picked-on smart guy get an attaboy from the macho bully, even though we know Dutch doesn’t need Vic’s approval. When Dutch returns to the psychic, he’s wrapping up a loose narrative end, satisfying a lingering need. “What did Sally say?” “She says not to give up.” Yeah, that’s the stuff.
- Seriously, Clingy is the worst. Cutely blackmailing Julien into coming out is just the latest example.
- Julien: “What’s fair for them out there has to be fair for us in here.”