Det. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) is nothing if not resourceful when extracting confessions. Anything will do, really a phone book, a heavy chain, a searing hot coil from an electric stove (you're cooking now, Armadillo!). But in this high-stakes moment from the series finale being shot on location in a dingy L.A. apartment, Mackey's tool of choice is a pet snake with a venomous bite. It's the perfect weapon against a tight-lipped baddie who has vital information that could save Mackey's tenuous career as an inner-city cop. He and his partner Ronnie (David Rees Snell) have busted in on the tattooed lowlife having sex with a raven-haired partner in crime. ''Hope your pet's had his shots!'' barks Ronnie, as Vic shoves the man headfirst into the snake's glass terrarium.
This is justice the Vic Mackey way. For seven heart-stopping seasons of The Shield, fans have embraced Mackey as an effective, head-cracking law dog, even though he's often no better than the street scum he vows to wipe out. With the final season under way, and the series finale set for Nov. 25, viewers are dying to find out if TV's ultimate antihero will skate by yet again or finally receive his comeuppance. What surprises the man behind Mackey is just how many of those viewers are hoping for the former. ''When you root for someone like this, you want to go 'Oh, God, what's wrong with me?' Because you know he's done some despicable things,'' says Chiklis. ''But I am amazed at how many people comment on how they want him to get away with it.''
The Shield itself has gotten away with quite a bit over the years, be it nudity, extreme violence, or some seriously salty language (six S-bombs in one episode? No problem!). In the process, the gritty drama also changed the face of basic cable proving that channels best known for rerunning second-rate movies could transform themselves into destinations for original, edgy scripted programming. Visit the FX offices these days and you'll be bombarded with posters for their current crop of dark shows: Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, Damages, Sons of Anarchy, and more. But Shield creator Shawn Ryan remembers a very different atmosphere back in 2002, when his nervy drama debuted on the middling cable network.
NEXT PAGE: ''In terms of edginess or boldness, I don't think you would have seen Heroes or House or even Lost if The Shield hadn't paved the way.''