Spoilers for the penultimate episode (ever!) of "The Shield" coming up just as soon as I even myself out...
"Do you have any idea what you've done to me?" -Olivia
"I've done worse." -Vic
Oh. My. God.
I'm sorry. I know I'm supposed to be the articulate critic with the deep deep thoughts who can break things down on a thematic level, but I'm not sure there's any way to respond to the series-shattering events of "Possible Kill Screen" without first staring slack-jawed at the screen and going all OMG.
If you thought that the series had gone as extreme as it could with Vic and Shane each attempting botched hits on the other, and Vic turning in his badge to hunt Shane's family full-time, well, you underestimated just how ruthless Shawn Ryan and company (here led by writers Adam E. Fierro & Evan Bleiweiss and first-time director Billy Gierhart) could be.
Even within the confines of this single, unforgettable hour, I was continually blown away by how high the stakes were being raised, and how far the creative team was willing to go with these characters. As I watched this episode in a Fox screening room a few weeks ago, I had a terrible knot in the pit of my stomach as Shane was forced to snort cocaine and it became clear that his latest scam was going to end badly. And that knot only grew tighter as Mara shot and killed that random girl in the house during her clumsy rescue attempt, and even tighter as she moaned in pain and guilt at their safe house while little Jackson looked on. By the time Vic sat in that ICE interrogation room, preparing to confess to everything in order to save Corrine from what he doesn't realize is a non-existent charge -- saving himself and screwing Ronnie over in the process -- I was so tense and uncomfortable that I might have done damage to that screening room armrest if I wasn't so busy typing out every thing I saw and felt.
Even now, just thinking about that long, long, long silence before Vic opened his mouth and began his confession makes me catch my breath, and I imagine it will no matter how many times I end up watching this episode. (My guess: a lot of times.)
Much of that power comes from the seven year journey we've been on with these characters, always wondering how Vic is going to get out of his latest jam, how he's going to end up, what Shane's going to do, etc. To see Shane spiral further and further into impending doom -- now having inadvertently made his pregnant wife into a killer -- was devastating, even though he's a short-sighted, hot-headed, bigoted clown who has brought all of this misery on himself (and, unfortunately, on his family) because good guy or bad, you form attachments to people you've been watching this long.
And after waiting and wondering for years who was going to take Vic down and how, to see him apparently pull off the greatest Houdini act of his career -- to find a way to legally insulate himself from every murder, robbery and other crime he committed over a long and dirty career -- was stunning, especially since we know that he had to sell out Ronnie to do it.
But much of that power also comes from the actors. What praise is left to write about Mr. Michael Chiklis? Every time I think he's wowed me as much as he ever can, he gives a performance like the one in this episode. With Chiklis, your eyes are always drawn to that bald dome, to the muscles, the swagger and maybe the sneer, but all I can think about in this episode are his eyes. There are several distinct moments in the hour where Chiklis gives us a window into Vic's soul, and it's a terrifying glimpse each time. The first is right after he gets the news that Chaffee ok'ed the immunity deal (but before he finds out that it's only for him, not Ronnie) and you see all the relief at seeing what he thinks is the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. The second is right after he sees the cops' (fake) arrest of Corrine, which he knows he caused with all his shenanigans. It's one of the few times in the run of the series where Vic seems to acknowledge, even for a moment, that his actions might have wronged other people, and it stands in stark contrast to the compartmentalized, guiltless look on his face at the end of the episode, after he's screwed over Olivia and Ronnie and gotten himself the greatest Get Out of Jail Free card of all time.
But the thing that has haunted my dreams, that left me shaken in that screening room and the rest of the day, was that long silence before the confession. Again, some of the power of that is cumulative. To paraphrase Shawn Ryan, "The Shield" usually moves at such a helter-skelter pace that when it actually slows down to "Mad Men" speed, those moments hit much harder than they would on a more conventionally-paced series. But dammit, look at Chiklis eyes, the set of his jaw, the utterly engimatic look on his face as Mackey debates whether he can really bring himself to do this: to finally own up to every last one of his sins to someone outside the strike team, and to destroy the life of the last strike teamer standing. Just a masterclass in acting, and one of the most striking moments I've ever witnessed in any TV drama.
Almost as wonderful is the moment when we return from the commercial break (and I thank my local deity that I didn't have to sit through that the way you folks probably did) and Vic is just going on and on and on about the Armenians and everything else, and he just laughs at the memory of setting up O'Brian. These are terrible things he's confessing to, but at the same time, they're a testament to his ingenuity and sheer toughness -- Vic Mackey's Greatest Hits -- and he (and the show) can't help but revel in that confession as it keeps going and going.
And yet, just as Vic's starting to sort of enjoy this trip down memory lane, we get Claudette's arrival and her utter horror at realizing that ICE had granted full immunity to her white whale. It's one of the bigger logic leaps in "Shield" history that Chaffee or Olivia wouldn't have called Claudette to get some hint of what their new hero might be confessing to, but as we see the pain and disbelief on CCH Pounder's face -- to come so damn close to getting Vic, only to witness this? -- all question of plot logic flew out of my head. And under any other circumstances, I might have laughed off Claudette firing Dutch for his involvement in Billings' nonsense, but with only one episode to go and with Claudette at Defcon 1 like this, it sure seems like this could be permanent, doesn't it? If the Emmy voters somehow remember that this show exists when it's time for next year's nominations, Pounder needs to be near the front of the line...
...right along with Walton Goggins, because good lord does he deserve an Emmy to go on the mantle next to his Oscar. Again, Shane has done and said so many awful things, and yet I can't help but feel for him as he watches his wife moan, or as he turns down Tina's offer to come in because he fears he's taken his family past the point of no return. He's been tearing it up all season, but like Chiklis and Pounder, he took it to another level here.
And, for that matter, how about Michelle Hicks? She -- or, at least, Mara -- has been openly despised by most of the fans since she first showed up in season three, but she was superb at showing the devastation and emptiness on Mara's face as she realizes what she's done. The romantic part of their fugitive vacation is a distant memory, and now all Mara can feel is physical and emotional pain, and it's awful.
Some other thoughts on "Possible Kill Screen":
• Because the Vic/Shane stuff is so epic, the return of Lloyd and his mom almost got lost in the shuffle, but it's great to see Frances Fisher again.
• The episode's title comes from the great documentary "The King of Kong," making it the second awesome show on television in recent weeks to pay homage to that movie.
• Again, as mentioned at the top, this was Billy Gierhart's first time directing an episode of "The Shield" -- or directing anything, other than maybe a student film or three. Gierhart was the show's longtime camera operator and had been asking forever to take the reins for an episode. Shawn Ryan says he wanted to do it, then started to balk when he realized it would be such an important episode, but finally decided to let Gierhart do it. And it's fair to say he more than justified Ryan's trust. (Since then, he directed the "Hell Followed" episode of "Sons of Anarchy.")
• Last week, the show acknowledged that the other cops knew Danny was on leave while waiting for Vic to cool down, and this week, she returns to The Barn. It's not clear exactly how she decided now was the right time to return (other than maybe running out of money and/or paid vacation days), but her timing proves fortuitous, as she's able to play babysitter to Corrine's kids (and her son's half-siblings) while Corrine is locked up on the bogus drug charge.
• Even in the midst of the worst period of his life, Shane still has a knack for the one-liner, this time, right after robbing the drug dealer, noting, "People are right: Walmart does have the best prices in town."
• I love that every shady plan in the greater Los Angeles area somehow depends on the arrival of a presidential motorcade to provide cover. Frankly, I'm surprised Billings' lawsuit didn't in some way involve the motorcade.
• Note how the confession scene goes out of its way to skip over Olivia's reference to the date. The way the show's timeline works, only about two and a half years have passed since Vic killed Terry, and so the writing always has to be careful when it comes to identifying specific dates.
Finally, for the last time in "Shield" history, let me remind you: Do not talk about the previews. Do not talk about anything you've read or heard about the finale that would give things away to your fellow posters. Got it?
I'll have a finale preview of some kind (possibly including non-spoiler-y quotes from Shawn Ryan) running Sunday, and I'll have the finale review ready to post as soon as the episode ends, along with transcripts of a couple of different interviews I did with Shawn Ryan: both the group chat a bunch of us critics had with him right after we watched the finale, and a solo interview I did last week. All told, it should only take you three or four times the length of the actual finale (which runs close to 90 minutes with commercials) to read it all.
What did everybody else think?