"The Shield": Crime and Punishment, By James J. Murtagh, M.D.

Police Drama vividly portrays a lower circle of hell for a guilty conscience.

 Warning:  spoiler alert. If you have not seen the final episode of The Shield, do not read further. The episode contains a major plot twist which is discussed in this Op- Ed.                       

"Corruptio optimi pessima,"
Latin proverb for "corruption of the best is the worst of all."

It is fiendishly appropriate that the television police drama, The Shield, ended its series in 2008, exactly 700 years since Dante began writing the Inferno. The Shield, possibly more than any other series, demonstrates the most intense hell on earth, forcing its worst characters to kill the people and things they love best.

Exquisitely appropriate punishments are meted out to the guilty, with twisted, but appropriate, justice. There is no escape for the damned, spiraling into lower and deeper cycles of pain.

For seven years The Shield, like the Sopranos, and HBO's "The Wire", shows evil in all its seductive guises. Of the three series, the Shield was most shocking, even moving its audience to cheer for the central character, Vick Mackey, the macho corrupt police detective at his most murderous and torturing self. Even Mackey's murder of a fellow policeman evoked a morbid fascination. How much could one man get away with?

Mackey initially plans to get away Scott-free through a devil-deal to turn state's evidence and become a snitch himself. He claims he beat the system. Or has he?

Wrong! Fate reserves circles in hell for treacherous murderers even below simple murderers. Not being caught appears infinitely crueler than being fried by 2,400 volts in an electric chair.

For his immunity, Mackey betrays everyone and everything he cares about. Mackey is sentenced to life in a cubicle, cut off from anything or anyone he ever cared about. He is in a deep freeze as cold as great lake Cocytus Dante described at the bottom of the ninth circle of hell, reserved for the great traitors of all time.

Hell's best-kept secret is that we create it for ourselves. Mackey connived, threatened, hoodwinked and betrayed to get this cubicle. It is nothing but an existential nightmare.

Others also receive punishments befitting their great sins. Mackey's one-time sidekick, Shane Vendrell kills his own wife and child, then kills himself. But not before Vendrell realizes the enormity of his crimes and comes to true contrition.

In a subplot, a sixteen-year-old serial murderer is caught. A haunting reminder is made that this boy could have grown up to be Vic Mackey, and there is little moral difference between the boy murderer and the ex-police cop. Both operate on the same ethic.

Robert Frost wrote that torment by ice can be much more painful than by fire, metaphorically contrasting passionate torments with death by hatred. Mackey's fate is death by ice, frozen into a bland cubicle, with no hope of redemption.

What is the best way to punish a depraved guilty man? To punish him? Or just possibly, not punishing the guilty is even worse pain.

Dostoevsky also believed that punishment was essential to redemption of the human soul. Mackey escapes being caught, and loses his one remaining chance, and he must endure a long unhappy life.

Shakespeare, repeated over and over variations of a single story, namely, murder, guilt and consequences. Could Macbeth have endured a hollow life if he had survived as tyrant, surrounded by luxuries won by murder? Macbeth preferred his head on a pike to life in bloody Inverness. Something tells me that Mackey would have been much happier ending everything in single combat.

Shakespeare granted the release of death as the greatest boon to both homicidal heroes and villains. Hamlet, Vendrell and Mackey all lived in worlds "rotten." The ghetto's of Los Angeles have much in common with Hamlet's Denmark.

"To never have been born may be the greatest boon of all." Vendrell, paralyzed beyond Hamlet, not even able to ask "to be, or not to be," instead murders what he loves.

Not all villains could be punished by no punishment. The Iagos and Richard IIIs delight in escape. Could fitting punishment depend more on the nature of the criminal, than on the crime? For some criminals, capital punishment is devoutly to be wished. For Dante, divine punishment was necessary for the operation of a divine Universe.

Do we, in the modern world, including our leaders, suffer even more because the possibility of punishment often seems remote?

For Dante, redemption came only after being caught, being punished, and renouncing sin. For The Shield's Mackey, there is no punishment, which turns out to be, for at least one criminal, the worst punishment of all.

 James J. Murtagh Jr.
jmurtag@mindspring.com