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FX's The Shield resolutely plays dirty in its seventh and final season

Shades of Horatio Caine: Vic Mackey's back in FX's The Shield.

Dirty to the touch and still greasing palms, FX's hard-core cop hour begins a final wind-down Tuesday.

The Shield means as much to its network as The Sopranos did to HBO and The Daily Show does to Comedy Central. Its birth, on March 12, 2002, turned an otherwise nondescript cable player into a home for rough-and-tumble, high-caliber dramas driven by self-destructive central characters.

Absent the success of The Shield and the excesses of rogue cop Vic Mackey, there's no Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me or Damages on FX. The Shield, helmed from the start by creator/executive producer Shawn Ryan, literally badgered its network into branding itself with a hot poker. FX since has become the antithesis of warm and fuzzy, with star player Michael Chiklis likewise making a career U-turn from the chubby, schlubby pop of NBC's short-lived Daddio sitcom to a strong-armed police detective with the scruples of a Mafia kingpin.

Billed as The Shield: The Final Act, the series' concluding seventh season begins rolling out on Tuesday at 9 p.m. (central), with its climax scheduled for Nov. 25th. That's a total of 13 episodes, with FX promising that "all will be revealed by the end of this extraordinary series."

The network makes this pledge on page 7 of an exhaustive 114-page, companion hardcover coffee table book sent along with review discs of The Shield. That's quite a sendoff, including this telling observation from Chiklis on the rigors of being Vic Mackey.

"What I am not going to miss about going to work every day is being a maniacally stressed-out-aneurysm-waiting-to-happen," he writes. "The toughest challenge about playing this role is that I'm always in a knot. Right now, in Season Seven, I have seven balls in the air and I'm starting to drop them."

It can be tough-going in Tuesday night's re-start, even for devoted fans. The Shield isn't as densely plotted as Lost, but it's still easy enough to get lost in the transition from season to season.

A by now dizzying whirl of plots and counterplots are tied to Mackey's efforts to keep his stinkin' badge. Sometimes you wish the characters would wear sandwich boards with tidy summations of who the hell they are, where the hell they've been and what the hell they're up to. Emphasis on hell. The Farmington precinct remains an inferno of warring gangs, freelance thugs, crooked city officials and besieged, besmirched cops. Hill Street Blues, once upon a time so groundbreaking and "edgy," was a McDonald's Playland compared to this.

Capt. Wyms has another talk with her department's bald baddie.

Mackey's boss, Captain Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder), is still a petal-stunted daisy trying to poke through Farmington's irreparably cracked pavement. She needs Mackey like a hole in the head -- but needs him nonetheless. This he knows all too well.

Tuesday's season opener has the usual quotient of graphic violence and language, including several slurs directed at Hispanics. Next week's episode includes a searing scene between Wyms and a baby-faced black gang member who calls her a "nigger bitch" during his impudent litany of racial slurs. Wyms succumbs to a measured rage and then faces a reprimand for her conduct.

The whole sorry state of affairs cries out for a stiff dose of Mackey's fist-in-the-face retribution. It's what makes The Shield both powerful and troubling. His way repeatedly is made to seem like the only way. Crime and corruption are winning by landslides, with no solutions possible. It's reached the point where a mayor's list of the area's top 10 most dangerous gangs proves to be grossly counter-productive.

"Look, this is like the standings in a sports section," Mackey says in next week's episode. "And every gang is making a playoff push."

Sure enough, a white businessman is immediately and randomly shot by a gang that feels left out. Take that.

Amid the ongoing carnage, Mackey and his onetime trusted running mate, detective Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), remain at odds over the latter's previous betrayal. But can Mackey really trust detective Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell), who for now has his back?

Oh what tangled webs they weave -- sometimes way too tangled. But viewers are being promised a clear and satisfying resolution by the end of The Shield's 88th and final episode. Presumably that won't be a freeze-frame of Mackey eagerly pummeling another scumbag while Journey again sings, "Don't stop . . . "

That wouldn't be nice at all.

Grade B+