“Trophy” and “Rap Payback” (season five, episodes five and six; originally aired 2/7/2006 and 2/14/2006)
Halfway through “Trophy” I thought sidelining Lem was a stall tactic. There’s a bug in the clubhouse now, so Lem’s not necessary for Kavanaugh’s investigation. But without the thrust of the season so far, “Trophy” starts to feel like a standalone. Vic takes down drug dealers, Kavanaugh gets an inch closer to nailing him, Dutch and Claudette do something. I can’t believe I fell for it. “Trophy” is theatre, and sidelining Lem was all part of the act.
The way the script parcels out information keeps transforming your reaction. First Kavanaugh pulls back the curtain to reveal a second bug, and suddenly there’s suspense. When it seems like Vic and Shane are going to meet Becca in the parking lot, it feels like a cop-out, but that’s misdirection. They sit down in the clubhouse, Kavanaugh’s listening, and here we go. At the end they officially put her on retainer, and that little bit of information completely turns the tables. The whole episode is like this. The camerawork has two moves, snap-zooms out and pans from person to person around a room, both about showing the bigger picture a step at a time. The recurring image is someone trying to walk through a solid barrier and suffering the consequences, like the day laborer halfway through the fence and poor Danny running into the pole. The self-consciousness of the shot where the girl’s head bursts through the driver’s side window had me grinning. It’s a very graphic version of what happens to Kavanaugh at the end. He tries to sink his teeth into Vic, show him the cameras here, here, and here, but he only gets his head through before he gets knocked on his ass. Characters play parts, they recite dialogue, there’s even a trap door containing a character upon whom the plot could turn. “Trophy” is so stuffed with theatrical tricks that I thought Peaches was putting on a show for Dutch and Claudette when she broke down crying.
What’s really going on is Vic knew about the second bug the whole time. He has Ronnie sweep for bugs daily. So they baited Kavanaugh into showing his hand and embarrassing himself. They make it look like Vic’s getting involved with the Russians, complete with Vic as trigger-man for a staged shooting. (Did anyone buy it? Even the first time around, as with Emolia, I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to do it. I knew there was a trick up his sleeve, but I had no idea how big it was.) So Kavanaugh has his men break in and arrest everyone. Up pops the dead guy, out comes Billings, and Vic reveals that they were using blanks and squibs. Kavanaugh fucked up a sting that could have led to much bigger fish, and all because he believed that Vic Macke is the kind of cop who could actually murder someone. He gives that great tsk-tsk face, the one that Aceveda talked about haunting him, making him doubt himself.
It’s delicious, but then is it? Do we want Vic to win? Kavanaugh to lose? Personally I get swept up in the excitement, but the final moment pulls back one last curtain, transforming all this into tragedy with just Forest Whitaker alone with his furniture. He flips over his table, throws a stool through the window, busts his lamp. By making this the final scene, the writers show they have their collective eye on the ball. This isn’t fun and games. This is what that caper means, an almost literal “good cop” reduced to a hulking shadow. The season pivots too. For the last couple episodes Kavanaugh’s been getting closer and closer to Mackey through Lem. Now there’s no middleman. It’s Kavanaugh vs. Mackey. And it’s personal.
“Rap Payback” shows us exactly how personal. Kavanaugh moves into The Barn, sets up shop in Billings’ newly decked out office. He has the doors taken off of the clubhouse. He puts on a creepy charm offensive, introducing himself to everyone and formally requesting their acknowledgment that he’s investigating, smiling like the fucking Joker for Becca and Corinne. Oh, yeah, he hauls Corinne and the kids to The Barn for an interview. But first he throws, well, gently tosses the book at Danny for not disclosing her relationship with Vic to her superiors, a relationship that he misrepresents to Corinne. At the end he even takes on Aceveda, threatening to take his badge and tell the press why. Kavanaugh’s so intense, so manic, and this is such obvious retaliation against the Strike Team for catching onto him, that the episode can’t help but parallel his actions with Kleavon’s.
Dutch and Claudette have had a quiet year so far. Whatever the mayhem they’ve been investigating, the presentation of their story, the mood, has been eerily quiet, slow, concerning. It feels like an old-man western, with two taciturn, set-in-their-ways superstars taking in the end of the West, preparing for their last stand. For four episodes they’ve been bickering over Claudette’s undisclosed condition, which comes out in drips. Turns out it’s lupus. She’s had it for 15 years, but it’s flaring up again. Also turns out not disclosing it wasn’t a bad decision, because now Dutch is treating her with kid gloves, and that may have contributed to the possible murder of Fatima Gardner. Sorry for all the ambiguity, but this story is still coming in drips. Even before Kleavon shows up to raise the states, I can’t help but admire the confidence of this slow, deliberate storytelling. Not only are Dutch and Claudette a moral contrast to The Strike Team, but they’re a tonal one, too.
Speaking of tone, “Rap Payback” is a pretty funny episode in that dark, vulgar, Shield sort of way. Think of the shot over a neighbor’s shoulder of Dutch sneaking around Kleavon’s house at noon with latex gloves on. There’s suspense in the presence of Kleavon, just inside the building with the potential to surprise Dutch at any moment, and there’s comedy in the way Dutch awkwardly smiles and waves at the neighor. Twice. Because that explains it. Later a uni reports the neighbor saw a prowler “wearing what he called a hundred-dollar suit.” Dutch looks at Kleavon, and Kleavon looks away, snickering on the inside. In the other story a runner darts up a hill and climbs a fence. Shane just stands there. “Hey, stop, dumbass! It’s a barbed-wire fence!” The guy quickly ascertains that fact himself, and rolls back down the hill to Shane’s feet. The Shield has such a particular way with dark comedy, a kind of twisted creativity that sometimes makes you laugh and sometimes make you wince. It’s rare to see a show with such a developed, distinct personality.
Anyway, the outlaws have shown up and Dutch and Claudette get kicked into high gear. When Fatima disappears, your stomach just drops. Does this have anything to do with Dutch going to their house? When Dutch realizes Kleavon could have just noticed the missing bloody shirt and killed her for that, he’s relieved, because it lets him off the hook. That’s The Shield. Ray Campbell remains one of the great guest actors on this show. The way he plays Kleavon is so multivalent as to be opaque. He throws so much at you you can’t figure him out. (Beyond knowing he’s definitely guilty, that is.) So there’s a hint of menace to his interrogations, like he’s the cat, even though there’s nothing solid to say so. When he storms out saying he’ll find his sister on his own, Dutch and Claudette both look at each other. If he already knows where she is, where is he going? A uni tells them where. A woman in her late ‘40s was found strangled. They find the body with evidence of rape. And her hair has been cut to resemble Claudette’s. Kleavon may be toying with Dutch, but he’s unquestionably upset by his partner.
To be continued, as usual, but that’s not just shock for shock’s sake. Ordinarily an episode would end with the sword over Lem’s head. Then it switched to Kavanaugh. “Rap Payback” brings the danger back home. Corinne confesses to the bag of cash Vic gave her, no questions asked. After an episode of being too distracted by actual work to keep up with Becca, Corinne, and Aceveda, Vic stands there staring up at Kavanaugh, a far cry from his cocky attitude the week before. And now Claudette might be in danger, too. The caper was fun while it lasted, but the pall over the season hasn’t gone anywhere.
- “Trophy” is written by Kurt Sutter, Renee Palyo, and Tony Soltis and directed by Philip G. Atwell, and “Rap Payback” is written by Charles H. Eglee and Ted Griffin and directed by Michael Chiklis.
- “Trophy” is bookended in total whoppers. The second one is Vic tut-tutting Kavanaugh for believing he could be capable of murder. But the first is Emolia telling Kavanaugh she wants out. “I don’t want to do this no more. He’s been good to me,” she says of the man who had a knife to her throat an hour earlier.
- Lem’s puking blood and swilling Pepto. Very Sopranos to show physical manifestations of emotional distress (Tony in “Funhouse,” Carmela in “Whitecaps,” Adriana throughout).
- Billings has some vending machines installed. How nice of him.
- Becca walks up. Shane: “You hittin’ that?” Vic: “No, I hired that.” Great, droll delivery, and telling Shane reaction: “Should I get my own?”
- “It’ll be okay. Dutchman’s got a plan.” Dutch is next-level embarrassing.
- Ever since starting these reviews, I have been anxiously awaiting the glory hole rat traps. Arguably the squirmiest subplot on The Shield, which puts it high in the running for squirmiest subplot television-wide.
- “Dad, what the hell’s going on?” “Don’t talk like that.” Priorities.
- Danny tells Vic about her pregnancy. “The dad doesn’t know. I think it’s better this way. I just, I don’t think he could handle this right now.” Guesses?