Brief spoilers for The Shield coming up after the jump.
Ever since The Shield first debuted—just a few months after 9/11—a lot of critics, myself included, wrote that it was a show about the tradeoffs we, as a society, are willing to make for security. If Vic Mackey is able to get the job done on the streets, are we willing to accept the rest of his dealings as a tradeoff? Can we rationalize his killings and violations of civil rights because the people he hurts are (mostly) bad guys to begin with?
All that was true, and it still is. But as The Shield pares itself down to its essentials for its last few episodes, it’s clear that the show isn’t just about the tradeoffs we have made. It’s about the tradeoffs Vic Mackey—and Shane and the rest—have made too, and whether it was worth it for them.
As we’ve discussed here, Vic’s ultimate rationalization has always been: “We’re doing this for our families.” The idea, and ultimately the big lie, being that you can stand as a buffer between your family and the regrettable things you do in their name. But you can’t, or at least Vic and Shane couldn’t. You start stepping off the moral edge for your family, and you have to stay on that path. And your family travels with you, whether you like it or not. They become complicit, like Mara and Corinne—complicit in completely different ways and with different degrees or willingness, but complicit all the same. They become estranged from you. And they share the danger, morally, economically, physically.
What does Vic have left now? He’s lost his badge. He and his best friend are trying to kill each other. He’s all but lost his own family, and has put their future in more jeopardy than ever. He’s ready to kill not just Shane but his pregnant wife, while Jackson—excruciatingly to watch—is going without his medicine. (Shane is hardly blameless, either, and watching him dig himself and his family in deeper, I want to slap him and tell him to man up for his kids’ sake.) Vic Mackey, family man.
All of which makes me think about another moral question the show raises. It’s structured as though Vic’s original sin is shooting Terry: that one moment, in the pilot, is the one big transgression from which everything else flows. But is it really? I doubt it. If it hadn’t been Terry, it would have been something else.
Vic’s original sin was going down this dirty road to begin with. That would make for an intense series conclusion regardless. What is making it harrowing is wondering who else he will take with him, and how.