The Shield celebrated its 15th anniversary in March, the month its blistering series premiere debuted on the FX Network and put the previously obscure basic cable channel on the path to becoming the Nielsen and Emmy powerhouse it is today. And that pilot, written by series creator Shawn Ryan and directed by Clark Johnson, remains a kick in the head (in a good way) as it follows the exploits of Los Angeles cop Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), leader of a special task force known as the Strike Team that pursues sometimes virtuous ends through morally dubious means.
If you wanted to pick the Season 1 episode in which The Shield really sat up and announced itself as one of TV’s best dramas, let alone cop shows, look to the 10th chapter, “Dragonchasers,” which aired 15 years ago this week on May 14, 2002. Scripted by Scott Rosenbaum and Kurt Sutter, “Dragonchasers” pays off several season-long story arcs in cathartic fashion while also deepening existing relationships and serving up one lungbuster of a darkly comic story line for Walton Goggins’s hapless Shane Vendrell.
Here are five moments that reveal why, 15 years later, “Dragonchasers” still represents The Shield at its finest.
1. Dutch vs. Doug
Early on in the first season, dogged detective Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) decides to play profiler by cracking the case of a busy serial killer. It’s a quest that he takes seriously, but the rest of the cops at the Barn — the name of The Shield‘s HQ, located in the Farmington district of L.A. — regard as a joke, especially after Dutch’s initial attempts go nowhere. But then on a routine patrol, officers Danny Sofer (Catherine Dent) and Julien Lowe (Michael Jace) cross paths with a back-alley masturbator named Sean Taylor — a seemingly random encounter that the detective decides is anything but. So Dutch brings Sean in for some light questioning that turns into a classic cat-and-mouse game in which Dutch initially appears to be the mouse. Making this interrogation all the more enjoyable from a present day perspective is the fact that Sean is played by none other than Michael Kelly — best known for portraying Frank Underwood’s right-hand stooge, Doug Stamper, on House of Cards. We’d love to see a Karnes and Kelly rematch in Cards‘ fifth season.
2. Shane’s big screw-up
Strike Team lieutenant Shane Vendrell doesn’t just admire Vic Mackey — he wants to be Vic Mackey. That’s a compulsion that will lead to tragic consequences by the time the series reaches its endgame. In Season 1, though, it’s still amusing to see the out-of-his-depth Shane attempt to imitate Mackey’s bad-boy ways. Case in point: While investigating a string of stripper-related burglaries, Shane allows himself to believe that their prime suspect, a comely blonde named Tulips (Nicole Hiltz), is totally into him. He’s so convinced of the magnetism of his swagger, he even allows himself to be seduced into having sex with her in the Barn’s interrogation room, in full view of the closed-circuit camera no less. So he’s inevitably shocked, shocked, to discover that it was all an elaborate ruse on the part of Tulips to gain leverage on him should he not get charges dismissed. Throughout The Shield‘s run, Goggins’s alternately hilarious and emotional performance was the show’s secret weapon; “Dragonchasers” is an early example of the skill set that has made him one of TV’s finest supporting players.
3. Julien’s blanket party
A closeted gay man in a deeply homophobic work environment, rookie Julien Lowe (Michael Jace) is already facing a difficult road toward fitting in. So he pretty much can’t say no when two of his fellow cops (one of whom is played by Frank Grillo, future star of The Purge franchise as well as the cult TV series Kingdom) prod him into seeking a little payback against a male prostitute who attacked his training partner, Danny Sofer (Catherine Dent). The specific form of punishment is a “blanket party,” where the cops toss a cover over a perp and beat him or her close to senseless. Against his better judgment — and Danny’s stated wishes — Julien takes point on these gruesome festivities, but his inner rage bubbles to the surface and he almost crosses the line from cop to killer. After this near-miss, Julien avoids any and all future blanket parties, as a way to keep his buried emotions (and secrets) in check. But he also never allows himself to live his truth, remaining in the closet and even marrying a woman who attends his church. Julien’s ultimate tragedy is that he achieves acceptance, but at the expense of his own happiness.
4. Bye-bye, Brian
Underneath the bulldog persona that Vic projects to the world beats a heart that’s particularly susceptible to damaged young women. Mackey’s savior complex plagues him throughout the series, first coming to the fore in Season 1 when he tries to lead single mother Connie (Jamie Brown) out of the depths of crack dependency so she can properly care for her baby, Brian. Despite vowing that she’s ready to kick the habit, by the end of “Dragonchasers,” Connie has fallen back into the arms of her addiction and, in a heartbreaking scene, abandons her bawling infant to Vic’s care. Brian later enters the foster system and is placed with a more stable, but not necessarily loving, home. He never does see his mother again: while Connie eventually gets clean, she convinces Vic to hire her as an informant and dies in the line of duty.
5. A command performance
Victories are hard to come by in the gritty world of The Shield. But Dutch scores a clear win in the final act of “Dragonchasers,” when he pounces on Sean’s overconfidence and secures a late-inning confession to multiple murders. What makes the moment sweeter is that, one room over, half of the Barn’s staff is watching the encounter play out on closed-circuit TV, their jeers at Dutch’s supposed ineptitude giving way to awestruck silence as he nails Sean dead to rights. When the detective leaves the interrogation room, he’s greeted with cheers and applause. But that high inevitably wears off; sitting in his car after his victory lap, Dutch completely breaks down, the intensity of the experience — and Sean’s verbal body blows to his self-confidence — leaving their mark. That’s life on The Shield — you can’t win for losing.
All seven seasons of The Shield are streaming on Hulu.
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