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The Shield: “String Theory” / “Back In The Hole”

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“String Theory” and “Back In The Hole” (season four, episodes nine and 10; originally aired 5/17/2005 and 5/24/2005)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon Instant Video.)

The Shield only gets more serialized as it goes but “String Theory” is a dream of a standalone. Two officers go missing just when Shane comes clean to the Strike Team about his involvement with Antwon. Everybody has a purpose, including characters who could have sat this one out like Aceveda. Dutch and Claudette convince Monica to put them in because this is too important, and she agrees. Take that to mean what you will about Billings’ work all this season. Danny’s the one who discovers the kidnapping and gets assigned to drive Aceveda around, since he wants to help out. Julien wants to help look for the officers, too, but Monica benches him for disloyalty, leading to the momentous act of Julien defending Monica’s program to a missing officer’s wife. Meanwhile Lem abandons Vic when Shane’s exit strategy turns to talk of murder. And the Strike Team have to split up to find Angie and Antwon before their colleagues do.

The “all hands on deck” approach is overwhelming. With the entire cast on the same mission, “String Theory” immediately asserts its importance. The dynamic night lighting of anxious police lights and interrogation headlights gives the episode a unique look. As the case fractures it only gets more intense, even after Aceveda finds the bloody, handcuffed bodies of officers Carl and Scooby in a vacant, which is to say a house Monica seized a month ago. See how serialized this is? As Antwon says later, “It’s all about history.” But all the bystanders keep bringing up the same point, the dark side of this important case: How come the police only galvanize for themselves? It’s ridiculous to compare a black man’s missing necklace to two murdered cops, but The Shield is desperate to convey what Monica’s administration feels like from the other side without a single recurring citizen other than local warlord Antwon Mitchell.

There’s been a racial fault line running through the whole season. Previous seasons, too, but this time it all shakes out to black versus white. At the climax of Antwon’s stay in the Barn in “Back In The Hole,” Shane tries to goad him into at least attempted murder. He picks at the scab of Antwon’s gay son in prison hooking up with Mexican inmates and eventually pivots to the N-word. “With all that money, all that power, at the end of the day, you’re still just a nigger with a faggot nigger son!” It has more to do with what we know about Shane—a pretty racist hick when you get down to it, and here pushed to his limits—than the main race war, but keep your eye on Antwon. He sees Shane jutting his hips out, practically begging Antwon to go for the gun, he takes a breath, and then he handcuffs himself to the table. “What were you saying about my nigger faggot son?” Now that’s reclamation.

The gay component is mostly there to bolster the racism, but it’s inescapable. “String Theory” and “Back In The Hole” drop more “fag”s and “faggot”s than the whole season prior, if not series. (Vic also tries to make “cum-burper” happen. Points for creativity at least.) The Shield stacks the deck by not revealing how Antwon’s kid wound up in jail, the better to maintain his sympathy. He’s just a pawn in Monica’s game and collateral damage for Antwon. But the closest this thread comes to connecting is Shane’s “faggot nigger” diatribe. He’s trying to prey on Antwon’s presentation of himself as a family man/community leader by attacking his absentee parenting, picking at black homophobia in particular, and emphasizing the lurid details of the kid taking it up the ass rather than giving it.

Fold Julien into the homophobia and it might start to resonate, but alas. Julien tries to show some solidarity with the black civilians, but a store owner makes it clear which side he’s on: “A cop ain’t a brother.” Poor Julien’s forever stuck between two sides, but I wish I could muster more than a “Poor Julien.” It’s a combination of performance, character development, low-priority focus, and the repetitive bickering between him and Danny, but the result is Julien’s potential energy never converts to kinetic energy. Julien is just there accruing drama he’ll never perform.


By the end of “String Theory,” the cops are found dead, but we’re no closer to figuring out what happened. We do know Antwon has a suspiciously perfect alibi and that he had his main man move Angie’s body the night before. So Vic picks him up at the airport and drives him to the episode’s crackling finale, Antwon sitting across a table in the interrogation room from Monica. “Thanks for coming in, Antwon.”

So after that good, old-fashioned Shield barnstormer loses its steam—Dutch and Claudette hamstrung by politics, Shane and company coming up empty, Vic bringing Antwon in without knowing how he might react—the series expands to an hour for the battle royale: Monica versus Antwon. The show as we knew it has finally become a bunch of cardboard buildings for these two monstrous heavyweights to trample in battle.


What’s strange is that Monica’s first transgression doesn’t seem to have much to do with Antwon. She suggests to Vic that they bring in someone—not even a One Niner, necessarily, although maybe that’s the unspoken implication—for the cop killings and then report it to the press to calm the streets. It’s the first time Monica’s case for a controversial move is so flimsy. She’s putatively trying to alleviate the public security threat of a lingering state of panic, but really it’s just expediency. Which is The Shield’s whole thing, after all.

To keep The Monica And Antwon Show from feeling like an outlier, “Back In The Hole” stretches back to season three with all its airtime. Dutch and Aceveda reach almost therapeutic resolution to season three crises in reenactment, Dutch in recounting the experience of strangling the cat so as to draw Kleavon out and Aceveda in getting so rough with the call girl that he winds up putting a gun to her head and talking about her pretty mouth. She tells him, “You didn’t know they wouldn’t pull the trigger. You probably knew they would. If you fought it you’d be dead.” Maybe he’s already there, or maybe it sinks in. But he calls it off with her and goes home to his wife. Better this scar remains than Aceveda forgets all about his rape a season later, but now that we’ve seen where it goes, this call girl plot is a little undercooked.


Meanwhile Vic and Lem have a whole conversation somewhere in a quiet corner of the episode that’s just about how they wound up here. It isn’t just the Armenian Money Train and Shane leaving for Vice. Lem’s as responsible for breaking up the team as anyone. At least, that’s Vic’s argument, which is to say it’s an open question. Lem tried to do a right thing, but maybe not the right thing. To borrow a phrase from The Shield’s AMC bastard, burning the money was a half measure. And that’s why there’s still a sword dangling over his head.

The main event is set up vividly in the final moments of “String Theory” with its portraits—Antwon playing it cool, Monica licking her lips, Vic nervous about this going the wrong way—and the delicious little morsel that Monica has some aces up her sleeve. We know there’s a looming threat that could push Antwon into betraying Vic and Shane, but we don’t know what exactly it is. It’s like the polygraph Shane and Army have to take after they come clean with Monica. It sounds like the kind of thing that could sink Vic’s entire plan if Monica starts asking the wrong questions, but it turns out Shane knows exactly how to beat a polygraph; the show was just hiding its cards from us.


What happens once Antwon and Monica are done performing for Vic—and that’s what they’re doing, playing to their audience—is riveting. Monica gets downright monomaniacal. The (practically upheld) threat to transfer Antwon’s gay son to a prison where multiple convicts want revenge on Antwon is one of her uglier plans. At least there’s government housing for the old lady Monica evicted. This kid has no protection. And The Shield has quite a way with visceral violence. You can imagine what might happen to him. At the same point we find out Monica was sleeping with her old married partner, and that they framed Antwon to trump up the charges. By the end she’s isolating herself even from Vic—for good reason, at least from our perspective, but it doesn’t change the fact that Antwon has made Monica colder than ever.

Antwon deals with the revelation that his son is gay and a bottom and for Mexicans, then he enacts his plan to reveal Angie’s body, and finally he has that showdown with Shane. After such a pleasure-delaying sidestep of a season—not in quality but in plot—what a treat to have Dutch and Claudette on a serial killer case and Glenn Close, Anthony Anderson, Michael Chiklis, and Walton Goggins facing off over the course of an hour, especially Anderson, who hasn’t had nearly as much screen-time as the others. All through “String Theory” and “Back In The Hole” he’s magnetic. When Monica smiles it feels like performance. She’s a law-and-order robot after a confession. With Vic it’s posturing. But when Antwon smiles, I believe he’s the smartest guy in the room. He has his own icy moments, like when he lets on that he was behind the cop killings after all. But they hit even harder than Monica’s because he has such human motivations, ego and pettiness and even right, righteous anger.


It’s notable that the surveillance operation is what brings Antwon down. (As Vic points out, it was pretty stupid to put a hit out on a cop while sitting in the passenger seat of a cop car.) The visual distorts Antwon, presenting him as this larger than life heavy squeezing Shane in a grotesque blue-and-white close-up. He looks like a comic strip villain in newsprint. There’s some amount of police overreach pegging this to the running themes, since the camera was unauthorized but the catch is so enticing Monica’s willing to cut that particular corner. But more importantly the outcome is bound up with confession. Shane and Army coming clean is what finally gets Antwon arrested.

With nothing left to lose, Antwon tells Monica that Shane and company were dirty long before they met him, and she keeps Internal Affairs on the Strike Team. Like Lem last year, Shane only goes halfway. They finally got Antwon, but the sword is still hanging over their heads.


Stray observations:

  • “String Theory” is written by Charles H. Eglee and Shawn Ryan and directed by Philip G. Atwell, and “Back In The Hole” is written by Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain and directed by Scott Brazil.
  • Lucky Corinne’s always working at the hospital whenever anyone visits.
  • Monica visits a missing cop’s wife. “Wanda, I’m Captain Monica Rawling. He’s dead.” Jesus Christ. At least the camera takes its sweet time panning across Julien’s back, effectively blacking out for a bit to give Wanda her space.
  • Guess who has a line on Antwon’s whereabouts the night of the cop killings: Walon!
  • Vic: “This ain’t about history, jerkoff.” Antwon: “It’s all about history.” If this were on HBO, that’s another line that critics would wear out in praise of The Shield.
  • I love love love the domestic squabble that springs out of thin air fully-formed from the tension between Danny and Julien. “Only crime is how small his dick is,” says the wife. Danny: “Afraid that one’s not in the penal code.”
  • Dutch puts a hundred in the officers fund and then unscrews the lid to get change. “I need some cash…For gas.” Claudette just looks at him.
  • Ray Campbell’s face is as exciting as some subplots. Kleavon’s expressions always have me leaning in trying to figure out what he’s thinking. By the end he’s practically upfront about the fact that this is a game, that he definitely killed that woman but that Dutch and Claudette have to outwit him to win.