Some people whose taste I trust convinced me to continue with The Shield, despite my middling reaction to its first season. I’m glad I listened to them, because its second year elevates the show to a new level. This is exceptional television.
Season one provided a solid, if fairly conventional, cop show foundation for the series. Season two layers on more nuance, ambiguity, and intensity as it examines the conflicted behavior of its protagonist, Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), who remains the show’s driving force. Once again, Mackey has his hands full as he attempts to reconnect with his estranged family, goes to war with a cagey Mexican drug lord, dodges the scrutiny of a civilian auditor, and wrangles the Strike Team in a scheme to rip off the Armenian mob. Mackey struck me as a standard badass antihero in season one, running roughshod over anyone who got in his way. His highly reprehensible acts came off as largely unsympathetic. The series smartly rectifies this problem in season two — or perhaps it’s just that, given more time to develop, Mackey’s motives and behaviors have more depth and nuance. The important flashback episode “Co-Pilot” delivers new insight into his origin story, and that episode, coupled with storylines that showcase his struggle to reconcile shady means with positive results, paint him more relatably and render his ethical stances more complicated and compelling.
Meanwhile, developments elsewhere in the Barn add depth and complexity to season two’s events. The political ambitions of Lieutenant Aceveda (Benito Martinez) lead him to forge a fractious alliance with Mackey, whose crime-fighting results begin to outweigh any reservations. But Mackey develops a new adversary in Detective Wyms (CCH Pounder), who begins to sniff out corruption in the district with slowly mounting disgust. Meanwhile, scrutiny from the higher-ups has the whole precinct on edge, and leads to up-and-up cops like Dutch (Jay Karnes), Danny (Catherine Dent), and Julien (Michael Jace) finding themselves collateral damage to the anglings of Mackey and his conspirators.
In my review of season one, I mentioned that The Shield felt derivative of NYPD Blue and Homicide. I still think there’s something to that surface comparison, but season two proves there’s more to it than that: more ambition, complexity, and thought-provoking examinations of the systems that govern us and the various ways people act and interact within those systems. In this sense, it’s probing into The Wire territory, which (of course!) only makes me more anxious to continue with the series.
I thought the “Co-Pilot” episode was an interesting idea, but I didn’t like it because it contradicts what we know about Vic. The episode takes place not long before the series premiere, but Vic has clearly been breaking the rules for a long time. (His conversation with his old mentor in another episode confirms this.) “Co-Pilot” tries to encapsulate his conversion from good cop to bad cop very neatly, when it actually must have been a long, slow process.
That’s a fair point…and yet I still loved it as a clever and effective piece of reverse engineering. It’s the point at which the show’s means-ends thematic struggle really finds its legs, and it feeds powerfully into the season’s amazing final image. It’s shifty, but it’s *smart* shifty for the series, so I’m willing to forgive it.