Fifteen years ago this month, we were first introduced to Vic Mackey (Michael Chikilis), a cop unlike any that television had ever seen. The first of its kind on cable, The Shield paved the way for cable antiheroes and beloved shows such as The Americans, Breaking Bad, and Sons of Anarchy. And, while many great shows stumble at the end, the series from Shawn Ryan delivered what is widely considered one of the greatest series finales ever. Not to mention, the groundbreaking start, which included one of the most shocking moments in pilot history, as Mackey, the show’s lead character, gives a glimpse into the darkness to come, ending the first episode by murdering a fellow cop.
To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the series debuting, EW talked with Ryan about how Nash Bridges inspired The Shield, crafting an unforgettable finale, and why he’s torn on the idea of a revival.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did you get the idea for the show? Obviously, cop dramas on television was far from a revolutionary idea, but one centered on a dirty cop on a network with no original scripted programming was bold.
SHAWN RYAN: I had been going on some police ride-alongs in San Fransisco [as] a writer on Nash Bridges. I was seeing some stuff that I thought was really fascinating, but was wholly inappropriate as source material for Nash Bridges [laughs]. What I saw was much darker than that. I spent three years on Nash, where there were rules how you wrote the hero and the good things that the hero had to do, the hero always had to succeed and be shown in the best way. After three years of that, I was motivated to write that out of my system. I thought I would write this one script that is like the complete opposite of that and then I’ll forget about it. As all of this happening, the Rampart scandal was breaking. I was reading regular newspaper articles about that and the details were so fascinating to me. On one side of the newspaper, they were talking about all these awful things the CRASH unit was doing in the Rampart district and in the other part of the newspaper, they’d talk about how crime was down in the city, specifically in that district. I found that interesting and it got me thinking a lot about the balance of safety and civil liberties. My wife and I had our first child before that, so as a young father, I was spending a lot of time thinking about how I was going to keep this little girl safe in the world, including theoretical thoughts about if something dangerous threatened her, would I be the civil libertarian I considered myself or would I want someone like Vic Mackey, who took shortcuts. The pilot episode is very much about a little girl who is in danger and the various lengths that different cops in that building will go to save her. They all have different lines and Vic Mackey’s line is the most different.
With a role like this, it had to be hard to find someone who could be intimidating, while also being someone that audiences root for. What was it about Michael that made you decide he was the guy would could do that?
Right now, there’s probably very few actors who wouldn’t want to be on FX. But, at the time, it was very different. Skepticism isn’t a strong enough word to what I think the town felt early on in the casting process of that show. And we didn’t have a lot of money to spend on the show or actors. I think there was an assumption that this was going to be cheesy, even actors who read the pilot script and really liked it, I heard many stories about agents discouraging them from pursuing it. So that was the environment we found ourselves in. We were just trying to look for diamonds in the rough with the cast. When it came to Michael, I have to give him a lot of credit. He knew that he was viewed in a different way after The Commish and Daddio, that no one was going to assume that he was Vic Mackey. He had been changing his look and working out a lot and sort of transformed himself, but he understood that we would have to see it, so he came in and read for us. I had not envisioned Vic Mackey looking like him. I’m sort of a big guy with a bald head and people always asked if I intentionally cast someone who looked like me, and absolutely not. I always described it as a young Harrison Ford role and Michael came in and made me reimagine it. He was this bulldog with this intensity and energy that matched. He saw and read the character differently and better than anyone who came in before or after him… In his audition for us, he was on his feet and pacing around like a caged tiger. Even then, as great as the performance was, I still kind of nervous… I still had some butterflies. It wasn’t until we got in front of the cameras, where I was like, “I really do think the world will see what I did.” And fortunately they did.
The pilot ends in such a shocking way, with Vic murdering Terry Crowley, the cop planted on the Strike Team to investigate them. Why did you decide to go in that direction?
A number of years earlier, I was watching Donnie Brasco and I thought it was a very good movie, but as I was watching it, I felt that I could see exactly where it was going. I remember sitting in the theater, thinking, “Wouldn’t it be a great twist right now if Al Pacino walked in and shot Johnny Depp in the face and you realize that he knew that Depp was an undercover cop trying to take him down?” I knew it wasn’t going to happen since it was based on a true story [but] I never forgot that moment. When I was doing this pilot, I decided that is what I want the ending to be. I was only writing a pilot at that point and I didn’t think anyone was going to make it, so I didn’t have to worry about the consequences and what an episode two would look like… Then, when FX decided to make it, there were a lot of conversations. If you had told me at the time that I was guaranteed seven seasons of the show, I might have waited longer to do that. I might have said, “Let’s get to know Terry for a few episodes and let’s make episode six the episode where Vic kills him.” But at the time, I truly believed that there was a decent chance that the pilot would be the only thing that we got to make. So for me, I wanted to throw everything I could into the pilot. I wanted it to be amazing as it could be, to get picked up, and if didn’t get picked up, I knew this would be my calling card for other work… Then, when it did get picked up, I was like, “Oh geez, what do we do now? [laughs]” Now, your lead character is a murderer, so what do you do?
It’s hard to get much worse than killing a good cop who is doing his job, but did you ever worry about going too far with Vic?
A lot of time was spent talking about where the line could and should be. The genius of casting Michael Chiklis was that he was surprisingly likable in the role. So many actors came in and tried to play the toughness and intensity, Michael was the only one who played the charisma of the role. Being the guy that people wanted to follow, being the guy that audience members wanted to root for even when he’s doing bad things. The audience rooted for Vic more than I rooted for Vic, exemplified best by season five when we brought Forrest Whitaker in. Somehow, the audience was very much against him and for Vic. What I realized as the seasons passed, it almost didn’t matter what we had Vic do, people had just decided that they liked him and wanted to see what he could get away with. Almost every episode, writers would have some sort of pitch that ended with Vic killing someone. Finally, I said, “Look, Vic killed Terry, I get it. He will kill other people along the way, but he’s not a serial killer.” Ninety-eight percent of the time, he’s doing the right thing, it’s the other two percent that makes us sit up and say, “Whoa, that’s not right.” It was a constant conversation… We tried to keep Vic in the land of the real, in the land of the grounded… But Michael being as charismatic as he was in that role, allowed us to get away with things that a lot of other actors in that role would not have allowed us to get away with.
While many shows have been criticized for how they ended, The Shield is constantly praised for the way you went out. Why did you decide to wrap things up like this? And why do you believe the finale is as revered as it is?
I’m flattered that so many people think that. At the risk of sounding egotistical, I think it deserves to be. We spent a lot of time thinking about it. I personally went back and researched as many series finales of iconic shows as I could and tried to determine what worked in the ones that I felt worked and what didn’t work in the ones I didn’t think worked. Ultimately, we spent seven seasons being brutally honest about the show and our characters, and I think what worked about that finale is that we built in a premise of an original sin that the strike team had committed — the murder of Terry Crowley — and we spent seven seasons milking that. Combined with the money train robbery in season 2 and various betrayals along the way, we took these guys who were super tight and felt that they were urban cowboys and we exposed the rotten core at the center of that. We went to a very dark and honest place that people appreciated after seven seasons… What I said all along is that this is another episode of The Shield, it’s the last one and it’s going to get some special attention, but we’re not going to change what the show is to do it… We really were able to set things up and build toward these conclusions that if you really like these characters, were devastating in many ways. It was a devastating conclusion for Ronnie, it was a devastating conclusion for Shane and Mara, it was a devastating conclusion for Vic Mackey. A lot of shows had to preserve a good feeling about their show in the finale. John Landgraf, who had taken on at FX early on in the run of the show, really pushed me before the season began to think big terms. I had never thought of it this way, but he really thought The Shield was a Shakespearean tragedy. He encouraged me to think about how plays like Hamlet and Macbeth ultimately played out. In particular, the last two episodes, sometimes the work is greater than the sum of its parts. There was something magical about those two episodes that was better than our writing, better than our acting, better than our directing. It just all worked.
In a world of reboots and revivals, what are your thoughts on possibly revisiting the series? The final shot of Vic pulling out his gun and walking out of the office is a perfect ending, yet, it leaves open so many possibilities.
It’s interesting, Jay Karnes and Michael Chiklis were over at our house [Ryan’s wife Cathy Cahlin Ryan played Vic’s ex-wife Corrine] a week ago, so it turned into a lot of reminiscing. We’ve all sort of worked and we’ve all enjoyed things we’ve done, but The Shield was a singular pleasure to do. To me, it’s hard not to want to recapture that feeling we all had when we were making the show. But nostalgia is a tricky thing. You’d also like the feel the nostalgia of being back in college or when you first feel in love with your wife. I was reading an interview with Joss Whedon about the 20th anniversary of Buffy, and he addressed this a little bit and I agree — you can’t recreate the time and experience of first seeing it. I’m of two minds: Something that would bring me back to all those friends, feelings, and the freedom we had making the show — I would love. I do think the ending is such a high bar and I would only come back if I thought we could beat that or exceed that, and I honestly don’t know if we could. Artistically, I’m in the camp of leaving it there. Personally, to get a chance to work with Michael, Walton, C.C.H., Jay, Cathy, Catherine, and everyone would be amazing. We really did all love each other and we loved doing that show… There was a time a few years after The Shield ended, where I was having some talks with Fox’s movie division about something Shield-related. I had a pitch and what intrigued me about that pitch is that for the first 30 to 40 minutes of the movie, you wouldn’t meet anyone from The Shield universe. Then, at a certain point, Vic Mackey comes in to the main character’s world. That to me at least felt like I wasn’t just trying to make two more episodes of The Shield, it felt like something new and different that could stand on its own and wouldn’t detract from the show’s legacy. For various reasons, that never happened and now, any momentum for that is probably gone. I never want to close the door to it continuing in some way, but I never want to give unnecessary hope to the fans. I don’t know what the future holds. I’ve never definitively decided what Vic Mackey is doing now. As a fan of The Shield, I am interested in seeing that.