Recurring Episodes is a regular feature taking an in-depth look each week at a single episode of television, placing it in the context of the larger TV landscape to show what works, what doesn’t, what’s important, and what’s entertaining about the shows of the new Golden Age of Television, and the series that served as influence on those shows. Learn more about Recurring Episodes here.
Welcome to the first real installment of Recurring Episodes. This week, the show under the microscope is “Dragonchasers,” a first-season episode of FX’s groundbreaking police drama The Shield. Warning: Spoilers for the episode, and the series in general, are present in this piece.
The Show: The Shield debuted in 2002, and was the first hour-long original drama to appear on FX. The story of Farmington, a fictional police district in Los Angeles loosely based on the real-life Rampart district (and its attendant corruption scandals), The Shield was made possible by the pay-cable success of HBO’s Oz and, particularly, The Sopranos, the first truly successful show with a villainous character as its lead. Early acclaim for The Shield came due to Michael Chiklis’ instantly iconic performance in the lead role of Vic Mackey, head of Farmington’s Strike Team, a gang and narcotics unit neck-deep in questionable tactics and corrupt methods. Chiklis won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his performance in the first season, as a cop who is a definite mix between a bad man doing good things and a good man doing bad things.
While initial focus was on Chiklis, and he is without a doubt the show’s lead character, as the first season wore on it was evident that the ensemble surrounding him was just as strong, from the other members of his Strike Team—Walton Goggins as “loose cannon” Shane Vendrell, Kenny Johnson as Curtis “Lem” Lemansky, and David Rees Snell (underutilized in early years, but coming into his own later on) as Ronnie Gardocki—to the other personalities in the Barn, the converted church serving as Farmington’s police station: Benito Martinez as David Aceveda, the police captain with political ambitions; Catherine Dent as veteran patrolwoman Danny Sofer, Vic’s sometime lover; Michael Jace as her rookie partner Julian, a conflicted Christian dealing with his own personal demons; and Jay Karnes and CCH Pounder as Dutch and Claudette, two of the detectives working the Farm.
Why The Shield? While many would argue that The Wire is the greatest crime drama of the 2000s, and of television history in general, and they would not be off the mark, to compare The Wire and The Shield is to compare apples and oranges. One forum argument about the two produced what may be the simplest explanation as to their differences, and how one can enjoy both equally: The Wire is like a great novel, and The Shield is like a great graphic novel, more outsized and visual, its emotions and personal drama grander. Another take: The Wire is about the failure of institutions, and The Shield, at its core, is about the downfalls, and occasional triumphs, of individuals. “Dragonchasers,” one of the show’s standout episodes, is full of each.
The Episode: The Shield, from its pilot on, was always very strong at mixing serial elements, most often the ongoing saga of Vic and the Strike Team, with standalone, episodic plots, usually murder cases to be solved by Dutch and Claudette. “Dragonchasers” is a bit different, though, as it, like an early climax a few episodes before the season finale, weaves a few of the season’s ongoing plots together and brings them to a head. The result is an emotional catharsis at the episode’s end that the show would come to be known for.
Vic and his team were often at the center of each episode, especially as the show began and much of its acclaim came from Chiklis’ portrayal, but “Dragonchasers” as an episode clearly belongs to Jay Karnes as Detective Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach. From the beginning, Dutch was set up as the Barn’s nerdy, uptight laughingstock, and Karnes played the role to the hilt. Where most shows would paint the nerdy, perhaps-too-intelligent outcast as an entirely sympathetic character, The Shield’s writers (in this episode, future Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter and future Chuck showrunner Scott Rosenbaum, from a story by creator Shawn Ryan) do not shy away from making Dutch unlikable at times—an arrogant know-it-all who is at times more obsessed with making a name for himself than solving the crimes at hand.
That obsession is at the forefront of the A-story of “Dragonchasers.” In the sixth episode of the season, “Cherrypoppers,” Dutch discovered a pattern in hooker murders in Farmington and the power of briefly running a serial killer task force went to his head. When his main suspect turned out to be the victim of a practical joke, not the real killer, Dutch broke down. At his breakdown, even Vic, the guy who’s poked the most fun at Dutch throughout the run of the series to that point, empathizes, telling Dutch he’ll get his guy, eventually.
In “Dragonchasers,” Dutch is again convinced he has his guy, when Danny and Julian interrupt a young man from Pasadena, Sean Taylor (Michael Kelly), masturbating in an alley in Koreatown, just a few blocks from the spot where one of the serial killer’s victims is dumped. Thinking that this guy is his killer, aroused by being near the scene of one of his old crimes, Dutch brings him in, and he and Claudette begin a long interrogation that will weave throughout the rest of the episode.
In the meantime, the episode’s B- and C-stories take shape as well, playing to the strengths of the other members of the ensemble. The Strike Team is engaged in a sting at a strip club, where the dancers have been bringing their patrons outside for a little extra and, when they have their pants down, they are rolled for their cash and left bleeding. While this is definitely an excuse for a little basic-cable no-nipples nudity, the plot turns into a twisty little noir of its own, littered with comic relief from Goggins and Johnson as Shane and Lem, who always were able to bring a little comedic style to their parts, no matter how serious the situation. Getting to play pure comedy, they bring some light into an episode otherwise filled with emotional darkness.
Much of that darkness comes as Vic has to leave the Team to handle the strip club sting without him in order to help the recurring character Connie, a crack-addicted prostitute with a young baby son who stays with her mother. Connie’s mother has just died, so in order to keep her son Brian, she needs to get clean, and Vic agrees to help, setting her up in a hotel room with the supplies to kick cold turkey, taking the baby to stay at his own home under the care of his wife, Corrine (Cathy Cahlin Ryan, creator Shawn Ryan’s real-life spouse).
Danny and Julian get their own pitch-dark subplot as well, as Julian (trying to repress his own homosexuality) comes face-to-face with everything he hates in himself, a gay prostitute who, while being booked, tries to infect Danny with HIV by biting her. Danny is rushed to the hospital and medicated, and Julian left to confront the darker side of himself, asking why he’d want to give a cop HIV. The prisoner got the virus in jail. “Cops put me in jail. Why not give it to cops.” “You’re the reason people hate faggots,” Julian spits back, as much at himself as the man in the cage.
It is to the show’s credit that it sets up all of these parallel plots quickly and deftly, allowing the show’s threads to unfold and interweave throughout the rest of the hour. Shane goes into the strip club undercover for a hilarious heavy-breathing flirtation with Tulips (Nichole Hiltz), one of the club’s dancers. She leads him out back as Lem and Ronnie listen on the wire, laughing at their partner until he’s hit over the head with a tire iron and they’re shaken from their giggle-fits to apprehend the suspects, many of the club’s strippers including Tulips, and Carl, the guy who hit Shane over the head.
From that point on, Ronnie is folded into the Vic plot, as Vic brings him in to watch Connie while she tries to kick her habit cold turkey in the hotel room. Shane and Lem split up to interrogate the suspects, with Shane easily charmed by Tulips (from the looks of her, most guys would be) into thinking she had nothing to do with the plot to rob their johns, and was forced to by Carl. Tulips rolls on Carl, Carl rolls on Tulips, and Shane and Lem are left in a standstill, their arguments and Lem’s exasperation at Shane getting worked over by the perky blonde femme fatale providing much of the episode’s humor.
There isn’t much humor to be found elsewhere, as the main story carries on. Dutch and Claudette interrogate their suspect, who is obviously very intelligent and manipulative, enjoying Dutch’s initial attempts to psychoanalyze him and put him in a serial killer category, arrogantly allowing himself to be questioned without the presence of an attorney. As the interrogation carries on, other officers in the precinct, including Shane and Lem, sit in the observation room and watch as the serial killer suspect, excellently played by character-actor Michael Kelly, demolishes Dutch’s credibility, listing out his faults on the white board in the interrogation room. Dutch watches as every fault he sees in himself, every fault that all the other cops in the precinct see in him, is laid out right there in front of him, reading off of the board:
“Detective Wagenbach craves respect, fantasizes about being well-liked, yet shows no outward manifestation of his low self-esteem. Feels ignored, unappreciated, inadequate with women.”
“It’s just off some first impressions, but I’ll stand by it,” the suspect says with a smile.
It’s almost tough to watch, except for how compelling the portrayals, how strong the writing. “Just a lowly civil servant,” the suspect calls Dutch, and it looks in his eyes that Dutch might be beginning to agree with him.
Then, the show’s emotional climaxes begin to pour in. In the show’s silliest side plot, Tulips manipulates Shane into letting her go free as Carl and the other girls go down for the crimes, with Lem’s headshaking exasperation at letting the real mastermind of the scheme go free providing the show’s last real laugh.
Connie gets away from Ronnie, then showing up at the Barn completely high, telling Vic she can’t do it, and to take Brian away from her. She turns to leave, and her baby reaches for her, but she does not turn back, heading back to the only world she really knows.
A couple of the other cops in the Barn bring up the idea of a “blanket party” to Danny and Julian, to pay back the suspect that bit Danny. Danny refuses, but Julian agrees.
Dutch and Claudette return to the interrogation room, and Dutch erases everything written on the white board. He slowly draws a house, and arrows to the space beneath the house, where they’ve already unearthed some bodies. Sean Taylor’s victims. Taylor asks for a lawyer. It’s too late. While he agreed to hang around and berate Dutch, they got a warrant for his aunt’s house, and located the bodies. The killer says it’s no matter. “I’m special.”
“If you’re so special, how come a lowly civil servant like me just caught you?” Dutch replies, in the first real moment of victory the show has given him. When he emerges from the interrogation room, the officers gathered to watch him get made fun of by the suspect now erupt in applause, even Vic and Lem congratulating him on catching the serial killer.
Any other show would end there, with his moment of triumph, but The Shield carries on. Julian and the other officers trap the homosexual prostitute in the back of a police van, holding him under a blanket as Julian delivers angry blow after angry blow with his nightstick, obviously completely breaking down, beating on himself emotionally as he is on the prostitute physically.
Then comes the show’s most unique moment. Dutch exits, nodding acknowledgments to those still congratulating him for his work. He makes it to his car, getting in the driver’s seat, and breaks down, overcome by everything that’s just happened. He may have triumphed over this one, but it’s all too much. Then he regains himself momentarily, though it seems he’s about to break down again—
And the episode ends.
Odds & Ends: Shield creator Shawn Ryan and Jay Karnes had been friends for a long time, and Ryan created the character of Dutch with Karnes in mind. This episode is probably his finest showcase. Karnes would later work with one of this episode’s writers, Kurt Sutter, as a recurring character on his Sons of Anarchy.
The visual style of The Shield, a gritty, handheld pseudo-documentary look where the camera never anticipates a line, instead reacting as a member of the audience would, does not allow much for individual directorial flair. Nick Gomez helmed this episode, quite competently, and did so again in subsequent seasons with “Mum,” probably the best episode of Season 3, and “Hurt” in Season 4.
Benito Martinez as Captain David Aceveda was not given much to do in this particular episode. His finest work comes later on as his character becomes more conflicted, in season three and beyond.
Walton Goggins is currently being awesome on another FX series, Justified.
Next Thursday, April 28 – Roseanne, Season One, Episode Six: “Lovers’ Lane”