No drama series reached further with a surer hand than "The Shield."
This was true before. Now, all the evidence is in. The 88th and final episode of this surefire police drama airs on FX on Tuesday from 10 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. ET.
It doesn't stumble at the finish line. It's everything a series finale should be (which is a blessing, as any viewer knows who has sat through a botched conclusion to a favorite show).
More to the point, this last episode completes the mission that has driven "The Shield" for seven seasons, since its first explosive moments gave the audience a start.
With its premiere, it relaunched the stalled career of its star, Michael Chiklis, while it wasted no time scoring viewers and awards, redefining its network and paving the way for subsequent ambitious FX dramas, from "Nip/Tuck" and "Rescue Me" to this fall's "Sons of Anarchy," which puts viewers in the middle of a motorcycle gang.
Since March 2002, "The Shield" has remained a revolutionary series. It brought unaccustomed quality and daring to basic cable. It pushed TV drama overall to greater heights. And somehow, every week, without fail, it was superb.
This was a cop show that demanded words like "gritty" and "raw." Its protagonist, LAPD Detective Vic Mackey, was a vigilante lawman in the roughest district of Los Angeles. As he fought lawlessness with his own brand of lawlessness, he could rival Tony Soprano as TV's most despicable hero, its reigning charismatic brute.
And speaking of "The Sopranos" ... devotees of that mob drama gathered for its series finale a couple of years ago expecting to learn Tony's fate (jail? death? redemption?). Instead, the audience learned squat from that ending, to the musical accompaniment of "Don't Stop Believin'." This made some viewers mad.
Now you wait for "The Shield" to wrap up things. "All will be revealed," the show has been promising. And it will. Don't stop believin'.
What will happen to Mackey? Jail? Death? Redemption? No wonder "Shield" fans are wondering.
With his anti-gang Strike Team, Mackey succeeded in mopping up crime where nothing else might have worked. But he was ruthless and cunning, an ACLU nightmare. Navigating by his broken moral compass, he lorded over his informants, tampered with evidence, bullied suspects and manipulated everyone around him. On the fly, he hatched his own game plans, and no one (not even his Strike Team mates) was privy to the full, authentic version in his head.
Notwithstanding his successes, Mackey has caused a world of hurt, almost any part of which could have put him in the slammer. Then, on last week's episode, he took a plea of full immunity and spilled everything. In a horrible but bitterly funny scene in a federal interrogation room, he recited his roster of offenses, a sort of Vic's Greatest Hits stretching back to the series' premiere (when Mackey methodically shot a fellow cop, then pinned the murder on a dead drug dealer).
"You are a sick, twisted man," Mackey's questioner said when he was done.
"Anything else?" replied Mackey without blinking. "I got a meeting."
Some end up happy, some end up dead
On a show that always reveled in con games, double-crossing and hairpin plot twists, what would do justice to Mackey — and the show?
Hint: He gets exactly what he deserves. So, too, do many of the others in Mackey's universe. Some end up happy; some, not so happy; some, not so alive.
Written by "Shield" creator Shawn Ryan, "Family Meeting" is a brilliant episode. It's tense and heartbreaking, as well as something the hyperkinetic "Shield" has seldom been before — willing to pause for interludes of excruciating calm.
"We don't want to resolve everything in the world," Ryan said. "We try to wrap up some things, and other things, you leave with the idea that, the next day, the world goes on."
Of course, fans of "The Shield" can expect to feel regret at parting ways with the show's all-too-engaging personalities. It's also sad to realize that such a splendid troupe of actors will no longer be convening for the viewer to enjoy each week on a single show.
Here's a shout-out, then, to the squad that, along with the phenomenal Chiklis, includes CCH Pounder (who plays the upright precinct captain), Jay Karnes (as sharper-than-he-looks Detective Wagenbach), Walton Goggins (Strike Team member Detective Shane Vendrell), David Rees Snell (who, as Detective Gardocki, rounded out Mackey's rogue trio), Benito Martinez (the city councilman), Catherine Dent (steady Officer Sofer) and Cathy Cahlin Ryan, who played Mackey's tormented wife, but, in real life, is married to Shawn Ryan.
Production on "The Shield" wrapped nearly a year ago. The finale was completed last spring. Ryan said he hadn't seen it for months when, recently, he screened it for reporters.
"It's obviously a special show for me," Ryan said when the lights went back up. He said he had watched with a twinge of "nervousness, knowing what's coming."
Then he touched on all that had passed.
"You know how people look back and say, 'I wish I'd known what we had, I wish I'd appreciated it more?'" he posed. "I think everyone on the show appreciated every single season. We all treasured it."
With just one more episode to go, "The Shield" is a show that viewers, too, will treasure to the end.