Friday, June 13, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 3, "The Buys" (Newbies edition)

Once again, we're going to talk about season one of "The Wire" in two different versions: one safe for people who are brand-new to the show (or who haven't watched all the way through to the end), one where we can talk about anything from first episode to last. This is the former; scroll up for the veterans edition if you want to discuss things that are still to come, both this season and in later seasons.

Spoilers for episode three, "The Buys," coming up just as soon as I walk on broken glass...

As I've written many times before, I'm grateful that HBO sent out the first four episodes of "The Wire" for review instead of just one or two. Because the show proceeds at such a measured pace, because it has so many characters and stories going, and because it so often refuses to play by the normal rules of TV storytelling, it took a while to really appreciate how great the show was. For some, that revelation didn't (or won't) come for another episode or two. For me, it was the chess scene contained right here in "The Buys."

If the first two episodes established D'Angelo as more thoughtful than your average TV drug dealer -- and "The Wire" as more thoughtful than your average cop show -- then the chess scene, where he schools Bodie and Wallace on both the game (chess) and The Game (drugs) is the moment when I realized that I was looking at someone -- and something -- very special here. Not only does the chess/drug metaphor work, but it shows how well D'Angelo understands the rigged, unchangeable nature of The Game, and how deep this series intends to go.

Bodie and Wallace using the chess board to play checkers -- a fine game, but a simpler one where it's easy to play in a relaxed, reactive fashion -- are standing in for every TV crime drama that preceded "The Wire." They had the same pieces at their disposal, but they chose to play an easier game with more instant gratification, where David Simon and company are in this for the long haul, setting up pieces for moves that we won't get to see for weeks or months or, in some cases, years. The pieces are not interchangeable; each one has its own unique role to play on the board, and each one's actions affect what happens to every other piece. And if you stick around for all those moves, it'll be clear that, as D'Angelo says, chess is the better game, yo.

The show is absolutely in opening gambit mode at this point. We're three episodes in and the Barksdale detail has accomplished next to nothing. They don't even have a photo of their target until late in the episode, thanks to "cuddly housecat" Lester Freamon demonstrating more game than anybody expected of him, and the raid on the low-rises turns out to be as useless as both McNulty and Daniels knew it would be. But pieces are being moved all across the board, defenses are being probed, and all of this will turn out to be brilliant storytelling strategy by the end.

Simon's fondness for parallel dialogue and behavior continues here. In the opening scene, D'Angelo echoes McNulty's thoughts about how stupid it is for the drug business to be conducted in such an agressive, violent manner compared to every other (legitimate) American industry, and though McNulty planted a seed, we know that D has already been questioning how things get done. Meanwhile, we see that both a low man on the drug side like Bodie and a high man on the cop side like Burrell can be equally clueless about how things really work. Bodie is positive that he has the ability to advance in The Game, to get all the way to the other side of the board and win, no matter how many times D tries to tell him that he'll likely always be a pawn. Burrell, meanwhile, is so complacent and far removed from the street in his position as Deputy Ops that he believes Daniels' detail can get to Barksdale with nothing but quick and dirty street-level arrests, when Avon is so far removed from that sort of action that he doesn't even appear in this episode.

Avon's number two man, Stringer Bell, starts to come into focus here after being an equally shadowy presence in the first two episodes. Like D'Angelo -- better than D'Angelo, really -- he has an intuitive grasp of how The Game is played. Where D is shocked by the idea that the "new package" will be the same as the current, stepped-on, impotent brand of dope they're slinging down at The Pit, String understands the power of rebranding, particularly to an ignorant, desperate client base like dope fiends. His take on the drug war is as chilling as it is accurate: "We do worse and we get paid more. The government do better, and it don't mean no nevermind. This s--t here, D, it's forever."

"The Buys" keeps playing with our expectations of these characters based on what we've seen of them so far and what we know from other police show archetypes.(*)

(*) And by now I should probably throw in the obligatory disclaimer about "The Wire" not really being a cop show, but in this embryonic stage of the series, it's using a familiar cops-vs-crooks paradigm to get its points across.

McNulty and Daniels continue to go at it, as McNulty refuses to go along with the pointless raid on the low-rises, which might be an admirable moral stand if he didn't insist on taking it in the most public, petulant manner possible. Daniels, loyal servant of Burrell though he may be, understands just as well as Jimmy how stupid this raid is, and he gives Jimmy opportunity after opportunity to bag on it without being so obviously insubordinate to Daniels, and Jimmy refuses. And just when we're starting to take Daniels' side in all of this, we find out from Jimmy's FBI buddy Fitz that Daniels might be dirty.

And during the raid, there's that wonderful, hilarious moment when Bodie takes a swing at boozing old Pat Mahone, Carver starts wailing on Bodie in retaliation, and we see Kima -- upstanding, forthright Kima, in some ways even more the hero of the piece than Jimmy to this point -- sprinting over. And just as we assume she's going to break up the fight, she instead starts beating on young Mr. Bodie herself, even harder than Carver and the others were doing. Kima just wanted to make sure she got her licks in on a punk who'd hit a cop (useless though Mahone may be), and the ferocity and joy Kima takes in the moment isn't the sort of thing you would ever expect to see from a "good" cop on a different show.

(Punctuating the comic genius of the scene is the quick cut to the equally useless Augie Polk lighting up a cigarette for his prone partner to enjoy during the fracass.)

And then there's the scene at state's attorney Rhonda Pearlman's house, which bounces back so often between the cop show cliche of the secret cop/lawyer romance (going back at least to "Hill Street Blues") and the notion that Jimmy's just there for work reasons that it becomes not a chess game, but a ping pong match. Ronnie's pained reaction to seeing Jimmy at her door makes it clear that this isn't the first time his charming Irish ass has appeared here at a late hour, and as she tries to decide whether she wants to answer his booty call, he instead starts asking her about warrants for cloning pagers... which actually pisses her off more than if he was just there for sex... and so of course Jimmy admits that he's there for that, too, and flashes her that devil grin that he knows she can't resist... and then Ronnie tells him to go... and then we cut to them making the beast with two backs. The constant reversals take what could have been a stock situation and make it into something more interesting and much funnier.

We're not even close to having a sense of the endgame, but things are (very) slowly starting to happen, and a fuller picture will be visible very soon.

Some other thoughts on "The Buys":
  • If Avon's the king, Stringer the queen, muscle like Wee-Bey and Stinkum the rooks and slingers like Bodie and Wallace the pawns, what does that make the newest piece on the board, shotgun-toting stick-up boy Omar?
  • Bubbs' "What Not to Wear" dope fiend fashion intervention for the undercover Sydnor was another darkly hilarious scene in an episode full of them. Bubbs is yet another character on the show who's never quite what you expect him to be. He's so at ease with himself, and so perceptive about those around him, and yet, as Jimmy notes, if he has the answers, why the hell is he a dope fiend?
  • Continuing last week's discussion of the show's rules for background music, the titular buys by Sydnor and Bubbs are accompanied by a low-rise boom box blaring out Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's "It Takes Two," which was also prominently featured in Simon and Ed Burns' non-fiction book "The Corner" as the signature song during the summer that Simon and Burns were hanging around on the Fayette St. drug corner. (NOTE: Whoops. Several people pointed out to me that "It Takes Two" was the signature summer song in Simon's "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets." That'll learn me to act like I read books and whatnot.)
  • More music: while the rest of the detail is at the low-rises and Prez is stuck doing a crossword puzzle, Jimmy is going over his notes while listening to The Pogues' "Dirty Old Town." Get ready to hear a lot from Jimmy's favorite band over the course of the series.
  • Though D'Angelo last week talked about getting an apartment to live with his son and baby mama Donette, it would appear that's more about being there for his kid than any major loyalty to Donette, seeing that he decides to spend the bonus from Stringer on buying a "drink" from Shardene the near-sighted stripper.
  • Early in the episode, we're introduced to Prez's odious father-in-law, Southeastern District commander Stan Valchek (wonderfully played by Al Brown). I love Burrell and Daniels' post-mortem discussion of the meeting, where Burrell calls Valchek "a necessary evil" and Daniels asks what's so necessary about him.
Coming up next Friday: "Old Cases," in which Jimmy and Bunk demonstrate the single most useful word in the English language.

What did everybody else think?

18 comments:

syrin said...

Being a fan of The Shield for quite some time now, I'm used to the blurry line between good cops and bad cops, but I have to say that Kima's attitude during the raid surprised me.
And the chess match scene was once again amazing... D's character continues to evolve.

filmcricket said...

Ah, chess. A lazy metaphor for everything from strategy to power structure since 19-whenever.

I like your analysis of the chess lesson as being a stand-in for the show itself, Alan; that never occurred to me, I must admit. But from a within-the-show standpoint, the whole thing was pretty hamfisted for a show that's supposed to be all about subtlety.

I've watched all but the last episode of the first season now, and honestly, I don't quite get what all the fuss is about. It's a great show, no question: compelling, well-acted, well-written. But I don't feel my mind being blown. Five minutes in Al Swearengen's company makes my brain feel like it's been wrung out. None of the folks on The Wire do that to me yet.

Andrew said...

Omar has better info on the Barksdale crew than the police. The police came in and raided the stash house after the castle was moved. Omar and his crew staked out the pit crew to know how they played the game, while the police rolled in with more force, but less knowledge of how the game is being played out on the street.

Brendan said...

@ filmcricket

I don't want to give anything away, but the anticlimactic feel of most of the show's events is a conscious choice. It's also something McNulty deals with personally in a later season. I like the mundane approach, as it's more true to life. You might have this fantasy of being a hero, the smartest guy in the room, but the reality of taking down the bad guy is never as exciting as you imagined it would be. The strain of this disappointment is a major theme of the series.

And I have to say, the more you see Omar, the more you'll realize he's got that Swearengen effect on you. That's a guarantee. Or, I don't know you, so maybe it's not.

quipu said...

@filmcricket

Sure, the chess metaphor is one that's been done before, but as Alan's wonderful commentary reveals, that in this particular case, you need to look deeper in order to get the most out of that particular scene.

I tend to hear the "I don't get what the fuss is all about" from a lot of people I've recommended the show too. All I can say is: keep watching. You strike me as an intelligent individual, (a healthy dose of snark is usually a sign of this) and I'm pretty sure that you, like my friends, will finally come round.

filmcricket said...

I forgot to say, I think Omar's a knight. Perhaps a ronin, who doesn't serve any one master.

@ brendan: anticlimactic doesn't bother me. I hope my comments didn't come across as saying that I need a big finish or for the good guys to win or anything, because that's definitely not what I meant.

It's just... the idea that drug dealers can be multi-faceted, that "the system" is set up to perpetuate itself, that good cops can do bad things and vice versa, that hierarchies dislike mavericks - none of this is news. All of it has been portrayed on screen before, and certainly played out in real life. The show reinforces my own cynicsm nicely, but I'm not learning much. As opposed to a show like "Deadwood" - or, hell, "Friday Night Lights" - where I'm learning lots because those shows' settings are completely unfamiliar to me.

Anyway, sorry for hijacking the thread. Thanks for the compliment, quipu. I do intend to keep watching; like I say, I'm enjoying it, and God knows it's nice to have something good to watch in the summer.

Brendan said...

@ cricket

I see what you're saying. All I can really say is that what seems somewhat simple (even redundant) at first does ripple out into much bigger waters.

But hey if it's not your thing it's not your thing.

That First Andrew said...

Omar is the prince in 3D chess, the substitute for the king on the first and third boards, who can also attack up and down. He is in position wherever he wants to be.

Of course, that suggests he has to take sides...

hot breakfast said...

filmcricket, or anyone else really,

for me, personally, what sets this show apart from any other show I've seen is simply the subject matter.

As much as I LOVE Deadwood, or The Sopranos, I simply do not care about their cast of characters as much as I do the characters of The Wire.

The Wire, for me, is just so much more relevent to our world, here and now and undoubtedly that makes the show that much more brilliant to me.

KcM said...

@Cricket:

I felt exactly the same way you did after Season 1 (which I watched after Deadwood Season 2, still the show's best, IMHO)

I dunno how much time you have your hands, but The Wire is worth sticking with. It's Season 3 where the show makes The Leap over Deadwood (a show I still admire greatly, even if it ended under inauspicious circumstances.)

The beauty of The Wire is it just keeps building, as the first few seasons become mulch, they yield tastier fruit on the back end. And I do believe I just mangled me some metaphors. Shameful shit.

domino87 said...

@cricket: Throughout the run of the series each season pretty much has a new setting/ theme. So I think its safe to say you'll be learning some new stuff in new environments if you stick with it.

And S3 and S4 are simply masterpieces that really cemented the "Best Show Ever" argument for me.

Its pretty cool reading comments from the newbies since I started watching what seems like a long time ago.

Polter-Cow said...

Alan, I've been going through this show for a few weeks now (I'm now deep into season four), and I've been loving your Newbie reviews (and so so thankful to find insightful, interesting reviews that won't spoil me). They're making me appreciate the show even more. And, well, miss the days of season one. Oh, Pit conversations about Hamilton and Chicken McNuggets and chess!

Omar is a game piece from Trouble who's found himself on a chess board.

glennobr said...

This is a great site! I have just recently began rewatching the wire series for the third time and it is great to be able to read some in depth analysis on each episode. Each time I watch the show I see themes, symbolism and foreshadowing that I had previously missed. The series has so much that is beneath the surface it is great to be able to disect every episode, it only adds further enjoyment to watching the series.
One aspect of this episode that you touched on that I thought was brilliant was the scene at the end of the episode where Body was beaten by the police. If you recall Body was the one that led the beat down of Bubbs junkie friend in basically the same location of the low ries drug pit. Theres some irony.
I thought this scene was more of the parrellel themes that Simon uses so often. Body hit the cop but it did not warrant the agressive and viscious beating the cops gave Body, just as the junkie stealing 30 dollars worth of dope did not warrant the beating that he received. I believe Simon was basically saying that the police officers and the drug dealers had the same basic moral norms and similar systems of justice. They are very similar people despite how society normally ascribes drastically different characteristics to police officers and drug dealers.
Anyway I really enjoy your analysis and will offer my own when I have the opportunity. Please excuse my spelling.
GDO

glennobr said...

This is a great site! I have just recently began rewatching the wire series for the third time and it is great to be able to read some in depth analysis on each episode. Each time I watch the show I see themes, symbolism and foreshadowing that I had previously missed. The series has so much that is beneath the surface it is great to be able to disect every episode, it only adds further enjoyment to watching the series.
One aspect of this episode that you touched on that I thought was brilliant was the scene at the end of the episode where Body was beaten by the police. If you recall Body was the one that led the beat down of Bubbs junkie friend in basically the same location of the low ries drug pit. Theres some irony.
I thought this scene was more of the parrellel themes that Simon uses so often. Body hit the cop but it did not warrant the agressive and viscious beating the cops gave Body, just as the junkie stealing 30 dollars worth of dope did not warrant the beating that he received. I believe Simon was basically saying that the police officers and the drug dealers had the same basic moral norms and similar systems of justice. They are very similar people despite how society normally ascribes drastically different characteristics to police officers and drug dealers.
Anyway I really enjoy your analysis and will offer my own when I have the opportunity. Please excuse my spelling.
GDO

JustJoan said...

I'm late to the party, but oh, did this show get me at "Hello," or more accurately, at "This America, man." Still, like you, Alan, it was the chess lesson that made me a true believer. What a multi-layered bit of education that went down without the need for even a spoonful of sugar. As an aside, I also like the cross culturalism that makes whoever named all these characters resort so frequently to the Italian spice rack for characters such as D'Angelo and Savino.

Anne said...

I think Omar is the toddler running around the living room who keeps threatening to upend the board...

Gohogsgirl said...

Omar is a bishop

Anonymous said...

These reviews are amazing. Thanks so much.