I decided to kick off 2021 by bingeing one of those “Golden Age of Television” touchstones that has flown under my radar for over a decade: FX’s classic cop drama, The Shield.
After finishing all seven seasons in around three weeks, I found myself unable to shake the the characters and stories from the Barn (the slang term for the church-turned-police station [there’s something to dig into there] that functions as home base throughout the show). In an effort to purge myself and move on to something more intellectually nourishing (Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy, a show that shares more than a little DNA with The Shield), I decided to put together a wholly objective ranking of the 8 best characters from the series.
As I said, this is entirely objective. I’m correct in each and every decision I made here, and I respect your decision to respect my authority in this matter. In the event that something I state here does not agree with you, you’re welcome to take it up on r/theshield, a community of people who will undoubtedly back me up on each and every decision herein.
WARNING: I spoil a lot of the good stuff here. If you haven’t watched The Shield and want to go in clean, this is not the post for you. Seriously, I let some major cats out of the bag.
8. Steve Billings (David Marciano)
Billings is purely comic relief, a lazy detective who is named acting captain later on in the series and uses his newfound power to…install vending machines in the precinct. While he doesn’t become a significant supporting player until later on in the show, Billings provides interesting insight into the psyche of Dutch once the two are paired up, and his nonsense lawsuit against the department is good for a laugh in later episodes. I was always happy to see him bumble his way around a scene, lightening the mood and failing with aplomb.
7. Antwon Mitchell (Anthony Anderson)
Antwon Mitchell comes in around the halfway point of The Shield, acting as the primary antagonist of Season 4, but remaining in play for the duration of the show. An adaptive drug kingpin, Anthony Anderson imbues Mitchell with a sense of carefree confidence, always in control of a given situation whether he’s blackmailing members of the Strike Team or cutting deals from behind bars to better his position in prison.
The performance is fun throughout, but Anderson particularly goes for broke in the scene where he frames Shane and Army (Michael Peña) for the murder of a young woman and gloats about the control he has over the two detectives. The scene gets ample play in the recaps for the rest of the season, and Anderson’s breathless delivery of his trump card is singular, the kind of off-kilter line that I think about all the time.
6. David Aceveda (Benito Martinez)
Benito Martinez’s character begins the show as the Captain of the Barn and ends it as a city councilman with aspirations for the mayoralty. He’s an ever-present antagonist and foil for Vic, someone determined to do things by the book and clean up the streets of Farmington. If, as the show goes on, he sometimes engages in the very tactics he criticizes the Strike Team for, well, no one’s perfect.
Martinez’s performance and Aceveda’s arc are brought into sharp focus by his sexual assault, a transgression that will take his character to dark places personally and professionally over the rest of the series, and something that will regularly come back to haunt him. The work Martinez does showing the trauma and grief Aceveda experiences as a result of his attack is heartbreaking to watch, and, in my opinion, The Shield handles the fallout from this type of attack better than most other series, allowing Aceveda to come to terms with it without totally escaping it.
But, that arc aside, the occasions when Aceveda is forced to put aside his principles and team up with Vic are some of the most enjoyable in the series. It’s like watching Professor X and Magneto team up to take down a Big Bad. Underneath their animosity towards one another lies a mutual, if not respect, then acceptance of their talents.
While he lacks the appeal of some characters that appear higher up on this list, Aceveda is a stalwart presence in The Shield, brought to life by Martinez and put through the wringer by the writing staff. He doesn’t always do the right thing, but he’s always sure of his convictions, making him a pleasure to watch, even when he’s trying to sabotage Vic and his team.
5. Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder)
What can be said about CCH Pounder’s Claudette Wyms? In early seasons she’s a hard-bitten detective, good at her job and determined to do the right thing even at the expense of her career. As the series goes on, she only becomes more interesting—her righteous self-sabotage, her lupus diagnosis, and her eventual rise to power compounding viewers’ investment in the character.
Wyms is an unwavering moral compass, a brilliant detective, and one of the most human of the Barn’s employees. When Dutch sees the state of her house in later seasons (an absolute wreck due to the long hours she’s putting in and the effect her lupus has had on her), it gives us a rare glimpse into the inner life of a character outside the strike team.
If there had been a spin-off of The Shield I like to think it would have followed the continuing adventures of Claudette and Dutch righting the ship at the Barn.
4. Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach (Jay Karnes)
Dutch is a fascinating character thanks largely to his obsession with psychological profiling. Throughout the series he tries to vet suspects based on how well they fit the profile of the criminal they’re searching for to varying degrees of success.
While he often provides comic relief as the butt of Vic’s jokes and as a man unlucky in love, Dutch is a multilayered character who works some of the most interesting cases in the series and is great in the interrogation room. In tandem with this, his partnership with Claudette Wyms elevates him just as it does her, making them both better at their jobs and more interesting to watch as their personal and professional lives ping pong off one another.
There’s another version of The Shield where, rather than Shane Vendrell going off the deep end, it’s Dutch who does so as his fascination with criminal psychology and his own darkness (remember when he strangled a cat?) take hold. That never comes to pass, but the fact that it was a possibility was something I found compelling throughout the series.
Jay Karnes was my favorite detective to watch in action, a “good cop” trying to do right, but with more darkness than he’d like to admit lurking beneath the surface.
3. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis)
The head honcho himself, leader of the Strike Team and poster boy for The Shield. Michael Chiklis’s unsmiling, bald head has come to represent the series, with good reason. His central performance as corrupt-as-they-come detective Vic Mackey is a once-in-a-career achievement, on par with Bryan Cranston’s work in Breaking Bad in many ways.
Vic Mackey stalks the streets of Los Angeles like a raging gorilla, all testosterone and savagery, breaking the law left and right in order to maintain a hellish parody of order, with himself as the lawman kingpin keeping it all together. The fact that his bullish demeanor and criminal tactics are effective only makes the character more interesting; even his detractors within the department recognize the results he’s able to achieve.
The Golden Rule of the Golden Age of Television is that audiences will forgive your character for anything as long as they’re the smartest guy in the room, and Vic Mackey puts that to the test regularly throughout The Shield. An entire series predicated on the will they/won’t they of corrupt cops getting their just desserts requires a protagonist with enough charisma and menace to keep audiences engaged, hoping he gets caught, just not yet.
Chiklis’s performance gives us that, and the writing bolsters him, showing the conflict between his work and his personal life, his ambitions and his vices, over 88 episodes. He’s been often imitated in the years since but never duplicated.
2. Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins)
Any show starring Walton Goggins is going to have whatever character he plays high on the list of the show’s most compelling and most watchable. The Shield is no different, as Goggins plays Shane Vendrell, the unsteady right hand of protagonist Vic, struggling with a little brother complex and always landing just shy of competent.
Early seasons have Shane making mistakes that are serious, but comical (remember when he let an SUV with illegally confiscated drugs get stolen because he wanted to get laid before delivering the package to the Strike Team’s dealer?), but as the show goes on the well of darkness Shane draws from gets deeper and deeper, coming to a head in the series finale when he murders his wife and son before committing suicide.
While he was, in many ways, the worst member of the Strike Team (the line in his suicide note about how he and Vic made each other worse people was certainly true), Goggins also imbued Shane with a humanity because of his innate charm. This may be the worst possible version of a cop, but he’s also a guy who’s out of his depth and struggling to fit the pieces together in the effortless, effective way that his friend and mentor, Vic, does. There’s something endlessly compelling about Shane’s descent into madness, his betrayal of the team, and all of the wrong turns he makes along the way.
1. Jon Kavanaugh (Forest Whitaker)
Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker turns in my favorite performance of his career as Internal Affairs agent Jon Kavanaugh, a zealous narcissist with a penchant for offering people gum to see if they’ll crack under pressure during interrogation. While Kavanaugh is only center stage for Season 5 (and the first two episodes of Season 6), his arc is one of the most satisfying in the entire series, partly due to the writing, but primarily because of Whitaker’s work as the character.
In basically every scene he’s in, Whitaker makes the most interesting choices possible for his portrayal of Kavanaugh. In scenes where any other actor would play serious, Whitaker is grinning, teasing, and prodding, a jovial predator lowering his prey’s guard. When his plans go awry and the veneer begins to crack, he plays the opposite equally well, displaying passion (his meltdown scene) and cunning (framing Vic for one of the few crimes he didn’t commit, which leads to Kavanaugh’s downfall) in equal measure.
Although he’s only in a sliver of the series, Kavanaugh is one of the most indelible creations The Shield‘s writer were able to cook up, a worthy adversary for the Strike Team, and a fascinating showcase of Forest Whitaker’s acting chops. He may not have been successful in bringing down Vic, but his efforts have made him one of the most entertaining antagonists in the Golden Age of Television. He takes this number one slot with a bullet…
…and he didn’t even have to frame anyone to do it.
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