"Good cop and bad cop left for the day; I'm a different kind of cop."A hyperactive Shakespearian counterpart to the Dickensian The Wire, The Shield follows a team of police officers working at The Barn, an experimental police precinct situated within the fictional Los Angeles district of Farmington. Although the show revolves around corrupt detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), it gained a reputation as an ensemble show as the series explored the goings-on within the Farmington Precinct (including the various power struggles and interpersonal drama surrounding Mackey in the midst of the chaos and intrigue).The focus of the show revolves around Mackey and an elite anti-gang task force known as "The Strike Team", which he leads. The LAPD has tasked the Strike Team with the monumental job of keeping the streets of Farmington safe from drug dealers and gang members. Mackey and the other members of the close-knit group generally go about their task with violent efficiency and a tad bit of corruption on the side: the team will often enter into Faustian deals with Farmington's criminal elements which give said criminals free reign to run the city's drug trade in exchange for bribes, intel on other gang members, and a promise to keep their illegal antics at reasonable levels to ensure an illusion of peace.Other aspects of the show deal with the rank and file members of the Farmington Precinct. The most notable of these cast members, detectives Holland "Dutch" Wagenbach and Claudette Wyms, deal with non-gang-related instances of rape and murder within the district. They serve as the moral opposite of Vic Mackey and the Strike Team, which leads to much tension between the two sides when they work together on related cases (or when Dutch and Claudette have to clean up the inevitable fall-out from the Strike Team's corrupt antics while trying in vain to prove Vic's corruption). Several patrol officers, ranging from Danielle "Danny" Sofer, her protegé Julien Lowe, and rookie cop Tina Hanlon, find themselves struggling to advance up the ranks while dealing with the unappreciated job of keeping Farmington safe.Other characters include police captain-turned-politician David Acaveda, whose disdain for Vic Mackey and his corrupt antics clash with his political ambitions (and ends up driving him further and further into bed with Vic as the series progresses). Vic's estranged ex-wife Corrine, who spends the bulk of the series trying to separate herself and her children from her ex-husband before his crimes destroy their lives, also plays a significant role in the long run.Much the same as The Sopranos, The Shield goes to lengths to show how Vic and the rest of the Strike Team have both good and bad sides. In spite of his corruption and violent tendencies, many of Vic's criminal actions often result from the stress of his job (due to the unrealistic pressures placed on him to shut down crime in the district) and the desire to provide for his family (two of his three children have autism). Vic has some lines he refuses to cross, however, and he has absolutely zero tolerance for rape, pedophilia, and domestic violence. He also shows a great deal of loyalty towards his teammates and often preaches the message of team loyalty to bond the four men into a surrogate family.But Vic's conscience mainly exists thanks to the influence of Strike Team member Curtis "Lem" Lemansky. Lem serves as the counterpart to Vic's much abused "yes-man" partner, Shane Vendrell. Ronnie Gardocki, a quiet and nerdy police detective whose silent loyalty to Vic balances Lem and Shane's polar opposite personalities, rounds out the Strike Team.
— Vic Mackey, right before one of his Establishing Character Moments
Season summaries: spoilers follow!
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The series opens with Vic and Shane murdering Terry Crowley, a new member of the Strike Team who Aceveda convinced to help expose the team's corrupt antics. While Vic gets away with the murder, his life starts falling apart: Shane has a nervous breakdown due to the guilt over what they did (a breakdown largely brought about by Vic's refusal to let Shane vent his feelings over what they did with him), his son receives an autism diagnosis that will require expert treatment, and Vic himself frames an innocent man for trying to kill Lem after Lem accidentally fires on the man (which leads to Vic, Lem, and Ronnie having to rob a police vehicle to steal back the gun Vic planted on the man). These things pale in comparison to the chief revelation of the season: Vic's mentor/patron, Assistant Chief Gilroy, has become more corrupt than even Vic had imagined. Gilroy triggers a full-scale riot as a result of his manipulation of department resources in areas of the city. The riot leads to multiple deaths in the name of lowering property values within the city as part of a real estate scheme Gilroy cooked up.Meanwhile, Dutch and Claudette investigate a serial killer who (upon being caught) tries his best to destroy Dutch emotionally during a lengthy interrogation and rookie patrol officer Julien Lowe struggles with his homosexuality (which Vic uses as leverage to silence Julien after he sees Vic pocketing evidence from a crime scene).Vic eventually brings down Gilroy and talks Shane down from the proverbial edge when he finally snaps over the guilt of Terry's death — but at the end of the season finale, Vic's wife leaves in the middle of the night with the kids after an encounter with Gilroy makes her realize that her husband doesn't walk the straight and narrow.
This season has two distinct arcs. The first arc pits Vic and Aceveda (who've arranged a truce) against Claudette as they try to take down ruthless drug dealer/rapist/murderer Armadillo, who disfigures Ronnie in retaliation for Vic doing the same to him. Shane and Lem arrange for Armadillo's murder as payback for what he did to Ronnie, but it ends up coming too late to do any good: Claudette stops turning a blind eye to Vic's antics and starts working to bring him to down.A one-off flashback episode, "Co-Pilot", separates the two arcs. This Continuity Snarl of an episode shows Vic and Shane forming the Strike Team, Aceveda's first encounter with Vic, and Dutch and Claudette becoming partners.The second half of the season focuses on the growing tension between Claudette and Vic as the Strike Team plans to take down a money-laundering exchange (a "money train") run by the Armenian mob and keep its contents for themselves. Dutch and Sofer deal with professional problems due to a series of screw-ups both individually suffered during the first half of the season. Julien (having "cured" himself of his homosexuality) marries a single mother, only to later be outed by an ex-lover. The Strike Team also takes on a new member — a black detective named Tavon — who has no idea about the corrupt nature of the Strike Team.At the end of the season, Vic works out a cease-fire with Claudette once Vic and Tavon help catch the man who murdered Claudette's estranged ex-husband. That deal might turn out as a temporary truce when Claudette reveals she'll replace Aceveda as the Barn's Captain after Aceveda won the primary for an opening on the LA city council. The Strike Team carries out the Money Train heist, though their moment of triumph vanishes in the face of a growing dread and fear: they stole the money without much trouble, but now they have to keep their possession of the money a secret — and survive the incoming shitstorm of the Armenians looking for those who stole it...
The aftermath of the Money Train Heist tears the Strike Team apart as the group tries to stay on the straight-and-narrow to avoid suspicion for the robbery. Dutch and Claudette stumble upon the aftermath of the robbery, while the Feds start their own investigation into the heist. Vic's stranglehold over the Strike Team begins to slip when Shane enters a relationship with a real estate agent named Mara. Mara and Vic instantly take a disliking to each other, which creates tension between Vic and Shane — especially when Mara discovers their involvement in the Money Train Heist. Mara's unexpected pregnancy leads to Mara and Shane eloping, which creates a schism between Vic and Shane as Shane's new family leads him to seek independence from the Strike Team's corruption.Things go further sideways with the revelation that marked bills make up a portion of the Money Train's loot (thanks to the Feds investigating the Armenian mob), which renders half of the money essentially radioactive. It gets even worse when the Armenians send a ruthless hitman to find the men responsible for the robbery. Lem (suffering from ulcers and guilt after Vic forces him to cover up Shane assaulting Tavon and inadvertently removing from the team) burns the remaining money in a fit of madness, saying that he made sure the Strike Team can now stop any further inquiries into who stole the money. Shane's greed refuses to let him go along with Vic and Ronnie's attempt to move on with Lem, which leads to Lem putting in for a transfer to a new precinct and Shane proclaiming that he doesn't need Vic. After putting in for reassignment, Shane and Vic finally have it out with each other.Meanwhile, a couple of gangsters sexually assault Aceveda at gunpoint as a consequence of one of Vic's attempts to cover up the Money Train Heist. Aceveda takes dramatic steps to get revenge on his attackers: he kills one and blackmails the other with threats against his family if he ever talks. Claudette and Dutch separate as Claudette prepares to take over as Captain. Both detectives fall apart as a result: Claudette becomes Drunk with Power and Dutch ends up killing a cat after a rapist/murderer he spent the bulk of the season chasing after goads him into exploring how the criminal mind works. The pair ends up working together again, but soon after they get back together, Claudette blows the whistle on corruption within the city's public defender's office. Claudette's whistleblowing causes the overturning of several dozen convictions and all but kills her career on a political level.Julien (separated at work from Sofer) finds himself torn between the forces of evil (Vic and Julien's new amoral partner Tommy) and good (Danny) as he becomes more aggressive in his job in order to compensate for his outing. When evidence implicates Tommy in the murder of his ex-wife and son, Vic wants Julien to help him kill the guy who did the actual murders so Tommy can claim deniability, while Danny wants to keep Julien from falling into Vic's world of corruption and nihilism. In the end, Julien refuses to kill the man (a decision that ends up gaining Vic's respect), Tommy ends up killing himself, and Danny and Julien get paired up again.
The Strike Team has disbanded. Aceveda sits on the city council after winning his election. In the wake of Claudette's whistleblowing, new arrival Monica Rawlings (Glenn Close) takes over the Barn's Captain slot. Rawlings implements a controversial policy of asset forfeiture towards criminals, believing that seizing property bought with drug money will scare the masses away from thinking of the drug trade as a viable means of making money. Her idea doesn't win her much favor with the public or her superiors, though.Rawlings' arrival in Farmington coincides with the return of drug baron Antwon Mitchell, who wants to unite all of the city's gangs under his control. Mitchell has brokered an alliance with Shane, which puts Shane at odds with Vic and Ronnie (who have reunited with Lem to find a way to neutralize Shane). The reformed Strike Team fears that when Shane inevitably screws up, he will rat out the trio in order to save himself. When Shane can't warn Antwon about a raid on one of his major drug labs, Mitchell murders a young girl with Shane's police-issued firearm to frame Shane for her murder (and permanently bind Shane to his employment) as punishment. Vic eventually frees Shane from the predicament, though he unknowingly sets into motion a series of events which ends with Lem caught stealing drugs from a dealer by a police informant. As the informant's handler alerts IAD that they finally have one of the Strike Team members dead to rights for police corruption, Mitchell orders the murder of two patrol officers and ultimately sells out his new allies — the El Salvadorian drug cartel — to get immunity for ordering the killings. Rawlings manages to get Mitchell's immunity revoked and arrests him for the murders, but does so at the cost of her job.
Internal Affairs Lt. Jon Kavanaugh (Forest Whitaker) attempts to turn Lem against the Strike Team by using charges of police corruption against him. Kavanaugh and Vic engage in a brutal game of psychological warfare over the course of the season, and the games begin when Kavanaugh drives Vic's ex-wife Corrine to seek help from Dutch to deal with the possibility of Kavanaugh arresting her as her husband's accomplice. When Vic figures out Kavanaugh's weakness (his mentally ill ex-wife), Kavanaugh snaps and arrests Lem, who eventually goes on the run. During the season finale, Shane kills Lem after Aceveda hatches a plan with Kavanaugh to trick Vic into thinking Lem has cut a deal to testify against him. After seeing Lem's body, Vic vows brutal revenge against Lem's murderer.Slacker detective Steve Billings' disastrous tenure as Captain forces TPTB to finally promote Claudette (who learns she has lupus after a massive fall down a flight of stairs) to the job. Rookie cop Tina Hanlon joins the precinct and attracts the attention of Dutch, who both feels attracted to her and wants to mold her into a proper police officer.But the most important revelation of the season involves Vic: when he hits his fifteenth year as a police officer in two months' time, the LAPD will force him to retire.
Vic captures, tortures, and ultimately murders El Salvadorian gangster Guardo Lima in retaliation for Lem's murder). When Vic finally learns the truth about Shane killing Lem, the Strike Team implodes. Shane takes drastic action to ensure that Vic and Ronnie can never hurt him or his family. This includes informing the Armenians of Vic's involvement in the Money Train Heist. When Shane realizes the Armenians will kill Vic's family as part of the blowback for the Money Train Heist, he kidnaps Corrine and Vic's oldest child, Cassidy, at gunpoint in order to move them to a safe place. While he saves their lives, he becomes bound to the Armenian mob as a result.Julien joins the Strike Team alongside squeaky-clean new leader Kevin Hyatt, who ends up fired from the team when Claudette realizes she'd rather have a corrupt Vic Mackey bringing in the arrest numbers she needs to placate her bosses instead of a by-the-books officer who doesn't produce the instant results needed to keep the Barn from shutting down. Dutch's investigation of a house filled with dismembered body parts leads to the revelation that a major Mexican drug cartel has begun infiltrating Los Angeles, which ties into Vic's discovery that Aceveda's new ally in his mayoral ambitions will play a big part in the stealth invasion.Aceveda's new benefactor offers Vic photographic proof of Aceveda's sexual assault and bets on Vic using it to save his job via blackmailing Aceveda in exchange for Vic keeping his mouth shut about what he knows about the cartel's plot. The gambit backfires when Vic and Aceveda decide to put aside their rivalry to stop the cartel. At the end of the season, Vic skips out on the hearing that could save his job to help Aceveda obtain a box containing files that implicate countless prominent businessmen and political figures in Southern California in the corruption that allows the cartel to run rampant. With less than two months before his forced retirement, Vic sets his last major plan into motion.
Vic makes one last attempt to wipe the slate clean by arranging a gang war between the Mexican drug cartel and the Armenians while trying to have Shane killed as a side effect. Shane survives an attempt on his life, which leads to failed attempt at killing Ronnie and Vic. Shane becomes a wanted fugitive and Vic gives up his badge so he can get revenge while trying to bring down the Mexican cartel. As part of his plan, Vic attempts to convince a naive federal agent to provide him a job within Immigration and Customs Enforcement as a "thank you" for bringing down the cartel. He also forces Ronnie to stay by his side while Ronnie attempts to find a way to avoid jail time.Outside of Vic's story, Dutch befriends a woman whose teenage son pulls off a seemingly perfect murder. Fearing the sociopathic teen could one day become a serial killer, Dutch attempts to get the mother to help him arrest her child for the crime.The season's main storyline converges with Vic driving Shane to kill himself and his family while pulling off a Karma Houdini: because Vic can't secure an immunity deal for both himself and Ronnie, he sells Ronnie out to save himself and confesses to every single crime he and the Strike Team committed over the course of the show's events.Vic makes the arrests he needs to bring down the Cartel and ensure his immunity, but his victory proves Phyrric: everyone knows about the crimes he and the Strike Team committed, his ex-wife escapes into Witness Protection after filing a restraining order against him, and the ICE agent Vic thought he bamboozled forces him to work desk duty for the duration of a three-year "probation" period that will ensure his immunity from prosecution. At the end of the show, Vic ends up without a family, a real career, the power and influence he held while he worked the streets, or a chance of ever getting any of those things back.
The Shield contains examples of the following tropes: