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The Shield (Classic): “Playing Tight”/“Blood And Water”

Illustration for article titled iThe Shield (Classic)/i: “Playing Tight”/“Blood And Water”
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“Playing Tight” and “Blood And Water” (season three, episodes one and two; originally aired 3/9/2004 and 3/16/2004)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon.)

You know it’s The Shield because the season opens in cacophony, shouts and banging on the soundtrack, and quick glimpses of physical force as a man tries to beat his peeping neighbor’s door in. Maybe it’s nothing, but the scene of an enraged guy trying to break into someone else’s place with understandable cause starts to look a little different after an episode or two of Iraq references. The biggie is that the power vacuum on the streets of Farmington leads to Vic trying to install a local leader to keep the gangs in check while an insurgency escalates. Then again, that’s basically The Shield’s M.O. so far. The Byz Lats are arming themselves with military-issue MP5s, and the One-Niners are buying from the same supplier just to keep up. The source: a soldier using U.S. military weapons stolen from Fort Irwin.


The effect is the very non-Iraq situation of mutual assured destruction, but there’s a reason for that, too. M.A.D. charges much of the première, “Playing Tight,” from the tenuous gang relationship to the actual guns-pointed standoff Vic gets in with Kern and his men, but the most revealing sequence is the standoff that opens “Blood And Water.” After successfully intercepting the sale to the One-Niners, the Strike Team is trying to recover the guns already sold to the Byz Lats. Vic and Shane go in person to negotiate, posing as interested buyers/neo-Nazis, with Lem covering them from afar. But the Byz Lat leader Garza tries to hold them up to make off with the guns and the cash. His guys start crawling out of the woodwork, eventually bringing Lem at gunpoint with them. Then we find out Ronnie has also been covering them, and he has a bead on Garza. But Garza doesn’t care. He’s willing to sacrifice himself for his cause.

If it wasn’t before, it’s pretty clear now that The Shield is working through some national issues, or at least shooting steroids in its ass and acting them out. It’s not just about Vic Mackey anymore, the prowling, scowling incarnation of—yeah, yeah—the tension between security and liberty. Now the Greek government won’t lift a finger to help Dutch track down an Armenian gangster wanted for murder in four countries because, as Claudette says, “We make up reasons for going to war and then act like the world’s policeman.” Interesting word choice. An assisting treasury department official also points out the United States has recently sold missiles to Turkey. Later Vic pulls off a not-quite-extraordinary rendition, explaining exactly why he’s taken a dealer to a hotel room instead of the station. “I take you in, you’re in the system. I lose control of the situation. What happens to you gets decided by some guy in a suit who doesn’t understand how valuable you can be.” If you really want to read into things, Vic’s recurring informant has shifted his focus into religious erotica, claiming that subject matter is what really appeals to the people in that famous values election year.


But I was really taken aback when Vic claims reneging on his promise to elevate Kern was a “one-time war crime.” Not only for the Iraq analogy, but for the character implications. Is Vic seriously saying he’ll back Kern from now on, that he’s back to his old ways already? Well, that was fast. No wonder Aceveda’s sticking around for a while to improve his record. I mean, the recidivism rate in this district is just embarrassing.

A late section of the première is all about people being stymied by procedure: Dutch and the Greeks, Claudette losing her imminent promotion to a lingering Aceveda, Vic needing an outrageous requisition pronto. Normally these are the kinds of things that push Vic either to play by the rules or take matters into his own hands; Dutch and Claudette don’t really see a choice. True to form, Vic uses Armenian Money Train cash for the failed Byz Lats sting, losing $20,000 in the process. He’s also rubbing off on people. Both Julien and Tavon buckle under Vic’s prodding, the former beating one of his season-finale attackers and the other going along with a warrantless wiretap. Julien’s justification is, naturally, God, as he prays right before and during his attack—wow, that sounds rather pointed written out like that. Later a bystander files a complaint against Julien for excessive force in an arrest. It’s like all it took was for Vic to open the gates. Tavon’s excuse is the greater good, accepting this one violation in order to get those dangerous weapons off the street. That’s how they get you. Remember Dutch planting that evidence? At least “Co-Pilot” comes in handy as a nice comparison study. Vic was never under those illusions. His primary goal that first time was to beef up his record.


That’s kind of like what’s happening with Shane’s new girlfriend Mara, a struggling realtor and part-time American dreamer. She whines about needing a nice car so people will buy half-a-million-dollar homes from her, so Shane dips into his illicit retirement account to get her something flashy. She wants to bend the rules just this once so she can get ahead the right way in the future. Overextension is all over The Shield right now, but after all the times Vic and the Strike Team “let it ride”—I’m thinking of the drug deal that Garza skipped in addition to the hold-up—at least they recover most of their property without too much damage. Mara just gets the guy she’s been dating for two months to buy her a Lexus and then complains that his boss asks too much of him.

What they don’t know—because Vic’s being frozen out at the Barn, which Michael Chiklis realizes in this mesmerizing sequence late in “Playing Tight”—is that some of that money is marked. The gang situation takes most of the Strike Team’s attention, but the Armenian Money Train is getting more precarious by the moment. The Armenian mob is investigating its members by cutting off feet, and a spooked mobster tells Dutch that whoever did the robbery is also responsible for the bodies. It’s the guy Lem and Shane were trailing who got into an accident, and he spots them at the Barn, in front of Dutch, no less. At the time of the crash, Shane covered by saying his name was Cletus Van Damme, but it turns out that’s the name he used to rent the storage locker currently containing the Armenian Money Train heist. Speaking of which, the facility owner starts poking around in that “just making chit-chat” kind of way, but you never know. He’s just odd enough, the scene just long enough, to truly spook Vic and Shane. And now both Shane and the Byz Lats have put some potentially marked bills into circulation. The treasury agent tells Dutch none of the bills have shown up in circulation for three months, which is suspicious, but if they do, it might lead to the killers. Cut to piles of cash being pilfered through by Vic and Shane. For an airtight plan, things sure spiraled out of control fast. That’s probably a metaphor, too.


Stray observations:

  • “Playing Tight” is written by Shawn Ryan and Kurt Sutter, and “Blood And Water” is written by Charles H. Eglee and Kim Clements. Both are directed by Clark Johnson.
  • Every week I write “The Wire” in my notes in all-caps, and every week I forget what parallels were so strong. This week it started with the wiretaps, and specifically the point about how unguarded white criminals are. And then there’s Garza, who Dutch admires for running his gang like a business a la Stringer Bell. But the show in general is way overdue as a point of discussion. Later in 2004, The Wire would begin its own complicated Iraq allegory, which is a lot more controlled than the big, crazy splatter painting here.
  • Catching up with Claudette: She’s royally pissed Aceveda’s sticking around, but she finds him a useful tool after she gets the backhand from the higher-ups. He’s implementing (and taking credit for) her plan to requisition the Undercover Decoy Squad famously cleaning up Wilshire, but Claudette is going to be in charge of it—as well as the Strike Team.
  • Catching up with Danny: She’s working school security part time during her hearing, in which the outlook isn’t great. But Aceveda re-hires her on the sort of unspoken condition she keep an eye on Vic. Barring that, this reassertion of the status quo would be irritating, but that one little sticking point completely recontextualizes this plot. Now Danny owes Aceveda. Furthermore, Julien doesn’t want to be her partner. That ain’t exactly status quo.
  • Catching up with Corinne: She’s going back to nursing 30 hours a week. When Vic gets entitled and asks her what she plans to do about the kids, Corinne high-tails it out of the room like she’d buckle if she stayed any longer and just tells him to figure it out. I love how proud she looks of herself as she walks away. Baby steps.
  • Catching up with the Strike Team: First shot of them this season, they’re listening to “Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” and Vic tries out his De Niro. It’s transcendent. Oh, and they’re patting themselves on the back for “playing by the rules,” which lasted a grand total of three months. In his first arrest of the season, Vic has the opportunity to punch the guy in the face after subduing him, and he relents. Later that episode, he prepares to frame his potential murder of the arms dealer as self-defense.
  • Speaking of Cletus, I loved Kern’s throwaway when the Strike Team show up at his club: “Calm down, Hee-Haw.”
  • Before the attack, Julien’s against an outer wall with his eyes closed and his head back, praying to heaven. Raise your hand if you thought blow job.
  • Tavon busts in on the Strike Team discussing the Armenian Money Train, and everyone goes quiet. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your secret Klan meeting.”
  • Shane to the religious erotica artist: “When in the Bible does Saint Schlong visit Our Lady Of The D-Cup?”

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