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“Exiled” is a freight train. Responding to San Marcos, the Byz Lats take their revenge, launching pretty much everything else that happens. The Strike Team goes after the gangs, trying to figure out how to get in touch with Hernan without blowing his cover. Dutch and Billings go after Eduardo Romero, the owner of that unattended arm in San Marcos. Momentum rams “Exiled” through walls of exposition right through to the next episode. “The Math Of The Wrath” carries on with Hernan and San Marcos. Through all of this, Shane is trying miserably to cover his ass, although so far he’s only under a gangster’s foot figuratively, which is a step up in the grand scheme of his misadventures.

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This is where things start to get complicated outside The Barn in the final two seasons. Because almost everything in the Salvadoran-Mexican war happens off-screen, it’s told through fast, jargon-laced exposition among the cops, whether it’s unis updating Vic on the latest shoot-out or Vic updating Claudette back at the station. The “real” drama of the show is about what’s going between Claudette and Vic and Shane and on, but meanwhile they’re all navigating this film noir on steroids about various international bureaucracies, criminal and otherwise, swirling around The Barn in the great melting pot of Farmington.

So on the one side you have the Salvadorans versus the Byz Lats. The Salvadorans hacked up San Marcos and left a Mexican bureaucrat’s arm in there for good measure, and the Byz Lats fired back, and so on. Undercover ICE agent Hernan has been working with Vic, because somebody above him is trying to keep San Marcos quiet and changed his handler. But everything Hernan does comes with compromise. First he says San Marcos was an internal Mexican beef. (In fact it turns out Cruz Pezuela was right about the Salvadorans perpetrating the attack. His role in all of this is also a little fishy.) Then Hernan cuts a deal for just three of the San Marcos killers, letting three go. Eventually he’s the disposal guy for some hacked up Salvadoran. In the end he’s gone, ferried back to El Salvador with the alleged snitch taken care of so he can “earn his stripes,” which is how everyone keeps describing the Salvadorans. As in they’re organized like police. Anyway, Vic concludes that Salvadoran’s in too deep now, and all they know is the Salvadorans are planning something big.

Meanwhile the internal story of all this is Vic pulling Kevin over to his side and both of them circumventing Claudette. Their actions seem reasonable at the time, but the story has a kick: If they had listened to Claudette, the Salvadorans wouldn’t be free to plan their next move right now. So not only are Vic and Kevin on the outs with Claudette, but San Marcos killers go free and more violence is coming.

On the other side you have Shane getting into bed with the Armenians. And all because he wants some easy cash. How much selective amnesia does it take for Shane to make this decision? He has to forget about what happened the last time he struck out on his own to sell his services to a criminal organization. Shane’s independence is his weakness. He has nobody to cover him. He also has to forget about his own personal relationship with the Armenians. If they’re too scary for the daughter of the ailing Armenian boss, why are they not too scary for Shane? Feet tend to help when you’re running away.

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There’s an external story here, too, that in two episodes balloons like a zeppelin. Shane is doing some dirty work for the Armenians. First he intimidates an Iraqi gas station owner who later winds up pumped to death, and then he roughs up a Russian prostitute at an Armenian building to find out who robbed her and passes those names along. Two of them turn up castrated. By that point Shane sees the precarious state of the Armenian mob command. Kesakhian is in the hospital, with his daughter, Diro (Franka Potente), running his affairs. Nobody knows he’s in the hospital yet, but they’re bound to find out. Then there’s Ellis Rezian just waiting to fill a potential power vacuum. But Diro tells him she’s not alone in this fight. “My father still has a lot of men loyal to him. And now I have you.” That’s the clincher. Shane doesn’t even realize it. He’s in with the Armenians now, and good luck getting out.

Shane doesn’t really have a plan, but what he does have is a few short-sighted ideas he might be able to cobble into a form of protection. I can’t believe he thinks Vic might threaten Jackson, but Mara, yeah, there are definitely situations in which I could see Vic killing Mara. So Shane does three things in addition to making an envelope of cash from the Armenians: He compiles a report on all of Vic’s crimes to be released in case anything happens to his family, he makes plans to get his job in Vice back, and he tries to poach Ronnie. There are a few long-time-coming one-on-ones in these episodes—Mara and Vic, Mara and Corinne, Shane and Vic in their cars—scenes that build all this drama out of one character revealing one piece of information. But Ronnie learning the truth about Terry is different. Finally all of the original Strike Teamers are on the same page about everything: Terry, Lem, Shane’s leverage.

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You don’t need the “earn your stripes” analogy to see the parallels between the cops and the criminals. After Guardo and the Iraqi, Shane sure is cavalier about selling those guys’ balls to the Armenians. But in his mind, they’ve earned it through their crimes. They deserve it. That’s what Vic surmises to be Hernan’s justification. Vic’s a Hernan analogue too. “Hernan’s gotta live with what he did now,” he says.

To which Ronnie replies, “No different than why you shot Terry.” Ronnie is ice cold these days. In the beginning of “Exiled,” Vic tells him about Shane and Lem, and before you can say, “Want a tissue?” he’s moved onto Hernan and the Salvadorans. You can blame David Rees Snell’s performance, but he’s really not getting much on the page. Until later, that is. He asks Vic about Shane: “We gonna be one of the bases he tries to cover?” When Ronnie finds out about Terry, his only regret is that he wasn’t able to protect Vic better all these years. Guess he agrees with Vic: Lem was their buddy, but Terry was a rat. It follows that his next question would be what it is: “What I need to know is when we can finally leave all this in the past where it belongs?” Because offing team members has been so effective for survivor harmony in the past. Vic’s looking positively heroic in the light of Ronnie immediately jumping to murder. Notice the conspiracy. Ronnie’s trying to have something that’s just between him and Vic. Just as Shane did Lem because he wanted to be like Vic and do something for Vic. These guys are using murder like a fishing trip.

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Claudette is onto them. One of the best things about “Exiled” is how Claudette throws her weight around. Instead of being sidelined, she inserts herself in the San Marcos investigation wherever she can. Meanwhile she’s investigating Nancy Gilroy—a reminder of another dead Strike Team associate—and planning surprise sit-downs between Shane and Vic. She cuts out Aceveda and she shuts down Shane. Better still, she totally blows off this ICE agent, and he immediately buckles. Claudette’s a powerhouse in “Exiled,” but she’s just the latest expression of a season of feminism. By “The Math Of The Wrath,” it’s undeniable. The episode opens with the rat-a-tat of machine gun fire, but it’s really a sewing machine. You have Diro Kesakhian running the Farmington chapter of the Armenian mob. You have one plot about a Russian sex worker and another about the ins and outs of imitation clutches. You have Danny making an explicit analogy between knockoff purses and testicles right before a boys’ club whining about investigating purses gets a new assignment: two castrated men. Women are taking power, things women like are taking prominence, and women are forging connections with each other. Why now? Well, partly because Claudette finally got her job, and Shane has nobody else but Mara anymore. But the more salient reason is the old boys club is crumbling. Vic’s time is up.

Stray observations:

  • “Exiled” is written by Scott Rosenbaum and Kurt Sutter and directed by Dean White. It originally aired on 5/15/2007.
  • How many personal days does Shane have?
  • Mara shows up at The Barn looking for Shane but just finds Vic. He doesn’t take kindly to her insinuations. “Why would I hurt Shane? What is it you think you know?”
  • Billings: “You know, Dutch, I could teach you a few things about women if you want.”
  • “Nobody puts me up to anything,” says Shane in the process of doing what the Armenians put him up to.
  • Shane to Vic: “Just imagine every wrong, brutal thing we’ve ever done. It’s hard to do, idn’t it, we’ve done so many?”
  • “The Math Of The Wrath” is written by Charles H. Eglee and directed by Rohn Schmidt. It originally aired on 5/22/2007.
  • What is up with Julien? I mean, besides boring Ronnie to death on their stake-out. How is he relatively square with the Strike Team now? How is he okay with being the bait on a heavily armed operation? How does he trust those guys? Still married? I just have a lot of questions about Julien’s involvement here. He seems to be in the Ronnie role now, the fourth wheel who just does whatever the plot needs, except with the occasional lip service about his principles.
  • Danny: “It’d be like us trying to understand why you guys love your balls so much that you gotta play pocket pool all the time.” Billings removes his hands from his pocket.
  • Vic seems to think he has a way to get around being fired: “Claudette’s not the only player at the table.”
  • Tina, complete with this beautiful arm gesture: “Just keep thinking Louis. Besides, I’m packing.” Man, Tina is so much more convincing and fun playing the armed and capable girly-girl than she is at work.

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