Tuesday, March 21, 2006

TV: The Shield finale

SPOILERS. Seriously.

The 90-minute fifth season finale of The Shield just ended, and I feel like I've been punched in the teeth. And I mean that as a compliment.

One of the best dramas on TV has wrapped up its best season since its first -- hell, I'll call it the best season, period. The very first episode of The Shield remains the best hour of the series, and one of the best hours of television I've ever seen -- but as far as sustaining such relentless intensity over the entire season, this has been the best. (Disclaimer: this is not technically the end of the season; just like Battlestar Galactica did this year, The Shield's season is longer than usual -- 21 episodes -- and has been split in half. Call the first eleven episodes season 5.0. The final ten -- season 5.5 -- have yet to be scheduled, as far as I can discover.)

I've written previously about how great this show has been this year, owing in large part to Forest Whitaker's powerful, unnerving performance as Lt. Kavanaugh, the ultra-cool Internal Affairs detective who completely unravels while trying to bring bad cop Vic Mackey to justice. And that post was before the last two episodes, which have rocked my face and kicked my ass, and also rocked my ass and kicked my face. (Whatever that means.)

As great as tonight's episode was, I'd say last week's was even better, with Claudette's long-overdue promotion to captain of the Barn (and if CCH Pounder doesn't get some Emmy love this year, heads will roll), and Mackey's sexual romp with Kavanaugh's ex-wife. Did you see Mackey's face in that scene? Did you watch the amazing array of emotions Michael Chiklis displayed? At best, he thinks he can dig up a little dirt on Kavanaugh from his ex; when she makes sexual advances on him, the storm of emotions that crosses Mackey's mug is one of the best pieces of acting I've seen from the always-stellar Chiklis. Disbelief, guilt, glee, shame, vengeance, doubt, lust -- it's all there and gone in about five seconds. Then, when Mackey later uses the encounter to push the already distraught Kavanaugh even further over the edge -- it's so cruel, and yet you can't help sharing Mackey's cat-who-ate-the-canary (so to speak) grin. The hell with Kavanaugh! Mackey may be a bad cop, but he's our bad cop! And then, when Anthony Anderson's imprisoned ganglord Antwon Mitchell tells Mackey that all bets are off, that the prison-bound Lem will be murdered as soon as he's behind bars, and Mackey sends Lem into hiding before he can surrender himself to the police -- well, you had to know right then that, as the FX promos have been promising, it was indeed "the beginning of the end."

Which brings us to tonight's finale. You knew someone was going to die. Could've been Kavanaugh. Hell, from the way the episode began, with Kavanaugh menacing Corrine in her home, I wouldn't have been too surprised if Kavanaugh had gone nuts and killed Mackey's ex as retaliation. But as soon as Lem and Shane stepped out of their vehicles to discuss Lem's future, it was obvious one of them would not be walking away. Right up to the end, I thought Lem might be the one to catch wise and put a bullet in Shane before Shane could kill him, but I should've known the show would want to make this as painful as possible. Damnation. It's not enough for Shane merely to kill Lem -- he has to blow him up with a hand grenade. That is messed up, dude. And Shane's breakdown in the immediate aftermath, his pleading for forgiveness from Lem's corpse -- what a wrenching moment for the perpetually in-over-his-head Shane. Trying to protect the team in the only fashion his short-sighted mind can conceive, while in reality almost certainly assuring the team -- and especially him -- ten times the hell to pay down the line. It was a great showcase for Walton Goggins as Shane, and a sad farewell to the heart of the Strike Team, Kenny Johnson's Lem.

"We're gonna find out who did this, and we're gonna kill 'em," says Mackey, delivering the awesome final line of the episode as he purposefully strides away from the scene of the crime, unaware Lem's killer is right by his side. When Mackey does find out -- and he will -- Shane is a dead man, there's no question. This, Vic will not forgive. The Strike Team is a family, and Shane just killed their brother. When the show comes back again, I don't know how it can survive the fallout from this episode. Maybe FX wasn't kidding; maybe this really is the beginning of the end. And there's no guarantee anyone walks away from it. Which is just part of what makes this show such a brilliantly gut-wrenching drama. I already can't wait to see where we go from here.

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