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The final season of the The Shield thus far has been powered by a ho-hum MacGuffin, the so-called blackmail box. Ever since this magical box appeared at the end of Season Six, I've reflexively rolled my eyes whenever it came up and hoped this lame idea would die a quick death. No dice. The blackmail box's importance has only grown through the first four episodes. The Mexicans have brutally killed several Armenian mobsters over the box, and even gunned down a city official when Vic used inside information from Aceveda to make it look like Rezian was applying some box-related pressure to get a city monument built.

After Terry Crowley, the money train, Lem, and all the other assorted very bad things these guys have done over the years, we've already spent four of the final Shield episodes on this? I realize picking apart logical inconsistencies on The Shield is like removing all the clubs from a house of cards, but I'm growing tired of this frankly ridiculous storyline. Let's set aside the silliness of this blackmail box for a moment–How exactly did Cruz get all this stuff? Did a gaggle of desperate TV writers leave it outside of his door?–and focus on the big meeting between Rezian and Cruz's cold-blooded surrogate, Rios. Are we supposed to believe that neither side has figured out Vic's little game yet? Why didn't Rios just say, "Hey, Vic told us you have the box. Is he lying? Should we shove his testicles up Shane's nostrils or what?" Come on, Vic's plan isn't that clever. These have to be the stupidest gangsters since Fredo Corleone.

One of The Shield's great strengths is its incredible rapid sense of forward momentum. The exhilaration of watching tough, smart people make decisions on the fly is what got us all hooked on this show in the first place. But I find myself less interested in the "action" of this season–and that also goes for the blah "Dutch may have found another serial killer who will probably return two or three episodes from now" storyline–and drawn to quieter moments that chart how these characters live with their decisions once life slows to a crawl, and a few fateful seconds hang over your head forever after.

There was a chilling moment early on when Shane callously shrugged off concern over Cruz's plan to turn Farmington into a gang-owned territory. Vic barely contained his disgust when Shane asked, "How's that our problem?" Shane's disregard for, you know, his job is pretty incredible, even now, but Vic's feeling of moral superiority–his unbelievable smugness—was exposed as being completely unearned in subtly devastating ways. There was, of course, Vic's casual sacrifice of the city official in order to ultimately get Cruz and (the real reason) maybe save his job. And then there's Cassidy–I've often found lil' Autumn Chiklis to be a wooden and amateurish actor throughout The Shield's run, but tonight I found her gawky awkwardness to be pretty affecting. Cassidy suddenly feels like a genuinely messed up kid; surely Chiklis knows a thing or two about inarticulate rage as a 14-year-old, and her naturalness finally seems like an asset.

The big revelation tonight is that the comely ICE agent Vic has been using to bust Cruz on his behalf is, in fact, also in the blackmail box! Holy shit! Vic and Aceveda are totally screwed, aren't they? Guess we'll find out for sure next week.

Grade: B