» Warning: Some spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched the first six seasons of “The Shield.”

FROM THE MORAL high ground of “Dragnet” to the kitschiness of “Hawaii Five-O” to the intense spin-off fervor of “Law and Order,” police procedurals have been a mainstay of television’s prime time.

But while most of those shows have focused on the do-good tactics of characters such as Sgt. Joe Friday and Steve McGarett, “The Shield” takes the grittiness of “Homicide: Life on the Street” and injects it with a more-than-healthy dose of corruption (don’t think good cop, bad cop; just bad cop, bad cop).

The seventh and final season of “The Shield” starts Sept. 2 on FX, and it seems like former Strike Team leader Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) may finally be facing his own downfall.

Since 2002, the fictional Los Angeles cop who works at “The Farm” has struck deals with drug kingpins; stolen millions from the Armenian Mafia; and, most importantly, killed one of his own Strike Team members, Terry Crowley (Reed Diamond) and learned that another strike team member, Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), murdered Vic’s best friend, Curtis “Lem” Lemansky (Kenny Johnson).

It’s a tangled web of lies they lead, and this season, Vic’s world could ultimately unravel.

Yet while “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and its ilk tend to lean on criminal-of-the-week episodes, “The Shield” has mastered the art of the complex story arc (think “The X-Files‘” never-ending government conspiracy), with subtly developed characters in the starring roles.

Read on for a list of the show’s five best moments.

20080903-shield-dutch.jpg» 5. DUTCH’S DARK SIDE
Nearly every character on “The Shield” has some kind of not-so-nice side. For example, Sgt. Danielle “Danny” Sofer (Catherine Dent) hates new officer Tina Hanlon (Paula Garces), telling her “it’s bitches like you that make this job hard for the rest of us,” while cop-turned-captain-turned councilman David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) says of Vic, “Mackey’s not a cop. He’s Al Capone with a badge.” But the character with the most frightening dalliances into deviousness is Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach, the gangly and nerdy detective who, on the surface, seems like Vic’s complete antithesis. While the latter makes numerous shady deals a day, Dutch takes the moral high road, trying to solve each crime that passes across his desk in the most by-the-rules way possible.

Over the years, however, Dutch has grown more tormented as the city around him descends into unexplainable chaos: His interrogation techniques have become more intense and hostile, and he more often jumps to physical violence. Dutch’s turning point, and the moment in which he solidifies his bad-guy tendencies, came in the third season episode “Strays”: Dutch succeeds in catching the “cuddler rapist,” a man who was sexually assaulting and later murdering senior citizens; after coming home, Dutch kills a stray cat whose caterwauling was disturbing his sleep. Why does he do it? Just to learn what it feels like to kill another living being. Looks like all the crazies are beginning to get to Dutch.

20080903-shield-close.jpg» 4. CAPTAIN MONICA RAWLING’S EARLY EXIT
When it comes to female characters on “The Shield,” it’s slim pickings — you either have the hookers and strippers Shane often cheats on his wife with; the spineless, tortured soul of Mackey’s wife, Corinne (Cathy Cahlin Ryan); or the tough, take-no-prisoners approach of Captain Claudette Wyms (“You really ought to cut back on the porn,” she advises former partner Dutch). But the most ball-busting of them all was Captain Monica Rawling (Glenn Close), who, during the show’s fourth season, investigated Vic’s Strike Team and implemented an asset forfeiture program that was meant to cut away drug dealers’ profits. But cops ended up dead, and when Rawling finally found out who did the crimes — the manipulative, child-killing drug mogul Antwon Mitchell (Anthony Anderson, probably in his only good role ever) — she learned he had been granted immunity in a deal with councilman Aceveda (a decision that causes Vic to say to him, “You’re not a cop. You never were”). To ruin the deal, Rawling orders the Strike Team to find evidence they can present to the Drug Enforcement Agency before Antwon could give any information of his own — a move that ends up being her final sacrifice.

After Rawling loses her job, she still arrests Mitchell — but also ends up alone. While the season finale depicts Vic and the rest of the police force celebrating at a bar, we see Rawling sitting in her living room, contemplatively drinking by herself. Before she leaves, she says the Strike Team is “someone else’s problem now.” Though Close may have only been on “The Shield” for one season, Rawling’s early exit is just another example of how the Farm’s ever-present corruption can ruin anybody who tries to fix it.

20080903-shield-fw.jpg» 3. LT. JON KAVANAUGH’S FREAKOUT
Calling Vic a good cop who makes bad decisions or a bad cop with a good heart wouldn’t be accurate; as he himself describes, “I’m a different kind of cop.” But, no matter what Vic really is, Internal Affairs Lt. Jon Kavanaugh (Forest Whitaker) — who continues Rawling’s investigation of Vic’s Strike Team after she leaves — was determined to bring him down. During the show’s fifth and sixth seasons, Kavanaugh headed an investigation into Vic and the Strike Team’s affairs, trying to prove that he was responsible for Crowley’s murder. But Kavanaugh’s firm moral compass — much like Rawling’s — got him nowhere, and eventually the detective resorted to reprehensible tactics (planting evidence, playing mind games with those close to Vic, trying to rape Corinne and arresting Lem) to try and faze the Strike Team leader.

Eventually, however, it is Kavanaugh who begins to unravel, and his flip-out at his superiors is the last nail in his ethical coffin. When he screams, “Vic Mackey kills cops! He … he deals drugs! He beats suspects! … This guy, this guy is just pissing, he’s pissing all over us. He’s pissing on you. What does it taste like? Chief, what does it taste like? ‘Cause you know what, it tastes like piss to me!,” you know his mask of sanity has finally slipped. It’s not Patrick Bateman-level, but Whitaker’s intense portrayal of Kavanaugh is on par with his performance in “The Last King of Scotland” — it’s got award-winning written all over it.

20080903-shield-shane.jpg» 2. SHANE REALIZES THE TRUTH
In terms of jaw-droppingly unnecessary violence, Shane’s murder of friend and fellow Strike Team member Lem was pretty gratuitous — and the one event that broke up the group forever. While Strike Team members Vic and Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell) vowed to avenge Lem’s death, Shane still thought he was in the right for dropping a grenade in Lem’s lap — he was convinced Lem would rat on the team to Kavanaugh, and thought killing him would protect everyone. But the day after Lem’s funeral, when Shane discovers his friend had no intention of talking, he realizes he killed Lem for no reason — and begins to spiral out of control.

As a result, each decision Shane made in the sixth season of “The Shield” — from cheating on his wife with a teenage prostitute to working for the Armenian Mafia he once stole from to attempting to kidnap Corinne and Vic’s kids — was colored by guilt and selfishness. When college-student-turned-Mafia-grandmother Diro Kesakhian tells Shane “your sentiment will destroy you,” her prediction was loaded with a sense of foreboding that could foreshadow the former Strike Team member’s demise.

20080903-shield-vic.jpg» 1. VIC’S REVENGE
Dutch once asked of Vic, “Why does everyone like that asshole so much?” Sure, Vic may be an adulterous, two-faced, exceptionally dirty cop, but his loyalty to his ex-wife, kids and Strike Team members makes his otherwise deplorable personality almost endearing. When he decides to do something — be it stealing, framing or even killing for the greater good — he means it.

So when Vic sees Lem’s corpse, his snarled proclamation that “We’re going to find out who did this … and we’re going to kill him” holds some weight. And his later threat to Shane — “I had the chance to pull the trigger on you once before; I didn’t do it, and Lem lost his life because of it!” — is just as frightening. The two have already started down the road to a showdown — only this final season will tell who, if anyone, comes out on top.

» “The Shield” is on FX every Tuesday at 10 p.m.

Written by Express contributor Roxana Hadadi

Photos courtesy FX