Yes, this post is about four years too late. I only caught up with The Shield when the seventh season was released on DVD, and I finally have a nerdy forum to discuss my thoughts.
When I finished the final episode, I ran to my computer to look up the internet’s reactions to Dutch Wagenbach’s transformation from lonely detective to serial killer. To my surprise, I couldn’t find a single post discussing it, nor could I find any comments by the creators saying they intended Dutch to be a serial killer!
If this topic has been discussed at length somewhere else, I haven’t found it. I’ll do my best to fill this gap in pop culture… four years too late.
I believe it was the writers’ intention to have the audience suspect Dutch Wagenbach as a serial killer. He wasn’t a murderer when the show began, but through the course of 88 episodes, he has a subtle but definite transformation.
As the clip shows, the writers take time to provide insight into Dutch’s past, possibly more than any other character on the show. And the bits they reveal are all traits of a serial killer’s past.
What do we learn about serial killers during the course of the show?
-They’re so secretive, even their wives and coworkers don’t know about it.
-They can live fairly normal lives.
-They’re intelligent, observant (sometimes peeping toms), and introverted.
-They come from dysfunctional families.
-They were bullied as kids.
-They can be cruel toward animals.
-They spend a portion of their lives in Southern California.
-They have a nickname.
-They’re inadequate with women.
Already, we can see similarities between Dutch and a serial killer:
Narcissism – If you’ve seen the show, you don’t need clips to remember that Dutch is a narcissist. There are entire episodes that deal with this side of his character, and it’s part of the reason he’s good at his job.
Nickname – What do the people in the barn call each other? Steve, Vic, Shane, Ronny, Claudette, Danny, Julian, Lem… Only one major character has a nickname, and that’s Dutchboy.
Bullied – From the very first episode, Dutch is picked on by his coworkers. In one of his first scenes, Vic steals his cupcakes. In a later episode, Dutch is tricked into watching Tina have sex with his rival as a prank.
Dysfunctional Family - What is The Barn but a big, messed up family? Dutch is surrounded by corruption and drug abuse to the greatest extreme.
Cruelty to Animals – (More on this later.)
Anti-Social Behavior and Peeping – These two aren’t specific to Dutch, but to the Detective profession itself. Dutch never had a social life except one serious girlfriend who disappeared from the show without explanation. He got close to Vic’s wife, but his motivations for that were questionable. He’s consumed with his job… and the bulk of that job includes peeping, both literally and metaphorically.
Inadequate with Women – Dutch hits on women, but rarely succeeds.
The Evolution of Dutch
This is the first time we really see the comparison between Dutch and a serial killer. They even look similar! At the end of the episode, Dutch leaves The Barn as a confident hero, but when he’s alone in his car, we see the full effect of the interrogation. (Notice the lyrics on the radio: “I’m a liar.”)
When I discuss this topic with other TV lovers, they say the cat scene is the only time when they suspected Dutch as a serial killer. When you put the scene in context with all of his other weird, unexplained perversions, we start to see a bigger picture.
Dutch as a Serial Killer
Here is the first major indication that Dutch has murdered. His only serious girlfriend disappeared from the show without explanation… but now we find out that she left around the time he strangled the cat. Coincidence?
There’s more. During this same time period, we see that Dutch is still growing. In fact, we watch as he takes mental notes from a pimp, then uses the new technique on Tina in the same episode. We also see that he’s still being teased. Billings tricks him into going to Tina’s house for a “date.” Instead, Dutch sees her having sex with the new guy (peeping?)
The Series Finale
If there are still any doubts about Dutch’s transformation, re-watch the vital scenes from his final case.
The whole placement of the “serial-killer” boy story-line can’t be an accident on the writer’s part. They didn’t just happen to end the show on the story of developing serial killer unless it meant something vital to Dutch’s character.
The writers left the murder of the boy’s mother open. They did not let Claudette and Dutch get an actual confession out the kid… why? If the goal of the show was simply to entertain, then they could have ended with an explosive confession from the boy like all the other interrogation scenes we’ve seen. Instead, Dutch runs circles around the boy for a few minutes, then automatically convicts him without any proof or confession for the first time in the show. From a writing standpoint, why would Dutch’s very last case point to him as a suspect? The woman’s burnt clothes were found in Dutch’s trash can. Neighbors saw him walking around at night. These things are quickly dismissed because we think we know Dutch, but why bring that concept into the show so late, only for it to be completely irrelevant?
Nothing Dutch tells Claudette about the boy would hold up in court. He had an “expert” read the kid’s facial expressions from a video. He says the boy is “learning” to show sympathy for his crimes. He has absolutely no evidence on the kid for either the murder of the guy who broke into the kid’s house, or the murder of the kid’s mother. In fact, as far as we know, the kid had no motive to kill his mother at all… but Dutch did.
Claudette was duped. So were we.
The writers have been pointing to the same thing for the whole series, and the final scenes with this boy and his mother are a brilliant conclusion of Dutch’s descent.
My theory, and what I think the writers were trying to suggest, was that Dutch was getting close to this woman (the boy’s mother) for very wrong reasons. He romances her out of desperation… out of obsession. He needs to prove himself. He leads her on. Finally, he recognizes that his tendencies are wrong and he ends it after the kiss. She goes to see him at work and insults him. She threatens his masculinity in front of his friends and coworkers. She tells him to stay away from her son. Then Dutch gets those phone calls from her number, one at a time, and shows up at her house to see her again. He discovers it wasn’t her calling. It was her son, and now Dutch is not only embarrassed, but threatened. That night he uses his extensive knowledge about serial-killers to murder the woman and to pin it on her son.
Here’s the best part: Dutch’s storyline mirrors the themes of the show! He’s a crooked cop, just like Vic, the Strike Team, Cavenaugh, and Billings. Like his co-workers, Dutch is willing to hurt others to do what he believes is right.
The writers of The Shield had seven seasons to prove, again and again, that they know what they’re doing. They’re not idiots, in fact, they’re some of the best writers on TV.
Dutch’s last case is one of two endings: a mediocre “arrest” that lacks the explosive energy of previous interrogation scenes, OR a spectacular conclusion that sums up Dutch’s story with one of the biggest themes from the show: look too long into the abyss, and the abyss also looks into you.
Am I crazy? Were these things discussed four years ago and I missed it? Are there other moments in the show that point to my conclusion? Are there moments that contradict my conclusion?