The MVP: Walton Goggins Was The Shield’s Secret Weapon

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The MVP: Walton Goggins Was The Shield’s Secret Weapon

Editor’s Note: Welcome to The MVP, a column where we celebrate the best performances TV has to offer. Whether it be through heart-wrenching outbursts, powerful looks, or perfectly-timed comedy, TV’s most memorable moments are made by the medium’s greatest players—top-billed or otherwise. Join us as we dive deep on our favorite TV performances, past and present:

Before he was digging coal with Timothy Olyphant on Justified, or giving up his nose to the post-apocalypse in Prime Video’s smash hit Fallout, Walton Goggins was just a side-player on FX’s gritty cop drama The Shield trying to find a role worth having.

The 2002 series, which starred Michael Chiklis (The Commish) as the leader of a shady police strike force, was one of the first basic cable dramas of the early aughts to showcase the potential of the medium, while simultaneously making FX an instant player in the originals space.

The Shield brought the ambition, buzz, and edginess of an HBO-type series to basic cable, and though Chiklis got much of the acclaim (deservedly so) for his nuanced, conflicted, and badass portrayal of team leader Vic Mackey—in hindsight—the show’s true breakout wasn’t Mackey. It was his wingman Shane Vendrell, the redneck dirty cop who idolized Mackey but eventually lost sight of the sliding scale moral compass that made Vic such a compelling anti-hero.

Shane was played by Goggins, in his early-to-mid-30s at the time, coming off a mixed bag of one-off TV guest spots and minor roles in films, including the utterly awful direct-to-DVD The Crow: Salvation and Back to the Minors (which also starred Scott Bakula, of all people), the box office flop sequel to Major League, among others. All of this is to say, it would have been easy to miss Goggins’s potential when he was cast in a supporting role in The Shield with maybe two lines in the pilot.

Goggins’ Shane was Vic’s right hand man, a witness and co-conspirator in the “original sin” that kickstarts the entire series, where the seemingly good-guy police strike team stage a shootout and use it as cover to murder a fellow cop in cold blood—a cop who had been planted in the team to inform on Vic and his crew’s under-the-table dealings.

Though Shane was an ally to Vic early on, before long, it became clear that Vic’s greatest threat might not be outside forces, but the man closest to him. Shane wants to be Vic, and over time tries to follow in his footsteps by cutting deals with drug dealers and running his own side operations. The only problem? Shane doesn’t have Vic’s knack for seeing the big picture, and almost always gets himself in too deep—with the mess often falling at Vic’s feet to clean up.

But Shane’s arc truly took off in the series’ back-half, late in Season 5 and carrying through the show’s final two seasons. With the walls closing in, Vic has done everything to protect his team, eventually hatching a plan to smuggle strike team member Lem (Kenny Johnson) out of the country so he can avoid arrest. Unbeknownst to Vic, Shane doesn’t trust that Lem won’t turn on the group, and takes matters into his own hands. After visiting Lem under the guise of bringing him supplies, he drops a stolen grenade in his lap.

He murders one of his best friends, and Goggins absolutely acted the hell out of that moment. You could see something break inside him as he did something so evil to a person he loved, and through the next two seasons, he played Shane’s unraveling as he dealt with the crippling guilt of what he had done. Seasons 6 and 7 find Shane devolving into more of a broken antagonist, with his role in Lem’s murder coming to light in Season 6, as Shane tries to blackmail the strike team with a lengthy, written confession of all their criminal deeds.

It all comes to a head in the series’ seventh and final season, as Shane tries to kill Vic—but fails—with enough of his actions finally surfacing so that he becomes a fugitive and goes on the run. It’s here that Goggins became the actor we would all fall in love with in FX’s Justified a few years later, preparing him for the role of savvy criminal Boyd Crowder. With nowhere left to go after a final phone call with Vic makes it clear he’s lost, Shane enacts the only exit plan he has left. He kills his wife and young son, posing their bodies peacefully on the bed. His wife is holding flowers, and his son a toy truck to carry off into the afterlife.  

With his family gone, and police closing in on his hideout, Shane barricades himself in the bathroom. Just as the police break down the door, he pulls the trigger. The final shot of Goggins’ Shane is of his brains splattered on the wall. A brutal, heartbreaking end to a brutal, heartbreaking arc that was seven long, claustrophobic seasons in the making. Goggins’ hopelessness feels real, with sweat and tears running down his face as you can see in his eyes that he knows it’s over. And none of it works without Goggins. The yin and yang that evolves between Vic and Shane is at the core of what made the series one of the best dramas in cable history.

Possibly the craziest thing of all, looking back? Goggins was almost cut from The Shield before it even got started. Yes, really.

“Little did I know, after that pilot, the executives wanted to fire me,” Goggins revealed in a 2022 oral history looking back at the show’s legacy. “Shawn didn’t tell me until the end of Season 1 during a DVD commentary recording, and I said, ‘How?! I had two lines!’ He said to them, ‘I know what this guy’s capable of, let me prove it,’ and he focused the second episode on Shane. I’m glad he didn’t tell me because I may have f—ed that up.”

Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, and freelance editor and writer with bylines at lots of places. He likes to find the sweet spot where pop culture crosses over with everything else. Follow him at @trentlmoore on Twitter.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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