Apart from WWE Raw, there’s nothing else on TV with story lines as byzantine as those on The Shield. When we last saw corrupt but well-intentioned LAPD officer Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), he’d just formed an awkward alliance with longtime foe Councilman David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) to thwart an evil politician’s partnership with a Mexican drug cartel—and to take down Mackey’s rogue protégé Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins) while they’re at it.
This season, Vendrell stirs up trouble with a host of bad guys from the series’s early days (when Vic was more explicitly corrupt), setting up a fake—or is it?—street war between Mexican and Armenian gangs. Dominating the new season’s early episodes, this setup seems likely to pave the way for the series’s ultimate resolution. Still, The Shield is always at its best when it favors character over plot, and the complicated scheming in the premiere ensures that even the most devoted fans will scratch their heads a few times.
Over the years, the series has established itself as a destination for filmmakers eager to sharpen their skills by working on a tight schedule (David Mamet, Frank Darabont), and for actors seeking meaty, image-changing roles (Glenn Close, Forest Whitaker and, most memorably, comedian Anthony Anderson). The final season takes it easy on the big names and lets the core cast members take an extended final bow doing what their characters do best. On the plus side, this means we get ace comic relief from David Marciano as Detective Steve Billings, a skirt-chasing dullard always on the lookout for ways to scam the city, who is again partnered with “Dutch” Wagenbach (Jay Karnes), another wanna-be player who can turn even the most mundane shooting incident into a serial-killer investigation.
In addition to giving women writers and directors a lot more opportunities than many TV dramas do, The Shield has always been notable for its strong female characters, and Catherine Dent (as officer Danielle Sofer, the mother of Vic’s illegitimate kid) and CCH Pounder (as Captain Claudette Wyms, the station commander, who continues to suffer from lupus) are wisely being worked into the approaching climax. Unfortunately, creator Shawn Ryan’s desire to let the regulars strut their stuff while addressing as much unfinished business as possible backfires by highlighting the series’s unfortunate nepotistic tendencies. Ryan’s wife, Cathy Cahlin Ryan, plays Vic’s wife, Corrine, and Chiklis’s real-life daughter, Autumn, portrays Vic’s adolescent daughter, Cassidy. Neither is a particularly strong actor (though Ryan has her moments), and a subplot about the increasingly rebellious Cassidy investigating her dad’s secrets and starting to dabble in alcohol feels like a waste of time.
Much of this probably makes The Shield’s final season sound like a disappointment, but it’s not. Rather, it’s an extremely representative season, featuring as much of the good as the bad. The series has always had one of TV’s best ensemble casts, and the brinkmanship among Vic, Shane and their cohort Ronnie (David Rees Snell) continues to yield a remarkably subtle and insightful study in alpha-male pack behavior. The Shield has never avoided social consciousness, but, as in the work of L.A. crime novelist James Ellroy, it’s generally deployed as a plot device rather than to stir moral indignation, as on The Wire. At a time when so much television is aiming for the heights—and succeeding—it might be easy to underrate The Shield for aspiring merely to the level of first-rank crime fiction. But that’s a mark plenty of popular shows (such as the entire CSI franchise) consistently fail to hit. One sincerely hopes that Chiklis’s first-season Emmy doesn’t turn out to be his highest achievement; if he spends the rest of his career hollering, “It’s clobberin’ time!,” that’d be a crying shame.