(My "Dancing With the Stars" notes, below, were written after this rumination on the "Shield" finale. But I have moved them below this because, in the great scheme of things, "The Shield" is a magnificent TV moment and "DWTS" is a season finale. They both inspired some strong feelings on my part, and I could go into a long thing here about the wonder of television in doing so many different things and still grabbing us, but then we wouldn't be talking about "The Shield." And, if you saw it, you're still thinking about it.)
Brilliant series finale. Notes, with spoilers, after the jump. And after you have seen the show, check out Alan Sepinwall's interviews with series creator Shawn Ryan.
In all the possible scenarios that might have been used to end "The Shield," who would have thought that the most brutal, hilarious, abso-damn-lutely right one would have Vic Mackey in a tie and a suit, sitting at a desk under bad fluorescent lighting? Everyone he had ever professed to care about or love was either dead or hiding from him, but that wasn't the cruelest thing that could happen. The cruelest was to take away the streets, take away his swaggering power, take away -- all phallic symbolism assumed -- his big gun. When Vic took out his gun that one last time, it was an attempt to break free of his new, emasculating world -- but it was an attempt that was doomed: if he did use the gun, if he did go back on the streets, then all his carefully crafted immunity was done; if he just kept the gun in his pants (even more symbolically, the back of his pants, shoved up his own backside), then he was no more potent than he had been when first told that his new job was nothing more than readin' and writin'.
I have been a bad "Shield" viewer of late. Other things often intervened. I almost took a complete pass on the series finale, telling myself I'm not a TV critic anymore, that an event like this could pass by unremarked. But doggonit, it was "The Shield." So today I watched a feed of last week's episode -- almost as dazzling as tonight's, with Vic's immunity confession a masterpiece of narrative and acting -- and then tonight's. And was I glad I had not put it off. I don't want to get into that best-series-finale argument, because each finale is unique to the series leading up to it, and to the time that spawned it, but I will gladly declare that Shawn Ryan and company committed a timeless piece of television with this one.
I've already talked about Vic, but it wasn't just Vic that the show dropped the curtain on. It was the whole despairing world of "The Shield," a world where, even if the bad are punished, the good are not spared suffering. The last true conscience among the police, Claudette, is dying (and how freakin' good was CCH Pounder). The crusading politician, played so nicely by Andre Benjamin of Outkast, speaks unpleasant truths and ends up dead. Shane -- completing the terrific work by Walton Goggins -- kills himself, but takes his pregnant wife and young son with him. Even if you accept his wife's sins along the way, what had the boy done? By killing him, Shane admits that the entire system is a failure, that anything it could offer the boy would be worse than having two murderous parents -- especially parents whose exploits would later echo in schoolyard taunts.
For that matter, Vic's avoiding death and jailtime may have come with its own mocking justice -- but it still came from a system that let him get away with murder and much, much more. Nor was he finally forced to face up to the depth and breadth of his misdeeds. He may have felt momentary shock at Shane's death (much the way he did at other deaths along the way), but survival was always foremost for Vic.
And so, he survives. But "The Shield" still insisted that evil has its consequences. They may not be tidy. They may not come through the law or the gun. But someone has to pay. Vic Mackey's sentence was three years of contractual hell; even the amount of time was perfect, fitting -- as Dutch reminded us all -- three years of crime.
What a grand, splendid show, and what a way to end on its own terms.