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“We had a deal,” says Vic Mackey to the comptroller at the start of “Recoil.” “Your daughter’s reputation for my job.” Turns out the comptroller can’t help Vic keep his job, because someone has quite a reputation of his own. Vic has to find another big brother to fight for him. The final two episodes of season six are replete with deals gone bad, quids pro quo, strange bedfellows and lots of bed-hopping. They keep repeating the same situation: one character trying to advance by leveraging two others against each other. The previous two episodes build up the world around Farmington, reducing our antiheroes to pawns. The final two episodes are about those pawns trying to pick the most advantageous side.

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One side effect of Vic and Shane working overtime is the home life suffers. The Shield has to devote so much energy to the Armenians, the Salvadorans, the Byz Lats, and now Cruz Pezuela and the cartels, that everyone else in the Barn is left with these petty work feuds. No glory for Dutch and Claudette in season six. Sticking around is victory enough for a captain of the Barn, it’s true. But Dutch gets lost in rivalry with Billings. Who started it is a question for the ages. As of “Recoil,” Dutch makes the first move by making Billings report a gay man’s murder (“a homo-cide”) to his folks instead of Tina, using the vending machines as leverage. So Billings orchestrates a magnificent revenge, playing everyone just right so Dutch shows up for a date with Tina and finds her sitting on Kevin’s lap, both of them naked and him actually spotting Dutch through the window for extra embarrassment. Respect.

When “Spanish Practices” comes around, everyone’s just embarrassed. Dutch and Billings investigate the death of a homeless man—a local legend named Miracle Joe—but it turns out to be natural causes. It’s not a mystery. There’s no answer waiting to be uncovered that will make all this make sense. Instead it’s a story about the picture in Miracle Joe’s pocket, the nephew he always said he’d visit. Reporting a death to the next of kin is how all this started. Now Dutch gives us a mature counterpoint to Billings. He actively takes it on himself to get in touch with the nephew. And he’s so moved by what the boy says, by Miracle Joe’s sacrifice for his family, that he actually cries in the locker room. It’s one of the defining scenes of the episode. Dutch is informally training a female cop the right way this time. He takes Danny, who actually has the brains and the experience for it, through the steps of a simple case with no expectation of payback. And at the end of the season, there’s a quiet, downbeat scene of two people actually connecting in the midst of all the isolated, isolating drama.

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The other side of this is the romance. Tina says Dutch had a shot, she apologizes to him, and she’s moved by him saying she has nothing to apologize for. Quite a gentleman next to Kevin, who can barely look her in the eyes the next morning. But Dutch sort of moves onto Danny. He connects with her in a way he can’t and doesn’t with Tina. And Tina sees him, but he’s not trying to rub her nose in it or anything. For once, characters aren’t behaving out of vengeance. Later Dutch and Danny hug, and then kiss, and then hug again. Without speaking, they both seem to acknowledge the kiss isn’t what they really need. The tearful embrace, that physical support is.

There’s not much resolution in “Spanish Practices.” Vic walks out on his review board hearing. Shane goes from having one Armenian faction threatening him, Vic, Ronnie, and their loved ones to having two Armenian factions against them with no escape in sight. In the end Vic catches onto Cruz Pezuela and hatches a quick scheme with Aceveda to take him down, but that’s just a set-up for season seven. The Barn stories don’t really come to a stopping point either—Billings’ suit, the various romantic pairings, Claudette’s organization of the Barn going forward—but Dutch grows a little. Or maybe he snaps out of it. Tina was his practice at corruption. That was always going to backfire. So he licks his wounds, tries to recover his integrity, and gets back to what he does best, setting the example of good, smart policework for the rest of the show.

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Over on the main side, Shane’s in so far over his head he doesn’t seem to realize he’s in over his head. He tells Diro that Vic and Ronnie were behind the Armenian Money Train and that they hate Shane because he wouldn’t help them with it, and now he’s working like a fool to protect everyone and live up to some sense of a pragmatic moral code. Why did he spill the beans? Because he wanted to keep making some of that sweet Armenian dough. Vic put a wedge between Diro and Shane at the Barn by saying he’s under investigation in connection to Antwon Mitchell. And instead of taking this graceful exit package including a generous severance, Shane wants to keep working with and for Diro, so he undermines Vic’s credibility by accidentally setting him and everyone he’s ever loved up to lose their feet. That’s our Shane! Vic makes it look so easy to be several steps ahead. Shane’s finding out it’s really not. That’s where we leave him for the season, caught between Rezian and Diro in a war he started. And all because he doesn’t know when to stop. There might be a lesson there if The Shield had more than a season left. Then again, Shane’s the one who set this final act in motion.

Vic, meanwhile, solves the San Marcos murders in an effort to save his job, not that it works. He figures out a way to get all three killers, but he gives two to the Byz Lats to try and punish appropriately. The one who gets to live is instead put through the criminal justice system, getting Claudette 11 closed murders. The rest of the Strike Team is after a violent gang initiation on Kevin’s orders. But Ronnie and Vic’s position, and implicitly Claudette’s, is the Spook Street gang initiation is tolerable in a Hamsterdam kind of way. “These assholes banging on each other keeps the rage in-house,” says Vic. That must be his justification for giving two Salvadorans to the Byz Lats. But this is different for two practical reasons and one emotional one: This is murder, this is between gangs rather than within a gang, and this is murder. It’s not something the department would or should look the other way on. Yet it sure has a way of keeping the peace doesn’t it? The Byz Lats have their scapegoats, the Salvadorans are regrouping to plan whatever it is they’re planning anyway, and neither side is taking to the streets in the meantime.

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It’s a smart little capsule to end the season on, if just one brick in the giant wall of plot the season built. Doing things the right way could have led to more gang warfare, more backyard barbecues getting grenaded, more parties being shot up. So Vic takes it upon himself to let some assholes pay for their crimes violently on the streets instead. Nobody other than Vic has to look the other way because nobody else knows about it. Except the audience. What do we think about swapping a little order for a little civil liberties violation? That’s the question that drives The Shield with its corrupt, charismatic cop.

And that’s the question on which to leave our coverage of The Shield. Steven Hyden reviewed every episode of the final season when it aired in 2008, giving an A to each of the final nine. Shawn Ryan and company produced one of the greatest final seasons of television by turning the scaffolding of season six into a roller coaster through the show’s favorite themes. “Spanish Practices” isn’t very intense, and its drama isn’t very immediate, especially for a season finale. No need to worry. Season seven immediately gets back to cop drama you feel. That’s what The Shield does best.

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Stray observations:

  • Family meeting! I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to watch the final season again. It’s the most thrilling season of television I’ve ever seen.
  • You can allegedly see Michael Chiklis in American Horror Story: Freak Show, but those of us excited about the show specifically because of Chiklis were let down by his absence from the premiere. Can’t wait to meet his character. It’s rare to see an actor who can do so much with his eyes. Walton Goggins is also still on FX on Justified. CCH Pounder is on NCIS: New Orleans. Most everyone else only pops up here and there in guest spots.
  • “Recoil” is written by Elizabeth Craft, Sarah Fain, and Adam E. Fierro and directed by Guy Ferland. It originally aired on 5/29/2007.
  • I’m gonna miss Steve Billings. “You know, I’m not gonna let you ruin my life over this vending machine thing.” Dutch: “Sure you are.”

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  • Ronnie is on a roll in these episodes. On a stakeout he tells Shane to find a buddy if he wants to chit-chat. When they go for the arrest, Shane asks, “Do I need to watch my back?” Ronnie: “Do I?”
  • Cruz Pezuela has the cell phone pic Juan Lozano took of Aceveda on his dick. “Don’t think that’ll play too well with the voters.” Vic: “Except maybe in West Hollywood.” I love you, Vic, but there are not enough groans in the world for that joke.
  • “Spanish Practices” is written by Shawn Ryan and Scott Rosenbaum and directed by Paris Barclay. It originally aired on 6/5/2007.
  • “A few minutes ago, a one-armed man was in here. He dropped off a bag with 200,000 dollars in it.” Between that and the cartel stuff going all the way to the top, I was hoping for more pulpy fun from the finale.
  • I’ll give the last words to Claudette: “I don’t want Vic. Too much cost. But I need someone with a little Vic.”

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