(season 1, episode 1)
From the first scene (a politically correct press conference is intercut with Vic Mackey and his all-white team beating up a black drug dealer) to the last (Mackey puts a bullet in the brain of the undercover cop assigned to bring him down), it’s a riveting, unsettling introduction to a show that will be all about, as Mackey (Michael Chiklis) describes himself, not a good cop or a bad cop but “a different kind of cop.”
(season 3, episode 3)
Arguably the most twisted episode of a series whose unofficial backstage motto was “‘The Shield’: It’s so wrong.” Vic helps a prostitute (Mageina Tovah) escape her abusive pimp — after first giving her a pep talk that involves simulating oral sex with the barrel of his gun — but the girl turns out not to be manipulating Vic at least as much as he’s using her.
(season 5, episode 8)
The series’ strongest season reached its first peak with this episode told primarily from the point of view of Lt. Jon Kavanaugh, an Internal Affairs cop obsessed with taking Mackey down by any means necessary. At once a brilliant showcase for guest star Forest Whitaker and a terrifying glimpse of what Mackey’s world looks like when viewed from the outside.
(season 5, episode 11)
In which all of Vic’s misdeeds finally come back to bite him — or, rather, someone close to him. Kavanaugh’s investigation turns strike team member Lem (Kenneth Johnson) into a fugitive and a possible witness against the rest of the crew, and Vic’s protege Shane (Walton Goggins) decides the only way to protect himself is to take a page from Vic’s playbook and kill Lem.
(season 6, episode 6)
Vic is horrified to discover what Shane did to Lem, just as Shane is horrified to realize that Vic has developed a double standard when it comes to cop-killing. The showdown between these two former allies is a textbook example of what actors mean when they say they never play villains, but people who believe they’re good guys who sometimes do bad things.