Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Wire, "Corner Boys": It's their thing

Spoilers for "The Wire" episode 8, "Corner Boys," coming up just as soon as I bone up on Baltimore club music...

The biggest challenge of doing these weekly reviews is offering analysis that's not too colored by what I know is coming, and Michael's story has been the toughest example of that. For weeks now, I've been struggling to find ways to discuss Michael's distrust of adults in general and Cutty in particular without giving away the reason. Not that it was some M. Night-level twist -- some people here and elsewhere guessed that he had been molested -- but when you see the fear and hatred burning in Michael's face when Bug's father touches him, everything clicks into place: why he's into boxing, why doesn't want to be alone with adult men, why he's so protective of Bug and Dukie and Randy, etc., etc., etc. And the hell of it is, what's been done to him means that he won't get help from people who are offering it, like Prez, because in Michael's eyes, every man is someone who can hurt him, and he won't let himself be hurt ever again.

The education theme picks up a head of steam with visits to three different classrooms: Prez's math class, Bunny's Corner Boy 101, and Chris and Snoop's Soldier 103b. Every time it seems like Prez has his kids acting like any average middle school class (I had a friend in junior high who absolutely would have taken advantage of the dinks on the chalkboard), he has to witness someone having a nervous breakdown over fractions. Just as Bubbs was told weeks ago why Sherrod couldn't be placed in a grade appropriate to his skill level, Prez is starting to realize how few of his kids are qualified to be studying 8th grade math. The problem is, No Child Left Behind is designed to do exactly that, to focus on stats ahead of actual teaching.

(Here's a question for anyone more knowledgeable of public education than me: why is it considered such a horror for the state to take over the school system? When Prez suggested that maybe it would be a good thing for the kids to fail the test so the state would take over, Ms. Sampson and the others looked like he had just suggested feeding the kids to a pack of dogs.)

Stats are also an issue for Carcetti, who witnesses Baltimore's finest at their lamest, especially the entrapment-esque arrest of the guy on the bike. And yet even as he's meeting with Rawls and Daniels to find a way to move the department away from stat-driven policing, his new pals from the DNC are telling him that one of his top three priorities has to be reducing the crime rate by 10%. That way lies Clarence Royce.

Bunny's classroom continues the deconstruction of the corner lifestyle that the series began with Hamsterdam. Yet even as Namond is trying to claim that the corner lifestyle is no different than Enron or Big Tobacco, he's threatening the life of his new lieutenant, who's so young his voice probably won't drop until the next mid-term elections. (And, yes, we've long since established that Namond's all talk, but the little kid doesn't know that.)

On the policing front, we get to see what happens when the extremely resistable force (Herc) meets the immovable object (Marlo and company). After days of his usual threats and head-busting, Herc winds up giving Marlo the info he wanted and spooking Chris and Snoop into throwing away the dreaded nail gun and other evidence that would be useful if a more competent investigator was on Marlo's tail -- someone like, say, Bunk, whose shredding of the Omar frame was a complete 180 from Herc and Dozerman's bumbling.

There have been complaints that Marlo, Chris and Snoop don't have the personality of Avon and Stringer. I think that's part of the point -- that they've spent their entire lives among the corner culture, and it beat everything else out of them -- but we got a few glimpses of color in this episode, particularly Chris' attempt to school Snoop on the local music scene.

Learning is everywhere. Hell, Rawls even soaked up all of Daniels' lectures about high-level investigations -- if not as something he personally believes in, then as something he knows will be useful in making his move to leapfrog over Burrell. Poor Erv looked even more poleaxed than Royce did when Tommy sprung the dead witness on him in the debate.

Some other random thoughts:
  • Omar fans may be aware that Michael K. Williams has a recurring role on ABC's "Six Degrees" as the limo driver's brother, but in the original version of the pilot, the role was played by Cyrus Farmer, aka Bug's dad. Guess the "Six Degrees" people just wanted a "Wire" actor in the part.
  • I liked seeing the Homicide detectives' utter disdain for Carcetti, especially Kima getting her small measure of revenge by making him brew a new pot of coffee.
  • The Irish wake for Col. Forrester was, much like Ray Cole's wake last season, the result of the actor (in this case, Richard DeSantis) passing away in real life.
  • Boy, Prop Joe and Slim Charles were going out of their way to not offend Marlo when they complained about the disappeared New Yorkers. They're working all the way on the other side of town and they're still scared of the guy.
  • Prez and Dukie bond over cheat codes. Of course they do.
  • When Michael goes to pick up Bug from that rec center, he talks to a Miss Ella. That's an homage to one of the most memorable figures from "The Corner," Ella Thompson, who responded to the murder of her 12-year-old daughter by taking over a neighborhood rec center and turning it into a safe haven for the stoop kids. According to Simon, the real Ella died of a massive stroke (while driving a car full of donated computer equipment to a rec center), so as a little tribute to her, he wrote a Miss Ella cameo into the script and cast Denise "NeeCee" Preddy, who was one of the girls at the rec center when he and Ed Burns showed up in the neighborhood in '93.
Lines of the week:
  • Crutchfield on Omar: "This ain't the motherfucker who came up with 62 ways for the peanut!"
  • Bunk on McNulty drinking club soda: "Why don't you suck a dick and get it over with?"
  • Snoop's prayer: "Here we lay a couple of New York boys who came too far south for their own fuckin' good."
  • Prop Joe using an alias: "This is Sidney Handjerker, with Handjerker, Kevin and Bromberg..."
  • Namond to his mother: "Ma! Let me build! Ma!"
So what did everybody else think?

26 comments:

SJ said...

Prop Joe faking a white man has to be one of the funniest scenes in the shows history.

Also loved the scene where Carcetti is observing Kima, Lester and fat man.

I think it's pretty clear that Michael was molested...and I guess Cutty is not a child molester (that would have made me so angry if he was...he's one of the few "nice" guys on the show).

Anonymous said...

Let me ask two questions. Alan wrote, "After days of his usual threats and head-busting, Herc winds up giving Marlo the info he wanted". I'm going to have to watch the episode again tomorrow and maybe I'll get it then, but meanwhile, could someone explain to me what Herc gave away?

Second, what's the name and significance of the card Michael used (the scene where he's financing his mother's drug habit), which he's supposed to give to his father? Or is it his step-father, judging from one of Bug's comments?

Thanks for not giving away too much about Michael's story. I had a pretty solid suspicion what must have been going on after watching the scene in Cutty's van. Now it's crystal clear, without anything having been said. (How many other TV shows would have gone for the teary close-up soliloquy?) The teaser for the next episode hints at what might be coming: it looks like Michael will ask Marlo for help. But does that make sense? After all, Marlo is just another adult male, like Cutty or Prez. And if he gets help from Marlo, or Chris and Snoop, then his future is pretty much decided.

Carcetti's policies don't appear to be very different from Royce's. Now he's being told to bring down crime -- exactly what Royce had tried to do in season three, due to pressure from Carcetti and his committee. And like Royce, Carcetti won't focus on education. (And unlike Tony Gray. Whatever happened to him?) Makes one wonder if the politics will turn out differently than season three, except that this time a wedge has been driven between Burrell and Rawls. Judging by their earlier attitudes and actions ("dope on the table" for Burrell, appointing Marimow to lead the Major Crimes Unit for Rawls), neither of them has the vision or ability to try a different approach.

Anonymous said...

I think it has been obvious for several episodes what Michaels fear is. If there is every a chance of him being alone with a male figure he bails out. I cringed when his father said "damn you grew" signaling his new target.

While Marlo and Chris have no personality communicating in grunts and nods, Snoop has enough personality for Marlo's whole crew.

Namond puffs his chest out in class but is really a corner boy neophyte. It was funny to see him assign new responsibilities to his "lieutenant" for $10.00

Prop Jo - pepper, pepper and Bay leaf - too funny!

Anonymous said...

Marlo was looking to see who planted the camera, feds or locals and the specific officer

I believe the card is the ebt card which replaced food stamps. With it in Michaels hands he can make sure they at least have food. In his dad's hands it could be used as leverage against michael or sold for drugs

Anonymous said...

for a person like myself who has a limited knowledge of literary characters, Michael Lee is like Anakin Skywalker. We know he is very strong with "The Force" but which side will he choose.

Well, after ep 45 ended and I saw the preview for ep 46, which showed Michael taking what I presume to be the problem of the return of his step-father to Marlo, I guess I got my answer.

But, after I saw the preview for ep 46 I reflected back to another small moment that might have been positive turning point had it gone that way. It seemed as though Michael was very, very close to coming clean to Prez, or possibily going to the offered social worker, with his problem. Maybe at that very moment when Michael returns to his desk after basically telling Prez, "thanks, but no thanks", he may have made up his mind about what he needed to do. Namely, going to Marlo.

Now, what exactly he'll need to do for Marlo to get his help, I don't know. But if Dukie has to go down for this, as a previous anon had mentioned as a possible senario, then I'm going to cry like a baby. It'll be much worse then when Wallace was kilt, and that was pretty rough.

Anonymous said...

...also, to answer a question from your post. when the state takes over a public school, life supposedly becomes a living hell for the teachers - even though it is my understanding that you have the option of looking for a job at a different school rather then continuing to work at a state run school. You do get more pay, but you must work longer hours - more meetings and the like as well as in some cases mandatory weekend days. I imagine that all lesson plans must be submitted as well. there is also of course the stigma that your school failed and as a teacher you feel as though it is your fault or you are a bad teacher because of it.

Anonymous said...

And what is up with Cyrus Farmer playing the bad father of kids named Michael? First NYPD Blue and now the Wire...

La Binsk said...

Hmmm, I wonder if Eunetta Perkins beat Daniels' ex-wife in the election? And I wonder what his ex-wife would make of his recent rise in the ranks of the BPD? As I recall, she had been very ambitious for him. What a strange twist of fate that he would rise to his highest rank AFTER they had split up.

savethewetlands said...

i am getting an awful feeling about this. we are getting so close to the kids, and no one on the show except wallace has ever been so young and vulnerable. i cried over wallace; i can't imagine losing one of these.

the state's taking over a school generally results in a ton of paperwork for everyone involved: statements of educational philosophy, school improvement plans, mostly a bunch of educational gobbledygook that does no one any good. of course the present setup isn't doing anyone any good, either. i certainly wouldn't be struggling away, day after day, at something i simply am not prepared or qualified to do.

i don't want to get too far away from the show here, but i am glad they are taking some shots at the bureaucracy and the hopelessness of it all. i am a retired 60 year old female high school teacher; if i were ordered to spend five days a week in a gym playing basketball and told i had to score a certain number of points in order to measure up, i'd probably be on some version of the corner.

i still have some tiny hope for carcetti. he listens and doesn't always respond, but he looks as if the wheels are turning, and he has proven himself to be smart enough to get where he is.

JSpence said...

The card is definitely the food stamps/ebt card -- Michael's mother refers to it by name as the Independence card, which ironically is what they're called in Baltimore/MD (I'm a local). They shifted to those cards in 93 to try to eliminate the fraudulent resale of food stamps, which used to be distributed as paper vouchers. It also reduced the administrative costs of the food stamps program, since booklets of stamps no longer needed to be printed and shipped around the state every month. Did it reduce costs? Sure. Reduce fraud? Ultimately, not so much. . .

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Melissa said...

There is hope out there for the corner kids. Season 4 hits home for me because I have met a lot of kids like Namond and Duquan through my work with the Incentive Mentoring Program (htpp://www.dunbar-imp.org).

Like Duquan, one student walked home from school one day to find an eviction notice on his door. He walked miles to his grandma's house. He didn't see his mother again for 5 years. He got involved in the drug trade an almost failed out of high school. But now he's in college!

Luckily, we have had more success than Bunny’s program though. Much love for Bunny though!!

I love the Wire, but it is more demoralizing than a call to action. The series may be over, but millions of people continue to live lives portrayed in the show. There is hope for them, but it requires community support. If the audience could band together to heal urban America, now THAT would be powerful.

stormyscout said...

I love that piece about Miss Ella!! Thanks for sharing that insight.

The 62-ways-for-the-peanut is a brilliant line!! It's comedic genius!!

Also--no worries about shielding the first-time audience from Michael's story-line to come. It's hard to believe anyone--and I truly hope I mean anyone--would not have guessed this young man is a survivor of abuse from the minute we see him shrug off Cutty's elbow on his shoulder. Of course, the intensity of what he's been through becomes clearer later. This only means that upon re-watching, you begin to feel the nausea rising when you go back through the scenes where Michael senses potential danger. But, other than that . . . give the audience credit for sensing Michael's past. Someone has given Tristan Wilds credit for this premonition in viewers, I would agree to some extent, but it's also the writing--subtle with enough clues no to be too obvious, as ever.

Mike C said...

I loved the transition from the Detectives' Wake at the bar, to Snoop's eulogizing of the fallen New York boy.

I'm watching the whole series for the second time and that's the sort of thing I appreciate more this time around. Most of my focus on first viewing was following the plot and dialogue.

Karen said...

I'm not surprised by the comments on Marlo's lack of affect--of "colorless" personality--but I am surprised that they're couched as complaints. Isn't the life we've seen the corner boys living over the first three seasons exactly what would result in the creation of a kingpin like Marlo? When I watch him I think of the Cambodian kids who grew up under the Khmer Rouge regime, under a philosophy that stated "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss." When kids like that grow to men, they're not going to be colorful; they're going to be soulless. Marlo is soulless to me. He is the product of the disease destroying Baltimore that the show is presenting to us. He's the future, and he's terrifying.

On another note, about the card: Michael referred to it as the DSS card, or Department of Social Services. Since he was carrying the money and had his mom on an allowance, I'm figuring she's letting him pick up the check and cash it--but now that's going to be on his father. Not good.

It was beautiful watching Bunk school Holley. BEAUTIFUL. Natural police. Even if he can't hold his liquor.

rmc said...

Great to see Gary D'Addario ("Gary" the grand jury prosecutor) again. He was the real-life BPD Homicide lieutenant in David Simon's original non-fiction book. The accounts there of his working relationships with his detectives, and his stand-up-guy-itude in the face of political pressures resembling those in The Wire, indicate he has a lot of character. Not to mention being good police. If you haven't read the book (well, go do it now!), think of all the good aspects of Daniels without the personal life complications.

Anonymous said...

i worked on "The Secret Life of Bees" which Tristan was a part of. most of his scenes were opposite Dakota Fanning who also killed it. He was not only up to task, but owned a few of the scenes. I am only now watching his run on "The Wire" in reruns (thank you DirecTv! i did not get paid for the plug;). all i can say is that the kid is an amazing actor. he floored us on set and he's nailing again (previously) w his intensity. again, amazing young actor. he did what he should've which was take a network show when it came calling (90210 remake). tho it didnt do well, i hope casting directors keep his name on their radar. milquetoasts like lautner and pattinson get heat from a horrible series that makes $$ but Im looking forward to what Tristan does next.

Nia said...

Someone made a comment about the "Independence Card" and the fact that Michael must be cashing the checks that come with it...No I doubt it...when they got rid of the paper vouchers for Food Stamps they also started doing electronic deposits of Cash assistance, usually on the same card...

Oaktown Girl said...

Snoop's prayer: "Here we lay a couple of New York boys who came too far south for their own fuckin' good."

Deadwood alert: You gotta admit - there's something very Calamity Jane-esque about that quote. Love it.

Anonymous said...

To me, it's much clearer to me that Michael goes to Marlo with this problem because Marlo offers a permanent solution - one that won't fail him. The system has already failed him. He thought his step-dad was gone forever and all of a sudden, he's back in like 3 years. Prez, no matter how much Michael might like him, is limited to solutions within systems that have failed Michael.

Marlo and Chris, OTOH, aren't.

Ahmedkhan said...

"We mind your asking." Norman's response to Rawls' "If you don't mind my asking" query as to why Carcetti doesn't just s***can Burrell.

"You're right. It ain't your business." Stringer's response to the D.C. gang leader who leads off with "It ain't my business, I know" when asking if Avon knows about the deal to kill D'Angelo.

"I mind your asking." Kima's response to Carver's juvenile "If you don't mind my asking" question to her about when she knew she liked girls.

I like these replies. They are succinct, honest, assertive, and perfectly appropriate for their contexts. These are old responses that have survived the test of time and each of us should develop the fortitude to render them more often than we do in deference to avoiding "upsetting" those who pose questions that are plainly none of their business. Amen, Norman. Amen, Stringer. Amen, Kima.

Ahmedkhan said...

In this episode’s scene with Rawls, Carcetti, and Norman, Rawls sets forth the view that affirmative action in the BPD is driven by numbers and that it is normal and understandable for its beneficiaries to be beholden to the process that afforded them advancement and for these beneficiaries to want to sustain that process. He further makes the point that this emphasis on numbers, social engineering, and small time street rips is counterproductive to genuinely effective police work. His views, while grating to some, have validity. However, just the fact that it's the ever abrasive Rawls who advances these points actually serves, fittingly or not, to discredit them, and his remark to Norman, "...no offense intended," comes across as insincere and antagonistic, both in delivery and intent. Norman's reply, a cold, stone-faced "none taken" is, I opine, a lie but one that shows smart tactical restraint on his part - you have to choose your battles and save your ammunition. Norman expresses his true feeling - that he'd like to "…kick his (Rawls') pale, entitled ass" - during his walk to the elevator with Carcetti, even though Rawls' statement, if viewed objectively, doesn't suggest, at least not to me, any notion he might harbor about "entitlement." Nor did I get a sense based on Rawls' words of any purported naked appeal by him to "racial solidarity." Still, Rawls might have dissipated at least some of the negativity he engendered had he refrained from leading off the discussion with that tired bromide about his not being racist. He may well be a racist but we don't really have enough personal information about him in this story to back up this assertion. By this, I simply mean we haven't actually vetted or studied enough of his views to make a reliable determination of what actually courses through his mind vis-à-vis race. (I have a hunch he probably is, based on my own definitions and ideas about racism, and his characteristically crass speech and manner - face it, he really is a crude pig). "Racist" is a charge too easily and casually made, is guaranteed to get attention every time, and usually carries an assumption of truth, the assumption grounded in the primitive, shallow belief that "where there's smoke, there must be fire."

CrystalFissure said...

Why has no one discussed the fact that Snoop kills yet another person in this episode?

I can't believe there are people that defend this character. She's a murderer, and it's not even necessary killings. The police officer, the New York dealer, I mean seriously.

Love the reviews; love the show.

Thomas said...

@Crystal,

People defend Snoop because she's awesome. Nothing more, nothing less.

Darkdoug said...

Ahmedkhan, I agree with much of what you said, but regardless of whether or not Rawls is racist, there is something a little obnoxious about Norman's reaction, considering he has spent the whole season to this point running a campaign in the face of racism against his candidate, and cracking jokes about his own racial solidarity. For him to get incensed about Rawls making a disputable and oblique-if-at-all appeal on those grounds is kind of hypocritical. The more so, because regardless of Rawls' motivations, we know he's pretty much on target in his assessment of Burrell.
As for Rawl's own racial issues, I don't recall any evidence of him treating black officers under his command any differently than white. He screws over McNulty as willingly as he does a black detective in the past mentioned in season 5, nor is there any hint of patronization in his positive and friendly interactions with Daniels and Freemon.

I didn't see anyone touch on this point in nearly seven years, so I thought I'd take a shot at the state-takeover issue.

Even if you don't get the particulars of the educational politics, the themes of the show should provide a hint. The higher up the authority or institutional layer, the worse it is. There are competent police officers and competent teachers, but how many competent sergeants or supervisors? How many competent commanders or principals? Would you rather deal with a Freemon, a Bunk, a Kima, a McNulty, or with a Landsman? There might be the occasional good unit or good squad, with a good leader like Daniels, but the higher up the chain you go, the more likely you are to run into an incompetent or self-server like Valcheck or Burrell or an ass like Rawls. It's the same in the bureaucracy of the schools. Ms. Donnelly might be decent, but even she does things like push the standardized tests, or hire Cutty to cheat the attendance stats. The higher you go in ANY institution the more likely you are to find people less concerned with the ostensible purpose of the institution (education, law enforcement, customer service, etc) and more concerned with the institutional minutiae and executing political agendas for their own sake, rather than because of the expected outcome.

By having the state take over the school system, not only will bureaucratic regulation become even more prioritized, but there will be even less appeal. Prez's appeals about his curriculum will not be met with compromise suggestions about finding a middle ground, but with absolute decrees to ensure his students pass the test or else. If he even manages to get any response from authorities who are concerned with every school in the state.

Institutional tendencies aside, having the state take over the schools is like putting a kid in the foster system. Even Delonda or Ms. Lee is a better choice than that extreme.

A recurring theme of The Wire is that individual action is better than institutional policy. The school might be an institution, but the state is an institution, compounded, and an entire other order of magnitude removed from individual action (which is the only hope for anyone in The Wire).