The middle stretch of The Shield's first season is an interesting selection of stories. They establish just about everything you need to know about all of the core characters and their motivations. Dawg Days is a rather fun episode that demonstrates how difficult it can be for a police officer to work as the "landlord" to drug dealers, things get out of hand when one of Vic's "informants" Rondell Robinson opens fire at a party where Lem and Danny are both moonlighting security. Lem knows to keep his mouth shut about Rondell's involvement but Danny - as a good, straight cop - implicates him. This results in Vic having to call in some favours with Danny, playing on the intimate relationship between them to get Rondell out of trouble. Dawg Days is also notable as the first appearance of the character Kern Little (played by " Sticky Fingaz") Kern will make multiple appearances in many seasons and remain important to Vic for a long time. His introduction here is particulary memorable, mostly due to his exit from the storage container near the end of the episode.
Blowback can seem less important on the first viewing, but it's actually one of the major start points for the show - the introduction of the Armenian gangster/foot fetishist Margos Dezerian (played by Katey Sagal's husband Kurt Sutter creator of The Shield's sister show Sons of Anarchy), "The Dezerian" and his Armenian cohorts eventually grow to be major parts of the show, especially in seasons 2, 3 and 7. Dezerian himself would go on to make just three appearances, but he remains one of the most memorable criminals of the show and the Armenians themselves eventually became one of the greatest potential threats to Vic and his boys.
It also helps that Margos is one heck of a creepy character. Blowback is also one of the episodes where the Strike Team come close to exposing themselves after they steal two bricks of heroin from the Armenian bust but are seen doing so by Julien. The interplay between Julien, Acevada and Vic continues throughout the entire run of these episodes, ending in Cupid and Psycho when Vic blackmails Julien into changing his story.
Cherrypoppers is a journey into one of the sickest stories The Shield ever touches on, dealing with a ring of people involved in 'Cherrypopper' movies - films that involve young girls and lets just leave it at that. The Shield often attempts to move Vic towards the role of protagonist by having the people he's set against seeming far worse than he is. Cherrypoppers is one of those episodes (like the pilot) dealing with sexual predators hunting after and abusing young girls. It's a primal form of manipulation but it does work well, you have to understand that many people eventually 'forgot' just how dark, twisted and criminal Vic actually was. In the end some of them even began to mistakenly think of Vic as a 'hero' rather than the cop killing, brutal drug lord with a badge that he was.
Shane's racism, which was touched upon back in The Spread, flares up in a more prominent fashion during Pay in Pain, as mentioned earlier Shane's racist attitudes would often become a major problem for the Strike Team, especially for Vic. Vic doesn't care what skin colour someone is, he only cares if they're an asset or a threat to him, so Shane's "un-business-like" (and frankly backward) attitudes towards non-Caucasians is a problem. The general Strike Team attitude is 'doesn't matter where you're from if your money is green and plentiful', so Shane is a problem. Of course, Shane being a problem is something of a reoccurring issue in The Shield and Pay in Pain is not the last time it will surface.
Julien continues to struggle with his homosexuality, something that stands at odds with both his spiritual life and his work one. He's drawn to Thomas, but he's also repulsed by who he is and he's deathly afraid of being discovered by his colleagues. The police force is (as we're reminded by Danny) a brotherhood, and there's quite a few things that can get you ostracised from it, being a rat or being gay are two of them. Julien has managed to be both of these and it's Cupid & Psycho where these two issues come together - in the hands of Vic Mackey.
But Vic continues with the information in the way he always does, it's a tool to be used. He actually doesn't care that Julien is gay, not one bit - but it is a lever he can use to get Julien to drop his testimony against the Strike Team on the drugs, he plays a fantastic game and pushes Julien all the way to recanting - no matter the consequences. Afterwards Vic turns it on it's head by suggesting that Julien 'did Vic a favour' and now Vic has his back. It's a classic case of manipulation and Vic won't go telling people that Julien is gay as long as Julien isn't a threat to him. Vic even goes as far as to consider Julien a 'buddy' now that he has control of him.
It's a just another example in the way that Vic manipulates people and uses them as resources, if you're in someway of use to Vic he'll keep you sweet, if you're of potential use he'll manipulate the situation until you're in his control, if you're a threat he will eliminate you one way or the other. Ultimately everything Vic does is about control and protection for himself.
These episodes also establish a further driving motivation for Vic apart from his sociopathic consequentialism. His son Matthew is diagnosed with autism, a serious issue for a young child and an expensive one for any family to deal with, Matt's autism fast becomes one of the major driving forces behind Vic's all consuming need to get money and as much as possible. It also legitimises his actions both in his mind and in the minds of many viewers. He might do bad things, but he's doing them to ensure his son gets the life he deserves.
Of course, things are not perfect at this point, the lack of early character development due to that "missing season 0" (The season pre-Crowley's shooting) means that some of the relationships between the characters feel a little forced. Vic and Gillroy is a great example of this, it feels like Vic is nothing but a problem for Gillroy so you're left wondering why on Earth the man protected Vic at any time, his announcement that he's removing any assistance he might give Vic during the end of Cupid & Psycho seems almost redundant, why he helped Vic and the Strike Team up till now seems almost impossible to understand.
David Acevada is given some exceptional character development during this period, he goes from being 'the man after Vic for some reason' to a politically ambitious man who desires advancement in politics, exposing Vic is one of the fastest ways he can secure the popular vote - something Terry Crowley alluded to in the pilot episode. Now his hard on for Vic becomes something more understandable and his anger over Julien's retraction all the more vivid.
Dutch is also given some extra focus and direction, his obsession with catching the 'face down' serial killer continues and escalates when he asks for the assistance of the FBI. His frustration at an inability to succeed here, something that is compounded by two lads using the police force to play a practical joke on each other, pushes him towards using a psychic for help. It won't be the last time his obsession with serial killers will take him to unusual places.
Dutch also gains some personal growth from an unusual source during the Claudette/Vic, Shane/Dutch pairing, Shane's advice on how to land some 'hot widow' action is very offensive and immature, but Dutch is desperate enough to give it a go and in Cupid & Psycho it pays off, giving Dutch his first relationship of the show. You'd be right if you thought that anyone listening to Shane is desperate, but the world is full of desperate people just looking to make a connection with someone, anyone, and Dutch is one of those people.
These five middle episodes for the first season give us a taste of what the show is like during 'business at usual' hours, it's energetic, fun and filled with scrapes that almost get the Strike Team into trouble. Almost like a grim and gritty version of The Three Stooges, but it's also capable of going to profound places, surprising you with a revelation about a character or showing you an insight into one member of the force - often through physical means. Some of the looks and shots of the characters show exceptional depth, expressing more than their words or even their actions do, this is a hallmark of Clark Johnson's work and it's his deep influence that is felt right across the show with the long wordless moments that convey an ocean of emotion.
While the plots of The Shield are quite often breakneck and thin (due to the number of stories in a single episode) the characterisation in the show is of exceptional depth. Especially when you're dealing with key characters like Acevada, Shane, Lem, Dutch, Claudette and of course, Vic himself. It's these powerful performances that make re watching the show such a deligh as there are hidden depths to every scene.