Back when Sylvia and I first started dating she introduced me to The Shield, a cop drama with a twist: rather than follow the exploits of typical crime fighters, The Shield focussed on a small group of corrupt officers, the Strike Team based out of "the barn" in the (fictional) Farmington district of Los Angeles. Fascinated by the show's gritty style, taut writing and above all Michael Chiklis' performance as the sociopathic Strike Team leader Vic Mackey, I eagerly purchased the first season on DVD to catch up and watched each following season as it was released to home video.
Sylvia and I watched the first five seasons together, but then suddenly, for whatever reason, I burned out on the show - not because of any dip in quality, but because the show's bleak landscape simply got to be a little too unremitting; I moved on to lighter pop culture fare for my after-work entertainment. Sylvia finished the show on her own, and it wasn't until the last month or so that I decided it was finally time to complete Vic's story. We sat down together tonight to watch the last two episodes of the final season, and now that it's all over I have no choice but to place the series in my personal top ten television dramas. But why?
While The Shield is ostensibly about the corruption of Vic Mackey and his Strike Team contrasted with the efforts of good cops to uncover that corruption while also handling the regular run of murders and assaults in the show's crime-ridden version of LA, there's a subtext - intended or not - that critiques the racial and class divides in contemporary Western culture, divides that seem to make Mackey's corruption inevitable. After all, Mackey's thuggish policing tactics, his thefts and murders don't arise in a vacuum - they're a sociopath's response to a world that offers little opportunity for decent quality of life for far too many citizens. Not that this excuses Mackey's criminal acts; far from it. The show makes it clear that Mackey's primary justifications, that everything he does is to protect his team and his family, are subordinate to his primary motivator: Mackey likes to win, whatever the cost. A skilled manipulator and bully, if he ever appears sympathetic it's because those emotions are engineered to obtain that exact response.
Against this backdrop the show also follows Latino police captain, then city councillor, then Mayoral candidate David Aceveda, the man who initially suspects Mackey of corruption, pursues him and eventually winds up tainted by Mackey - like nearly every other character who crosses the man's twisted path. Aceveda's arc, though minor in comparison to the show's throughline, nonetheless adds important thematic meat to the show. Aceveda's political career requires unsavoury compromises from beginning to end, and even if he wins, as seems likely (the show's finale doesn't portray the actual election), he's become too much like Mackey to really make the changes that the city needs. Aceveda isn't a villain like Mackey, but he was always in it for himself, and by the show's conclusion he's only grown more cynical and self-serving.
Mackey's web of deceit eventually traps him, of course, as it must in conventional Western drama, but in an immensely satisfying way; he winds up trapped in a hell of his own making, theoretically gaining immunity from his crimes but losing his friends, family and reputation in the process. And there's enough ambiguity in the final seconds to suggest that he's going to at least attempt to dig his way out; the man is, after all, a venomous serpent, and it would be against his nature to accept defeat.
The show's purest characters - Farmington chief Claudette Wyms, Detective Dutch Waggenbach and Officer Julien Lowe - escape relatively unscathed, their moral compasses intact (though Wyms is slowly dying of lupus). The series implies that they will continue to fight the good fight as long as they can, perhaps even more effectively now that they're free of Mackey's dark influence.
The citizens of Farmington, however, don't have much to look forward to. Their world is one of economic desperation, broken families, random violence and drug addiction. While the main characters of the show (or any conventional show) can at least rest assured that they'll enjoy drama and narrative closure, the nameless denizens of The Shield's world, the citizens the Strike Team and Farmington's detectives and police offers are ostensibly meant to protect, will shuffle along as supporting players in their own lives, left out of the spotlight, bystanders impotently observing the stories of more important players.
Just like the rest of us.
And that is of course the show's message, conveyed most bluntly in its splash screen by a shattered police badge: the shield cannot protect us. But if we take that metaphor a step further, perhaps it's also saying that society's current configuration, with its growing distance between haves and have-nots, no longer protects or nurtures a majority of citizens. Once again, things fall apart and the centre cannot hold. Perhaps that's assigning too much meaning to a cop show, but sometimes subtext speaks louder than text.