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Talking about the end of FX's powerful cop drama The Shield, actress CCH Pounder, who plays smart, suffering Capt. Claudette Wyms, told TV critics this summer that the show's finale "is what Vic Mackey deserves."

Thirteen weeks from last Tuesday, we'll know whether she meant "deserves" as in grand sendoff or as final retribution. But I can tell you, based on watching the first four episodes of this seventh and final season, The Shield is going out with what its viewers deserve: pure ferocity.

The first episode of Season Seven begins with Vic (Michael Chiklis), Shane (Walton Goggins) and Ronnie (David Rees Snell) trying to extricate themselves from trouble with both the Mexican and Armenian mobs. The Mexican mob's boss, a well-connected civic leader named Cruz Pezuela, controls Vic's tenuous future on the police force. The Armenian mob owes the detective payback for robbing them of millions of laundered dollars.

Vic and his cohorts are trapped in a downward spiral that shows no signs of abating, even though they do an expert job of playing both sides against each other. In the meantime, Vic's family life continues to unravel, so much so that you start to think: Will police work or his family be his undoing? We shall see.

The Shield premiered in March 2002, before we knew much, if anything, about atrocities like Abu Ghraib and waterboarding and nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The timing couldn't have been more perfect.

From the first episode, when Chiklis' character kills a fellow cop he believes is an informant, The Shield has mirrored our national backdrop of moral relativism. Vic Mackey and his Strike Team, who patrol the unforgiving, poor, racially diverse and divided fictional Los Angeles neighborhood of Farmington, are the best-connected and the brightest cops on their force when it comes to solving crimes. But they're also every bit as corrupt as the criminals they take down.

So just as you wonder whether it should be permissible to torture a terrorist who may have the information the good guys need, you watch The Shield and ask yourself: Do I mind if the police beat a child molester to obtain a confession? If they kill mobsters and frame gangbangers to keep the streets safer, is that so wrong?

Of course the answer is yes. And yet … there's a little part of you that remembers the old saying about sausages and the law: It's better not to see them being made. As long as you get the outcome you want, that is.

While The Shield centers around corrupt cops, it also offers some sense of balance by showing officers and detectives who do play by the rules. Vic and his gang are the guts, but Det. Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) and Capt. Wyms are the soul. They don't take shortcuts and, therefore, they don't always get their man.

The Shield is notable on many levels, the least noticed of which may be what it requires its stars to do. Karnes is a hugely bright actor whose character is meek, thereby relegating him to a career of playing similar characters. Benito Martinez, as captain-turned-politician David Aceveda, showed his fearlessness in the third season when he was taken hostage and forced at gunpoint to perform oral sex on an ex-prisoner. And killing off Lem (Kenneth Johnson), the fourth member of the Strike Team, at the end of Season Five was one of the most shocking moments of a series filled with them.

When it's over, The Shield will rank with Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire as one of the greatest cop series of all time: dark, gritty and uncompromising. Creator Shawn Ryan has never been afraid to look at the ugliest parts of society and show the damage done by drugs, poverty and indiscriminate violence.

Television historians have long debated whether TV leads or reflects society. The answer is both. But in this case, whether it ends with a bullet to the brain, a prison cell slamming shut on Mackey or some other way, The Shield will have served as a mirror for our times. As Elvis Costello would say, a deep, dark, truthful mirror.

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More by Marc D. Allan


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