The Shield: Season 3 Review
Please note this review assumes knowledge of the series and features discussion of major plot points found in Season 2.
Following the climactic Season 2 ending upon which the lyrics to the music aptly described the situation at hand, overcome with emotion following the events that had transcribed, change was inevitable by the time Season 3 came around. Only the change we see in the opening episodes of Shawn Ryan’s gritty crime drama entering its third season are not the changes expected, with Aceveda (Benito Martinez) holding on to his position of Captain at the Farmington State "Barn" leaving Detective Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder) hanging for the promotion she was guaranteed. Instead Claudette is given control over not only Vic Mackey’s (Michael Chiklis) “Strike Team” but a new group of undercover street cops, the “Decoy Squad”, competing with the increasingly strained Vic and his team.
The new "Decoy" squad have been brought in not only as a political move by the higher players in the barn but also to add some competitiveness to the series. The two undercover squads handle cases in their own ways, but immediately are shown to be pissing in each other’s back yards, attacking from different angles but ultimately using the same leads and tactics to crack cases. For Vic this is seen as healthy competition, something to keep the Strike Team on track as they lay low, meeting arrest quotas and playing by the rules following the Money Train heist (where they jacked several million in cash from the Armenian mob) and pending investigation. Fortunately the two groups’ personalities generally blend well with episode four serving as a good example, as they run a wager to bring in a shooter first and do everything expected, from treading on each other’s toes to the inevitable winner laughing at the others expense. They do this in good spirits however and it makes for another interesting dimension to the relationships not only between the people but also the hierarchies within the station. That all this culminates over one of the most intense moments of the early episodes, whereupon Tavon (Brian J. White) and Shane (Walton Goggins) clash with horrific effect also shows the keen sense the writers’ and directors’ have for getting to the heart of the matter underlying each and every episode with a sting in their tails.
With Aceveda still a perch the roost in the barn tension remains tight between him and the Strike Team. Things are worse for Vic now because unlike in Season 2 where the duo had formed an unlikely alliance, Aceveda is firmly backing Claudette. Partly because she was inline for his job only to be usurped via politics, but mostly because Aceveda has wanted to nail the Strike Team ever since they began working together. Upon discovering that a portion of the bills making up the Money Train were marked for an FBI sting operation he begins checking all money seized through arrests, something that Vic only discovers when some of the bills have been identified from an arrest he manufactured in the way only he can. This makes for another sizzling undercurrent to the ongoing investigations of the detectives, and day by day activities of the beat cops and specialist squads, as the boys in the Strike Team sniff around investigations pertinent to their goal of identifying the bills themselves so they can wash them away, but in doing so alter the course of justice on related cases. Primarily this leads to Aceveda being caught off guard in a suspects house, alone and unarmed he is forced to orally pleasure a gang banger and only just escapes with his life before going on to cover the event up while a swift personality change ensues from the shock of the assault.
By mid-season several storylines that appeared to be mere asides or encapsulated within a single episode begin to open up. The beating Julien (Michael Jace) took after being ousted as gay in the final episode of Season 2 is not dealt with via one single blow; instead conversations touch upon the matter gradually. The most telling results come via his new partnership with Tommy (Matt Gerald) and the macho bullshitting which comes with the territory, before the successive re-partnering with Danny (Catherine Dent) sees him open to moral subjection once again. Tommy is an interesting addition to the show in general, though at first his integration within the series appears a little forced. He is after all an entirely new character, but very well connected within the barn, maybe it’s the whole 'family' thing cops have going on? But as introductions go jumping in at the deep end works best here and the episode where he becomes the focal point is both gripping and revealing, showing loyalties pull together and divide apart almost as quickly, when it becomes obvious he played a non-direct but significant part in the murder of his wife and child. This leads to greater consequences down the line, with Julien's new found detachment from the job expanding following his lost partnership, ignoring a deeply affected Danny as he continues to live a lie via the life he has married into.
"What Power Is..." proves to be one of the most compelling episodes of the mid-season roundup, seeing a number of storylines blend together and verve apart almost simultaneously, with Aceveda's run-in with some gang bangers coming to fruition with sweet revenge and a true display of what power is. That it puts a grin so wide on my face shows for me how expertly these threads are joined, seeing Vic and his crew run their asses off trying to prevent an investigation they think Aceveda is heading up, when instead he remains one step ahead of them in his own personal vendetta against the individuals who assaulted him. In the same episode we see Dutch and Claudette catch their guy in the OAP rapes that have been occurring, with Dutch showing both his ingenuity and flaws, letting a woman briefly elude his radar before Claudette gets things back on track, completing the team they are.
Dutch (Jay Karnes) has always been a particular favourite character of mine, his combination of criminal psychology smarts and attachment to the people he both helps and catches has always made him an interesting man to watch in action. Initially picked on and seen as the desk jockey hooking all the wrong angles he has slowly developed into a respected individual around the barn, with men his complete opposite such as Vic understanding his purpose and in the case of this season’s developments rightfully viewing him as a threat to the many crooked deals the Strike Team are involved with. His methods of interrogation and the perverse cases he often lands make Dutch an intriguing character to watch, one who sometimes gets the wrong guy but never stops the investigation until he is sure. An example of this and the way plot threads are spread over the season comes in episode three, where he lands a known sex offender as the rapist of a seventy year old woman, and through interrogation brings a man disgusted with his own previously convicted actions to confess to a crime he had no part in. Realising this Dutch releases the person in question without so much thinking about the doors his psychological approach have opened, and the result is devastating, both a commendation on the effectiveness of Dutch's methods and damnation to his handling of the situation outside of the case. That several episodes later the plot thread of a serial OAP rapist is still open and very much a thrilling case to see unravel is testament both to the writing and Jay Karnes portrayal of a local detective thinking outside of his means, profiling the criminals he is tracking. But as good as it is to see him track down a suspect it’s the interrogation, learning the driving force behind these disturbed minds, needing to know why they do what they did makes for truly compelling viewing, opening windows into the criminal psyche and often more disturbingly, the mind which must be open to their methods in order to understand and catch them.
One of the most significant additions to the cast this season is Mara (Michele Hicks), the new lady in Shane’s life with whom he shares a bond, a relationship which goes beyond whatever surface makes for the best quick fuck as has been witnessed in previous seasons. This new relationship begins to encroach upon the Strike Team in a far greater way than Vic's ongoing divorce with Corrine (Cathy Cahlin Ryan) has, mostly due to Shane being weaker in character than Vic, unable to separate personal and professional problems to the extent his friend and boss has, with Mara’s involvement in Tavon's accident and later the Money Train cash becoming an increasingly troublesome prospect for the team that I think for Vic, silencing her very much becomes one of the inevitable possibilities. Like the character of Tommy Mara is something of a bombshell, not of the blonde variety but in the sense we are dropped into a 2 month old relationship. To their credit both Walton Goggins and Michele Hicks portray this convincingly, as a couple past the initial romance and into every facet of eachother’s life. Slightly stereotyped as the manipulative girlfriend stealing her man away from his friends, her relationship with Vic is not a particularly good one, for reasons immediately obvious on both sides and again a testament to the cast as they take this in their stride. Vic has his own problems at home, with his divorce in full flow and one autistic child to care for, only to find his youngest will soon be diagnosed with the same condition, money is a serious problem and one that leads to ever-rising levels of discontent amongst the team and how they will use the Money Train cash. Corrine is given a far more central role this season, not only as the ex-wife and mother to Vic's children but also as a link to the local county hospital, where she regains her job as Nurse in a sideline to the main characterisation which I’m sorry to say seems a little forced. Almost as if the actress either demanded a greater involvement in the series, or the writer's wanted to give her more to do (a strong possibility given she’s the creator’s wife), only to see the hospital suddenly becomes a big part of the cases being investigated where she becomes every cop's liaison.
Lemonhead (Kenny Johnson) continues along as one half of the Strike Team who is often kept in the dark to the less law abiding activities, obviously fully in on the Money Train strike he along with Ronnie (David Rees Snell) never know the full extent of Vic and Shane's intentions. This makes him one of the more interesting characters however, as he's not stupid, and often fields a more level head than either Vic or the easily usurped Shane, while his emotions often get the better of him as he realises how far and deep the teams actions spread. This quality alone is what sees him brought closer to Vic, as while Shane is away causing trouble with his new found love interest Lem is the one member of the team Vic can rely upon, often by victimising his emotional response, and someone who shares a close mutual respect with the other outsiders Tavon and Ronnie. This doesn't always work out in Vic's favour; take the money Lem denies him from the Money Train stash, but his sound reasoning only invites respect as opposed to contempt. This story thread also leads to an intense showdown between the team in the closing moments of the season. Not to give anything away, but the boiling pot which is Shane and the favours Vic has called upon from Lem culminate in one utterly edge-of-the-seat meeting in which the unlikely suspect becomes the endangered member of the crew.
Vic was and remains the focal point of the series, this time struggling to maintain control over a variety of issues not least of which is his teams involvement with the Money Train robbery. As Season 2 progressed we saw Claudette become increasingly perturbed by the methods Vic was using to effectively steer her cases in his favour, something which ultimately led to the Strike Team falling under her command this season. And this clashing of stern figures is amplified throughout Season 3, as Vic begins playing Claudette against the entire station using the very team brought in to challenge his, the “Decoy Squad”, against her. Outside of the Money Train cover-up and the numerous issues at hand within the Strike Team we also see Vic as he tries to establish a new link to his family, one as a divorced father who needs to spend time and do right by his children. This aspect of the character often plays second fiddle to the lies, corruption and deceit he often uses to get by in the field, but are elements which meld together and see him seek reprieve in the arms of another officer through a relationship which doesn’t really hold up, often underdeveloped and an unnecessary aside to the more established story arcs.
The writing throughout this season continues to impress, with the many plot and character elements discussed thus far only touching upon the depth and variety of arcs covered over the course. There are a few areas where improvements could be made, most of which remain in place from Season 2. First and foremost the Strike Team continues to consist of four primary members in number only, with David Rees Snell’s character, Ronnie, continuing to be a rather underdeveloped plot point in desperate need of more purpose than a scar he has Vic to thank for. Another primary yet generally underwritten character this season is Danny, who following a suspension returns to beat duty with Julien only to figure less in the overall sum of things than she did in previous seasons. Her relationship with Dutch and continued interest in Detective work are touched upon slightly, possibly culminating in several scenes at most, which over a season run in which numerous secondary characters are brought in seems wholly unfair. This in turn leads to the “Decoy Squad”, an addition which stays the course for half of the season run, consists of four new faces of which only two receive any significant character development and story arcs. That these two happen to be extremely well cast, cementing the audience’ favour in record time and bounce off the other cast members with great ease is the only saving grace, and more than likely the reason why the same two return for an episode in the latter half of the season run long after the “Decoy Squad” has departed. A failed exercise then? Well maybe not entirely, they serve their purpose and work in Vic’s favour to undermine Claudette’s power in the Barn, and the primary roles are well written and equally well cast and acted to ensure they have a future with the series but they still feel a little too much like a plot device for some new faces rather than a natural development.
On the related subject of acting, this season continues a strong tradition of a central cast at ease with their characters, in tune with the relationships developed both on and off screen providing a series that continues to suck the viewer in and believe every moment of the mirrored insanity featured onscreen. The guest and secondary roles make or break a series such as this, which relies as much upon the central cast as it does the various criminals and victims they deal with and here Season 3 again continues to impress benefiting from many fine character actors and some excellent guest roles, including rather unexpectedly Andre 3000 of Outkast fame. Special gongs go to Walton Goggins and Kenny Johnson on the main cast, who this season boast greater development than their counterpart on the Strike Team Michael Chiklis, with the former believing fully in a relationship that spells all sorts of trouble and the latter finally allowed to break free of the shackles imposed upon him by the Strike Team’s corruption. Both impress on different scales, with a deep sense of betrayal being the key to Shane’s emotional response in opposition to Lemonhead’s understated pain brewing up over the season run. The two ultimately clash with Chiklis’s character frequently in the latter half of the season, with the aforementioned final denouement being a show stopping moment that calls upon some very real reactions. Also blessed with a character defining story arc is Benito Martinez, who bravely takes on the role of a Latino male in a position of power facing the demons brought on by a sexual assault, as both a man and the definitions of his particular culture, playing the shame through to his face which literally drips with expression.
To use a favourite term of Vic's, when the shit storm finally comes down in Season 3 it does so with gusto, reintroducing a thoroughly disgusting character from Season 2 who in mere seconds re-establishes his status as most feared villain in the series history thus far. The Armenian Mob don't play around and this makes for a closing 3-4 episodes in which tensions are constantly high across the board, with each and every member of the Strike Team under threat as they in turn hit back hard with a series of raids and busts. Stir in the group's internal affairs gone awry and the constantly engaging storyline of Claudette and Dutch rapidly undoing all the work put in to establish themselves in the Barn, and you have another season which ends on a high almost equal to the previous two. The most obvious element lacking this time around is external threat to the characters, but with the internal pressure on everyone at an all-time high this can be forgiven as we await the fourth season if only to see who is working for who.
As is fast becoming the norm we have a reasonably sturdy glossy cardboard slipcase which houses four thinpak cases. Preferable to the old digipak cardboard designs the thinpak's allow for slim but long-life packaging and should the designers be up for it, a range of attractive sleeve arts with plenty of room for text information such as chapter stops and extras listings. Unfortunately the choice of cover art here is rather dull, with the main slipcase featuring one of the hard-edged promotional shots of Vic alongside the logo only for the individual thinpak cases to feature dull variations on the same theme. Where are the other characters? At least the information included is well laid out, with basic synopses, air dates and extra features all at hand.
The menu system for each individual disc maintains the gritty feel of the show but remain simple and easy to navigate. The obvious complaint is the lack of a 'Play All' function, but the inclusion of 'Play without Episode Recap' is to be commended. Unlike the R2 Season 2 release returning to the main menu following an episode sees the selection automatically move to the next episode. This is a simple but much appreciated menu tweak.
Picture and Sound
As with previous Region 1 DVD releases, Season 3 is presented in the 1.33:1 Full Frame aspect ratio, exactly how it is broadcast on American cable network FX. Ever since the R1 Season 1 DVD release which included deleted scenes in widescreen, and the subsequent UK Region 2 DVD releases of Seasons 1 & 2 which were presented in 1.78:1 Widescreen fans have been questioning which presentation is the more accurate. Well, in his final commentary on the set creator Shawn Ryan answers these queries and clears up a few issues. Firstly, although filmed in Widescreen The Shield is edited in Full Frame, and to maintain the documentary feel and enhance the tension on screen was always envisioned to be seen in the Full Frame aspect ratio the final editing is performed in. Personally I have no real issues with either presentation format, but there are certainly moments in Season 3 where the Full Frame presentation enhance the proceedings, such as when Aceveda confronts his demons in the interrogation room in the shot below, the immediacy, claustrophobia and tension created due to the intensely tight framing would certainly be somewhat lost given the additional room a widescreen frame offers.
As for the actual presentation, anyone familiar with The Shield will be accustomed to the rich level of grain present in the photography, the high levels of exposure offered to certain shots and the gritty realism which is generally shot for. All of this is transferred to the screen very well, showing little in the way of compression issues and maintaining the intended colour balance and rich detail levels particularly well.
The English Dolby Surround mix does a fine job of immersing you in the action, projecting dialogue across the stage at all times with pristine clarity and doing a fine job in recreating the ambience of Los Angeles street life while cops are out on the beat.
There are no subtitles for the bonus features.
Breaking Episode 315 - This 80 minute documentary looks into the production of the season finale, starting in the writers room as they focus on the six main story threads through to scouting, casting guest roles, and shooting the scenes. It does this for each of the six story threads, so we never get too bogged down with either stage of the development, and throws in plenty of input and behind-the-scenes action from the cast and crew. The writers and creator Shawn Ryan get the most screen time, as we see them pitch their ideas and bring the story threads together; the only disappointment is the obvious lack of scenes that got thrown out. They must have been there, and indeed we do see one, but only one? I think not. Anyway, this is a minor complaint, and is more than easy to overlook thanks to the input from the cast members with the final scene between Vic and the Strike Team being shown in its entirety, from behind the camera, and is just a joy to watch. The level these guys raised themselves too is shown by their emotional response following the scene, the three are just literally spent and this is through the connection they have developed over three seasons. An excellent documentary that is well put together and a fine tribute to the show, it makes far more interesting viewing than solitary interviews or short specific featurettes could ever do.
Deleted Scenes - There are 38 in total, with roughly 2 per episode rising to 5+ in the final outings, all with optional commentary by creator Shawn Ryan. The large majority of these are actually very good despite being unnecessary to the main storylines, and Shawn concedes they are mostly cut for time rather than anything else. As such it seems a shame there is no option to incorporate them back into the shows, as the quality is good while never being up to the main series presentation, but I suspect with additional processing the final episodes undergo these scenes could blend in rather seamlessly. Highlights for me include a scene in "Safe" with Vic and his son Matt, showing a close bond in amongst all the chaos the family is put through this season. Some additional moments between Dutch and Claudette as their caseload becomes increasingly burdened are welcome and go beyond what is on the page.
Audio Commentary on selected episodes - Featuring a combination of writers, directors, producers and cast the tracks are broken down like so...
The first two tracks are highly charged with a primary focus on the process through which the contributing members go through. The actors talk passionately and intelligently about the more intense scenes, describing how they detach themselves from the realities of the show and the real world to achieve the results, with input from Benito Martinez on Aceveda’s sexual assault particularly enlightening. The third track features a similar combination but is a little slow, with a lack of input from most involved making this one of the drier and least recommended contributions to the set. Track four features the Strike Team in full force, on an episode which Michael Chiklis made his directorial debut so the comments tend to revolve around this element, with a look at the directorial process from both director and actor perspectives. The group bounce off each other very well, having become very close knit over the course of the three seasons but like the series, David Rees Snell (Ronnie) tends to be rather quiet with Kenny Johnson (Lemonhead) contributing a little more, leaving Chiklis and Walton Goggins to dominate the proceedings which can get a little congratulatory at times, leading me to believe they probably had to wash off after most likely coming out feeling dirty about the whole situation.
The fifth track features Dean White, another first-time director who takes point in a commentary much like the first two, with Benito & Jay Karnes returning along with the somewhat quieter Michael Jace. Again the focus remains around the process of directing and acting, with the actors and director exploring the plot threads as they discuss the show. Track six with Shawn Ryan, Jay Karnes, Catherine Dent and writer Glenn Mazzara continues the good work, on an episode directed by David Mamet which proves to be a major talking point. All involved however are very open and talk about the shows many elements, with a lot of focus on the process and welcome discussion on the characters’ motivations, particularly that of Dutch in an episode with a heavy line into his theory and psychology.
The self-named Panty Shields aka the primary female cast members take on the seventh track, giving the viewers a woman's point of view on the series and most interestingly the characters they portray. The opinion is made patently obvious from the get go, in that the female cast members find the show to be very much a macho man thing in which they aren't given enough room to work and develop as characters, and to be fair they have a point with characters such as Vic's wife given more screen time this year but only really to act as a liaison to a new location for the investigations to begin. Catherine Dent too is given a fairly rough time this season with little in the way of real character development, once again coasting along the Detective interest without ever really getting anywhere with it. They don't always agree on certain aspects and with Shawn Ryan's wife amongst the group we get some defence of certain issues making this one of the more charged tracks, and up there with the other efforts (track 3 aside).
Bringing up the rear, the eighth and final track is another winner, with Chiklis, CCH and Karnes the primary trio making a lot of noise and discussing the characters’ motives with passion as the writer and Kenny Johnson put in some quality debate with the latter focusing on his scene-stealing turns from the episode being viewed.
The Shield retains the hard edge and uncompromising characters which made its earlier seasons so well applauded, and continues to develop both central plot threads and old and new characters alike throwing out episodes which are so rich in plot elements there is always something new to find. The combination of a large and detailed primary set with well scouted and more importantly genuine Los Angeles locations keeps the gritty and sometimes elaborate proceedings grounded while the acting remains at an impressively high calibre.
This DVD set from Fox does an excellent job of complimenting the series with a presentation exceeding broadcast standards (Hi-Def aside) which are then backed up by a small but extremely fine selection of bonus materials exploring the development of the series.