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You can tell from the titles that “Haunts” and “Chasing Ghosts” are after very similar things. In “Haunts,” Dutch and Billings work the serial-rapist case with the father of a girl who went missing years back, while the Strike Team investigates an assault on Shane related to the One Niner girl he’s been seeing. Carl Weathers returns as Joe Clark to offer Vic a side job, which leads to more prisoner abuse. And Shane confesses to Mara. In “Chasing Ghosts,” another dad in a position power wants special treatment for his daughter, found dead. Cassidy takes up some time to turn on Vic, which gets resolved when she gets to meet Danny’s son, Lee. And Shane confesses to Vic. Families are being torn apart from the inside.

And who better to represent family than that old married couple of Dutch and Billings? The serial-rapist case starts out this week with the dad showing up, offering to help, insinuating himself into the process. Oh, and he has a report on his missing daughter if Dutch would take a look. Dutch blows him off, but Billings—with the magic of the profiling he so easily dismisses—immediately pegs the guy. It’s a lot of fun, both the light kind and the tense kind, how they get him, too: Dutch’s head shake “no” to Claudette when he asks to use her office, Dutch and Billings physically backing him against the wall, and his oozing threat about how he’ll be out of there before their shift ends. He promises a full confession if there’s a news camera there documenting it, so he can get some publicity for his daughter’s case. So here’s another connection between cameras and criminals. Dutch pushes him just right, forces him to confess everything right there on the evening news. And he does it, anything to help his daughter.

He reveals in a creepy monologue that after his wife died, his daughter started to look more and more like her. So he took advantage of her, and that’s why she ran away in the first place. Billings lashes out and leaves the room. Once again his being a family man has some bearing on the case. But the main thing is these episodes are all about past crimes resurfacing to destroy families.

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The other really disgusting bit comes in Vic’s blast from the past. “Haunts” has a strong noir influence: Shane getting all beat up, buried secrets bubbling up (“Ever think about just coming clean? About everything?” “No.” “Yeah, I know. So we just have to live with it”), the Langian Venetian-blind-shadow ending. And then there’s Vic’s old friend from out of the past sucking him down the drain. Speaking of the drain, turns out Joe’s buddy Lester is pure Stanford Prison Experiment. He cuts off one guy’s dreads and laughs the whole time. He forces another to gulp some of his buddy’s pee straight out of the toilet. My reaction was purely visceral. I winced, my throat got tight, my stomach heaved. That’s what The Shield wants us to think of Lester. He and Joe are just trying to evict these guys. Keith Mars could do it with a couple intimidating lines and an alarm clock. Anyway, two things about this little misadventure stand out. One, here’s another example of prisoner abuse. People with a little bit of power taking it too far is a major concern for The Shield. Here it’s more Iraq than police overreach, though.

And two, and this is relevant even if we already know it, even Vic Mackey has limits. Noody’s calling Vic Mackey a saint after torturing and shooting Guardo on his personal days. But he’s not Lester. What separates them? Is it just the badge that Joe Clark used to have and that Vic is on his way to losing? No, it’s sadism. Vic’s crimes aren’t about taking pleasure in someone else’s suffering. Even Guardo, the guy he slowly beat the life out of over the better part of a day, wasn’t about enjoying the torture. Vic’s crimes tend to go two ways. First, profit off of the drug economy of Farmington rather than close it down entirely, and then do whatever it takes to protect that position, an offshoot of which includes avenging Lem. Vic isn’t noble, but the power trip isn’t what gets him off.

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Except for all those times it is. What’s the first thing we see him do? Beat a runner to the ground, yank down his underwear, and march him bottomless past his neighbors. It’s not Lester, but it sure has a smack of prisoner abuse as someone would recognize it in 2007. There’s room to stand between Vic and Lester, but hypocrisy is about to become an important subject.

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At the end, bruised and broken Shane returns home, the blinds shadowing every surface, and wails for Mara to forgive him. She’s not having any of it. And look at the way she taunts him. To shoot her, to shoot himself. Not to get all Freudian about it, but she’s clearly saying she’s unthreatened by his power, and suggesting he’d hurt his own family is an attack on his manhood, too. But Mara’s having Vic Mackey even less. Did he get Shane involved in something? Shane defends him, saying Vic doesn’t even know whatever it is that Shane did. And then the parade begins: “I killed Lem. I did. I did it. I dropped a grenade in his lap and I just walked away.” And wouldn’t you know it, Mara walks over to him, hugs him, and takes him back. Of course. Mara’s always been the femme fatale.

Mara gets off on the conspiracy. All she wants in her life is to be in on whatever crazy exciting shit is going down without taking any direct responsibility for it. She makes Shane look principled. At least he’s willing to do the crazy exciting shit. Corinne’s story is more realistically tangled—first she distances herself from Vic, but she doesn’t want him to go to jail either, and now she just throws up her arms about all the hits for “Vic Mackey” on Lexis-Nexis—but neither of them makes a strong case for the underfed antihero wife. Personally I don’t even think Skyler White cracked it. All of them could have taken some tips from Carmela Soprano: She knows what Tony’s up to, she willfully blinds herself to the details, and she profits off it, reacts against it, separates, and comes back, all in this magnificently nuanced performance that has you feeling for her and calling for her head all at once. With a shrill character on the page and a blunt performance on the screen, Mara nails approximately one of those things: profit.

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Now that Shane’s come clean to his wife, he comes to work like birds braided his hair that morning. He’s adamant about two things: That Lem has been adequately avenged and that he, Shane, is having a glorious day. It’s way over the top, but that’s what it takes to get Vic and Ronnie suspicious. Hernan confirms the Salvadorans didn’t kill Lem. Vic takes a visit to Lompoc to see if the One Niners did. Nope. In fact, Antwon’s having the time of his life now that Kavanaugh’s been overthrown. (I guess the higher-ups decided to override his inspection of Lompoc once they found out he was going to jail?) Then Vic and Ronnie turn to Shane’s high spirits and independently write down the grenade count from that bust, which Ronnie remembers because of a sports stat. Ronnie goes off to count the grenades, and phew, all 73 are still there. And then, Kavanaugh’s final report comes up. It means nothing to Dutch, but Vic sees something it that makes him just sink. Other stuff happens in the episode, including Dutch and Claudette trying to get Vic on tape with Guardo’s girlfriend, but nothing stands out next to this. It’s ridiculous how bad a job Shane is doing of keeping Vic and Ronnie from looking further into Lem, and it’s surprising how quickly they turn on Shane, but the twists are just a thrill. Vic works it like a case. He has the facts, they suggest a story, and that story says Shane was preparing to possibly kill Lem even before he flipped.

Vic recaps all of this for Shane at another late-night meeting at the auto body shop. Crickets are chirping, the ground is dust, the background is black with blue-green and yellow lights. It wasn’t the Salvadorans. It wasn’t the One Niners. “So I asked Ronnie…” He starts breathing heavily all of a sudden, speaking a single phrase per gulp of air, because this is a bitch to say out loud. He asked Ronnie to check the grenades. And they were all there. “Which means… you pocketed a grenade before Aceveda even lied to us about Lem ratting us out? You lied to us at the bust about the count?” Shane wasn’t late because of a tail, because there was no tail on him. Kavanaugh was short-handed, which is why Shane got to Lem first. Vic catches him in the lie. And Shane admits it.

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“I did what I thought had to be done at the time.”

“Oh, God.”

“I know, man. I know.”

This conversation makes the early part of the episode look slow and methodical. Shane and Vic lay it all out on the table: Lem, Terry, Guardo, guilt, hypocrisy, brotherhood. It’s the kind of scene where digging into the exact timeline of Lem’s death and what it implies about the murder would have been enough, but then the writers and the characters keep piling on. “I know, man. I know.” Shane is all about himself. “You think this has been easy for me?” Yes, poor you. Shane says Lem would have died or flipped in prison, and worse, he says Vic knows it but won’t admit it. “I don’t know that. He was strong. You killed him because you were scared.” Vic’s right. About Shane anyway.

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Drama comes from the conflict between two legitimate but opposing perspectives. Shane defends the murder of Guardo on the grounds of his other crimes. Vic says he’s not an executioner. Shane throws Terry’s family in his face. Vic says that’s different, because Terry was a traitor. Which is what Shane’s saying about Lem’s hypothetical fate. Every line is packed. “You and I, we’re nothing alike,” Vic says. Is that true? Does Vic really believe it? And why? Shane sure doesn’t believe it. “Let’s at least tell the truth now,” he says.

“I would have spared Lem.”

“And I stepped up and put Lem down so you can go to bed at night believing that.” Jesus Christ, that phrasing. Vic was ready to sacrifice himself for his brothers at the end of season five. What a saint, right? Even now he just hopes Shane gets caught.

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He tells Shane goodbye. “I see you again, and I will kill you.”

“Goddamn hypocrite,” Shane says. He’s right. Shane’s projecting his own self-interest onto Vic, expecting some praise for shouldering the burden for the team. But Vic’s flagellating Shane by way of that dark part of himself that would consider killing Lem to stop him from flipping in prison. Vic thinks he’s noble. But the question “Haunts” and “Chasing Ghosts” asks is how far is Vic from Lester and Shane really?

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Stray observations:

  • “Haunts” is written by Glen Mazzara and Charles H. Eglee and directed by Michael Chiklis. It originally aired on 5/1/2007.
  • Ronnie’s new girlfriend likes him shaven, so he’s walking around with the Armadillo scar all over his face again, another reminder of some of the shit the Strike Team got into.
  • Kevin has such a man-crush on Vic that he’s sucking up to him even as leader of the Strike Team. “You don’t just hand your superiors the pieces of a puzzle,” he tells Julien. “You hand ’em the whole picture.” Then he looks to see if Vic is proud of him for saying that. I think of Kevin as just a pretty boy, but he’s also a reflection of Vic’s charisma. None of the other guys on the show can illustrate that, because they were in love or at odds with Vic from the start. Tavon sorta liked Vic, Billings certainly takes after Vic’s alpha swagger, but Kevin at long last shows how Vic can make essential allies on his winning personality alone.
  • “Chasing Ghosts” is written by Shawn Ryan, naturally, and Adam E. Fierro and directed by Frank Darabont. It originally aired on 5/8/2007.
  • Dutch and Billings are at odds again, but they come to a mutually beneficial relationship regarding the vending machines. Dutch: “I can keep the leverage, or you can lose the money. It’s your call.”
  • I like how Lee Carson Sofer, who’s clearly more than a month old, has his birthday on “the second” of some unspecified month, because they don’t want to settle on an exact timeline. Technically I think we’re still in 2004 or so.
  • Vic: “Lem’s case is still open. I hope they catch you… You don’t get to do what you did for free.”
  • SPOILERS: I love the foreshadowing when Tina meets Kevin in the break room, and Dutch happens to prowl around the window just then.

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