Spoilers for "The Shield" final season premiere coming up just as soon as I inform my employers that, from now on, I will be giving them "The Sepinwall"...
Vic Mackey is a straight-line thinker forced to live a very crooked life. He always prefers the simplest, most straight-ahead solution to any problem -- like crashing through a fence in that famous season one foot chase, or here driving his car into the Army surplus store to save Ronnie and company -- yet the rules he breaks and the people he's crossed have led him into one convoluted lie after another, to the point where I have no idea how he keeps it all straight.
I know I'm having trouble sometimes, especially lately. As I said in my column today, the plotting on "The Shield" has always been secondary to the character material, to the point where I zone out sometimes when Vic starts briefing Claudette or the strike team on the latest problem. When the acting is great on both sides (Vic vs. Antwon, Vic vs. Kavanaugh), it's less important, but I'm not crazy about either the guy playing Rezian or the one playing Cruz Pezuela. They tend to shrink when they're on-screen with Michael Chiklis or Walton Goggins, and seem irrelevant when they're off-screen, despite the huge threat they pose. And so I start to get lost in the web of lies that Vic and Shane keep spinning. Shane's lying to Vic, Vic's lying to Shane, Vic's lying to Corrine, Shane's lying to Rezian, Vic to Pezuela, Vic and Shane to Claudette, etc., etc., and there are parts of "Co-Efficient of Drag" where my head began to hurt.
(It doesn't help, of course, that, thanks to the strike, it's been 15 months since the last episode aired. But that's why "The Shield" proudly has the longest "Previously, on..." sequences in the business.)
That disclaimer out of the way, it was still a very welcome and typically stomach-churning return to Vic Mackey's world. The external conflicts provided by the Armenians and the cartel guys aren't that enthralling, but the internal war between Vic and Shane -- and the way it's drawing in Ronnie and Corrine and others as collateral damage -- is as riveting as ever. When you open with Vic and Ronnie binding and gagging Mara and threatening to kill Shane -- all with their baby in the other room! -- you know "The Shield" ain't playing anymore. (Not that it ever did, but that opening scene kicked the whole "It's so wrong" motto to a new level.)
So now all three surviving strike teamers have committed cold-blooded murder (Vic twice), with Ronnie putting a bullet into Zadofian to cover for Vic. Admittedly, the circumstances are different here than they were with Terry or Lem or even Guardo, since Zadofian represented an ongoing physical threat to the lives of Vic and his family, but there are no innocents left in that clubhouse. Ronnie went through a door that closed and locked behind him, and unlike Vic, he can't immediately shut down the guilt.
(Around the time the show killed off Lem, some readers asked whether David Rees Snell would be up to the increased screen time, since for most of the first five seasons, Ronnie was just an extra body for the strike team. His great work in this episode -- and the episodes to come -- should answer that question once and for all.)
What gives Shawn Ryan and his team (in this case, writer Kurt Sutter and director Guy Ferland) the ability to go to such dark and sick places -- Shane chopping off Zadofian's feet, Claudette and the strike team walking along that long, long, long blood smear left by the drag murders -- is that they'll occasionally relent on the darkness with some humor and/or humanity from the likes of Dutch, Claudette and Billings. It's not that the Dutch stories are any less sick than the stuff Vic is involved in (see Dutch as cat-strangler, or Granny-porn), but they're usually less intense, and that gives me a moment to breathe and brace myself for the next Vic/Shane explosion.
I can't say enough about what an invaluable addition David Marciano has been to the show as Billings in these later seasons. Not only is he funny as hell, but partnering up Billings and Dutch automatically makes Dutch seem like less of a clown than he's sometimes in danger of becoming. When Dutch has to carry Billings, it automatically gives him more credibility. Plus, Jay Karnes is funnier when he's rolling his eyes at Billings' laziness -- "Let's just call it 'The Billings'" -- than when other people are rolling their eyes at him.
So glad to have "The Shield" back, and the season only gets better and more intense as it goes along.
Some other thoughts on "Co-Efficient of Drag":
• That's at least two years in a row that the season has opened with a perfect song choice (been a while since I saw the previous season openers): last year, we got the strike team mourning Lem cut to Johnny Cash's "I Hung My Head," and tonight we get Vic and Ronnie sending Shane a message cut to Social Distortion's thrashing "Reach for the Sky."
• I have no idea if it's an actual bit of LAPD slang or not, but I continue to be delighted by the use of "greenlit" (showbiz lingo for a studio putting a movie into production) to refer to gangs putting out hits on people. Sounds clever and disgusting at the same time, like most of the show's humor. (See also Tina's "Dutch, can you fill my box?")
• While this season looks to be carrying through a lot of plot developments from last season, Dutch and Danny's hook-up gets dispensed with very briefly (and hilariously) when Danny interrupts Dutch's attempt to talk about it by telling him about the wife-killer.
• Last season was so focused on the aftermath of Lem's murder that certain storylines got pushed to the side, like the matter of Claudette's health. Dutch asking her how she's doing and Claudette complaining about her new medication was a nice reminder that one of our main characters is struggling with lupus. (If only she had gone to see Dr. House...)
• Before the writing on this season began, Shawn Ryan went back and rewatched every episode to date so he could cherrypick certain stories and characters he wanted to revisit before the end. Some of those are going to be very obvious, while others will be more obscure. Case in point: Beth Encardi, the DA in the Dutch/Billings case, appeared a handful of times early in season four, then disappeared until tonight. Ryan apparently liked her enough -- or wanted a prosecutor character around -- that actress Anna Maria Horsford appears in a bunch of episodes this season.
• Another reminder of seasons past: When Vic tells Aramboles he could do a lot worse to him in that room, it's because that's the place where he killed Guardo.
• Olivia Murray, the blonde fed (played by Laurie Holden), comes from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the same agency that gave us Kevin Hiatt last season.
• Unlike Ryan, I didn't go back and revisit the whole series, so there are going to be gaps in my knowledge. Case in point: When Olivia asked Vic whether anyone had ever taken a tumble over the Barn upstairs railing, I immediately started racking my brain and couldn't come up with an answer. Has anyone ever fallen over? Vic's answer suggested that someone had; if so, I'm sure it was startling then but I'm blanking now. Been a long run.
What did everybody else think?