The moment I saw Lem’s smiling face in “Wins And Losses,” everything came bubbling up again. TV deaths have that kind of power. We watch these characters for years, and then they’re gone. Whether you know about a contract dispute or a movie career or the pure creative reason behind it, it’s still a loss. Sci-fi and fantasy shows tend to bring back dead characters to varying degrees of success. But this made me think of The Sopranos, which occasionally resuscitated brutally murdered characters in a world where death is permanent for dream sequences. But the dreams weren’t Tommy-Gavin-style hallucinations, there just to help our hero figure out his shit. They were enigmatic, uncontrolled, free in a way. Even if they came from Tony or Carmela’s head, they didn’t feel any less complex than the real thing. That’s how “Wins And Losses” works, as a flashback episode that lets Lem be Lem. That’s pretty much all it has to offer.
“Wins And Losses” is a webisode, which is how you know it aired in early 2007, tiding fans over during the year-long gap between seasons. Miniature online versions of television shows—as opposed to television shows debuting online like House Of Cards—had a brief, annoying moment in the sun. Battlestar Galactica and The Office did a couple series of webisodes each. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a webisode with the full cast like “Wins And Losses.” Which is really the main selling point of this 15-minute promo. In the present-day Vic and company attend Lem’s funeral and talk about how to get Guardo. In flashbacks, there’s an unofficial police arm wrestling tournament where Lem wins a creepy golden baby doll arm. It’s nice to see everyone again, to get a taste of what they’re up to, but the virtues don’t run any deeper than that. Shane does a goofy dance. Corinne and Mara chat at the funeral, although that isn’t milked for all its potential. Vic says, out of context, that he’s perfectly willing to sacrifice Shane’s body, which makes for some fun foreshadowing. The best part is when the guys rough up a connection to Guardo and then someone’s coming so they all point their guns at the door. In bursts Dutch, who sees the guns and shouts, “Jesus!” But at least we get to see Lem one last time, sacrificing his body for his team, but on his own terms.
Lem’s death sends most of the main characters on their way. Shane’s trying his hardest to get himself killed or locked up without actually confessing what happened. Vic’s equally desperate to get Guardo by any means necessary. Kavanaugh stoops to framing Vic by way of coerced testimony and planted evidence. Both Dutch and Claudette independently give his story a side-eye. At the end of the premiere, “On The Jones,” Dutch follows bloody pawprints to a slaughter. He calls for backup. “Multiple 187s, three, maybe four.” He’s interrupted when he turns on the lights to reveal a room of many more than four bloody bodies. “You gotta be shitting me.” It’s a one-of-a-kind crime scene, the kind that suggests a season arc perhaps. But that’s just about the last we hear of it, because Kavanaugh takes up all our time. What an egomaniac.
Kavanaugh starts out innocently enough. He puts on a smile for Phillips, gets an extra day, acknowledges that his rank is on the line if he lets it get personal. He even makes the smart case to Dutch: “Maybe it wasn’t Mackey [who killed Lem]. Maybe he couldn’t do it. But he needed it done.” That actually stands to reason. And he acknowledges his own part in all this when Dutch says Vic has no motive. “I gave him motive.” Wow. It’s not every day you see a cop on The Shield taking responsibility for his or her failures.
From there it’s hard to think of a single thing he does right. He immediately gets in a physical scuffle with Vic. He’s not even thinking right. In fact, he’s reading everyone exactly wrong. He takes his made-up concerns about Dutch to Claudette, who of course mocks him. “Dutch is protecting Vic for his ex-wife’s sake?” Shane is the only Strike Teamer we see interviewed, and there’s a reason for that. Shane is the one who knows Vic had nothing to do with Lem’s murder. So we see that interview and get cocky about Kavanaugh. His whole story is built on this idea that Vic would threaten Emolia’s kid. All this time and he still doesn’t really understand Vic, does he? He plants evidence, and a lot of it. He talks Emolia through testimony. When Dutch shows up, he tells him they’re meeting at this place that turns out to be closed. When Dutch asks about it later, he catches Kavanaugh in a lie. When Dutch tries to interview Emolia on his own, Kavanaugh interrupts and drags her out. It’s exactly what Vic would have done. Which is the point these episodes are bending over backward to make. First Claudette compares the two, and later Kavanaugh explicitly says he tried to be like Vic. But why? Which is a question for both the writers and the character, but the reason the writers are repeating last season’s Kavanaugh story is to start this season off with Vic, Claudette, and Dutch entrenched on their opposite sides, one desperate to have his extrajudicial revenge, the others hell-bent on following the law and the truth.
As for the character, I don’t think it takes too much fan-wanking to jump from Kavanaugh’s bellowing breakdown at the end of season five to this, especially if you keep in mind how seriously Vic burrowed into his head through his ex-wife. Kavanaugh has already put Lem’s life at hazard, after all, and Vic’s life means nothing to him. So, okay, fine, Kavanaugh tapped into his inner Vic—it was always there—and got caught. What doesn’t pass muster is this idea that confession sets him free. Yes, it was brave of him to be so honest about what exactly he did in the past two days to get Mackey. At the end he says he’ll face the music and then go back to his life in peace. What galls me is this man did far more than manufacture a case against Vic. For starters, Corinne loudly, publicly, courageously chips away at his integrity. “You used your badge to get into my house and then you tried to touch me. I didn’t feel safe.” But even if we set aside everything else in his intimidation of Lem, whom he somehow considered a sort of friend, that he willfully set him up to get murdered in prison is beyond the pale. Sure, given the benefit of a doubt, Kavanaugh’s probably just putting on a front for Vic at the end. A man like him probably has a lot of soul-searching ahead. But his descent didn’t begin in season six.
Once Vic and Shane find out there was no second deal with Lem—that is, Lem wasn’t flipping on them after all—everything changes. Vic jumps into high-gear, and Shane gets suicidal. Shane goes from dawdling there alone in the hallway to sitting in his car bawling his eyes out. His gun is unholstered when Danny walks up and knocks on his window, and suddenly you get faint flashbacks to Tommy’s suicide in “Cracking Ice.” Later he douses himself in gasoline trying to resolve a hostage situation with an arsonist. (Vic meanwhile jumps through the skylight, as you do.) Later he floats an interesting prospect to Ronnie. “What if, uh, what if I said that I was with Lem or somethin’? That I had a grenade from the bust, just went off by accident?” He wants to take the fall for Vic, but mostly for himself. Walton Goggins has the perfect head of hair for this, ever so slightly frantic, and his eyebrows are all contorted and turned inward. Later Vic says something dramatically ironic (you could play a drinking game with instances of dramatic irony in these episodes) and Shane looks like he’s about to cry.
Michael Chiklis has a great moment, too, when Vic shows up at Kavanaugh’s doorstep to say, “Game on.” He meticulously extrapolates from Kavanaugh’s accusation that he’s a cop-killer. Well, okay, Kavanaugh’s a cop… “That sounds like a direct threat on my life,” Kavanaugh says. Vic barely moves and his face transforms from a deep expression of rage to this surface amusement. Pity David Rees Snell suddenly having to play big stuff off Walton Goggins and Michael Chiklis. Shane’s story is easier to feel for, but Vic’s is more interesting because it’s Shane’s with a twist. He’s practically trying to get himself killed or fired or locked up, too, but where Shane’s guilty about what he did, Vic’s guilty about what he didn’t do. What he couldn’t stop. All the many ways he’s failed because Lem is dead. So he spends the day hunting down Guardo, trading some Byz Lat immigrant for him, then trading Guardo’s girl. He walks into a heavily armed Byz Lat compound with a single bullet in his gun. At the end of the day, his plan doesn’t work, exactly, but at least he evades arrest long enough to outlast Kavanaugh. The joke is that if Vic had done the right thing and gone to The Barn, he’d be on the hook for Lem and Kavanaugh would still be in business.
- “Wins And Losses” is written by Elizabeth A. Hansen and Lisa Randolph and directed by Kurt Sutter. It originally aired on 2/15/2007.
- “On The Jones” is written by Kurt Sutter and directed by Michael Fields. It originally aired on 4/3/2007.
- State of TV, April 2007: The Sopranos was airing its final-final season alongside The Shield’s sixth. So was Veronica Mars. Battlestar Galactica had just concluded its third season, though its final season was spread over the next two years. The Wire had one more to go in 2008. Deadwood was over. Lost set an end date. Rescue Me was all washed up but refused to quit. The Golden Age, at least as it was initially formulated, was burning out. But a month after The Shield’s sixth season ended, Mad Men came along, followed by Breaking Bad, and now we live in an age of perpetual gold where every new drama is ostensibly just as good as The Shield, and none of us ever has to face our mortality.
- Vic can’t understand how Guardo got Lem to show up alone. Good question!
- The junkie arsonist guy killed his buddy, to which Vic says, “Glad this guy’s his best friend. I’d hate to see what he’d do to his enemies.” Drink!
- Billings gets hurt, well, he falls down, anyway, during the Vic-Kavanaugh fight. “Jesus, I got a goddamn lump!” He’s gonna take a sick day, but since tomorrow’s Thursday, he’s gonna wait until Friday to have a three-day weekend. I really feel like we could all learn a few things from Steve Billings and Carl Weathers.
- “On The Jones” is dedicated “in memory of Scott Brazil,” who died of complications relating to ALS between seasons. Brazil was a producer/director on Hill Street Blues and The Shield most notably, and he also directed the tense, atmospheric season one episode of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, “Angel.”
- “Baptism By Fire” is written by Scott Rosenbaum and directed by Guy Ferland. It originally aired on 4/10/2007.
- Vic captures the guy he’s trying to trade for Guardo in another cool action scene. He says he just wants the kids he kidnapped, but when the guy spills their location, Vic handcuffs him to the fence. “What about letting me go, man?” “Yeah, I feel like shit about that.”
- Claudette wonders why Dutch stopped questioning Kavanaugh. “Maybe considering everything Vic’s done, you see him going down for this as some sort of karmic justice whether he did it or not…The truth may not always lead us down the path we want, but it’s the only way to fix this place.”