Warning: There are some spoilers to the Breaking Bad finale and some, but less, for The Shield.
I watch a lot of TV, so much so that I may will be a founding member of whatever inevitable 12-step program develops for late-night binge watching. What? Tony is about to whack a guy in his crew? Sorry, tomorrow Will. Smash is suspended for using ‘roids? Time to hang out with Tim Riggins and Coach Taylor for another 45 minutes. As with most people who partake in the timeless pastime of television watching, Breaking Bad tends to be on their respective lists.
For good reason. When mixed, the finely tuned story by X-Files alum Vince Gilligan with toxic characters and dynamic performances by Bryan Cranston and company react, producing a consistently tense and thrilling byproduct consumed weekly in tiny blue-meth sized installments.
Watching the Breaking Bad finale two weeks ago made me feel happy for Walter White’s story ending as well as it possibly could have. But it wasn’t entirely satisfying.
I love the show, so this is merely out of that love why I say all of this. If only because after watching everything turn to shit for White in the preceding seven episodes, the fact he was he was able to (seemingly) rectify every wrong, as best as he could, gave a fitting conclusion for the white-tighties toting man people should have grown to despise after spending almost 50 hours with him. [BB SPOILERS] The ending should have been “Ozymandias,” where he leaves town after his life and Chernobyl are indistinguishable. That’s the one I prefer.
In a shocking and unprecedented moment of self-awareness, a man often clouded by his rampant hubris apologizes to his wife Skyler and provides closure that he did everything himself, not for her and their children.
He frees his spiritual son Jesse from the captivity of New Mexico Nazis (who just edge Illinois Nazis in the “Fictional Neo-Nazi Faction” power rankings) and even gives him the cathartic choice to kill his vindictive father figure (which is denied).
The morality of the show is partly dispatched in the final 75 minutes. Yes, Walter dies. But that was a near certainty from his clumsy flip-camera confession. Allowing Walter to salvage what he could was disappointing in that the man who had acted selfish under the guise of selflessness achieved his goals while filling his ego, that his empire was falsely Drake-esque [END BB SPOILERS].
Compare that to television’s non-premium cable trailblazing antihero: Vic Mackey of The Shield. Breaking Bad’s final season, as a whole, barely surpasses The Shield’s. But the finale of Mackey’s story is still the standard of how to wrap up a creative entity on the small screen. Though the show endures some stalling in Seasons 2 and 3, the concluding disastrous sprint from Forest Whitaker’s electric Season 5 to the end of the seventh season, your emotions will be kicked and battered into a pulp, not unlike how Mackey liked to treat his felonious guests at the Farmington stationhouse. I can’t say any show has driven me to tears save a particularly heartbreaking scene in Shawn Ryan’s concluding opus “Family Meeting.”
It’s been covered more than police brutality in Vic’s (probable but no on-screen) mandatory ethics seminars, but The Shield revolutionized basic cable programming storytelling. There would be no Breaking Bad or any other substandard knock-offs without Michael Chiklis busting up gang violence in Los Angeles. The pilot sets up conflict between a member on the Strike Team and the rest of the group, as Terry Crowley agrees to inform against the crew. Not 40 minutes later is Crowley dead by Vic’s finger on a dead drug pusher’s gun trigger — The Shield literally started with a bang.
And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the slew of characters Ryan created and developed, such as Walton Goggins’ Shane Vendrell, Mackey’s troubled best friend and Curtis “Lem” Lemansky (Kenny Johnson), the oft-conflicted member of the Strike Team with a conscious, the only member to experience true dissonance in hedonistically breaking the law with his friends and sticking to his morals.
That’s one prominent difference between these two shows. In Ryan’s show, whatever storytelling god that rules over Mackey’s indiscretions exhibits no empathy for the man who claims to work for his family’s best interests while thriving in illegal dealings and alienating his wife and kids. The indifference is crippling to its characters. Walter ultimately accepts his wrongdoing and self-enabling, and for that he is saved. Mackey is oblivious, even to the end.
I went out to dinner with one of my pals Mike a couple weeks ago, and we talked about The Shield. He’s my only peer who’s watched it, so it’s a topic of conversation as much as possible between Trojan football, why Nate Dogg is the Robert Horry of rap and more Trojan football. In the midst of the USC shooting last Halloween, while it was a mess and tragic, he was as excited, as anyone could be given the circumstances, that I was tweeting information to Chiklis, whose daughter is currently a sophomore. We were both so giddy to be talking about it and had no idea why more people our age haven’t watched it (my general answer: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).
Mike’s response is far more eloquent and verbose:
There’s a bit about the The Shield that’s been cited, at some point or another, by every critic who reviewed the show as its defining essence. It came about two-thirds of the way through the aforementioned pilot when Mackey saunters into an interrogation room to sweat a suspected child molester about the whereabouts of an eight-year-old girl. The perp, feigning toughness, asks him if he’s supposed to be Good Cop or Bad Cop.
“Good Cop and Bad Cop left for the day,” he sneered. “I’m a different kind of cop.”
Before you have time to process what that really meant — namely, a thinly-veiled pitch to watch an unknown cop show on what was then a no-name network — Mackey proceeds to chidingly offer up his own daughter to said pervert, before beating the piss out of him with a phone book in order to get the address he needed. By the time that first hour is up, the show’s ostensible protagonist had tortured a suspect, taken drug money and murdered a fellow officer.
With only one exception, every person I’ve introduced to the show started openly rooting for police corruption no more than a few episodes later.
The genius of The Shield isn’t its capacity to make you embrace a deeply flawed individual. On some level, every successful drama of the past decade has done the same thing. But Tony Soprano was a mafia goon and Walter White a crank pusher, vocations that are both inherently loathsome and historically romanticized by popular culture; the push and pull was established from the get-go. Vic Mackey was a dirty cop, something almost universally treated with disdain for its supposed perversion of justice. The degree of difficulty was a lot higher.
Chiklis and showrunner Shawn Ryan pulled it off. They did so with one of deepest supporting casts in show history, highlighted by the inimitable Walton Goggins, now starring on FX’s current bellwether Justified and whose Shane Vendrell was the prototype for Breaking Bad‘s Jesse Pinkman. They were one of the originators of the season-long guest arc, with all of Whitaker, Glenn Close and Anthony Anderson playing iconic roles in some of the show’s best moments. Before Breaking Bad, no other show came close to matching The Shield‘s propensity for saving its best story arcs for last, and I’d wager no other great show produced two seasons so equally superb that even diehards can’t agree which one was superior (Will says 7; I say 5).
Perhaps The Shield is under-watched because it spurred a wave of FX’s superb dramas instead of riding on its crest, or maybe that’s because it stood toe to toe with HBO’s own drama golden age of The Wire, The Sopranos and Deadwood. It’s one, or the other, or both, but none of it holds water. Nothing else captures Ryan’s exact blend of cocaine heartbeat pacing, jarring plot swerves, exhaustive character development and, yes, occasionally disturbing levels violence, all of which make it essential viewing.
You could say it’s a different kind of show.
The end of Breaking Bad allowed a modicum of sympathy for Walter White. The Shield’s prohibited any for Vic Mackey, constructing a more compelling conclusion. The transcendent ride-along with The Shield is worth it and will be enjoyed, especially if you’re a Bad fan. Take shotgun with Vic and his cronies. You won’t be disappointed.