Re-watching The Wire

A spoiler-laden blog in appreciation of the HBO series "The Wire"

Month: April, 2012

“The Cost” – Season 1, Episode 10

“And then he dropped the bracelets…” – Greggs

The Wire is an admittedly hard show to get into with its huge cast, complex storyline and reluctance to make things blatantly explicit for its viewers. Couple that with a relatively straight-forward visual style and I can see why some people I know got too bored with the show. (By the way, did you watch that video essay on the show’s visual style? Stop reading and watch it.) But it’s almost impossible for me to think of anyone who made it this far into the series and didn’t become addicted and completely enamored after the ending of “The Cost.”

I didn’t realize I was looking for it when I started the blog, but I found the moment when The Wire went from an interesting show to an awesome show. It’s the “bath tub” moment in Breaking Bad, the carousel speech in Mad Men and the molten gold crown in Game of Thrones. All the plot and character has been built, and now, to put it delicately, shit is getting fucked up.

It’s pretty easy coming up with what “the cost” is at the end of the episode, with Orlando and Greggs shot up, presumably by Barksdale soldiers. Like Prez’s low points, I thought this moment came later in the season – next episode, the third to last one, was my guess. I can already tell you one of my all time favorite moments in the series comes in the next episode, but I’ll wait until my next entry to point it out.

Why am I so worked up over the ending of “The Cost?” Because it truly is tragic on the level of the Greek tragedies David Simon has often said he wanted to draw from during the conception of the show. The shooting didn’t need to happen. Deputy Burrell could have let the wiretap continue and built the case against Barksdale on solid evidence. But after Orlando falls into their lap, Burrell instead orders the buy-and-bust as a quick end to an unwanted case.

And Orlando, jeez, he didn’t have to try and buy drugs, especially after Avon beats him up in “Lessons.” But his plot to get some of the money and glory Avon has fails miserably, as he gets caught in a police sting and essentially loses everything in the course of a few days. What was he and the police thinking when they decided to try and get more drugs for the buy-and-bust?

But the tragedy goes beyond Greggs and Orlando being shot. Bubbles was hoping for Greggs to help him find a place to stay that night, as he begins his journey toward sobriety in earnest. But she’s nowhere to be found. And we know how much Gregg’s girlfriend doesn’t like dating an officer. We know from later seasons that this incident is going to tear the two apart.

It’s worth noting that it’s not necessarily malice that makes Burrell who he is. We know in later seasons how strapped the department is for resources. We know these operations suck a lot of valuable time and money from the countless day-to-day crimes that pad their statistics. When Wallace comes forward and starts naming names in Brandon’s murder, the police can’t protect him by putting him up in a hotel, so they send him to a grandmother he hasn’t seen in seven years, in a bit of season-four-failing-the-youth foreshadowing.

With the whole series in mind, it’s been fun watching these individual early moments and connecting them to later scenes. I’m sure David Simon was hoping people would flip that formula as the series progressed, and connected all the moments of corruption and systemic failures to previous seasons. It’s made me appreciate the show more as fully formed work. And it’s exciting to know that in typical HBO series form – or heck, like a novel – the last few chapters are going to be fast-paced and heavy. I don’t think I’ll have to worry about whether it lives up to my memories.

Stray Observations:

• It comes from a bad TV in the background of a scene, but we finally hear Clay Davis speak! I hope that first “Shi-iiiiiiiiiiit” isn’t too far behind.

• The other major plot point of the episode is Omar’s failed attempt to get Stringer Bell to say something incriminating on a wire, before bussing it to New York, where he’ll lay low before Bird’s trial. Oh man, that is a scene I’m eagerly looking forward to re-watching.

• Typical McNulty with Judge Phelan. “I hold you in contempt.” “Who doesn’t?”

• I feel a little sorry for that fifth wheel out drinking with Greggs and her other lesbian friends.

• The song playing outside of Orlando’s while D’Angelo tries to talk to Shardene? “I’ll Go Crazy” by James Brown. As in, “If you leave me / I’ll go crazy.” Nice touch.

“Game Day” – Season 1, Episode 9

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“Maybe we won.” – Herc

One of the few beginning-of-episode quotes I remember comes from Prez in the fourth season. “No one wins. One side just loses more slowly.” He’s talking about a football game in that scene, but it’s fun to think of that quote along side Herc’s episode-tagging aside, said when he and Carver can’t figure out why the corners are so dead.

“Maybe we won?” Not likely in a show where nobody really wins. I’ll have to take stock of this more when I write about the season finale, but who really comes out on top  when all is said and done? Avon doesn’t go to jail, but his drug empire is surely dealt a blow. McNulty ends up out of homicide on the boat in the harbor division. People who don’t deserve promotions get them, with all the guilt they deserve. Jeez, this a is miserable little show I’ve become obsessed with hasn’t it?

In “Game Day,” Avon doesn’t even get the satisfaction of winning the annual East-side-projects versus West-side-projects basketball game at the heart of the episode. After racking up a 12-point lead in the first half, Proposition Joe on the East side – his first appearance – sends in a ringer and comes away with a 77-75 victory. That’s three years in a row for the East.

This will get explored more as the series progresses, but it’s fun to notice how starkly David Simon differentiates between the two rival kingpins. On the court, Prop Joe wants to look the part of a coach, wearing a suit and carrying a clipboard, even if he doesn’t have an idea how to formulate basketball plays. But even still, he gives off an air of experienced authority. When Omar meets him late in the episode, his office is in a factory – an old symbol of the city’s industrial past. Avon, for all his discipline in not showing off the millions he has, still drives around in an Ford Excursion and works from the office of a strip club.

More than that, he still is focused on showing his power. In case we missed it the last episode, Stringer Bell tries to win Avon onto a strategy of dealing with Omar; lure him into a truce, and when he gets comfortable, come at him hard. Avon doesn’t like that, because it could imply that he’s getting soft. Until he attacks Omar, how can he maintain the credibility of his power?

Speaking of which, “Game Day” is probably the first time I’ve had that chill-up-my-spine feeling of “Wow, this guy is evil,” for Avon. First, it was when he berated the referee at the end of basketball game, first for missing a call, then for the pathetic way the ref offered to put time back on the clock and do the play over. Sometimes you can tell someone has power not by what they do, but how people react around them, and the actor playing the ref did a remarkable job conveying that.

Second of course, is the finger wagging he gives Lt. Daniels for trying to tail him after the basketball game. I completely forgot about that moment before rewatching this episode. It might be a bit theatrical for a show like The Wire, but it’s still awesome in the way De Niro meeting Pacino in Heat is awesome. Avon knows people are out to get him – his whole life it seems is built around that fear. But neither side truly knows what kind of opponent they’re dealing with.

Avon doesn’t know that Freamon has basically been picking apart his operation one document at a time, with the big revelation being that a lot of his money goes to political candidates. Freamon also repeats one of the truisms Daniels said the previous episode. (Follow the drugs, you get drug addicts and dealers. Follow the money, who knows what you get.) And Daniels seems less willing to follow the money after Burrell rips him apart. (Producing another shot-worthy “What the fuck did I do?” from McNulty.)

So where can this case go? If I remember right, the powers that be will demand a quick resolution, which will hamstring the district attorney’s into a weaker-than-preferred case, which might disrupt the drug trade in West Baltimore, but doesn’t change anything in the long run.

What I wonder now is with four episodes left, how will this tragedy feel as it plays out?

Stray Observations:

• Another great episode defining cliff-hanger ending with Omar gunning for Avon. Unfortunately he misses. And like he said before, “You come at the king…”

• Speaking of subjective justice, we see how McNulty stretches it when he writes down that Sydnor is on the roof checking out a phone call, when he wasn’t. I wonder if that’s what McNulty gets strung up on at the end…

• I don’t talk much about the filmmaking style of the show, because this guy sums it up pretty awesomely. Give it a watch. http://vimeo.com/39768998

“Lessons” – Season 1, Episode 8

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“You come at the king, you best not miss.” – Omar.

Freamon tells Greggs, “Interrogation is more art than science.” Justice can also seem like an art instead of a science in The Wire, and the episode “Lessons” shows us several lapses in traditional justice, some with better outcomes than others.

The Wire makes no bones about the unfairness of certain law enforcement procedures, but it also seems to make exceptions for police ignoring ethics for the right reasons. In the previous episode, we’re reminded of how wrong Prez was to partially blind a kid with his sidearm, but when three cops gang up on Barksdale soldier Bird in an interrogation room, it feels like a comeuppance for the gang-banger because he killed a state’s witness and was being an arrogant asshole.

The subjective justice system is everywhere on streets. It’s the main reason people get murdered. The murder of a state’s witness is seen as unforgivable by the police, but for Avon Barksdale, it’s a necessary display of power, as is killing Brandon, because he helped rob the Barksdale crew of their livelihood at gunpoint. We as an audience don’t agree. But when Omar kills Stinkum, it’s considered a victory for him, a balancing force in a way, because we know he doesn’t kill for the clout. He’s killing for a specific reason. And this is President Obama’s favorite character.

So we allow certain rules to be bent, but there are other lapses in justice that feel like hard breaks with no real positive outcome. Disliking Burrell has never been easier up to this point than when he tells Daniels to let State Sen. Clay Davis’s driver go with $20,000 in Barksdale drug money. Why? Politics for one. We already saw how much Burrell thinks he needs to be in the good graces of the still mostly unheard Clay Davis. But having just watched some Game of Thrones in between episodes, I noticed more how characters in The Wire wield their power, or battle to get it. For Burrell, control is everything. That he wants “no surprises” from this investigation is telling. “You’re in people’s shit where your not supposed to be,” Burrell tells Daniels, a sentence eerily similar to McNulty’s continued diagnosis of “…giving a fuck when it’s not your turn to give a fuck.”

But for Daniels and especially McNulty, getting justice is all that matters, regardless of whose toes you step on. “Follow the drugs, and you get to the dealer,” Daniels tells his wife. “Follow the money, there’s no telling where you might end up.” I honestly can’t remember how high up the food chain the Barksdale operation goes, so I’m getting excited to relearn these details in the home stretch of season one.

Back to Avon. We get another interesting lesson in wielding power after he finds out Orlando wants to sell cocaine on the side. Turns out, Orlando’s tired of just being a clean name on Avon’s liquor licenses, and would like to get some of the wealth and power Avon currently holds. For that, Orlando gets beat up in front of strippers, because the last thing Avon needs is for the clean name on the club he owns to get dirty. I can’t remember, but I don’t think Wee-Bey gets in nearly as much trouble for having his own drug and booze fueled party, which end up killing one of Orlando’s strippers.

That’s the terrible side effect from subjective justice; those who benefit from it most likely don’t deserve to. And those who would to try and find some honest administration of it – Daniels, McNulty, and to an extent D’Angelo – end up disillusioned and lost. For all the cool police-procedural fun I have watching The Wire, it is ultimately a tragedy of how systems of justice and social welfare end up failing people. Even the drug dealers, who lure in young hoodlums with promises of money and clout they could never achieve in the straight world has its own bureaucracy, rules and unfair systems. And it’s that message that puts the show on such a higher level than almost anything that’s come before or since.

Stray Observations:

• I wouldn’t call this merely a “stray observation,” but since it didn’t fit with the essay’s overall theme, here it is. Stringer Bell, in an Intro to Microeconomics class at Baltimore Community College. Stringer Bell, trying to get his former hoodlums to understand they can’t run a copy shop using the same supply-and-demand philosophy as selling crack. (“What we have here is an elastic product!”) Up until this point, Bell is just the scary second-in-command, someone seemingly smarter and more intimidating than his boss.  But now we get to see where gets some of that intelligence. We get to see the groundwork laid for his amazing character arc in the third season.

• After such a heavy episode, we get a curveball of an ending, with Bunk upset at McNulty for making him lie to a fellow detective, which leads to a drunken hookup for the former, that the latter has to rescue from him. “He set off the smoke alarm twice,” the lucky lady tells McNulty. “That good, huh?” he replies.

• For the nerdy and observant, Bunk looks like he was reading In a Strange Land by Laura Lippman – whom is David Simon’s wife! – when McNulty first approaches him.

“One Arrest” – Season 1, Episode 7

 

“A man must have a code.” – Bunk

As I mentioned in the “Stray Observations” of “The Target,” one of the fun parts of watching The Wire a second time is picking out the foreshadowed moments. They could be plot points, such as when McNulty says after Rawls is done chewing his career to shreds, he hopes to not end on a boat, or they could be themes, such as the police’s over reliance on statistics.

Now, at the halfway point of the first season, it’s fun to see an episode where both old plot threads from previous episodes are picked up and we’re introduced to people and ideas which will mean so much more as the series progresses.

The most notorious of these people, State Sen. Clay Davis, hardly makes an impression in “One Arrest.” We only hear him laughing as Burrell points the politician out to Daniels at a $500-a-plate fundraiser. No weird Rickey-Hendon-esque political fast talk (an inside joke for any readers from Springfield, Ill.) No unique pronunciation of the word “shit.” That’s coming later. For now, we just see more evidence of how much Burrell needs to kiss ass to be in control of the Baltimore police.

We also meet Walon, a recovering drug addict played by musician Steve Earle. The story of Bubble’s struggles with addiction is one The Wire will take all five seasons to tell, and Walon will be there off and on throughout. When I was talking about this project with my grad school roommate, he pointed out that while each season has its focal points, the show as a whole always ties those disparate elements together with the gangs, whether they’re run by Avon Barksdale or Marlo Stanfield in later seasons. And where there are drug gangs, there are also addicts like Bubbles, or rather, like his friend, Johnny, who live for the high. After watching Bodie and Poot brutally beat Johnny up in “The Target,” Bubbles is starting to see the dead end in his lifestyle. He may end up getting high after picking up his 24-hour clean keychain, but, like the keychain also signifies, he has a sincere desire to live clean. It’s a journey that will surely get explored more as the series progresses.

But perhaps my favorite callback/foreshadowing moment came when Kevin Johnson, the one-eyed teen arrested with Barksdale’s drugs, is being processed in the detail’s basement office. Like me, I’m sure most people didn’t recognize the actor as the same guy who Prez pistol whipped in episode two. But man, when Prez gives that look of recognition, it sends chills up the spine. It’s a reminder of one of Prez’s biggest professional mistakes, and it comes in the episode that starts with him explaining his newfound love of hanging out in the office, decoding the Barksdale operation, one cryptic phone call at a time. “It’s kind of fun figuring this shit out,” he says.

That of course matters very little to Kevin, who menacingly looks at the man who blinded him and got away with it. Daniels makes a valiant effort to try and appeal to Kevin’s sympathies of doing something more than petty criminal work for a brutal gang. But when the police have literally brutalized you, how can you trust them to help with anything? That’s a line of questions that will end up breaking so many Wire fan hearts in season four, as characters start looking into the school system for signifiers in kids who end up criminals.

I remember when I finished this first season how well the show did of wrapping story lines in a way that felt like David Simon saying, “We don’t know if we’re going to get anymore seasons after this, so let’s try and end as satisfyingly as we possibly can.” Because of this, it’s probably not unusual for artistic statements I generally associated with later seasons to pop up in first season episodes. You get the impression Simon has a lot to say, and that he’s able to say so much without sounding preachy or didactic speaks to his many talents as a storyteller. Fortunately, he was given more chances to say what he wanted, and fortunately, the first season hasn’t really suffered for repetitiveness or awkward beginnings.

Six episodes left in season one!

Stray Observations:

• Speaking of police brutality, I don’t know a lot of people who aren’t on the police’s side in that interrogation scene with Bird. Bird is a sociopath who murdered a state’s witness. Even a fellow criminal like Omar doesn’t approve of that. A man’s must have a code indeed.

• Dominic West plays his last scene outside of Ronda’s house absolutely right. The despair and sincere hopelessness in his face just kills me. Because we know he’s so screwed in the end.

• Speaking of Ronda…. “I’d like to throw a fuck into her.” The Honorable Judge Phelan.

• We get our first “Where’s Wallace?” this episode. The death of Brandon really did mess him up.

“The Wire” – Season 1, Episode 6

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“…all the pieces matter.” – Freamon.

Apparently, I spoke too soon when I wrote the intro for the essay on “The Pager.” The point I was trying to make was that while most of my favorite dramas also like to tell season-wide stories like The Wire, each episode usually carries within it a story arc of its own. Think Lost or Mad Men or Breaking Bad. While the master plot moves forward in every episode, there is a side plot that takes center stage.

“The Pager” didn’t entirely follow that model, since Avon’s character examination didn’t really take center stage. It was just one of several plot lines, and the only one that came to any sort of conclusion by the final credits. Arguably, figuring out the pager code also did, but that too didn’t really take center stage either. Instead, the episode kept us moving forward on our stories, and finished with a tense back-and-forth scene that led to the heart of this episode.

“The Wire” actually has a couple of episode length story arcs, both centered around the brutal torture and murder of Brandon, Omar’s lover and partner in crime. The image of his mutilated body starts and ends the episode, giving a stark and powerful reminder of the costs of the drug wars. It’s something that fucks up Wallace powerfully, as the body is put out on display right by the abandoned row house he and a half-dozen other wayward youth call a home. Wallace knows he’s the reason Brandon was picked up and killed, and seeing the outcome hearkens back to D’Angelo’s reaction to the witness who was killed at the end of “The Target,” only better, because Wallace, for all his credentials, is still much more of an innocent.

If the earlier scenes where D’Angelo monologued on the deadly nature of the drug trade came off as slightly awkward, then the scenes with him and Wallace iron out those themes and present a meaningful, but ultimately tragic dialogue. D’Angelo agrees with Wallace, but can’t tell him much aside from “Let it go.” There’s a reason the words, “Where’s Wallace?” will feel so heartbreaking at the series finale. This is the episode that builds toward that tragic conclusion.

Meanwhile, on police side, Major Rawls has a condescending conversation with his wayward detective McNulty and decides he wants to press charges on the three murders McNulty says are connected by D’Angelo, including the great “fuck” investigation of “Old Cases.” This despite the fact that none of the cases are strong enough to win at trial and would thoroughly ruin the investigation McNulty kickstarted in the first place. Rawls doesn’t care about that though. He wants to charge the cases, because even if it loses in court, it still counts as a win for the police department, and that’s better than a pile of unsolved cases.

Naturally, McNulty, Freamon and Greggs are very unhappy at this development, and lobby Daniels, a man McNulty still doesn’t respect or trust (speaking of which, I can’t remember when his whole internal investigation the FBI agent mentioned gets brought back up…), to beg Rawls not to go through with his plan. Daniels tries and fails when he meets with Rawls alone and when he goes to his own major in narcotics. He probably would have given up there, if it hadn’t been for Brandon’s murder. When McNulty and Freamon show him the pager activity they logged the night of his murder and criticized him for delaying setting up wiretaps on the pay phones, it forces Daniels to appeal to Burrell himself, with Rawls condescending him across the table.

That scene hits a theme the show will further explore in season three, that of the police wrongly working to appease statistics rather than solving actual problems. The scene doesn’t make Rawls and Burrell to be 100 percent villains in this mission either. They need to show their superiors – politicians – that they’re doing their jobs, and stats are the most effective way they can do that. The work that brightens the stats doesn’t solve the big problems. Just the immediate ones, and when Burrell tells Daniels how much he’s going over budget to fund his detail, you realize the police really can only handle the immediate problems. Still, Daniels wins out by appealing to Burrell’s fear of that higher power – namely Judge Phelan. And we get seven more episodes of this investigation.

Looking back on this episode the first time around, I remember the image of Brandon laid out on the car and how it motivates Omar to be the baddest ass in Baltimore. I’m glad that “The Wire” lives up to my memories by anchoring its drama with that image.

Stray observations

• The weird satire that is Herc and Carver vs. Bodie reaches a funny end this episode as the Barksdale attorney easily maneuvers Bodie out of serving time. The shot of the overworked prosecutor, his desk filled with case files, kills me.

• Say goodbye to Polk. Goodbye fat, drunk, incompetent cop. In other news, say hello to the lazy, Avon-missing Santangelo!

• Maybe it’s all the That Mitchell and Webb Look I’ve watched, but that scene with Bubbles stealing copper reminded me of “The Surprising Adventures of Sir Digby Chicken Caesar.” Look it up.

• There’s something funny about how worked up Omar is over one death, Brandon’s, but not over his other partner in crime, Bailey. “Man, his enemies got enemies.”

Side note: apparently, David Simon wouldn’t approve of this blog.

Via The A.V. Club

“The Pager” – Season 1, Episode 5

“…a little slow … a little late.” – Avon Barksdale

One the challenges of writing about The Wire on an episode-by-episode basis is that the show doesn’t present itself as a series of episode-length stories, the way a show like Breaking Bad would. From its conception, David Simon and Ed Burns crafted their seasons as novels. The individual episodes are just chapters. Any other drama on TV doesn’t have the same tight narrative structure. There designed conceptually to create a seemingly unlimited number of stories, which is how shows get bottle episodes, clip shows or Rashomon homages. The Wire doesn’t do that, so while there are several memorable scenes throughout the series, it’s harder to pinpoint specific episodes as standouts above the others.

“The Pager,” features one scene I remember very well – the back-and-forth pay phone calls between Wallace and Poot, D’Angelo, and Stringer Bell and Wee-Bey, as they arrange to capture (and eventually torture and kill) Brandon, Omar’s love and partner in crime. That scene is superbly edited, especially as the camera jump cuts to the pager hits being logged on the Baltimore Police computer in the empty basement office.

On a similar note, a scene I remember less well but want to note is from the beginning of the episode, when Omar, Brandon and Bailey (who dies in this episode as well, though you wouldn’t know it if you weren’t paying attention to Avon Barksdale’s scene in his office) rob another drug crew on another side of Baltimore.

This is the moment Omar starts to become the legend. There’s no other way to label a guy who walks out in broad daylight, with a shotgun, whistling “The Farmer and the Dell.” Then there’s his later scene with McNulty and Greggs in the cemetery that sets up the street philosophy that will guide him through the next four seasons.

But Omar and the titular communication device aside, I think the theme of this episode was exploring the Big Bad himself, Avon Barksdale. To its credit, I think The Wire tries to hit a specific thematic tone with each episode, which is something I definitely overlooked when I first binge-watched the series on DVD.

In “The Pager,” we get to see the level of paranoia Avon lives under, how he grabs for more power and how does and doesn’t portions it out to his underlings. At the center of this is the scene where Avon visits his comatose brother with D’Angelo in tow, to teach his nephew what motivates him to work the way he does, and what could happen if they make one mistake.

I’ll admit it might be a stretch to tie the bulk of “The Pager’s” heft to Avon Barksdale, especially when so much plot happens on the police’s side – most prominently Pryzbylewski cracking the Barksdale crew’s pager code. But like I said, therein lies the challenge with this blog. Is it better to try and find a uniting force behind each individual episode or should I just follow the individual plot strands and post my reactions? I’ll have to figure that out as I go along, I guess.

Stray Observations:

• “And the bear said you didn’t really come here to hunt now did you.” That’s the punchline to whatever offensive joke Sgt. Landsman told a few cops near the vending machine. Who knows what came before that seemingly inoffensive line? All I know is that the black female officer looked mighty offended.

• In other comedy news, the interrogation scene between Carver and Bodie was also a fun diversion, as Carver’s “good cop” act immediately falls to pieces when Bodie shows the first sign of resistance. I know part of their arc is show the wrong-headed brutality of police enforcement strategies. But it’s nice that the shows writers can play with that theme and make it absurdly funny.