The following transcript comes from two different conversations with "The Shield" creator Shawn Ryan: a two-hour-plus chat he had with FX president John Landgraf and a half-dozen TV critics immediately after we watched the series finale (click here for the finale review), and then a solo phone interview last week that ran about an hour. Because Shawn talked for so long, and because both conversations bounced around frequently, I'm combining the two and rearranging the Q&A by topic rather than by chronology. All questions from the group chat are paraphrased and appear in italics; questions from the phone interview will be italicized and bolded.
When did you come up with the endings for Vic and Shane?
We spent a lot of time figuring out, and I would say, right around the third or fourth episode of this season, how we wanted to end it. I've actually had in my head for a couple of years, the idea of Vic in a suit, in an office somewhere, consigned to Hell. I knew that, but I had no idea how to get there. But we figured out the Shane stuff, and the family stuff, and we had to figure out how to get there.
The thing I kept talking to the writers about, once Shane and Mara went on the run, was for Shane and Mara to become closer. In a strange way, it becomes a romantic tale between them, while Vic and Corrine get torn apart. They meet different fates.
That's a really uncompromising choice on Shane and his family.
You don't do something like that idly. I have two kids. But there are people who do that, and they think they do it for the right reasons. We were writing that in the summer and fall of last year, and there was that wrestler last year, sort of steroided out. It's such a f---ed-up mindset that exists in some people, that we're better off together than torn apart in this world. In a way, I'm sort of glad we were on strike (when the finale was shot), because I would have had to go watch that scene. It was tough. Walton was so seminal to the show.
There was a lot of discussion about Shane and how his fate would end. We figured out around episode 3 or 4 what we wanted to do, and we got on a call with John (Landgraf) and the people with Fox TV, our studio.
I do remember that, that's the first moment I thought, "Well, this could work." Because in the bubble of the writers room, you usually have a pretty good idea whether something works or not, but the ones that are really out there, until you expose them to some people you're not sure. And this was a pretty heavy thing: "We want Shane and Mara to go on the run, and ultimately he takes his own life and he takes their lives in an effort to keep them from being captured and to keep them tog as a family."
What was it like to watch those episodes again with us?
It's obviously been a special show for me, but it's nervousness, even knowing what's coming, and I'm really impressed with the actors in this, like that scene with Claudette and Vic at the end, where she lays the photos out, I still get goosebumps watching that. Michael barely says a word in that scene. In fact, I'm not sure he says a single word, but just watching his face and reaction to all that (was incredible).
I've always been incredibly lucky, I take great pride in the scripts, and the writers and I work very hard on the scripts, but these episodes turn out better than the scripts because you can't just write, "Vic gives a mesmerizing look for 30 seconds." You have to trust your actor to do that, and we're just so lucky to have all them and to see them play, and then to have someone like Andre Benjamin come for this episode and play that stuff, that was great.
Is all of Andre's talk about "a new paradigm" supposed to be a mission statement for the series?
We've never tried to comment too much but you give yourself maybe a little license in the finale to say something through a character. A lot of that story was inspired and helped by Chick Eglee, who is the old pro on our staff who really came up with a lot of that stuff. We all know there's something wrong with how the system works and different people have different ideas what to do about it, but his was an interesting, occasionally rational voice.
Why doesn't Dutch get a win?
Don't you think Dutch is going to win with that kid at the end, do we have to see it?
We cast his wife in real life, Julia Campbell (as Billings' lawyer). That was my little hint that that should work out well for Dutch.
What were the songs used at the beginning and end of the finale?
Those were two LA bands: X's "Los Angeles" at the beginning, and then Concrete Blonde at the end, that song is called "Long Time Ago." I'd always envisioned that Concrete Blonde song ending the show, and the first cut I sent John, the first cut I did that I sent him, I started that Concrete Blonde song over like the last 5 seconds that you saw Vic putting on his jacket and leaving, and I did it because over last 3 years I thought I want to end the show on that song, that song has always spoken to me in terms of this show.
It's really shocking to see those moments of intense silence, like Vic sitting at the interrogation room table before he confesses.
We have done it before. The thing I always say is that if you have a real breakneck pace show, which we tend to have, that those moments when you decide to slow down and just live with someone, they stand out more. My guess is they're probably not as long as you think, but because show usually goes rip-roaring along, when we do slow down for something like that, that they stand out.
Do you view what happens to Vic as a fate worse than death?
As a shark and a survivor, no, I think as long as a shark's alive it can find some place to swim to, I think this is a bad situation for him, and I don't think he's gonna enjoy those three years. The tank's very tiny at the moment.
The other thing, and I've always had this in mind for a number of years because, some people would write, whether it was fans or some critics, about "How many bad things can these cops do and not get caught?" I realize, you do research, there was a group of Chicago cops, one tried to put a hit out on another cop because he was afraid that the guy might turn, and I read about a guy who was doing this kind of stuff for like 11 years. And there was always one common ending to those stories that I found, and that was one of the cops eventually turned on the other cops, to lessen their own load. And so I always had in my mind that as much as a team guy that Vic would be -- and he would not do this until it was his last resort, but he would do it -- is that he would sacrifice somebody like Ronnie for his own freedom and safety. And of all the police corruption scandals I investigated, they all end with one of the cops eventually turning on another.
And he winds up betraying Ronnie.
He's the classic scorpion on the frog, Vic. I think that they can work this way, they can talk any frog into the trip across the river, but then he stings and in some cases he does that in an episode and in other cases it takes 7 seasons to do it.
I don't think he relished doing it, I think he felt bad about doing it, but ultimately there is a real kind of selfishness that exists there.
Vic had the opportunity early in that second to last episode to screw him, and didn't. It was only when he had to make a choice with the mother of his child, that's when he screwed him. I don't think Vic would do it out of simple self-preservation; he would have run. But he knows his autistic kids can't run, his family can't run.
And he gets away with everything.
That's why I like that ending, is he kinda does and he kinda doesn't.
But everybody knows what he's done.
Yes, and his self-image is important to him, but he's not in a cell next to Antwon Mitchell, like Ronnie is. He's not dead by his own hand, the way that Shane is. He's not dead by the hand of another team member, the way that Lem is.
I never had any doubt if there was one person to skate on the whole thing, that it would be Vic, that Vic was just that step ahead of everyone else.
Had you envisioned any other endings earlier? Did you ever consider Vic dead or Vic in jail or even Vic, somehow, someway, keeping his badge and triumphing completely?
We talked about a lot of things, because you want to explore all possibilities. Even though I had that thought of Vic caged in some office, I wasn't sure if there would be a good way to get there. While it was a place I could see as a signpost ahead. The way the story broke for us, it seemed the right way to go.
But would you have been okay with a version where Vic died, or where he got away with it?
That's a tough one. I'm just trying to go through my mind, the various blind alleys we went down. I really kind of felt like we let the story discover itself. We didn't try too hard to pigeonhole an ending and work towards that. If we found something that worked for us -- I investigated briefly the idea does Vic die but appears to die heroically, and the image the city is left with from a PR standpoint is sort of "Hero cop gives life for toddler in burning house," or whatever the equivalent would be. I thought there was an interesting possibility there, that the way we're remembered isn't the way that we were. But that didn't feel as good. But if the right story came where Vic got away with it, or went to jail, or died in the line of fire, I wouldn't have been afraid to do that.
So it's fair to say that you weren't trying to make a thematic point, but just let the story and the characters dictate where things should go?
That's a good way of putting it, yes.
Vic's confession just goes on forever, doesn't it?
In the first draft there were more, and then we cut them back, seriously it went on longer. But it was just from a plot point of view: we needed to clear him, so he had to say them all. I mean, the audience has seen everything he's done, they know that there's a litany.
I remember when I first saw the cut, like this is something an actor does that you just don't script, but when we came back from commercial break and Vic's remembering, and he has that little laugh, the way that you would remember how your kid threw up on an amusement park ride, "Oh, yeah," but he's talking about some awful things. It's such a great moment for Michael.
THE SHIELD: THE MOVIE?
The series ends with Vic alive and relatively free, and while you strongly hint at what's to come for Claudette and Dutch and some of the others, could you ever see yourself revisiting this world in some form a few years down the road?
Possibly. I might be interested in where Vic Mackey is when that three years with ICE is up. I don't think it would be as a TV series. I don't know if anyone would want to make a movie of it. Again, we're not a "Sopranos," "Sex and the City"-esque hit, but we've also made our shows cheap and dirty and it's done well overseas, so that's something I could investigate.
But if anything came out of it, it would only be after giving FX the ending the series deserved. We did not leave anything out in order to preserve the opportunity to do something like that.
So do you ever think about what the characters are up to after the events of the finale?
I do. I envision Ronnie with a shaved head, probably having to sidle up to some of the white supremacist crowd to stay alive, so that might be interesting to see.
GOOD GUYS AND BAD GUYS
We talked a lot over the years about how some fans refused to judge Vic and Shane no matter what they did. And it felt like this season, there was a concerted effort on your part to make their actions so extreme that there would be no doubt left as to exactly who and what they were. Was that your intention?
I'm not sure I agree with you. I'm sure there will be plenty of fans who will work hard to find ambiguity. I don't want to dictate how people think about Vic Mackey. I had my ideas, and those ideas worked their way into the writing, but there's ways for people to watch and argue and have different opinions, but it just felt like the story demanded more desperate measures on both their parts. Obviously, those guys are capable of it, and this season they were placed in a position where they had to do that.
I think the reaction was specifically strong after we got to the episode where we found out that Vic was ready to kill not only Shane, but Mara and the unborn baby.
Would he have? He had the shot, but you could see that he was hesitating. it was a tough one. I talked with Michael a lot about that moment, and how it should play. "Is he certain, is there some element of doubt?" What was fun was putting Vic and Shane in a position of, "It's you or me." There really wasn't a way for both of them to get out of this.
If Vic doesn't taunt Shane about going to visit Jackson while Shane is in prison, does Shane do what he does to his family?
Possibly not. And that was intentional, and I think that's part of what goes through Vic's head as he's going through those (crime scene) photos later in the episode. I think one of the things that people always liked about Vic was that he had a code and that he was true to that code, and that the code allowed for a lot of creative rules and breaking of laws, but oftentimes there was a greater good there. I think Vic -- you're getting me to talk about this more than I would like to -- Vic has a harder time at that table justifying his code when he looks at those photos and thinks about that phone call. But he lives with it for a minute and then he turns it off. And then he looks at the camera and realizes he probably let someone see something he didn't want to be seen, and he compartmentalizes again and turns it off.
I know you don't like to talk about what it all means, but one of things that struck me in watching this season, there were a lot of moments where Vic and Ronnie and Shane are busy cleaning up one mess after another with the Armenians and the Mexicans, and there's Julien in the background getting actual work done, to the point where it becomes a problem for them with their extra-curricular activities. Were you trying to make some kind of point about what the strike team could have been if they hadn't been caught up in all this other stuff?
I think that was a byproduct. I don't think I'd call that an intention. It seemed like that's the cop Julien would be. I think it was episode six where the attempted hit on Shane and the Armenians went down, they were counting on being with Julien and not getting much done, and Julien kept coming up with clues. What was always fun about "The Shield" was you could tell those stories, and you don't see those stories on "Law & Order" and "Without a Trace." Those are the best stories to tell: Julien's just getting a little too much done. That's a conflict you don't see on other shows. We were always trying to look for those things: what were those stories you can see on "The Shield" and don't see on any other show? When you take those dynamics, the rogue band of cops, you look for those stories that those characters open up that you won't see anywhere else.
You've said often that you wrote the pilot without ever
expecting it would be made, and that you made it without ever expecting it would go to series, let alone a series that would run this long. With 20/20 hindsight, if you had known what the show would become, is there anything you would have done differently with that pilot?
Boy, I don't know. I know you and I have had conversations about, "Is the Vic Mackey who shot Terry Crowley in the pilot the same Vic Mackey who exists in the series afterwards?" Different people have different opinions about that. I think it worked. Maybe I would have held it back in episode two if I knew we would be on, but when we made that pilot, you have no such assurances. You have to establish who your character is and what the dilemma is. If we had some assurance, it would have been cool to have Reed Diamond on the show for four or five episodes and see Vic and Shane wrestle with what to do. Certainly, there could have been a very good story to tell about that -- maybe they try to set Terry up so he loses his job before he can rat on them. But that's just me thinking right now about it.
Since this is the final time we're going to discuss this, was there any point in the run of the series where you said to yourself, "Man, I wish I hadn't made Vic kill a cop way back when, because it kind of gets in the way of the point I want to make here?"
Any stories or other decisions you wish you had a mulligan on? Stories you wish you'd spent more time on?
I know (John) Landgraf disagrees with this, but I still don't know that we gave a total 10 to the Glenn Close character and situation. She was so good that I figured a lot of people rolled with it and there were some good episodes in that season. But when I look at what a clear take we had on season five with Forest's character, or the clear take we had in this final season, or season one, or the money train storyline, I don't think we ever had as full a grasp of exactly what we wanted to do with Glenn. It was a great character, I think, we got off to a good start. We weren't trying to make her a mortal enemy of Vic, the way we did with Forest Whitaker, the way we were able to do in the final season with Shane, and it made the storytelling tougher. I'm honest enough with myself to know that we didn't have as complete a clear take as we did in other seasons. I don't know that audience members would agree with that, but that's my take, if I'm being brutally honest with myself.
Were there any people you wanted to bring back for this final season but couldn't?
The one person that I wanted to use in this season that I couldn't was Franka Potente. We had a little mini story arc that was going to deal with her character, but she was stuck in the jungles of Bolivia or something filming "Che" for Steven Soderbergh, in like this never ending film session, she really wanted to come back, we had like a 2-3 episode thing that was gonna incorporate her, it would have complicated the Armenian-Mexican thing, it would've made you so happy, Alan.
We were always looking for excuses to bring Anthony Anderson back but there was just no right story this year. We've been talking about bringing Army back, Michael Pena, and he had wanted to do it for awhile but people keep hiring him to do movies so we haven't been able to get him.
People still ask about Julien's struggle with his sexuality and Dutch strangling the cat. Why did you decide to move away from both of those stories?
Julien, we covered that a lot in the first two seasons. And I felt like at that point, we'd investigated every alley we could with that. The place we got with Julien -- married, being a stepfather to this kid, really clinging to his religious convictions -- it seemed to me like this was a guy who would live that life for 8-10 years before it all came crashing down. In the storytime we were telling everything else, it didn't seem real that he would backslide so quickly. I'd done a lot of research on these people who come out of the closet after 20 years of marriage. That seemed to be the real thing. I really took very seriously Julien's issues of faith, and it felt to me in some ways he was a very strong guy, in some ways, he was weak, but one way he seemed strong was I thought he would resist this for a while. I do read the forums, and I know people ask what's going on, and I did want to throw that little ode, in the finale, you see him watching those two gay men holding hands and walking to that thing, that was my acknowledgment that that struggle and that chapter isn't closed just because the show's ending. It's a small grace note that casual fans may miss, but the hardcore fans might not ignore it.
As for Dutch and the cat, I always viewed that as a one-episode story. I was sort of surprised when people watched it, and most people really loved it. Dutch strangling the cat and Aceveda getting sexually assaulted are the two things people always bring up to me on the show, or Lem's death. I think it was so impactful for a lot of people, and they're so used to impactful things on "The Shield" carrying over, that I realized after the fact that people were expecting that, and by then, we'd moved on. I just saw it as Dutch stuck in an interrogation room with Clark Gregg, thinking he's manipulating this guy, but Clark Gregg's manipulating him and using Dutch's insatiable desire to understand these people. I thought it was clear the way Jay played it that he felt used at the end. I never felt like it was played as, "Oh, I'm really getting juice out of this." People have compared Dutch to Bayliss (from "Homicide"), and they did a storyline on "Homicide" near the end where he got really fascinated with that stuff and killed someone, and I didn't want to cover any territory that Tom Fontana and those people did so well.
THE BARN TIMELINE
What kind of timespan did all these events take place over?
What we started figuring out was that a typical "Shield" season would take place in about 3-4 weeks time. We did our best to try to make sure that everything was accurate, time-wise.
Were Vic's kids played by the same actors all the way through?
Believe it or not the only contract dispute that I was unable to successfully resolve in my history with "The Shield" was for the kid playing his son Matthew, and we recast that. I think it was season 3, sort of like "The Partridge Family" swapping out drummers. Obviously the kids have grown, that's an area where you could probably catch us if you went back.
But we did figure out, we referenced it at the end, it was about 2 1/2-3 year period, the total scope of the show.
Then Aceveda had a really meteoric rise in that time, from new precinct captain to mayoral frontrunner.
Or Barack Obama in that time.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN, AND HOW DO WE GET THERE?
(Landgraf gives a long monologue comparing The Shield with Shakespeare.)
I think John gives me a little too much credit, I mean the reason why I think John and I have a good relationship is, you see how smart John is right there.
I tend to be much more of am instinctual writer, and I think where the partnership was really good for us is that he really thought in these terms, and he really pushed me to see the series as a five-act Shakespearean kind of drama and where would that go. I don't think I would've thought of that in my own terms.
I always just would sit in the writers room and think, "What's cool?" And I don't mean what's cool like what's trendy, what's "Gossip Girl"-y. I mean "what's cool" is what gives me a little jolt in my heart watching something on TV, what feels right, what feels authentic, what feels surprising, and to sort of take that instinct, which I think myself and the writers were good at getting, and filtering it through a plan that John suggested to us, of thinking of it as five-act tragedy, is what led me there.
I will take credit for one decision I made early on that I think benefited the show tremendously, and that was after that first season where we got a lot of praise, we won some awards, my first instinct at beginning of the second season was I said, "I think the success of the show will come from going smaller rather than trying to go bigger."
Meaning, that, there was a lot of ass-kicking and out there sort of stuff. And it's not that the show didn't do that again, but the show to me became more and more and more personal to the characters over the years, and that's why I think we were able to keep it going. And it got to that point of being so personal that literally in these final two episodes you have whole segments which is just the camera on an unspeaking character and yet you've lived with them and gone through the journey with them for so many seasons that you understand what they're thinking, even if you don't necessarily empathize with them.
And I think that was a key to the longevity of the show, was not trying to say, "Boy, you know, we did all this outrageous stuff, what can we do that's more outrageous?" I think the show became less outrageous over the years, and I think if we had gone the other direction I think we would have flamed out quicker.
Vic sometimes seems like a superman, doesn't he?
There is definitely a heightened aspect to it, and this is the difference I think between "The Wire" and "The Shield," "The Wire" strives to be utterly sort of journalistic. I've always come from a place as a fan of TV from looking for that I like to say cool, sort of entertaining thing. And so I fully acknowledge there are aspects of Vic that we always tried to keep in the believable, but were in the high portion of the believable and of what was cool. But Chiklis will tell you, once every couple of months somebody would come up to him and say, "I'm a police officer and I know a guy like that!"
But he needs no sleep, has instant recall of everything, and has a Huggy Bear on every corner to provide him with tips.
But the Huggy Bears on the corner allowed us to tell the story the way that I wanted to tell it. There's very little exposition on the show a lot of times. And you get to a place where you just assume, Vic knows someone, I don't need to know the three steps. There were a couple scenes that got cut from finale, and I don't think you missed them, because you're used to going along with Vic for a ride, and you assume that when Vic walks into a bar and there's the bad guy that he wants to talk to, you don't wonder, "Well how does he find him?" You figure, "Well, he took two or three steps, I just didn't see it," and we trust that he's that guy.
But it's also a shortcut storytelling wise, it's how we were able to show so much plot, that you don't need to see every single step, I'm not saying it's a bad thing, but on "CSI" or "Law & Order," they take you A-B-C-D-E, you know, all the way down, but to me their episodes end on F or G. Our episode goes from A to Z, but we're skipping letters of the alphabet, which I really think is cool
We showed Vic doing the laundry once and I didn't get a lot of fan mail, so never again.
This is a difference I think between this show and "The Sopranos," and if there's one reason I avoided those kind of stories, it's because I didn't think I could tell those kinds of stories as well as David Chase and company did. I can't tell -- it's not I can't, maybe I could, but it's not my strong suit -- the "let's talk over making a sandwich and in three minutes we're going to have subtle inferences that lead to minor discoveries of each other."
Late in the run, Vic tells Beltran a story about his grandparents, and before he gives his confession, we hear his full name for the first time ever. We really knew very little about these characters' lives before the series began. Why was that?
David Mamet always talks about backstory being bulls--t in his mind, but I definitely had adopted that attitude before I heard it out of David's mouth. As a storyteller I think I'm a little bit like a shark -- I'm about going forward. And there are certain ways that I ran the show, I would like to think a lot more benevolently than how Vic operated in that world, but the way I ran the show was very similar to the way Vic approached things, and that's where a lot of those stories came from. You know a lot of our episodes, the stories were broken at 11 o'clock at night with deadlines, that "We gotta do this, failure is not an option, what we have is only mediocre right now, you turn it on and you get it done." And those scenes of reflection, you always talk about Vic not liking to be self-reflective, I guess I didn't as a storyteller like to look back too much to the past.
Was it difficult to write the last episode?
This last episode was by far the easiest thing to write on "The Shield," ever, and I don't mean that in some sort of glib way. It's the building up and setting up to get there. I wrote the entire Shane and Mara story in about 2 hours, at my house. The way we always ran "The Shield" is we would tackle the stories, we'd never try to write in order. So I wrote the entire Shane and Mara saga as one document, the entire Vic-Beltran drug takedown as another. Some of my writers contributed scenes in some of those because we were heading towards a deadline, and the one thing I tend to be very good at is figuring out how to integrate them together, how to put them together, within an episode. So once all those dominoes were put in place, that last one went very quick. It just felt like I just had to push the first one and it all fell.
It's those middle episodes where you're trying to conclude the Armenian-Mexican business and you're launching Shane and Vic, and what are we doing with them in The Barn, how are we getting there, those are hard. But once we knew where we were going, we had everything set up, now you've just got to write, you can have fun with it, and write this long scene where he has to wipe her off after going to the bathroom.
I didn't mean to be glib, it's always hard to write things, but that one was easier than most, I think
IN THE BEGINNING
Other than him being physically different from the "Harrison Ford type" image you had in your head, how did the casting of Michael change your original conception of Mackey?
More charismatic. Obviously, you're looking for a charismatic star to play a role. But he made Vic more likable than I thought of him. I thought of him as more of a hard-edged guy, not the guy who would smirk and crack a joke. That inspired me to write Vic that way going forward. He could be hard as nails, but when he wanted to charm you, he could charm you. It's what made people root for him even when they shouldn't.
Charles Wyms became Claudette Wyms when you cast CCH Pounder. Were any other characters changed significantly, either through casting or just over time?
A lot of the times, the casting informed me of who they were. Shane did not have much to do in the pilot, and I give credit to Kevin Reilly at FX. I had initially put forward a different actor for Shane to be approved. He was more a straight ahead looking guy, since I thought Vic would be the Harrison Ford kinda guy, maybe we need that kind of guy but younger as Shane. But Kevin rightly said, "The character doesn't have a lot to do in the pilot, we want someone who'll be an instant character," and we said, "We had this guy who was really good, but there was something a little off about him." That was Walton.
I had no idea how good Walton was when we cast him. Then I saw "The Accountant," the short film he made with his friends that would go on to win an Oscar. I realized this guy is really good, and we wrote him a real big thing in the second episode where Aceveda's interrogating him about Terry's death, and it's that sort of kismet that has really helped the show.
What was the purpose of the B and C stories and Dutch and Claudette, and Danny and Julien? Was it just to lighten the load on Chiklis by making it more of an ensemble show, or was there a thematic point you were trying to make by switching from Vic's latest shenanigans to the work of cops who, for the most part, played by the rules?
It was partly that. It's funny, you probably don't pick up on this, but the show is pretty similar structure-wise to "Nash Bridges," which is where I got my start. The execution may be different, but on "Nash," I got very good at was breaking stories, and sort of balancing, "Nash is over here in the A story, Joe is in the B, and this is how they intersect." I always loved that way of storytelling. I felt like the strike team stories had the impact they had because they weren't taking up an hour of story with them. I see a lot of procedural stories on TV where they have the one case they're trying to solve for the hour, and there are always scenes that drag, that you need to fill out an hour of television but aren't interesting. We always looked at it as, what's the fewest number of beats we need to tell the story?
Also, I wanted to have some balance to these police officers, for every Vic and Shane, there's a Dutch and Julien and Claudette. I was interested in telling those stories as well, how good well-meaning cops can get the job done or not get the job done.
One of my readers suggested there are basically two distinct arcs to the series: everything before Vic robs from the money train, and everything after. That before the theft, Vic is ascendant, can do anything he wants, is largely breaking the law to make money to provide for his family, and after the theft, he's just caught in this downward spiral of trying to cover for the last bad thing he or Shane did. Would you say that's accurate?
I should have had that guy on staff, probably. It's an astute observation, and not one I was aware of at the time. Them looking at the money on the table, and the look of concern coming over their faces of what it all means was a huge turning point. But they still could have gotten away with it, so maybe you extend it to Lem burning the money, where that's the team coming apart, it's all sort of out there and up for grabs, and by season four, Shane's off working on his own and gets tied in with Antwon Mitchell.
I did think that there was an expiration date that we had to be careful of with the Strike Team just blithely going around kicking ass. If you look at real-life incidents like the Rampart scandal, one in Chicago, these guys did pull it off for a number of years. I read about the Chicago cop who was on this 12 year run of taking bullwhips to suspects. I never got the bullwhip into the show.
In real life, there's enough people wiping things under the carpet and enough getting done or however. But I did feel that at a certain point, Vic had to go a little from being a hunter to being the hunted.
THE GREAT ESCAPES
Which came first: the jeopardy, or the escape from it? When you would write Vic into these various messes, particularly the season-long ones, did you always know going in how he would get out of it, or was part of the fun to figure it out at the same pace as Vic?
We figured out the problem first, and then we'd spend three days trying to figure out how to get out of it. What's the tightest box you can get into, what's the biggest moral dilemma you can put your character into? David Mamet keeps talking about -- and I realize I'm quoting Mamet a lot lately -- how good drama and conflict isn't choosing between right and wrong, it's choosing between two wrongs. We did a lot of that on "The Shield." I think a lot of times, choosing between right and wrong, Vic would choose the right. But he wasn't afraid of choosing between two wrongs.
I don't know that we're quite as bad as what I hear about "24," they really write themselves into a situation and then have to figure out how to get out of it at the last possible minute. We were a little bit of that: What's the situation we want to put Vic into, how do we get him out of it, how does it fit into the larger arc of the season? That's why Vic's a compelling character: it takes a group of writers three days to figure out how to get out of a situation, and it takes him ten minutes of screen time to do it.
THE SHIELD: IT'S SO WRONG
When you said you wanted to offer people something they couldn't see anywhere else -- is that what led to some of the more graphic imagery and storylines?
I could blame Kurt Sutter for that stuff. Believe me, there's a lot more pitched, more explicit that we talked about in the room than we put on screen. But it really came from a place of me encouraging the writers, "Don't censor yourself. I'll be here to censor you if you go too far. Just try to come up with the best story, and if it requires us to do something that feels a little shocking, and we can justify and earn it, then we can do it." The writers probably relished it, and would push a little too far in early drafts, and I thought I had a pretty good head for pulling it back. Or we had a really cool idea and thought we had to build up to it and earn it. Vic burning Armadillo's face against a stove in season two, we really built up Armadillo as a really vicious villain where we got to this place of Vic doing it. I would not have done that story of Vic burning a guy's face on a grill if it was just some guy.
When did Chiklis coin the whole "The Shield: It's so wrong" catchphrase?
That was mainly an actor thing, not a writer thing. When Clark (Johnson) directed a batch of two episodes that aired as numbers 3 and 4, while Clark was back filming again, they came up with that. That was a phrase I would hear bandied about on set a lot more than in the writers room. I never wanted to take the attitude that we were trying to be wrong for the sake of being wrong. It amused me that Michael and the actors used that phrase, it was their way of embracing whatever the script sent them.
Were there ever moments, either from the actors on set or from Cathy at home, where people would seem taken aback by the nature of the material?
Only in the first season, before anyone saw any episodes. I remember Catherine Dent almost got physically ill over the "Cherrypoppers" episode, about underage prostitution. No one had seen anything, and she was, like, "You can't do this on TV." I just tried to calm her down and said, "Listen, your job is to act, my job is to write, and you have to trust me." And she came back to me a couple of months later, once everyone was seeing the episodes, and said, "Oh, I get it now."
WHO KNEW WHAT AND WHEN?
How far in advance did the actors know about what was going to happen to their characters?
Usually when they got the scripts for the episodes where those things happened. I would get accused of being overly secretive. But there were two reasons for doing that. One was, I'd often change my mind about where a story would go. I didn't want to promise an actor, "Oh, this moment's going to happen," and it didn't. And also, it's difficult sometimes for actors in an ongoing serialized kind of show. There are certain things where I felt it was important to say, "We're building towards this in a few episodes," but I didn't let Walton know his character was going to do what he was going to do. He read it in a script -- that was a little different because he was in Italy filming the Spike Lee movie - and I think, as great an actor as Walton is, it would have been more difficult to play those scenes squatting in the house, playing the piano and barbecuing burgers, if he knew he was going to kill his family and himself. Michael, in the final episode, has the scene where he stops by the house and says goodbye to the kids, he doesn't know that's the last time he'd see them. But Michael had read the script, and there was a couple of takes where he played it a little bigger, even though Vic is supposed to have no idea that this was a goodbye.
What was Walton's reaction when he got the finale script?
Very moved, and thought it was completely appropriate.
These actors want to play great stuff. They want to play Macbeth, they want to play Hamlet. They don't worry that Hamlet dies in the end. It was tougher for Kenny (Johnson) knowing that the show was going to go on without him.
THE SHIELD VS. THE SOPRANOS
You don't end this show with people eating onion rings and listening to Journey.
It's important, anytime, if anyone writes a big thing about "The Shield," I don't think you can write it without referencing "The Sopranos." This show would not be on TV if not for "The Sopranos," and if not for the success it had creatively and economically, it's the show that I believe gave the courage to FX to try this show. And so I always will have a great debt to that show.
That show was a huge moldbreaker, and opened the way for us, and then I think we opened the way for "Battlestar Galactica," and "the Closer" and "Damages" and "Nip/Tuck." And now a show like "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," which I adore, is going to open up comedy things for people I think, because it's telling comedic stories in different ways.
I always just had a little jealous love-hate relationship with "Sopranos," in all honesty. It's hard not to. We felt like we made a great show, we felt like our show was comparable to them, and we got about a fifth of the attention and about a 20th of the awards, and you get a little jealous.
I've been able to sort of put that away over the years, and realize that I'm grateful for what I have. But maybe I watched the show with a little harder eye in the later season because I had some jealousy.
But if not for them we wouldn't be on the air, we never would've been on the air. But I don't think that anyone was putting David Chase's feet to the fire in the way that John (Landgraf) would with me if something wasn't coming (out right). And I think we benefited by that.
When they did something well, I think they did it better than anyone, including us, a lot of times, but it wasn't as high a batting average as I would've liked to have seen from them.
THE SHIELD: A GREAT PLACE TO WORK
(Landgraf observes that, for a show with such dysfunctional character relationships, everyone on "The Shield" cast and crew got along remarkably well.)
I always used to joke about "The Shield" vs. "Grey's Anatomy," because we were on same lot. Our drama would be on screen, and theirs would be off screen.
They took over our sets. They ripped down The Barn now, and that's McDreamy's house.
We had to film things so quickly that it just didn't leave a lot of time for actors to sulk in trailers and things like that. Most episodes were filmed in 7 days, we had a little extra time on the finale. We could give ourselves a couple 8-day episodes each year, but for the most part, you'd just do it quick.
And in a strange way, when award attention dropped off after the first couple years, it kind of freed us not to worry about, "What's Michael's Emmy episode going to be?" We never had to worry about that sort of stuff, just focus on, "We'll be the show that's listed in the 'who got robbed this year,' and that's okay." We just knew that's who we were.
Why did the Emmys largely ignore you after Chiklis' one and only win?
I don't necessarily think there was any evil intention behind it. Fewer people watch "The Shield" than watch "Grey's Anatomy" and "House" and "24," and so when you have more people watching those shows, you're going to have more people voting for those shows.
Is it true that you picketed your wife's final scene on the show?
She was upset that I wasn't going to be there, so I said "Well, I guess I could be there if I picketed." So I set up a one-person picket at that point, the scene in the house where Vic's checking in on her and the kids and doesn't realize that will be the last time that he sees them.
(At the end of a long discussion of how Ryan's two best friends are Jay Karnes and David Rees Snell, and how Snell appeared in the pilot as a favor to Ryan because they needed someone to fill a non-speaking role as the fourth strike team member:)
I love what he does in the finale when he finds out Vic has betrayed him. To see your friend go from background extra in the pilot to this big scene in the finale, this great arc over 6, 7 years, was great.
You've said that one day you want to show "The Shield" to your kids so they can understand what Mommy and Daddy were up to when they were growing up. How old do you think they'll have to be before you can have that screening?
It might vary depending on the kid. My guess is junior or senior in high school, freshman in college, but it's as much about emotional maturity as age.
What will be interesting is how the show holds up later. I'm hoping that it holds up well. We made an effort not to put too many pop culture references into the show. I don't think there's a ton of stuff that will date it. There was a Britney Spears reference in the pilot, but we tried not to do too much of that. I'm hoping the story will end intact.
Alan Sepinwall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org