Knowing that any weekend posts about this week in TV would be completely derailed by the gut-wrenching hour of TV we saw last night, I thought I would get some of my feelings out here to save me time later. Though this week's Mad Men, which we have yet to watch, is reportedly horrifying and gripping and brilliant, and I'm sure something we watch regularly will impress us (or disappoint us ::aims stinkeye at Ugly Betty::), there is no way, and I really really mean NO WAY, that anything will wrench the Highlight of the Week mantle from this week's episode of The Shield, Parricide. The only episode of this magnificent show that is more upsetting, shocking, template-destroying, and beautifully made is the season five finale, Postpartum, an hour of TV that almost made me vomit, if it's possible to vomit while sobbing uncontrollably and wailing the odd exhortation to God or Crom or Neo or whoever.
--------Beware Shield spoilers if you have yet to watch it, which, really, is kinda unforgivable--------
Over the last couple of months, we have sped through six seasons of the show, hooked by the moral quandaries and thrilled by the efforts of lovable thug Vic Mackey and his Strike Team to escape the mistakes of the past with their souls and families intact. Of the many things to praise, perhaps the thing that excites me most is the show's willingness to take its format to the brink of destruction as often as possible and reel it back without removing consequences for its characters. It's not just splitting the Strike Team up at the end of season three and figuring out a way to realistically bring them together again midway through the next season -- it's having one of the team killed in the most heart-rending way at the end of Postpartum and still keeping the show running even though some of the characters have been transformed into psychotic versions of their former selves. Most of that is due to the superb writing staff and the sure hand of showrunner Shawn Ryan, but it's also a function of that format. The setting (The Barn and Farmington), the set of characters (the police force of The Barn, including the Strike Team), and the antagonists (the various gangs and their bosses) remain unchanged from season to season, but the cast and the scope of the show expands while the morality of all the characters contract, becoming touched more and more by Mackey's crimes, and the compromises everyone has to make to do their jobs and survive. Episode to episode the show looks the same, but the format is not "See what scrapes Vic gets into this week"; it's "When will Vic pay for his moral failure?", as the show is all about Vic's long arc from cop-killing crook to desperate do-gooder trying to atone for his multitude of sins, all the while corrupting everything he touches in barely perceptible increments. As a result, even though an occasional observer might think the show is static, it's always changing, always travelling toward a core of darkness.
This final season shows that better than most, with Vic's efforts to save his soul and his link to his estranged family overshadowed by the consequences of his murder of Terry Crowley, the Armenian Money Train heist, Lem's death and, most recently, Vic's failed attempt to set up his former best friend, Shane. Most of the season has been about moving pieces into place, such as pushing Shane so far that his only hope of survival is to kill his former Strike Team partners, though his traditional ineptitude means the plan fails. This week's episode featured a bravura moment of drama, as Shane watches his reluctant accomplice, Two Man, cave under pressure, revealing Shane's part in that murder plot. If the show has pushed itself almost to destruction many times before, in that incredible moment The Shield as we know it fell apart (or, to be more exact, exploded), and yet we still have five episodes left to go.
Watching the whole beautifully choreographed mess unfold, we kept trying to predict what was going to happen. Shane's gonna kill Ronnie! Ronnie's totally gonna murder Shane! Vic's gonna snap and kill Ronnie to save Shane even though Shane is totally off the chain! And yet we were wrong. A colleague recently praised The Wire by saying that when a plot line kicks in, surprising you completely, in retrospect you realise there was no other way it could have come down, and The Shield does that too, but perhaps no better than it did in this incredible hour. Thinking there were only one or two ways the episode could unfold -- with murders and cover-ups -- we couldn't see this grand surprise coming, as it changes the show utterly. Of course, as The Shield reaches the end of its life, it can afford to do something like this, but still, watching it happen was a thrilling experience.
Of all the things to love it for, though, best of all is the performance of Walton Goggins, which deserves award recognition next year. Seeing his mask of bravado and overconfidence slowly crumble as his cover-up falls apart was entertaining enough, but the final moment -- as he watched his goon, Two Man, weigh up his options, and realised that his career and friendships and possibly life are finally all over -- was on a par with Michael Emerson's performance as Ben Linus in The Shape of Things to Come, which, for me, is the highest praise I can give. It was heartbreaking and darkly funny and thrilling and a million other things. It's the sort of performance that signals the arrival of an actor that people follow from project to project for the rest of their career, and the sad thing about it is that Shield fans have already seen him give a performance that is just as amazing, in his final scene with Lem, and yet he has not been given a multicoloured coat like that Joseph guy, except with dozens of reinforced pockets to hold all of the awards he deserves. That's the sort of crime that should be investigated by the Strike Team, with all of the door-smashing, body-blocks, and threats that the award judges deserve.
Okay, enthusiasm purge over. That is all. (Canyon just told me that genius humorist John Hodgman's third book is going to be callled That Is All. It's the little things that make life worth living.)
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