Whatever issues weakly scuffed the veneer of the otherwise sterling quality of The Shield are swiftly and thunderously obliterated in its third season. Every show with narrative-based storytelling changes and expands in some way each season: Lost introduced and followed a new group of characters for each of the first few seasons, The Wire focused on a different part of the crumbling system to spotlight. But The Shield thus far has mostly kept the same cast and only added a few new characters. What it does instead, and does brilliantly, is increase not so much the scope but the pressure, using the bigger events of each progressive season to squish its characters just a bit more to see how far they can go before snapping.
With four seasons to go, I don't know how much more these people can take. The previous season ended with Julien's harassment reaching its boiling point and the Strike Team successfully pulling off their Money Train heist, albeit not without leaving some loose ends. Somehow, Aceveda won his election, only for his win to cause more problems as he must work even harder to maintain his image to ensure a rise through the political ranks before he even takes his position as councilman. Meanwhile, Danni Sofer's luck hit its nadir when Aceveda had to list her name among the cutbacks enforced by the chief in one last gambit to cripple Aceveda's campaign.
Each of these developments, even the more positive ones, tighten the screws, which makes it all the more difficult for these cops to maintain their sanity when everything -- almost simultaneously -- goes to shit.
The Strike Team's secrecy alienates its newest member, Tavon, eventually leading to a confrontation between him and the racist Shane that only compounds the strain placed upon the four standing members of the team as those with any connection to the Money Train heist start showing up without their feet. The Strike Team, once an airtight entity whose members covered for each other no matter how hairy the situation, begins to pull apart at the seams as the temptation to touch the cash weighs on the minds of underpaid officers who face mounting financial need and any possible discrepancy leads to paranoid looks and the occasional statement of suspicion.
Each of the members reacts in his own way. Ronnie, having suffered at the hands of Armadillo before the heist, has steeled into a silent and calculating professional, the only one of the team who can reasonably exist outside of suspicion and often follows up on the others. Vic, who must contend not only with Matthew's autism but now Megan's, is in deep enough trouble already before forcing out the excellent developmental therapist helping Matthew when he discovers that Owen is dating Corinne. Vic manages to bounce the guy, only for his satisfaction to be undercut by the realization that the agency has a finite number of therapists and Owen's departure places a red flag on Matthew's profile just as he begins to regress and needs treatment more than ever.
And if Vic is in trouble, then Shane must be about to dive into an even larger bed of manure, which he does when he meets Mara (Michele Hicks). Mara, initially presented as a thorn in Vic's side and a nagging wedge driven between the questionably sexual dynamics of the friendship, a facet of the show that is prodded more this season but stopped just short of moving into clichéd territory. However, Ryan and co. quickly mold Mara into a strong foil for Shane, someone just as rash but also capable of more maturity and civility. Even Shane cannot understand why exactly she stays with him; "She's the first one that's been better than me," he quietly tells Vic when Mackey tests to see whether his buddy will leave this lady. Mara eventually involves herself in the Money Train issue without realizing it, causing a rapid advancement in her character even as it further complicates the existing characters.
The interplay between Mara and Shane, and the effect of Mara's snooping on the Strike Team dynamic, brings to the fore the key theme of the season: trust and lies. Vic tries to woo a K-9 officer named Lauren Riley, only for her boyfriend to find out and attempt to control her life. Danni manages to get back in at the precinct, but only on the condition that she report any and all suspicious behavior to Aceveda. Surprisingly, the officer Danni must report the most is Julien, who finally earns the respect of his other officers only to start exhibiting aggressive behavior as he fights his own sexuality. With Danni back to being a more emotionally constant figure, we can see just how far Julien has slipped because of his inability to be honest with himself.
Some of the twists and turns are downright horrific. Dutch takes the lead on a serial rapist case that forces yet another turn of character when the perpetrator is caught and interrogated. Aceveda, stuck with all the pressures of continuing to run the precinct while preparing for office, gets cornered without backup in a raid and falls victim to a sexual predator, and the experience haunts the captain for the rest of the season. His refusal to tell anyone, out of shame and fear of his public image, alienates him even further from the officers he's about to leave and opens a rift between him and his wife. Aceveda grooms Claudette to replace him as captain, but her attempts to crack down on the Strike Team with her new authority blind her to other decisions. Claudette botches the handling of an undercover case by the Decoy Squad, a group of heavy-undercover officers borrowed from another precinct, and the mistake threatens her advancement and forces her to regain the trust of the squad. Yet she remains a competent and moral force within The Barn, and when she uncovers clues that could lead to the retrials of hundreds of convicts, she risks her career by losing the confidence of every officer in the precinct as well as the politicians.
Racial identity also plays a bigger role in this season. The lynching of a black teenager who painted graffiti so beautiful even the cops left it alone sets off a conflict between black and Latino gangs, and the Korean community, even its legitimate and prominent members, close in and keep out the police when one young man shoots and kills a child. Of course, the specter of the Armenians casts a pall over the Strike Team, and every mutilated immigrant corpse makes them wonder what will happen if the trail ever leads back to them. Even Claudette's flirtation with power owes more to her skin tone than her professionalism; as we can plainly see late in the season, it's not her honesty and ethical code that Aceveda admires.
The third season of The Shield introduces a number of nauseating events that at times made me question whether I needed to see some of it. It is not inherently incisive to show the ugly side of society when one merely does it to rub the audience's face in exaggerated horror; after all, one would hardly point to something like the Saw franchise as truly subversive just because it pushes the bounds of taste. Yet Shawn Ryan has such a strong hold over the material, using these events to direct the characters to a state of confusion and despair that, despite the distinction of the disparate incidents (and the manner with which nearly everyone hides the problem affecting him or her from others), feels shared and more powerful because of it. Where these characters had been sympathetic without downplaying their flaws, now they flirt with a monstrosity beyond their most heinous acts previously shown even as these characters convey so much more loneliness and panic that, for the first time, you start to root for more than one or two of them. As inhuman as so many of them are, you'd have to be the devil himself not to take pity when the universe launches a war on these people and gives no quarter. The fate of the Money Train cash cannot even be called ironic, not only because it comes too far out of left field but because irony implies that fate cares enough to take stock of a situation before it ruins someone; the world in which these characters live just crushes like the spiked walls of an old adventure movie, and you can't be entirely certain when the season ends whether the walls were stopped or if they merely meshed together, splaying all those caught between them.