By David Chen
Starring Michael Chiklis, Walton Goggins, Catherine Dent, CCH Pounder, Jay Karnes, Laurie Holden
Air date: November 25, 2008
After 88 episodes of groundbreaking, gritty television, The Shield is finally over. It was a crown masterwork of police procedural drama, utilizing such creative storytelling that viewers should feel blessed simply to have witnessed its unfolding. But if there’s been one flaw with this show, it’s that it’s always been just a little bit too in love with its main characters. Time and time again, we’ve seen Vic and his Strike Team worm their way out of every single legal conundrum and gang-related bear trap that has been thrown their way. This crew has done some pretty sick, twisted stuff over the past few years, and they had much to atone for leading into the finale. Creator and showrunner Shawn Ryan had plenty of opportunities to send some of these characters to jail or to kill them off, but he always seemed reluctant to do so. Not that we ever really wanted him to: It seems a warmed over observation, but part of the brilliance of The Shield was making you root for every single one of these characters. With season 7 being the show’s last, Ryan had nothing to lose anymore; he could deal with the characters and bring their arcs to a conclusion in whatever way he wanted to. The question after all these years of torture, corruption, and murder is, would Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) walk away? Or would he finally get caught?
With just one 90-minute-long episode left, I desperately wanted there to be a reckoning, some final closure for all the injustice that has been doled out, or at least some closure. To a huge extent, this series finale thoroughly delivered.
[WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE FINAL EPISODE OF THE SHIELD].
The series finale of The Shield begins just moments after the last episode ended, with Vic going off to meet Beltran with Gardocki (David Rees Snell). Vic had brokered a pending immunity for himself and his family at the expense of implicating Gardocki, and although he eventually holds up his end of the bargain, thus escaping the legal claws of Claudette (CCH Pounder) and Dutch (Jay Carnes), he doesn’t exactly get away scot-free.
The tension in this episode is unbearable, ratcheting up as we move from scene to scene and leaving us wondering what the final fate of each character will be. Many times, I had to turn away from the screen, fearing what would happen next, but there is catharsis to be found in the final confrontations here. The last shouting match between Shane and Vic is appropriate and satisfying, encapsulating everything we’ve ever known about the relationship and the tension between these two characters. Claudette gets one final shot at Vic in the interrogation room, and gets a brief hint of satisfaction at laying out the graphic evidence of Vic’s trail of destruction. The scene where Ronnie realizes Vic’s betrayal is as infuriating as it is tragic. Even FBI Agent Olivia Murray (Laurie Holden), whose own character arc pays off satisfyingly, is able to deliver some of Vic Mackey’s comeuppance.
In the end, Mackey’s punishment is twofold. First, he must live with the knowledge that he has betrayed the one man that has stuck with him all these years in order to save a woman who, in turn, betrayed him. But secondly, he is consigned to a desk for the foreseeable future, forced to write reports under punishment of prosecution (literally!). The show’s depiction of Vic’s new desk job is almost comical, evoking a monotonous hellscape in the same way that films and shows like Officespace and The Office have in the past. Was this the appropriate punishment for Vic Mackey? I’d love to say so, but a part of me feels like something a little bit more extreme was in order. That being said, the episode wrapped up its main storylines with a stunning intensity, yet still paid lip service to some of the minor character arcs (e.g., the brief yet telling moments we spend with Julian and Tina).
While every single actor has done an unbelievable job, not only on this episode, but in the series as a whole, I have to give special praise to the work of Walton Goggins. Goggins’ Shane has always struck me as a wildly incompetent figure whose continued appearance on the show after his despicable crimes in season 4 has bordered on implausibility. That being said, Goggins completely earns an Emmy and a half with his performance in the final two episodes of this series. Shane’s downfall is utterly tragic and the fate of him and his family is the sort of hyper-realistic fodder that resonates disturbingly with reality. Goggins makes you feel every ounce of regret that Shane feels, and the final “family meeting” (also the title of this episode) seems like a logical continuation and conclusion for everything that Shane has ever done. In the end, the emotion that Shane evokes is pity, a true achievement given his past.
Despite the episode’s overall brilliance, there are also things in this episode that just didn’t work for me. While I enjoyed the return of Andre 3000 as a fringe mayoral candidate, the ultimate message that his brief character arc tried to convey seemed very much shoehorned in (and something that The Wire did much better). We already had a myriad of storylines to resolve; introducing one more for the final episode is in keeping with the way The Shield does things, but to me it just seemed like too much for one episode to do.
Additionally, I also desperately wanted to see Dutch take down his one last serial killer, or alternatively, at the very least, to be somehow decisively defeated by his obsession. The path that the show chose struck some bizarre middle ground, whereby it implies that Lloyd will eventually fall, but without really providing us with compelling evidence that this is the case. This element was very disappointing, and it certainly would have kept with the tone of the show if they had given Dutch one last big win for the finale, so I’m not sure why they didn’t. [Interestingly, the lawyer/potential love interest for Dutch introduced in this episode is played by actor Jay Karnes’ real-life wife, Julia Campbell. Evidently, this was Ryan’s way of saying, “Things will work out for Dutch.”]
The series ends with Vic Mackey watching police sirens from behind a glass window, shackled to the monotony of a cubicle desk job. He sits in his chair, looking at the photos of his family (who he’ll probably never see again), and reflects for almost a minute of silence. What has he done? What have been the extent and the consequences of his crimes? How much has he lost? We’ll never know the thoughts that flash through his head, although we can guess. With a look of determination on his face, Mackey takes his personal firearm, puts on his jacket, and leaves the office. We don’t know what plans he has in store next. We can just be grateful that we were privy to his machinations, his triumphs, his successes, and ultimately, his spectacular destruction, for the past six years.