The Shield made TV history in so many ways. It put FX on the map. It signaled new possibilities not only for the police drama, which it turned on its head, but for basic-cable programming, which had never gone this dark or explosively, explicitly bold. This week, the show made history again, wrapping its remarkable seven-season run with one of the most searing and satisfying series finales of all time. (Read the full recap here.)
Series creator Shawn Ryan cunningly mapped out a way for Vic Mackey, that dirtiest but most gifted of ham-fisted detectives, to get away with murder, while also making him pay for his crimes in the most gut-wrenchingly ironic and savage way possible. (Get Ryan's thoughts on the series and the finale in our postmortem Q&A!)
One week earlier, in a scene that even by The Shield's shocking standards was a riveting jaw-dropper, Vic confessed everything, including his murder of fellow cop Terry Crowley that had haunted the entire series, as part of a deal granting him total immunity. Everyone who watched this go down, from his federal handler Olivia to his boss Claudette (the amazing CCH Pounder), was horrified at the reality of the monster in their midst.
But Vic's freedom came at a terrible price, one Ryan revealed in layers of "gotcha" glee. By the end of Tuesday's final episode, Vic had lost virtually everything that mattered to him. First and foremost, his family, with wife Corinne so aghast at the thought Vic might discover her own betrayal (which he eventually did, thanks to a phone call from a furious Shane) that she fled into witness protection, taking their kids with her. (And yes, that was Clark Johnson, who directed The Shield's first and last episodes, showing her the new digs.) Vic also was forced to witness the takedown at the Barn of his unfailingly loyal soldier Ronnie, who he reluctantly but cravenly sold out. And then there was that bad news about Shane.
Walton Goggins, as poor trapped and hopeless Shane Vendrell, on the lam with a pregnant and wounded wife and innocent son, was simply astonishing in this final act of desperation. Once he learned Vic had immunity and he had no more leverage against his partner-turned-nemesis, Shane had to face the truth that it was over for him and the family he loved. The intimate scene where he guides his pain-riddled wife Mara to the bathroom was almost too wrenching to watch. Rather than see them go to jail, Shane decides to end it all with a "family meeting" (the episode's title), sending Mara and little Jackson to eternal sleep and penning his final confession until the moment the police arrive, prompting him to blow his brains out. This was every bit as upsetting as it sounds, and when Claudette later reads aloud to Vic from his suicide note ("Vic led, but I kept following ... I wish I'd never met him"), the impact was shattering.
Barely had Vic been able to digest the horror of Shane's bloody end (driven home in a powerful scene by Claudette forcing him to look at photos of the tragic scene), the indignity of Ronnie's arrest and the paralyzing reality of losing access to his family, when the bitterest blow of all is delivered by his new boss Olivia. Turns out Vic is going to prison after all, albeit a metaphorical one: a suit-and-tie desk job in an office cubicle. "I don't do desks," Vic growls. "This is not what I signed up for." Too bad, Vic. No more glory for you, no more roaming the streets as a maverick enforcer. No more fun and deadly games.
Which doesn't mean he's putting the gun in the drawer for good. Our final glimpse of Vic, after the lights have symbolically gone out as he sits and stews at his desk, is of him retrieving his gun out of a locked drawer, tucking it in his waistband and heading out into the empty abyss of his new life.
For me, this was so much more satisfying than the self-consciously artsy finish of The Sopranos' abrupt crash to black. Which may have suited that show's more tempered life-goes-on worldview, but left many fans feeling underwhelmed and frustrated. Hard to imagine any Shield followers left hungry after Tuesday's full-course meal, which more than lived up to the show's proudly pulp sensibilities.
There was so much more to the finale than Vic's comeuppance. Quite rightly, honors should be shared in equal measures by Michael Chiklis, Walton Goggins and CCH Pounder. Claudette was on fire all episode: revealing to Dutch that she was off her meds and resigned to riding out her illness while working as long as she could; facing down the narcissistic evil of chilling teen psychopath Lloyd (Kyle Gallner), who tried to frame Dutch for the disappearance and presumed murder of his mother; and confronting Vic one last time in a scene made more blisteringly powerful by its eerie quiet.
These are characters and moments that rank among the top tier of TV crime noir, including The Sopranos, Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. As I noted in a recent review column, The Shield is the kind of show you never want to end, even while you desperately want to know how it will all end someday. That day has finally come, and how rare it is to close the book on a TV show with such firm and satisfied conviction.
How many more days until Damages starts?