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Photo: Jilly Wendell
Shawn Ryan
Cop Killer

The November Written By magazine cover story is on Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield, which concludes its seventh and final season this November. The interview, conducted by Bill Prady, co-creator of The Big Bang Theory, included material that didn’t get published in hard copy. For example, here’s some excised dialogue from the Prady and Ryan discussion of episode 5 of Season 3, “Mum.,” which originally aired on April 6, 2004.

Bill Prady: When The Shield ends [on November 25], I’ll start watching it over again from the beginning. But I’m going to skip an episode because it was too rough for me, although I’m glad I saw it. I don't think I’ll be able to watch again the rape of [Captain David Aceveda]. It may be one of the most disturbing episodes of television in contemporary television history.

Shawn Ryan: Well, that wasn’t the goal. I always felt that CCH Pounder gave the best argument/defense of that episode. She said it much better than me and I’ll paraphrase here. But she talked about how many shows routinely showed or dealt with female rape. And how it had sort of become kind of just an accepted dramatic plot device at this point in so many shows. Including our own. We had female rape stories as well. And what she liked about that story was for the first time, especially with male viewers, she thought that it gave you a real sense of what it was like to be raped. In a way that men perhaps don't think about. That suddenly you have someone that you can put yourself in their place, in their position, and think, Would I do what he’s doing? Would I take life over humiliation? Would I accept humiliation to live? What would I do? And it caused a lot of discussion. We never tried to intentionally shock on The Shield. I think some of my writers would in first drafts occasionally. But I always would come back and say, “What feels real?” We don't have the limits that most TV shows do in terms of boundaries, but we have to have a reason for crossing those boundaries. And in that case, if that had just been a one-episode story—“Hey, let’s rape David Aceveda”— I would never have done it. The reason we did it was we felt it was something that would actually happen, and we were interested in seeing the episodes that followed with David to see how he dealt with this. To see how a man dealt with that kind of shame. Certainly a powerful man. A man who wants to be mayor someday, dealing with that.

He’s made a number of questionable choices in the series, but from that point on he makes choices that are even more questionable. They’re informed, I assume, by the events that he went through.

Shawn Ryan: One of the things that I’m proud of in conjunction with the writers is that the show has progressed each year. David Aceveda pre-rape is different than David Aceveda post rape. It’s not just something he went through for an episode or two and then he’s back to the David Aceveda you knew before. That was one of the great things about the show and it’s one of the reasons why we decided to end it after seven years because as those characters change, to me you need to arrive at a conclusion. Most TV shows—although it’s changing because you get The Sopranos and Six Feet Under and shows like ours—break that mold a little bit, but most shows want to keep their characters the same every episode, and just change the situation, and then at the end of the show the characters sort of reset back to zero. We were never interested in that. So that story—and I don't blame you if you don't want to go back and watch it—I’ve seen it a number of times because I had to sit in the editing room, and I worked a lot on that scene, and then there was a lot of negotiations with the network, which rarely got in the way on a Standards & Practices point of view, but there were a lot of discussions and a lot of care taken to that scene. How many frames here and there. At one point the scene opened up an act and they asked me to adjust the order so that it didn't go straight from an advertisement into that scene. We went into a different scene and that scene takes place in the middle of an act. So I’ve seen that a lot of times, and I came to kind of divorce myself from the emotionality, and I came to appreciate the artistry that the director Nick Gomez had directing that scene. And the courage that Benito Martinez had to play the scene. Artistically, the elements: the directors, the actors, the writing—Kurt Sutter and I co-wrote that episode. I was really proud how we pulled off that scene.

To me the most devastating thing isn't necessarily the rape itself but the reaction of Aceveda’s wife. He finally breaks down and tells her what happened, and he tells her why. He tells her he did it to live and he did it to live for his family. And she does not forgive him.

Shawn Ryan: She certainly doesn’t approve. It goes to issues of manhood. If you’re the guy who’s supposed to be strong and lead this family and lead the city someday, and you’re a cop, how can you let something happen to you? It engendered a lot of conversations amongst the actors on the show. “Well, I’d let them put a bullet in my head before I’d let them do that to me.” Really? He lives. He’s still got his family, he’s got his daughter. He has his moments afterwards. But rape is a very specific, different crime than anything else, and it’s a crime inevitably where people look at the victim and judge them in some way. Which is such an odd thing in that you would not judge a victim of armed robbery. But you judge, well, what situation did you put yourself in? And if you’re a man in this case, why didn't you fight back? It was really fascinating territory for us to deal with. We took a lot of great care once we made the decision to tell that story. We had a lot of conversations with Benny, who was incredibly brave to play it. And you’re talking about the scene with his wife. That came in a subsequent episode. And we dealt with that issue over five or six consecutive episodes. He finds a prostitute who he can start debasing in some ways in a sort of failed attempt to recapture his dominance in that relationship with that prostitute played by Abby Brammell becomes really interesting. We only did the rape portion of the story when we knew about these other stories that we would tell in the aftermath.

You point out that there are other moments of sexual assault among many, many kinds of crime that are found in The Shield. There’s a moment of sexual assault that isn't rape that looks for a moment like it might be rape, but it comes in the Kavanaugh storyline. There’s a battle going on between Mackey and Kavanaugh, and Mackey, who is in this battle without morality, seduces Kavanaugh’s ex-wife, who he is clearly still in love with, and makes sure Kavanaugh knows.

Shawn Ryan: Yes. I would say that Kavanaugh’s wife participated in that seduction equally. But as they begin to get physical he knows exactly what that means and exactly the effect it will have on his nemesis.

Absolutely. She participates both in the act and in the implications of the act. She has her own axe to grind with her ex husband. But at this point in the story Kavanaugh has begun to turn. And we see that turn in his response to this act, and he goes to Vic Mackey’s ex wife. And it’s a remarkably disturbing scene, maybe even more disturbing than if Kavanaugh were to rape the character of his ex wife. He pushes himself against her and he kisses her. It’s uncomfortable to watch. It’s uniquely uncomfortable for you because the part of Corinne is played by your wife, Cathy Cahlin Ryan, whose portrayal of this anguished woman throughout the series is so at odds from the wonderful, bubbly, happy fellow mom at school that I know.

Shawn Ryan: She’d always ask, “Can't you let me smile in an episode?”

But look, this is more than frowning. You’re sitting at your word processor, and you’re going to set this giant, angry man against her physically. When you write that, there are three people sitting down at the word processor. There’s Shawn the writer, there’s Shawn the producer saying what is this going to do for the show, and then here there’s Shawn husband of Cathy.

Shawn Ryan: You gotta be careful. You don't want to completely go down the school of wife using. It was difficult, but ultimately Cathy as an actress would say, “Give me something good to play.” And she’d look at what the other actors on the show were getting to do and I knew she wanted something like this. Who wouldn’t want to do a tense, sexually charged, frightening scene with Forest Whitaker? So she loved it. It is weird; as Mackey’s ex-wife there are a couple romantic scenes in the series with her and Michael. That’s weird for me to sit in the editing room and work on. But to me, I’m just glad that my wife doesn’t think I’m a freak for all the stuff I’ve written on The Shield. So if it was up to me, I’d be like my balancing act, when I’m writing stuff about glory holes and male rape and all this sorta stuff, the more prurient stuff that accompanies The Shield, I’m just glad she doesn’t look at me and say, “What corner of your mind does that come from?”

So you’d not be comfortable if I were to let you know that your wife told my wife that you’re an absolute freak?

Shawn Ryan: She can think I’m a freak; I’m just glad she doesn’t leave me. So for me, on my side of it, I didn't have a problem watching or editing that scene because I want to challenge my wife as an actress the same way. You don't want to give your wife any special treatment either way. You don't want to deny her a scene that you would give to another character on the show. That was the right scene to be played. Why deny her, and why deny the show? I think if you asked her, she’d say it’s both to her benefit and to her detriment [that] I always put the show first in terms of the things we wrote for her and what we asked her to play. And I’d be ruthless. There was an episode where I cut her scenes. I didn't think that they were working. Not necessarily through her fault or through Michael’s fault or through the director’s fault, but they just didn't fit in that story and I had to come home and say, “Listen, I cut you out of an episode.” [LAUGHS] That was back in season two. And that’s not a decision a husband makes to get along with his wife; that’s a decision a show runner makes for the good of the show.