Lunchtable TV talk: Prisons of your own making – The Shield and You

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In the closing shots of the now-old (though, for some, not forgotten) “bad-cop” serial The Shield, the show’s anti-hero, Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), has – against all odds – gotten away with it. “It” being all the Machiavellian and self-serving things he did to profit and stay one step ahead of everyone else. That is, he and his crew, The Strike Team, perpetrated some of the most heinous acts in the name of “justice” during the course of the show’s seven-year run. They came under considerable suspicion but always managed to slip the noose. Not without casualties of course. The Strike Team anti-gang police unit – Mackey’s crew of rogue, line-crossing, law-breaking guys  – had once been friends, had once trusted each other implicitly. This trust erodes as the team had to do increasingly dangerous and illegal things to cover their escalating malfeasance. In ‘getting away with it’ – most of the characters here lose everything, up to and including their lives. At the very end (spoiler alert), Mackey finally gets out of trouble, dodges all the bullets that have been chasing him for years… only to end up getting assigned to a desk job with ICE – friendless, trustless, with his family in witness protection, and with his hands well and truly tied. He was the classic adrenaline junkie, corrupt and not above betraying everyone and everything that stood in his way, thriving on chaos and being at the center of colossal messes of his own making. In getting – kind of – what he thought he wanted,  he built a prison that probably ended up being worse than if he’d been caught early on or killed, or even if he’d gone to actual prison.

I thought a lot about this ending at the time, and how well Chiklis conveyed Mackey’s inner torment at suddenly being rendered useless, off the streets, chained to a desk… the worst punishment he could have imagined. But it was not until I half-watched the end of season 2 of the stalker-centric series, You, that The Shield returned to my conscious thought. It’s not my normal fare (but what is, really?), and the subtle parallels between it and The Shield did not reveal themselves until I saw the conclusion of series 2. Or rather, all the parallels became clear in the closing scenes of series 2. In both shows, events that the main characters undertake escalate, get out of control, and the rest of the time is spent trying to cover those tracks, which always results in new missteps that require more cover. You get the point. Finally (spoiler alert), You‘s main character, Joe (Penn Badgley), finds someone who is painfully just like him only even more calculating, more cunning, more deluded, and while this won’t lead to an epiphany or self-awareness, he has reflective moments in which he can see, once he is a victim, how his victims felt once his obsessive behavior was revealed.

One would think – even Joe himself – that finding someone just like him, who truly understands and sees him for exactly what he is, would be liberating. In fact, it’s the opposite. We, as humans, project and see what we want to see. Throughout the second series of You, the signs were there if Joe had really seen the person he was chasing. But he was consumed by the chase, not by what was right in front of his eyes. If we discover another person who is so eerily similar to us, do we feel comforted by the similarity and potential for understanding? Or do we feel more vulnerable than ever and feel trapped by what we sought and invited? I’d argue that Joe’s dual problem is 1. he had never been truly seen, and now it’s too ugly to have it mirrored back to him, 2. he got what he thought he wanted, but it’s the thrill of stalking, discovering, creating delusional narratives and justifications, that drives him.

While these two shows are almost nothing alike, it’s that imprisonment – ending up through a mad, wild series of dramatic events of the characters’ own making – that lands them in the same place.