Rated: 4 / 5
This show created a lot of misconceptions for me back in the day. Because I watched the first season (and a half) of this series back when it first came out, I was under the impression shows in general were more anti-PC back in the day than they tended to be on-average. I was also under the impression blacks and latinos were shown to be just as likely to be criminals as whites are. What I didn’t know is that this show was the exception to the rule. A show that wasn’t just controversial for the sake of being controversial (primarily with the amount and quality of foul language, plus the level of violence and nudity, that this pushed out on network television, on a regular station that wasn’t HBO or something like that). It wasn’t afraid to let the punches fly in full force with its depiction of cops and criminals, showing most characters as flawed and/or corrupted, regardless of race. And it wasn’t afraid to showcase black criminals doing/dealing drugs, and blasting at cops, civilians, and other thugs. Same for latinos. And make no mistake, whites have their fair share of criminality as well. Everyone is targeted in this show, at least early on during the first 3 seasons.
A highly refreshing show that hasn’t shown its age yet, despite being released in 2002. A gritty show that paved the way for other gritty shows made today, as did Oz, The Wire, and The Sopranos. I will say this one is more accessible and entertaining than the latter two, and I can’t make a judgment call on Oz given that I haven’t actually seen that series yet.
The series is about a squad of corrupt cops in a precinct of less corrupt (in some cases arguably incorruptible) cops. They get arrests made in questionable ways, but also have the highest arrest rate, thus making them a force that the higher ups dislike and would like to get rid of, but have a hard time doing so because of their success rate (and when the higher ups actually want them to do something specific they know no one else can do, at least not as effectively, efficiently, and quickly). But, from the first episode and onwards, it becomes clear they cross the line, making the viewer question if they should even be rooting for these guys, if not hoping for their demise at times. The first episode really does set the tone for the entire series, with events that occur in it where repercussions are faced later on, including by the show’s very end.
Plus there’s something else the show had going for it that I don’t believe any other series ever made in existence, even during the 1950s, would have the balls to do. A gay black male cop, who acknowledges that being gay is a sin and bad, who goes through religious therapy to turn him straight, who gets married to a black woman, and more or less winds up happy afterwards. Sure, there’s indications he still struggles with male attraction every now and then, even as implied at this brief moment in the last episode. But he notes in the first season that he struggles to keep these emotions bottled up as they come back stronger and stronger. The question is whether or not the therapy worked well enough, and if he can stay happy with his family. Either way, it’s a continual struggle to remain on the right path. This show gets major kudos for pulling that off, even if it seems like they backed off of it a bit (they pretty much dropped that stuff at the end of season 3), and tried to imply that being gay isn’t really a bad with that one moment in the last episode (which let’s face it, is open to interpretation).
This is the point where I can’t write in as much depth as I would like without spoiling the hell out of the ending, and thus spoiling a tremendous portion of the entire show. So if you haven’t seen it, just know that this is highly recommended. I consider it one of the best series ever created. With that out of the way:
Spoilers (including for Breaking Bad, to an extent)
Some say this has the greatest ending to a television show ever. I say it almost lives up to that reputation. What it does provide is the perfect ending for the main protagonist, and to some extent the other members of the Strike Force team. Unfortunately, that doesn’t apply to everything else.
When it comes to the ending of this show, I think of Breaking Bad. Some say (and I concur) that the issue with Breaking Bad’s ending is that the writers fell in love with the main character to the point where the ending wasn’t as much of a bleak gut punch as it should’ve been. The main character (and arguably a couple other characters) got off too lightly. This show, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. While the writers didn’t fall in love with the main character and gave him the fate he deserved, it’s like their focus on wanting to hate him got to the point where it blinded them to how everyone else should’ve ended up, outside of the Strike Team (though Shane is a bit of an exception, more on that later). Everyone else got off too easily.
To point how how they got it wrong with just about everyone else, I gotta talk about how they got it right with Vic Mackey. All the bad stuff he did, combined with his hypocrisy, and how blind he was to how he negatively affected the lives of others including his family; though I believe this be a bit overstated; it’s like the show didn’t want to acknowledge the independent faults of others when it got to the last season, like it wanted to put all the blame for everything on Vic’s shoulders. Like I said, it started to hate Vic a little too much at the end. Anyway, all of Vic’s actions causing all of his bridges to become burned, for him to wind up loathed by the precinct he used to serve, to wind up working a desk job that’s basically a Hell of his own making: that’s all fine and well, and deserved. As often as he may have done good deeds and saved so many people from those he either killed or arrested, he became one less focused on his job and family (as rare as the latter was), and more on his own selfish interests. And it cost him everything. His look of sadness and internal torment that is eating him up until the lights go out. The show was even respectable enough to showcase his smirk in the end, making you wander what that glimpse of happiness entails. A moment of irony? Thinking up a plan in that moment? Deciding that he can actually live with himself and eventually be ok with all this? Deciding he’s just going to go rogue and screw things up even further and go out on his own terms? It’s open to interpretation, and that’s perfectly ok for something like this. Either way, it entails the message that his good side (as the whole show is basically a tale of two Vics, each showcasing a different side of himself that often comes into conflict with the other, with the bad side winning far more often than losing) has died off, and his bad side is now the dominant factor.
The first three seasons showcased this continual spiral Vic and his Strike Team continued down on. Season 4 became a bit of a breather, making you think they may be able to recover from it all and leave it all behind, with a hint that may not happen. Then season 5 comes and really hits back with consequences of past actions, particularly when it came to Vic killing that cop who was going to inform on him and the team to the Feds. Though it should be noted that the main reason that Internal Affairs is pursuing Vic is because politicians want to set an example of putting away police corruption; because the praise the Strike Team gets for how effective they are at their job also comes with complains of police brutality and political pressure (in fact, this tends to be the primary reason Vic’s team gets heat from the higher ups at earlier points in time, because aspiring politicians and police leaders want to score political points). Everything falls apart for the Strike Team and onwards from there on out. Past grievances are not forgotten. There are consequences for those actions. Especially since the precinct occupies a structure that was once a church.
Consequences of past actions coming back to bite them in the ass. The biggest problem is that this isn’t dealt with all that well with everyone else by the end of the series. Ronnie and Lemansky’s fates were fine, but Shane… I had a bit of a problem with how season 7 played out for him. Mainly when it came to the relationship with his wife. I mean, she ended up being someone who was loyal to him, and was willing to stick with him to the end regardless of the corrupt shit he did… in spite of the fact that she stole from him in season 3. I mean, doesn’t that indicate there’s going to be some mistrust and ulterior motives there? It’s like the show forgot about that, or wanted to give the impression that they evolved past that (something that isn’t earned). I’m thinking his wife should’ve left him (and took the kid too, along with a bunch of money), thus leaving him in a state of despair where he would inevitably kill himself. Because he is as blind about her as Vic is towards the women in his life (misjudging their loyalty and/or his control over them). But the show didn’t want to do that. Well fine, assuming I’m ok with that, that leaves another problem. The show focuses way too much on Shane and Mara (his wife) during the last 3-4 episodes of the entire series. And anyone with half a brain would know why the series is giving them so much attention: to build up sympathy so that the inevitable tragic end will be all that much more tragic. It’s too much, and the show’s focus would’ve been better off elsewhere.
That’s one of the biggest problems with the last half of season 7. Where it wants to focus. It wants to focus on the tragedy of Shane’s fate so there’s more sympathy for this guy who was once one of the least sympathetic characters in the series, so that Vic will be less sympathetic by the end so his fate feels more deserved. So that Claudette can rub it in Vic’s face that much more during the last episode.
That’s the other big problem with the series: Claudette. That bitch. I was on board with her character for a while, because I was paying attention to the little details about her. The show builds her up as this incorruptible detective who always does good no matter what, even if it means pissing other people off, whether it’s other cops of her rank, or even the higher ups. She never compromises her standards. She is unmovable when it comes to her standards of justice and what is right. The downside? There better be one, or else I’d find her character intolerable. Thankfully, at least for the first 4 seasons, there are indications of faults in her character. In season one, there’s an episode where she is overly critical of family members, indicating that her standards are too high and she’s judgmental to a fault. In a later season, she calls Dutch (arguably the best detective on the show, more on him later) out on betraying her with regard to a medical status she wanted kept secret. But she called out the wrong guy, and he rightly faulted her for that, saying, “There’s no taking that back.” In fact, she denigrated him a lot throughout the entire show. Then there was also this incident in season 5 where it shows she pushes herself too far to finally put this serial killer away, though Dutch encouraged her to go this far. That the personal cost for doing the job effectively may be too great. Something that’s also linked to a moment in season 6 where Vic’s wife Corrine says to Vic, “I can see how much of a toll this job is taking on you.” And in season 6, there’s finally clear indication of hypocrisy with Claudette. Once she’s given a leadership role, she is willing to compromise her standards in order to get things done (not that she does anything illegal, just that she becomes hypocritical about her own personal standards at some points). Yet at the same time, her standards aren’t being met in places that cause her to make rash decisions to the detriment of the Barn, such as by basically firing Kevin Hiatt, who was on the path to being an optimal replacement for Vic who probably could’ve helped kept the Barn afloat with effective arrests, but just didn’t live up to her (unreasonable) standards of decency.
But by the end of the last season, pretty much all of those subtle faults that were built up with her go away. In their place is a sickness she is dying from, which causes Dutch boy to act as her lap dog, always trying to comfort her, care for her, do what’s best for her. And in the process (something that started to happen in season 6), Dutch loses his talent of being the most effective detective in the Barn, so that by the end he can say, “No, Claudette is the best, and she has always been the best.” Bullshit. Sure she’s a good interrogator, but she isn’t perfect, and there are situations where Dutch is a far better fit for it, and vice versa (depending on who they are interrogating). But Dutch is the one capable of going farther than her with out-there killers because of his talent for getting into their minds and thinking like them. Claudette is better at being very controlling and manipulating in the interrogation room. Plus season 2 implies she might go too far with how she conducts herself, given that she “interrogates” Vic’s wife at one point; which again is something that doesn’t carry over as a consequence in the last season. At least not in a manner indicating she’s going too far. So because of this, in spite of the first 6 seasons building up the subtle imperfections that are within her, she winds up being an all-perfect ethically inspiring icon whose standards everyone should live by, and it pisses me off. Plus she’s also all for black power, wanting more black representation in the force. That’s also something that could’ve been built upon to showcase her faults even more (the show lost its balls to do that given how it handled Tina, more on her later), wanting to give preferential treatment to blacks, but having a difficult time finding any that live up to her standards (while failing to see that no one, of any race, could possibly live up to them).
And Dutch. They really neutered this guy in the last couple seasons. Taking away his talent, his pride and ego. Making him go from an aspiring detective who is above everyone else, to a guy who has to cater to the whims of Claudette who is better than him in every way. The worst thing that happened with him is that nothing long-term came about with that cat incident, where it showcased that he’s so driven to comprehend the minds of serial killers in a way rational people just can’t, that he’s willing to strangle a cat to death just to see the look in its eyes before it dies, to see if he can see what the killer saw. That he’s willing to go to dangerous and disturbing places in order to perfect his craft. The idea that he could go too far and become too much like the killer’s he interrogates and gets confessions out of, like how Vic acts too much like the criminals he puts away at times.
Tina. The rookie introduced in season 5. Someone who isn’t really cut out for the job, and who makes major mistakes in it that result in endangering the lives of other cops. They forget about all that in the last episode, as they celebrate her one year anniversary on the job, with everyone celebrating her; primarily to contrast the Barn’s current state of affairs with the department being one big family, and Vic being isolated and alone. What a crock of shit. Completely dropping the implication that she didn’t clear the room when Danny got assaulted by a guy that was missed during the sweep, thus endangering yet another officer’s life. The stuff that happens when you don’t take the job seriously, when you don’t act professional, when you prioritize other things in life over the job, as Vic does (see the pattern yet?). In fact, another aspect of hers that the show drops completely is her realizing she’s gaining a position of power and influence by being the ad-girl for the police force, which makes her ego rise to the point where she talks down to the veteran Danny, stating that she could get her fired if she continues to denigrate her. For all the good the series does, it completely drops the ball on her character. Like it got too scared in season 7 to follow through on the consequences those faulty seeds that were sown would reap.
Aceveda, the aspiring politician. I would’ve been ok with him not really facing consequences for his past actions… if not for him basically getting Antwon to kill John in prison. The moment he made a deal with a criminal to get another criminal killed, that should’ve started a downward spiral for him similar to Vic’s predicament. But nothing came about from that incident. I call bullshit.
The girl playing Vic’s daughter… her acting was terrible, making it difficult to gauge how her actions and life are truly being affected by Vic or by her own actions, or that of her mother. But I’m not interesting in covering that.
Lastly, Vic’s wife Corrine. I didn’t find anything wrong with her character. She was consistent throughout the series. The problem I had was that she, and her children, seemed to have a happy ending. I don’t buy this for another reason I take issue with Shane’s outcome. For starters, there is no fucking way the Armenian threat is permanently handled just like that. Once Shane let the cat out of the bag (before Dutch could strangle it; in fact, Dutch could’ve been a bigger player in this if the show developed the plot in this way) that Vic and his team were behind robbing the Armenian mob, and that word got back to their homeland about it, that should’ve sealed some fates. It can’t just be resolved because they scare one Armenian leader out of the country, and have another killed off. It can’t be that easy. The mob would’ve come back to chop of the feet of Vic’s family, and Shane’s. In fact, I’m thinking the threat of that would’ve been a better motivator for Shane to ultimately kill himself and his family, without leaving that dumb fucking suicide note blaming Vic for all of his problems (even if it was in character with him attempting to shift the blame away from himself and onto others, but that doesn’t exactly act as a full comeuppance for his character that this last season seemed to want to do for everyone left in the strike team except for Shane, in that his character fully confronts all the bullshit he’s done in the past and acknowledges he only has himself to blame, even if he blames Vic too for a large part of it). That, and I refuse to believe Vic’s daughter starts acting like a goody-two-shoes after all that, or that the retarded kids are all of a sudden not a big deal for Corrine to raise anymore (as a single mother). It’s too fucking easy for it to be that happy of an ending for her, just to emphasize a message of the family being that much better off without Vic. If something bad happened to them, that would be another ounce of depression that would be hitting Vic at the end of she show, which the ending of season 6 seemed to be implying would happen (and bits of season 2 as well; not to mention season 1 implying stuff at Vic’s job was getting too close to home, and all the warning signs Vic tried to downplay through most of the series). It would’ve been dark and harsh, but that’s how it should’ve been. Show really started to pull its punches like Breaking Bad did in the final moments.
Honestly, I could sense when this series began to get lighter with its punches. The cultural zeitgeist shift when things started to get more politically correct by 2006-2008 can be felt during the seasons that came out during those years. Not that those seasons are bad, quite the contrary, they’re very solid. But it’s like they started to pull their punches a little more. And by the end of it, they really started to settle in on the diversity quotas, in terms of the diversity of characters that began to occupy the forefront of the show, and how ethically superior they eventually became portrayed as compared to the corrupted main character and his all-white team (though they tried to get a black guy on the team once, and it sucked when that didn’t happen, but it fit things perfectly with the way it played out in that situation; plus Julian had the potential to be the next replacement, kinda sorta, given his aggressiveness in seasons after 3 and prior to 7; the series couldn’t really figure out what to do with him after season 3, and Danny started to fare worse in the last few episodes). It harmed the ending of the show, but it didn’t ruin the show. Because despite my gripes, this is a very solid show that manages to be outstanding in spite of its faults that caused the ball to slip, but not get dropped.
How I Would’ve Ended It
I would’ve more or less done everything the same up until about episode 9 of season 7. It started to get a bit predictable with Vic’s plan’s backfiring, going along the lines of, “things would’ve turned out better if he did nothing, or did anything but this immoral act, which put them in a worse position.” I got really tired of that by the time it got to the last episode and it was all, “We would’ve been in the clear if Vic didn’t confess, because then the Shane problem would’ve been over.” Except it wouldn’t, which is why I’m thinking a less ethically clear outcome should occur from all that. Rather than the whole shtick of things getting worse for every bad thing they do and every bad decision they make, I would’ve rather had it go along the lines of: no matter what they do, they’ve made too many bad decisions in the past to hope for anything close to a good outcome to happen now. Even making good decisions isn’t going to be enough to allow them to crawl up out of this hole they dug themselves into. That would’ve been more fitting, and less predictable.
So Shane is running and blackmailing his way through things, buying time (and trying to get money) so he and his family can make a break from the city when the day arrives when the presidential motorcade will make a drive-by. Except because of his past fuck-up spilling the beans to the Armenians, not only are the cops after him for attempted murder (among other things), not only is Vic after him, not only are latino gangs after him because Vic put a bounty on him, but the Armenians are back in town and also have a hit out on him, and Vic, and Ronnie, and their families. Dutch gets wind about the Armenians, as does Vic and Ronnie, but Shane doesn’t know any better since he’s out of communication (and Vic doesn’t see any reason to inform him). Once Dutch informs Corrine about the Armenians (suspecting they might be in town because he suspects Vic and his team ripped off the mafia, something he suspected since season 3), that knowledge combined with her knowledge of Vic’s corrupt actions of the past she finds out about when she confronts Vic about it after Mara informs her about it, Corrine has every reason to want to break from Vic and get him out of her life, more-so than how it was originally depicted in the show (knowing how much danger the entire family is likely in now).
Vic then goes to join ICE for another reason. Not to protect his wife from arrest for reasons he indicated in the actual show, but more to put her in witness protection to protect her and the family from the Armenians. It would be a more understandable reason for going around Ronnie’s back and hanging him out to dry and get arrested. Of course, he would have to still be around for him and Vic to do that major drug bust for ICE, but after that, things wind up the same for Ronnie. The major drug bust would have to occur before the last episode with the way things play out.
Dutch gets bogged down dealing with the up-and-coming serial killer kid, partly because he wants to prevent a potential future serial killer from going on a spree. But also because of his obsession with serial killers in general. He also has an interest in seeing this kid develop, attempting to study and comprehend how the mind of a serial killer is formed. An unhealthy obsession that was implied he had at that earlier point in the show when he strangled the cat.
Claudette becomes obsessed with taking Vic down. She brings in Corrine, interrogates her about Vic. Corrine spills the beans on what she knows and what he told her, and demands protection for her and her family. However, an Armenian who is currently imprisoned at the Barn sees Corrine there, and informs the rest of the mob when he gets his one phone call (or when his lawyer comes to bail him out). Meanwhile, Claudette sets up the money exchange at the park where Vic is to hand Corrine a bag of cash that she is to hand over to Shane (or Mara). Claudette knows this is putting Corrine in danger, but she’s determined to put Vic behind bars before he does more harm (the way she sees it). She still gets the bag from Ronnie, as in the show (let’s say this is on the day when Vic is giving his confession to ICE, while he’s busy with that he has Ronnie carry the money over to her, and they later do the drug bust that evening). But afterwards, the plan backfires when the Armenians show up, nab Corrine, and drive off with her. The police pursue, and it winds up with the vehicle crashed and Corrine getting killed. Vic and Ronnie find out about all this after they do the bust, and succeed in getting the drugs and arresting the big guy, making their bittersweet victory short-lived when that sets in.
Aceveda still makes a speech at the scene of the drug bust, but some time later his political opponent learns about his dealings with Antoine, which he found out about from another “brother” who is/was in prison. So Aceveda’s future is in question, and he ponders about what he can do to remove this political opponent, and considers taking a drastic illegal route. Putting himself in someone else’s pocket, who deals with it by having the political opponent killed in a manner similar to that in the original finale, but now Aceveda finds himself dealing with another corrupt group who had dirt on him. Thus continues his spiral of being a corrupt politician, becoming the very thing he hated.
Ronnie gets arrested afterwards, Vic is furious at Claudette, Claudette blames Vic more than she blames herself, calling him out on the bad shit he’s done in front of everyone (possibly even the news cameras), which incurs mixed looks where, on the one hand, the cops are confronted with a cop killer, while on the other hand the timing of throwing all this out is awkward and with mixed responses. And in the meantime Vic’s kids get kidnapped by the Armenians and get their feet chopped off (that may be too much, maybe just only have that happen to his oldest daughter). This happens because his daughter was starting to get into drugs that were being passed around her school (something built up in season 6 and/or 7), the Armenians are connected to the drug trade, they eventually find her and figure out who she is, and then kidnap her.
Shane finds out about this on the news the next day, Mara leaves him (taking the son with her), and he kills himself, guilt-ridden that he set in motions the events that caused all this because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut (like how not keeping it shut resulted in the Strike Team more or less disbanding at the end of season 3).
Meanwhile Dutch gets framed for murdering the mother of the would-be serial killer (and his unhealthy obsession was getting him too close and putting him in too many inconvenient situations to make him look innocent), and Claudette isn’t around to back him up because the stress that incurred from everything that happened was too much for her, causing the lupus to take a toll on her, and taking her out of action for a while. He regrets that he became too obsessed with going after this kid when he could’ve been helping out elsewhere. The charges won’t stick, but by that time it will be too late.
Tina accidentally shoots and kills a cop (probably Danny, that way all of Vic’s remaining offspring will be motherless, with a likely grim future awaiting them in foster care or something [ala season 4]), and gets dishonorably discharged afterwards, further putting a stain on the Barn’s reputation as of late (especially with word getting out of Vic getting away with all the illegal shit he’s done, not to mention the headlines of Ronnie’s involvement not helping matters, turning the whole thing into a political nightmare the higher-ups wanted to avoid by forcing Vic to retire early). She’s hoping the politicians she became popular with will help her out, only to find out they will only leave her out to dry over something like this, completely washing their hands of her, and removing all those posters that her face was on.
Vic, completely broken, goes to ICE to begin his employment, at a desk job, where nothing really matters anymore.
Claudette eventually returns to the Barn, only to find out it’s being closed down because their arrest numbers and amount of cases being closed wasn’t satisfactory, especially during the month the presidential motorcade came riding through. Conversations are passed around that they wouldn’t have lasted as long as they had if not for Vic, even if he was an asshole, much to Claudette’s dismay. Even worse, everyone basically tells her she handled things very poorly, but she won’t ever admit that to herself, and will instead blame everyone for their incompetence and corrupted standards of decency for causing everything to break down and go horribly wrong.
As for Julien, I don’t know, maybe some serial killer with a hammer bludgeons him to death, and also literally beats in Julien’s ass with the hammer, so that it can be said Julien died by getting hammered in the ass.
That’s more or less how I would’ve liked for it to have ended. Because the one thing the show got too scared to do at the end, even though the first 4 seasons implied this message, is that maybe corrupt cops are a necessary evil. They may do bad things, but they can also get good things done effectively. Because playing things by the book doesn’t tend to get things accomplished most of the time. And due to pressure from the higher ups, sometimes playing it by the book is just an impossibility (something implied in that “Pre-Pilot” episode in season 2, showing how Vic and his team started their spiral into corruption). And considering the stress and pressure that’s put upon them (whether it’s just the situations they get put into on the job, their financial strains if raising a family, or pressure from the higher ups due to politicians and whatnot), it’s inevitable that bad apples get formed amidst everything. Because the show demonstrates how these situations can break even the best of them. That all this corruption is a result of a concoction from several ingredients, from the cops themselves, to the captains running the barns, to the politicians that put them into place, to the drug dealers, to corporations and how they make money, to just typical temptations among average citizens of all ages, sexes, races, and creeds. But regardless, the evils police commit do have a reckoning, thus encouraging that they keep themselves in check.
If the show had gone all the way with that, it would’ve been a full 5 star series. And it could’ve been that, if the second half of the last season had some alterations. As it is, it’s a show that’s good instead of great. But good shows aren’t exactly numerous, so I’ll take it.