Ten years ago this week, FX Network aired “Family Meeting,” the final episode of The Shield, one of television’s great cop shows. For seven years, the series, loosely inspired by the scandalously corrupt Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, followed fictional LA Detective Vic Mackey and the rest of his Strike Team (with core members Shane, Lem and Ronnie) as they battled crime; not only bent the law but outright broke it for personal gain; and tried to stay one step ahead of both the criminals and their fellow law enforcement members. The show’s first episode picks up as the Strike Team accepts a new member, Detective Terry Crowley, setting in motion the path that Vic and the audience will take for the rest of the show, all the way to the finale.
The rest of this post is full of plot points about the seven season run of the Shield, and especially the show’s first and last episodes. If you haven’t watched one of the greatest cop shows ever to air (the “one of” is necessary only because I’ve also watched The Wire), go binge-watch it on Hulu and then come back.
Terry, we find out early in the Pilot episode, is actually a mole being planted in the Strike Team to take it down, and the episode ends shockingly with Vic shooting Terry in the face in the midst of a Strike Team drug raid. I’ve seen an online debate about whether or not Vic Mackey should have murdered Terry at the end of the Pilot. Critics of that decision say that the moment feels like it’s added for shock value and, more importantly, that it’s out of character for Vic Mackey. The Vic that we see in the rest of the show, they argue, would have never done something so direct and seemingly reckless, at least not while there were other options.
While it may be true that post-Pilot Vic Mackey is more clever than this, he’s also ruthless enough to commit such an act. The killing sets in motion events that will define the rest of the show’s seven seasons. It also does one of two things. It either makes us break with Vic, or it makes us complicit. Even before Terry’s murder, Vic is clearly not a good guy. He’s violent, corrupt, racist, sexist, and so on. And yet, he gets results that everyone wants, even if they don’t like his methods.
The show’s Pilot demonstrates this in a heavy-handed way when Vic is brought in to interrogate (read: savagely beat) a pedophile in order to find a victimized little girl after the show’s “good cops,” Dutch and Claudette, fail to get the information from the guy in a timely manner. As an audience, we don’t like Mackey or his methods, but if he’s what’s needed to save a child from being further sex trafficked, we’re willing to put up with it, and maybe even root for Vic when he’s paired opposite a truly despicable criminal. Claudette’s advice to Aceveda about Mackey (NSFW) further drives home the point, just in case we missed it. The public wants to be safe and feel safe, and if someone like Vic Mackey gives that to them, they’re willing to turn a blind eye to a lot.
Vic’s killing of Terry takes that bargain to its extreme. Are we, the audience, willing to forgive Mackey for straight-up murdering a good cop in order to cover up Mackey’s own involvement in drug dealing, just because Vic takes out certain other bad guys? Maybe, maybe not. The show forces the audience to make the same choice that Mackey’s colleagues make regarding the detective: root for him and accept his malfeasance because of the good that he accomplishes when he applies his methods towards the right people, or reject the notion that the ends justify the means and root for Mackey’s downfall.
The Shield spends seven years finding new and compelling ways to play with this fundamental question, while continuously ratcheting up the tension towards its eventual resolution. Vic’s supporters get to see him and his Strike Team take down truly bad guys, save innocents, and even be something resembling true heroes on occasion. Mackey’s detractors, meanwhile, watch as his schemes and attempts to cover his own backside bring endless pain and sometimes death to his friends, family and fellow cops.
Fans have said that each season of The Shield is better than the one before it. Season long guest stars such as Anthony Anderson, Glenn Close and Forest Whitaker definitely help the show remain compelling and fresh from year to year. Even if we quibble a bit about dips here or there, the final season is almost certainly one of the most compelling runs of television you’ll see. If you’ve been watching the show in order to see Mackey get his comeuppance, this last season teases that possibility, leaving it painfully unclear whether Vic has finally painted himself into a corner he can’t escape or if he’ll snag one last victory by simultaneously taking down friend-turned-foe Shane and securing a life changing (if unrealistic) get out of jail free card in the form of an immunity deal for himself and Ronnie, his last remaining friend and partner.
But I’d wager that, by Season 7, few people still watching the show are doing so because they want Mackey to pay for his crimes. They’re watching because the show has given you enough Vic bravado, enough displays of his cleverness, instances of him throwing himself in harm’s way to save an innocent or doing whatever it takes to take down a kingpin or murderer, that you’re firmly on Team Mackey. The show succeeds in making you complicit. Even though he’s killed a cop, that was, by Season 7, a long time ago (apparently three years in the timeline of the show, as the finale points out), and you’ve watched him change and grow since then – surely he’s redeemed himself by now.
But then, with the last episode, the show does something amazing, something that I have not seen a show do before. It takes a main character – one that you should objectively hate but that the show has made you love instead – and reveals that you really should have hated him all along. In this episode, Mackey’s former partner turned adversary Shane, on the run with his family and out of options, ends it all with a murder-suicide. It’s perhaps the most tragic scene you’ll see on network television, but the episode isn’t over yet. Perhaps we can still root for Vic. After all, Shane wasn’t innocent-he was an accomplice in all of Mackey’s wrongdoings, all the way back to Terry’s murder. Shane had even done a fair amount of dirt on the side (remember when he worked for Anthony Anderson’s drug kingpin Antwon Mitchell and all the trouble that caused).
And Shane had committed what, in the moral universe of the show, at least, was the ultimate sin – disloyalty. Shane was the one who killed fellow Strike Team member Lem, who, despite the fear that he might snitch, had actually remained loyal to his friends. And Shane was the one who dared to go against Vic. Shane’s betrayal sealed his fate. Vic had done a lot of bad things, but Shane did all of those and then turned on his partner.
Which brings us to the ultimate tragedy of tragedies. Remember Vic’s partner, Ronnie. The last remaining member of the Strike Team. The one guy who had remained loyal until the end. A guy who, in the twisted logic of the show, actually felt like a good guy in the context in which he was placed. Well, Vic has one last chance to seal that immunity deal that will prevent him from being prosecuted for the mountain of crimes he has committed, including Terry’s murder. All he has to do is disclose everything on the record. Only Ronnie is not there and won’t make it in time. So Vic – makes the deal, knowing full well that in doing so, he’s implicated Ronnie in all of his crimes (for which Ronnie went along as the ultimate loyal soldier) and condemned his last friend to a lifetime in prison.
This final decision hits you in the gut (something that the show does many times over the seven years), both because we see one of the show’s more sympathetic characters condemned to horrible fate, but more so because it’s not only directly Vic’s fault, but it’s his conscious decision. We realize it as he starts to give his statement, and we feel it as Ronnie is taken away, cursing and screaming in anger and disbelief, as Vic weakly apologizes but does not in the slightest regret his decision: Vic Mackey is not an anti-hero, or a good guy in a bad situation, and he never was. He’s a bastard. He’s always been a bastard. Every time he made a move, whether blatantly immoral or seemingly brave – it was to serve himself somehow: his greed, his petty ego, maybe his need to feel like a good guy when he never was one.
Vic selling out Ronnie to save himself is completely in character and consistent with the guy we’ve watched for seven seasons (and, in the pre-streaming era, for nearly seven actual years). We’re shocked, appalled and disappointed at his decision, but we’re not surprised. And that’s what makes it so compelling. The show has successfully made us complicit in Vic Mackey’s misdeeds, and it forces us to face the consequences of that complicity. This horrible outcome, in which Mackey gets off while the rest of the Strike Team is now dead or forever stripped of their freedom, is exactly what we’d been rooting for over the course of the show, even if we, like Mackey, pretend that it’s now what we wanted.
And although Mackey will not be prosecuted for his crimes, he doesn’t get off scot-free. In a seemingly perfect ending, the guy who lives for the adrenaline of being on the streets, violently taking on criminals and lining his pockets in the process, is put behind a desk, forbidden from doing anything other than go through paperwork. It’s simultaneously a fitting punishment, the kind you find in Greek tragedy, and frustratingly insufficient for someone who’s ruined so many lives.
And yet, like the rest of the season and episode, it is the perfect conclusion, narratively and poetically, of this story. Few television shows maintain a consistent story with character-driven progression, a coherent narrative and an overarching moral. Fewer shows end their run in a way that feels like a completely logical and satisfying end to their story, and fewer still end on their highest note. The Shield is perhaps the only show I’ve seen that does all three. “Family Meeting” is an amazing piece of television in its own right, but it is as close to a perfect final chapter as is humanly possible, one that actually elevates the rest of the story and leaves you in the audience questioning your own moral compass. Not bad for 72 minutes of television.