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Throwback Thursday - The Shield - Family Meeting: "An all-time classic"

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Throwback Thursday is a weekly article in which we look back at our favorite TV episodes from the past.

A question: At what point during “Family Meeting” did you realise Shane Vendrell was about to commit a murder-suicide with his family? For me, it was as Shane stood in his hallway, listening to Mara and Jackson, absorbing the last moment of joy and innocence before the bleakest of endings. For some, it will have been later. Others, sooner.

The moment Shane actually decides is clear for all to see. His explosive final conversation with Vic, in which he berates Vic for losing his family, before being threatened by Vic’s presence in his own children’s lives after he and Mara are gone – this is the final moment of his life. On the run with a young child and a severely injured pregnant wife, with no money, no plan, no hope. There’s no future for the Vendrell family – just pain and suffering for whomever survives, no matter where they end up.

Shane has decided by the time he enters the corner shop, and for a moment he lets himself be who he once was: the dirty old man, confident and inappropriately sweet on any female he meets. And then he’s back to the new Shane, family man, telling the young girl who serves him to avoid letting “the wrong guy get his hooks into you there.” It’s the last fatherly thing he does and it’s to someone he doesn’t know.

Because what he does to Jackson and to Mara and his unborn child is grim. For all he dresses them up and leaves them “the way I first found them, perfect and innocent,” it is so undeniably grim. The Shield never shies away from the darkness but this is down there with the very lowest of it. It’s briefly beautiful, hearing the pureness of Mara’s storytelling to Jackson about a knight coming to rescue a princess. But there’s no knight in this story, no saviour, no hero. There’s just Shane the Executioner, doing what he thinks is best to spare his family a worse fate. The silence as Claudette and the team raid the house is haunting. The single gunshot that in a flash of a frame ends Shane’s life is haunting. The sight of Jackson and Mara laid to rest, “perfect and innocent” – it’s one of the most devastating shots (*) in The Shield’s history.

(*) Watching this on Amazon Prime, the finale – which ran originally as a two-hour episode – was split into a pair of 40-minute instalments, meaning there’s a hard cut to the credits from Claudette’s horrified look. So often does this show end on such a powerful note with that hard cut; rarely does it feel as emotive as here.

To think how differently the show could’ve panned out. Kevin Reilly, who was FX’s President of Entertainment, wanted Walton Goggins fired after the pilot – creator Shawn Ryan successfully fought to keep him. What a masterstroke that turned out to be, with Goggins and Michael Chiklis performing on the same astronomical levels by this finale. That final phone conversation is a whirlwind of emotion between the two men, Goggins’ arrogance becoming despair as Chiklis’ glee only intensifies at the sound of Shane losing all hope, followed by the anger and sadistic joy as Vic hears the truth about his family and threatens his former partner’s. It’s a masterclass to end all masterclasses.

Yet it’s not even the best work Chiklis does in the finale. His masked expression as Claudette reads Shane’s final note is a work of art: Vic has spent three years of in-show time establishing himself as the unbreakable man, but here the mask is pulled from his face. Every ounce of grief and pain and anger and heartbreak is happening underneath the stoniest of faces during the note. Then the mask lifts with the photos. Three of them are shown, and before each a different stage of emotion: the first Chiklis glances to the heavens, puppy-style as if praying not to see them; the second he looks back at Claudette as if to ask “How could you?’; the third a tremble of the cheek.

And with that, just like all of the criminals who have sat in that exact seat over the years, Vic Mackey is broken.

It’s already done when Chiklis has to almost physically drag his head down to look at the images, the urge to see his handiwork overwhelming his attempt to be stoic. When he does look, he’s almost in disbelief – not that Shane could do such a thing but that Vic himself could do such a thing. He caused this and he knows it. This kind of emotion, this position has previously been reserved for the lowlifes who, in Vic’s mind, deserve that kind of suffering for their actions. Not once has Vic seen himself as the bad guy in any of this – not when he killed Terry, not when he robbed the Armenians and murdered their leader, not ever. Now he knows how it feels to face his actions.

Still, it could be worse. The immunity agreement he put in place during the penultimate episode, “Possible Kill Screen”, is now somewhat redundant, as Ronnie points out. Except that it’s not. What Ronnie doesn’t know is that its existence forced Shane into his inescapable corner and his final way out. He doesn’t know that Vic has betrayed him for the sake of his now vanished family. And he painfully doesn’t see any of it coming until Dutch tells him: “Ronald Everett Gardocki, you’re under arrest.”

“For what?”

“The last three years.”

Jay Karnes’ delivery of that final line is arguably his best ever, and David Rees Snell’s angry breakdown at Vic as he’s led away more than justifies the elevated role Ronnie receives towards the end of the show, and a more meaningful and memorable final moment for Snell to highlight how good he is. Of the three surviving Strike Team members, Ronnie least deserves punishment – yet he’s the only one to end up in jail.

What Vic gets is much, much worse, and contributes to one of television’s most perfect endings. Sending him to prison would be punishment for Vic but one imagines he’d somehow thrive – become a figure like Antwon Mitchell, take control over other inmates and retain power and connections that let him live far more comfortably than any other cop would. Death is certainly too much a kindness for him: Shane illustrated that plainly.

But the thought of three years sat behind a desk in an office that requires authorisation to change the thermostat? In a suit and tie writing memos, with no hint of action and no thought of speaking to his family ever again? That’s the worst fate imaginable for someone as restless, volatile and committed to his family as Vic Mackey.

Watching The Shield in 2021 – and specifically in the socio-political climate of 2021 – is an interesting exercise. Were it not for real-life events, you’d be forgiven for dismissing the actions of the Strike Team and their colleagues as strong fiction. We know, of course, that it’s a lot closer to non-fiction than any of us would like, and there’s an added layer of bleakness knowing how reflective this show is.

But as a commentary on corrupt policing, it’s remarkable. There’s no doubting Vic and his guys are in deep from the get-go – Vic shooting Terry stands as one of the most game-changing pilot scenes in history – but as the series goes on, they find themselves dipping further and further into the criminal lifestyle. And every time they try to get out, they’re dragged further back down. They’re targeted by an psychotic Armenian gang lord, held feet to the fire by a sedulous Internal Affairs lieutenant (Forest Whitaker, cruelly and unjustly denied any Emmy recognition), see Lem murdered by one of their own, and at various stages of the series are hated by some or all of their colleagues.

It’s genius that seeing the show through their eyes, they’re who you root for – because anywhere else they’d be the villains and their comeuppance would be immensely satisfying. Vic is a prime anti-hero; so often the best of the bad options, a moral compass that extends positively only to his family and friends, but someone you’re best steering acres clear of. As he says, “Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I’m a different kind of cop.” Different serves its purpose when dealing with paedophiles, but even the rosiest of tinted glasses can’t make Vic look like a good guy. So when he meets his fate in the finale, it’s satisfying.

The Shield represents a very grey area between law and criminality, using supremely complex characters, glorious scripting throughout and stunning performances from the entire cast – from which Chiklis, like Vic, is the kingpin.

“Family Meeting” is not only the perfect ending to the show, but comfortably the best episode of it – and its mere existence appears to elevate the 87 episodes that preceded it.

And The Shield, in spite of everything else, is an all-time classic.

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