‘The Shield’ Doomsday Clock: Drugs! Murder! Memories of ‘Kangaroo Jack’!

Ever since the opening minutes of its pilot in 2002 — when Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) murdered an Internal Affairs officer who’d infiltrated his, er, ethically flexible anti-gang “strike team” — The Shield has been fueled by one simple, high-octane question: When will Mackey finally, finally get busted? Our doomsday clock counts down to midnight, his final hour.

Episode: “Chasing Ghosts”

Two things: First, it’s worth mentioning that The Shield’s “Previously on …” opening has to be the most expertly edited recap on TV. Before this episode begins, we are reminded, in astonishingly short order, that Shane logged in to evidence a box of grenades recovered while raiding the Salvadorans; he used one such grenade to kill Lem; both Dutch and Mackey initially focused their investigation on the Salvadoran gangster Guardo; Vic used Guardo’s girlfriend to lure Guardo to his death; Shane had an affair with a gangbanging teenager; his wife found out; he confessed to his wife that he killed Lem; Vic found out that there’s an undercover Fed working inside the Salvadoran gang; and then Vic learned from said Fed that Guardo didn’t kill Lem.

All this before the opening credits.

The second thing worth mentioning: Michael Chiklis. Wow. When he won the Emmy in 2002 — the first star from a basic-cable series to win a Best Actor award — most people stared at the podium and thought, Wait, when did Bruce Willis get his own cable show? And when did he get so short? Last night, Chiklis reminded you — again — just why he deserved that statue. Batten down the hatches and board up the windows! It’s a veritable tornado of vintage Vic Mackey!

As the episode opens, not only is Vic starting to suspect Shane in Lem’s death, but Guardo’s girlfriend wanders into the precinct, ready to spill about Vic’s little extra-legal kidnapping escapade. Meanwhile, in a plotline borrowed from Traffic, a city councillor’s drug-addicted daughter turns up dead in a seedy part of town. Drugs! Whoring! Murder! All this – and the return of Antwon Mitchell, living large in the big house! (Seriously, if you only know the fantastic actor Anthony Anderson from, say, Kangaroo Jack, you need to check out his excellent work from season four as the Keyser Soze–esque drug lord Mitchell.)

But does Vic panic? Nope. Instead, in just under an hour, he expertly sidesteps the kidnapping charge while befriending the councillor (who could later help save Vic’s job) by orchestrating a whistle-clean cover-up for his daughter’s death. All of which still leaves enough time for a climactic confrontation with Shane at the scene of Lem’s murder.

Now, Chiklis usually whirls through a typical episode, defusing crises with a quick punch, an uncanny feint, or a vicious snarl. In this showdown, however, we see Mackey melt down in a virtuoso fugue of anger, betrayal, and despair. If this feels familiar — Mackey and Shane had a similar prodigal-son face-off in season four — it’s worth it just for Chiklis's fantastic performance. It’s impossible to think of another actor on TV, save perhaps James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, who so fully inhabits and animates the skin of a character.

So when we leave Mackey, at episode’s end, he’s both better and worse off than when we found him. He’s slipped characteristically through each new snare yet is now poisoned, perhaps fatally, by the bitter knowledge of Shane’s fratricide.

And there’s still that limping Jamaican drug dealer to worry about, the one that waddled into the night last week … —Adam Sternbergh

Clock’s current time: Eight minutes to midnight.