Twisted axes of good and evil

June 5, 2007 / The curious relationship between Dungeons & Dragons, The Shield and American politics.

Elena and I are incorrigible fans of The Shield. Her fault. She has a cop brain so she automatically understands what’s going on. I on the other hand have to ask a lot of questions to catch up. For a long time I didn’t even like it that much but with the show entering its fifth season last fall, and regular access to cable TV, there were few opportunities not to watch. On Tuesday nights around 10:00 and The Shield roared across the screen. I’d sit awhile and sometimes leave when the carnage or noise level hit a particularly feverish point. Somewhere along the way though things started to tilt, and by the time I saw the vicious final episode of Season 5, I was the one insisting on first renting the Season 1 DVDs, then just caving and buying the whole set—I mean, at half the purchase price what a stupid waste of money renting would be, right? Impeccable logic. Anyway, now I’m in. (Major spoilers follow so be warned…)

Parallax TV

If you haven’t seen the show, and don’t mind some spoilers, here begins the overview (but check out The Shield for more detail): the main storyline in the series belongs to a corrupt anti-gang unit called the Strike Team. The team comprises four detectives: the leader is Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis, of The Commish fame), a complex character who killed one of his own team members to protect himself and the others from investigation; Mackey’s right-hand man Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), a tenacious redneck with a serious cruel streak; Curtis Lemansky (Kenneth Johnson), known as Lem, a likable cop—more of a loyal buddy than a motivated criminal—despite being a willing accomplice to the unit’s various crimes; and Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell), nerdy, affable, but seemingly most interested in maximising his gain and not rocking anyone’s boat, even when the heaviest of shit is going down. The Strike Team’s charter is to “get results” out on the streets of the fictional Los Angeles precinct of Farmington. From a policy standpoint their job is to reduce the number and severity of gang-related crimes; at street level they hit the bad guys selectively, and really hard. Mackey and his team prefer wedge strategies that lever rival factions into conflict and inflate the value of alliances with the cops—always through Mackey of course. Unfortunately for policy-makers and administrators, the Strike Team quickly gets its hands far too dirty. This is where everything starts.

Like other recent crime dramas such as C.S.I. each episode of The Shield contains a narrative fork: a primary plot that follows the movements of the Strike Team (often tracing the most hardcore activities of cop and criminal), and a secondary plot that grounds our perceptions in the more regular business of police life at “the Barn” (the police station’s nickname). It is through this secondary fork that we see beat cops like Danny Sofer (Catherine Dent) and Julien Lowe (Michael Jace) citing civilians for traffic violations and attending the scenes of domestic disputes. But the parallax effect of a forked storyline goes further than contrasting the more spectacular activities of the Strike Team with the more mundane world of everyday policing. The secondary plot also contrasts the moral decisions of its protagonists with those of the Strike Team, recasting the good cop–bad cop routine from a partner-level dynamic into a microcosm of the broader social struggle: here good cop–bad cop becomes a group-level effect that results from the fundamental difference between the kinds of criminals that each group of cops pursues. Detective Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach (Jay Karnes), a boy scout compared to Mackey (and often the butt of the latter’s practical jokes), brings down a serial killer but cannot escape an unhealthy fascination with perversion and murder and a preoccupation with his own importance. Dutch’s partner Claudette Wyms (C.C.H. Pounder), the most principled cop at the Barn, fights an incessant battle against her own mounting cynicism that any of the police around her can walk a straight path, sometimes leading her to neglect her own job security and that of her partner. When at times Wyms clashes with Mackey we feel the stirrings of titanic struggle, but since Wyms is even more politically disenfranchised than Wabenbach (as always happens to the good guys, we’re encouraged to think) nothing much ever comes of it.

By using a parallax method the show’s twin plotlines—and the points of convergence between them—highlight the ambiguity of professional police behaviour better than most cop dramas, which often try to preserve an overriding sense of solidarity amongst police officers. Certainty of moral action is displaced with each shift in perspective as we are shown moments of tenderness in which the bad cops never looked so good and moments of brutality in which the good cops never looked so bad.


As my fascination with The Shield evolved I was reminded of those nerdy weekends playing Dungeons and Dragons during the high school years. Most people probably have an idea of what D&D is all about. It’s a game in which a team of participants each play the role of a character of their choosing in a fictional world that is described and controlled by a referee called the DM (it stands for Dungeon Master, and yes, the games’ nerdy reputation is well-earned). Acting together the characters form a party, the party undertakes a series of semi-scripted adventures involving encounters with other characters, enemies, problems, etc. Now player-characters (the protagonists if you like) are never identical with respect to their motivations, ethics and behaviour. This is built-in: D&D rules manage the interactional problems of good and evil behaviour the same way they solve most other aspects of role-playing: with a system. A player’s moral temperament is codified at the outset in terms of his or her character alignment. Alignment is two-dimensional system most easily demonstrated with a Latin square (see below). The x (horizontal) axis represents attitude to social order, while the y (vertical) axis represents moral character:

[Dungeons and Dragons character alignments]
Figure 1: Dungeons and Dragons character alignments.

Alignments are typically understood to be stable across the character’s “life span,” although they can be changed through a protracted commitment to a new way of interacting (by choice), or by a sustained series of actions that so contradicted one’s previous alignment that a de facto change is effected (by proxy). In any case the most important rule is always that you cannot flip-flop around at will about the alignment axes. You have an obligation to make your character at least partially predictable at the interactional and/or motivational level. This is considered good role-playing. An interesting consequence of this system is that you can actually play your character for a while before determining his or her alignment with precision. The rules provide some guidance, and the players make an initial choice as to how they want their character to be, but it is only with time and gameplay that it becomes clearer whether the character is staying true to the alignment that his or her player has chosen.

How does this relate to the TV show? Well, the alignment system can be used as a simple device for making sense of the program’s moral narratives, and the fine-tuning process I described is a reasonable approximation of getting to know a complex TV character. I had been watching The Shield for quite a while before I began to get a solid sense of the character’s “alignments.” What’s interesting about The Shield’s presentation of moral character is that all of the major players have such a distinctive moral identity. Whereas previous cop shows representing a tightly-knit team may have styled each character as bringing a complimentary set of skills to the challenges facing the group, The Shield instead emphasises the unique temperaments that its characters bring to the ethical quandaries with which they are constantly faced. These distinctive temperaments are quite central to the program’s dramatic tensions and plot twists, while characters’ individual talents have far less bearing on narrative outcomes and interactional moments.

Certainly there are similarities between individuals: the members of the Strike Team are all prepared to do things that other characters—and clearly many viewers—regard as “evil.” But between its members there are differences. Likewise, Wagenbach and Wyms, Sofer and Lowe all share a desire to perform well at their jobs and make a difference on the streets, and yet they also differ in ways that sets each apart from the other. These differences open up space for both in-group antagonisms and out-group affinities, as we see in the falling out between Wagenbach and Wyms, Lowe and Sofer’s struggle to work together as partners, Sofer’s affair with Mackey, and Lem’s absence from the Strike Team to work in the juvenile division where he acts as a positive role-model. Alignment does not predict outcomes, but it does make for some interesting twists and turns. The endless crossing-over between and within characters is what makes people so uneasy about The Shield’s moral claims (see for example Judith Grant’s article in which she asserts that the program is “less morally ambiguous than it is just morally irresponsible”.)

Deepening the ambiguity, the Barn’s longest serving police captain, Councilman David Aceveda (brilliantly played by Benito Martinez) seems to stand perpetually at the intersection of the show’s countervailing forces, first in his position as captain, and later as a city councilman. Ambitious, ambiguous and connected, Aceveda intensifies the struggles in The Shield by almost never taking sides, despite being embroiled deeply in the machinations of both, and getting up to some dirty tricks of his own.

Down at the Barn

At the close of its fifth season The Shield had drilled down to its key story, relentlessly pursuing the incendiary effects of Mackey’s original sin, the murder of Detective Terry Crowley (Reed Diamond). The killing actually takes place in the series’ pilot episode, but Mackey manages to keep his head above water, and the Strike Team out on the streets, for most of four straight seasons, despite attempts by Aceveda and others to see him prosecuted and the team disbanded. In the fifth season Mackey’s hounds draw nearer and a new character, Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh (a deeply unhinged Forest Whitaker) arrives at the Barn on a mission. An Internal Affairs investigator, his ultimate goal is to bring the Strike Team to justice and to force Mackey to stand trial for the killing of another officer. Kavanaugh wants blood. At the point of his arrival the Barn is without permanent leadership, Captain Monica Rawling (Glenn Close)—successor to Aceveda and Mackey’s closest ally in the administration—having been dismissed at the close of season four. Kavanaugh installs himself in the captain’s office and begins a systematic pressure campaign and search for evidence that will bring Mackey down, even if it jeopardises his own personal stability. After only a few episodes the new battle lines are drawn. The next table maps the alignments of the show’s main characters at this point:

[positioning of characters in The Shield]
Figure 2: Positioning of characters in The Shield.

Fans of the program may like this, but in itself the table is descriptive of the show but doesn’t really explain what I’m getting at. However, by modifying the function of the table so that instead of describing individual alignments its describes the relationship between characters possessing said alignments we can develop a much more interesting picture of how these players interrelate in the bigger picture:

[narrative meanings of character alignments]
Figure 3: Relational meanings of character alignments.

By using the actual relationships between characters in The Shield, the alignment system can be modified into a simple explanatory map of current struggles and alliances between characters in a complex moral playing field. In The Shield’s ethical universe Kavanaugh is now the undisputed protagonist on the side of good while Mackey fits solidly into the position of antagonist (in the sense of his being “opposed to the good”), a place which he has occupied for the majority of the series. Tragically, Vendrell reveals a depth of malice we hoped he didn’t possess by killing Lem, the hardest hit target of Kavanaugh’s investigation, to prevent him from providing any information on the Strike Team. Gardocki remains an accomplice to the team’s goals (which includes holding onto loot they stole from money launderers months earlier) but quite literally carries the scars of following Mackey into one too many questionable confrontations.

On the other side of the thin blue line Wagenbach and Wyms struggle to keep their professional relationship together. Wagenbach grapples with his loyalties to his long-time partner in the thick atmosphere of distrust brought on by Kavanaugh but also demonstrates his willingness to side with the powers that be. Wyms faces promotion to captain, a move she deserves on the grounds of her commitment and abilities but which serves more directly the interests of her superiors. Officer Lowe on the other hand, driven by his own code and keeping to himself treads a difficult path between professional responsibility and loyalty to his colleagues. And at the center of this storm of allegiances and hostilities, Councilman Aceveda cannot manage to stay above the fray, nor to prevail over Mackey and the sinking ship he represents. What we have then is a fully fledged morality drama in which a quickening confrontation between the powers of good and evil forces alliances out of a more varied and ambiguous field of ethical confrontations. It is, in a sense, a story about what happens when an imposed power forces ordinary people to take sides.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

And that’s the best metaphor I can think of for the War on Terror/in Iraq.

[positioning of characters in the War on Terror]
Figure 4: Positioning of characters in the War on Terror.

Alignment is a system that forces people to take sides, to make a moral stance. It’s a useful device in describing the motivational aspect of moral conflicts. On face value alignment provides a driving force, a reason for acting. It also forces people to take sides. The New Oxford American Dictionary calls it “arrangement in a straight line, or in correct or appropriate relative positions.” Others would call it an “axis”—of moral virtue for instance. “Good and evil” stuff. And so it seems likely that one man’s intellectual suffocation is another woman’s moral decline…

Whatever, I guess. The War on Terror and The Shield are ideologically—and therefore ultimately—weak arguments. And in failing to recognize this, so too are many of the arguments about them. But one thing is clear: for the longest time the War on Terror was the least interesting thing on American TV, while The Shield was one of the most gripping and controversial. The Shield, with all of it’s post-L.A. Riot edginess contained more nods to the moral drama taking place in the Persian Gulf than the nightly news. For a short, hot stretch it painted perhaps the best picture of what was taking place in the collective mind, and for that it should be recognized, celebrated, and probably condemned.

Bloody good cop show, though.

Postscript: TV on the Radio’s Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes helped me finish this article. Quite by accident I guess, and way overdue. All but the last section was written a year and a half ago. My fault, not theirs :-)

3 responses

  1. Dan Todd

    Awesome. Now do Dexter.

    June 8th, 2007 at 7:54 pm #

  2. Ads

    Wow, I hadn’t even heard of it until your comment. I love Michael C. Hall, but we don’t have Showtime. HBO is barely even worth it these days–which, incidentally, we got in the first place because we were so in love with Six Feet Under. (Which promptly ended before our cable guy came.) Sometimes less (channels) really is more!

    June 13th, 2007 at 1:01 am #

  3. Jack Meihoff

    You’re stretching the metaphor

    June 15th, 2009 at 2:59 pm #

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