In the end, it was pen and paper that did what the police, drug dealers, murderers and family members could not. In last week's episode of "The Shield," the last before this week's series finale, Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) sat in an antiseptic room and confessed to his myriad sins, all of them -- the systematic lying, the casual killing, the stratospheric behind-the-scenes manipulation of Los Angeles' various criminal outfits.
But whatever thrill might have come from seeing the cruel and hopelessly corrupt detective commit everything to tape was undercut by the context. In an earlier episode, Vic had quit the police force before his firing was official, and in order to ensure his financial well-being (and, presumably, his continued access to underworld graft), he brokered a deal with a federal agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an opportunity that inexplicably came with an offer of full immunity for anything he confessed. So when he sat down at that table, signed his new contract, and began recapping his three-year crime spree for the digital recorder, although it seemed like he was getting away with something, actually it was an act of last resort -- an anticlimax.
The well-hidden secret of "The Shield" is that Vic's always been helpless. Without his lackeys -- the erratic, terrifying Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins); the quiet, unreasonably loyal Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell); the dearly departed Curtis "Lem" Lemansky (Kenneth Johnson) -- to prop him up, he's often been an empty vessel of aggression. And without his badge, as seen during the later parts of this season, his currency is significantly devalued. All along it seemed he was a master of his domain, but he was always betting with someone else's money. The moment one person calls his bluff, the house of cards collapses.
Vic's untouchability almost became a given on "The Shield" -- all his sins were paid for by others -- and ultimately, it was one of this groundbreaking show's few weaknesses. This season, though, the unraveling began to pierce his force field, largely due to the slow collapse of his ex-wife, Corrine (Cathy Cahlin Ryan), who dabbled in drugs and undercover police stings as a means of coping with the full understanding of Vic's sins. Family, it turns out, is the only bond with any strength on "The Shield." Corrine is the only person Vic doesn't question, even as she's clearly withering away. Additionally, he spent much of the season arguing with fellow cop Danny Sofer (Catherine Dent) about his rights to the baby produced by their one-night stand -- it is Vic's chance to begin anew.
For Shane -- who narrowly escaped an attempt on his life ordered by Vic this season, and who came close to killing Vic himself -- his wife, Mara (Michele Hicks), was both his redemption and his albatross. For several seasons, she'd been a silent accomplice in his evildoing. But over the last few episodes, she's become a full partner. Last week, as their young son sat in a waiting car, Shane tried to rob some drug dealers; when it went wrong, Mara came in shooting, killing an innocent woman. His cancer became hers.
This season, though not the series' best, was still vivid and compelling, largely due to these evolving family dynamics. As well, secondary story lines were sharply observed: the dogged, obsessive pursuit of a teenage serial-killer-in-the-making by Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes); the baby-faced gang member who got into a vicious interrogation-room confrontation with Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder); the nascent mayoral campaign by David Aceveda (Benito Martinez), which found him in bed with Mexican drug cartels (and, natch, Vic).
All these characters resisted change over the course of the series -- those who were moral remained so, those who weren't didn't much bother with reform. At series' end, it's only Vic who faces a choice, though either option is grim. The salary for his ICE job is $62,000 -- a laughable pittance compared with the money he'd stolen over the years -- making for a shockingly high risk-to-reward ratio. If he remains on good behavior, he'll be an underpaid government hack. If he goes rogue, his web of suffering will only widen.
But whether Vic relapses or has been scared straight doesn't matter. When he detailed his crimes last week, he didn't even look unburdened -- he's already dead.