"All those busts. All those confessions you got in this room, illegal or otherwise. All the drugs you got off the street tonight for ICE. You must be very proud of yourself. This is what the hero left on his way out the door." -Claudette WymsAnd, at the end of the amazing series finale of "The Shield," this is what Vic Mackey has left on his way out the door: one cop murdered by his own hands; another cop murdered by his protege; the protege having killed himself, his two-year-old son and pregnant wife; his last surviving partner doomed to life in prison because of his association with Vic; and a wife so disgusted by and terrified of him that she went running into witness protection to keep him from ever seeing their kids again.
As with "The Sopranos," the show we so often compared "The Shield" to, we didn't get either of the predicted endings, as Vic didn't die or go to prison. But the diabolical fate that "Shield" creator Shawn Ryan constructed for his anti-hero had elements of both. Vic may not be dead, but he's lost everything and everyone that ever mattered to him: his friends, his family, his reputation. And he may not technically be in jail, but his vengeful new federal boss has constructed his new job like a three-year prison stretch, with an ill-fitting suit as his uniform and a barren cubicle as his cell.
Now, I loved the "Sopranos" finale, but it was an abstract kind of love, because that show deliberately disengaged from its audience at the end, gave us a climax we're still puzzling over. "The Shield" has never been about abstractions. While it had thoughtful things to say about law-enforcement and urban life (and continued to do so through the finale), its pleasures were largely visceral. And you can't get more visceral than several sequences in the finale, which was the most satisfying end to a great drama series that I've ever seen.
Start with Vic and estranged, fugitive sidekick Shane's final showdown. Though it was on the phone, an in-person encounter couldn't have cut any deeper than the things each man said to each other: that Vic had negotiated a deal that would prevent Shane from saving his wife from prison, and that Shane knew Vic's own wife had turned against him to co-operate with police. And it was that call -- and Vic's taunts about going to visit Shane's kids while Shane rotted in prison -- that led to Shane's horrifying decision to kill not only himself, but his wife and young son, to ensure they remained "innocent."
(I take copious notes whenever I watch a show like this, part transcription of what's happening on screen, part capsule of my feelings as I'm watching, and when Shane's house was notably silent after he blew his brains out, I started typing "OH NO OH NO OH NO OH NO OH NO" over and over, realizing what Claudette was going to find when she went into the other room. Just a massive gut punch. It still upsets me thinking about it a month after first watching the episode.)
And Shane's murder-suicide led to the first of two astonishing, entirely silent scenes by Michael Chiklis. Vic's ex-boss Claudette, unable to prosecute Vic for a single one of his crimes due to the blanket immunity deal he scammed, hurt him the only way she could: by confronting him with the truth of all he had done. Ordering Vic into The Barn's interrogation room -- and insisting he sit on the side of the table ordinarily reserved for the perps -- she read to him from Shane's suicide note, then laid out the crime scene photos of Shane, Mara and little Jackson.
Chiklis has never been better than he was in that scene, attempting to shut down all his emotions, not show Claudette how much this affected him. Every mannerism -- the glazed look in his eyes, the slight facial twitches -- was perfect, especially the way that, after Claudette left the room, Vic had to roll his head down to look at the photos, as if it was just an accident that he was doing so, because if he actively chose to look at the pictures, then they're real, and they're his fault.
In that scene, and in the mesmerizing final sequence -- four silent minutes of Vic adorning his cubicle with photos of his lost loved ones, impotently watching police cars go by on the street below, and reflecting on all his sins -- Chiklis showed Mackey's tough guy façade crack ever so slightly. But in both cases, outside forces -- first Vic remembering the camera in the interrogation room, then the office lights automatically turning off at 6 -- snapped him back to attention and raised his emotional shields.
(Ryan told me that it was a coincidence that both "The Shield" and "The Sopranos" had final scenes punctuated by the lights going out, but the difference between the two shows did get summed up nicely by the way that "The Shield" continued to move forward afterwards, where "The Sopranos" just stopped.)
The finale was dominated by the death of Shane and the destruction of Vic's life -- which included another final humiliation by Claudette, as she made him watch the arrest of longtime sidekick Ronnie -- but Ryan was able to provide satisfying grace notes for most of the major characters.
Dutch, once the butt of Vic's barbs and practical jokes, now stood as the respected cop who got to slap the cuffs on Ronnie while the rest of The Barn watched approvingly. (In possibly the series' funniest line, when Ronnie asked what he was being arrested for, Dutch said, "The last three years.") He also met an interesting romantic prospect (Billings' lawyer, played by Jay Karnes' real-life wife, Julia Campbell), and he and Claudette also got to put one final serial killer into the interrogation room. Though Lloyd hadn't given it up by the end of the episode -- even after we got to hear one final entry from Dutch's Amazing Serial Killer Fact File, about how the streets of LA are literally paved with dead bodies -- it was clear his confession was just a matter of time.
Also, sadly, a matter of time: Claudette's impending death from lupus. In a moment as dignified as it was heartbreaking (CCH Pounder, like Chiklis and Walton Goggins, deserves serious Emmy consideration), Claudette told Dutch that her medication had stopped working, that, "All I have to do is deal with this pain every day, and every day that I can, I will show up. Until the day that I don't." She'll probably outlast Lloyd, and she was able to get some small measure of justice (karmic, if not actual) on Vic, but her clock is running down, fast.
Vic's old rival, cop-turned-politican David Aceveda, seems a lock to win the mayoral election after being tangentially involved in Vic's final, biggest drug bust, and it's clear he'll be just as effective at cleaning up City Hall as he was in corralling Vic -- that is, not at all.
Ryan didn't like to make the series' themes too overt, but in the finale he brought back Andre Benjamin from OutKast as neighborhood activist Robert Huggins (he first appeared in a season three episode as the owner of a comic book shop), this time waging his own fringe party run for mayor, talking about "a new paradigm" for law-enforcement and a change to the "prison-industrial complex." In the end, while Aceveda was busy doing TV interviews taking credit for Mackey's work, Huggins was shot and killed while picketing a crackhouse -- trying to effect change instead of just talking.
For a series that was as fast and loud as any in TV history, after this finale what "The Shield" may be remembered for are the slow, silent moments: Claudette and Dutch looking at the tableau of Shane's murdered family, Claudette watching Vic try not to look at the crime scene photos, or Vic stoically decorating his cubicle.
Our final image of Vic Mackey isn't of him on the verge of tears (that came earlier), but of him tucking his off-duty gun in his waistband and walking out into the night, a brutal expression on his face that said he was looking for someone to hurt. I wouldn't want to be that someone.
Some other thoughts on "Family Meeting":
• Next to the tableau of Mara and Jax lying so peacefully on the bed, the bouquet in her hands, the toy truck in his, the most disturbing part of that storyline was the small scene of Shane helping Mara go to the bathroom because she was in too much pain to even wipe herself. That's a classic example of what David Milch used to talk about with "NYPD Blue": people noticed the nudity and language, but the relaxed content standards also gave him a much greater freedom to show small, painfully honest moments in the lives of his characters. I suppose a network show could have given a version of that bathroom scene, but it wouldn't have been as explicit and humiliating, and in turn wouldn't have made it as clear just how horrible things had gotten for those two.
• For that matter, Shane and Mara's discussion about what to name their unborn baby daughter is devastating (especially on second view). Shane and Mara brought all of this doom down upon themselves, but in that moment, Walton Goggins and Michelle Hicks made you forget about the murders and just think about Shane and Mara as parents who might never get to hold their kids again.
• Clark Johnson returns, not only as director (forming a neat loop with the series pilot in the same way he did with "The Wire"), but in a brief cameo as the U.S. Marshal introducing Corrine and the kids to their new home in Rockford, Ill. (Shawn Ryan's hometown, not coincidentally.) In the closing credits, Johnson's character is identified as "Handsome Marshal."
• Some people wondered last week how Vic could have such amazing recall of every crime he needed to confess to ICE to make sure it was included in the immunity agreement. This week provided a good explanation: Vic had studied up on Shane's blackmail file (and that, in turn, inspired him to remember the things Shane forget to write down).
• I loved how much smaller Vic seemed in that suit (I suspect the wardrobe department deliberately picked out one that was a size or two too big), and how pained he looked throughout the HR reps' tour of his new hell. Note that for help, he now has to dial 912 instead of 911.
• As Shawn discusses in the post-finale Q&A, the songs bookending the episode are "Los Angeles" by X, and "Long Time Ago" by Concrete Blonde. He initially wanted the latter song to start during the final scene but was convinced (by Landgraf, I think) to let Vic's exit to play out in silence. As it is, the song and the montage of classic "Shield" moments (I had forgotten all about Shane with the earbuds) was a reminder of just how far all these characters had come (and, in many cases, fallen) since a long time ago. Plus, it forced FX to run the final credits at their full size, instead of squishing the names of all the crew people in their victory lap.
• You could argue that the three uniformed cops -- Danny in particular -- got short shrift in the finale, but Julien and Tina were involved in the very engaging, mission statement-y Andre 3000 story, so I'm okay with that. You can't fit everything in, even at 90 minutes. Shawn does talk at length in our interview about why he never revisited the matter of Julien's sexuality, and you may have noticed the moment, as he and Tina are driving to break up Huggins' stump speech, that his attention is briefly captured by the sight of a very happy and playful gay couple holding hands on the sidewalk.
• Nobody has a kind word or thought for Aceveda in this episode, do they? Huggins dubs him "Mr. Asses-veda," and Claudette wouldn't even dream of telling this clown about her illness in the way she opens herself up to Dutch. Dial back seven years (three years in show time), and I think she would have much more readily told David about the lupus than Dutch-boy.
• All the major personal stuff obscured the Beltran takedown, but it did give Vic an opportunity for one last bit of creative problem-solving -- sticking Santi's head into the poisonous snake's habitat to make him talk -- and there were some other nice action/character beats throughout, particularly Ronnie's desire to finish what they started, and Ronnie possibly saving Vic's life by warning him about the gunman in the warehouse. (Look how happy Ronnie seems when he starts talking about cowboys, and how heartbroken Vic looks when Ronnie's back is turned. Vic is a bastard for selling out his friend, but at least he has enough self-awareness to recognize what he did.) Hell of a moment from David Rees Snell as Ronnie's being dragged away by the uniforms and the entire precinct is glaring at Vic with disdain. (Also, loved his disbelief as he asked Vic, "You told them... all of it?")
• Before we screened this episode a few weeks back, everyone -- the critics, the FX publicist, everybody but Shawn Ryan -- kept getting the title confused and calling it "Family Matters." Finally, Ryan cracked, "Just call it 'Urkel.'"
• Hands up, everybody who took one look at Olivia back in the season premiere and assumed, based on the show's past history, that Vic would wind up sleeping with her. Ryan said he knew that would be the expectation, which is one of the reasons he went with an attractive blonde for Vic's ICE contact. One of the things that jumped out at me when giving the episode a second view is how often Olivia reminds Vic to report to her office at 9 a.m. sharp tomorrow, making it clear how much she's looking forward to giving him some slight comeuppance for what he did to her.
• Have I mentioned yet how much I loved this episode?
If you have the time (say, if you have a long Thanksgiving flight ahead of you) and aren't ready to let the show go just yet, don't forget to take a look at the Shawn Ryan Q&A, which addresses, among other points, his thoughts on doing some kind of "Shield" movie down the road.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com