Monday, July 28, 2008

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 8: "Lessons" (Veterans edition)

Okay, in an attempt to get these season one review of "The Wire" back on schedule and hopefully finished before Labor Day, I'm going to try to double up here and there. So we'll get one review today, and another one in the regularly-scheduled Friday morning timeslot. Not sure yet if I'll double up again next week or a little down the road, as I also intend to take a vacation at some point in August, but we'll get this done close to on time or your money back.

As usual, we're going to do this in two versions: one for people who are new to the series, one for folks who have seen every episode from first to last. This is the latter; scroll down for a version where you can safely read about and discuss only these early episodes.

Spoilers for episode eight, "Lessons," coming up just as soon as I teach my daughter how to front-and-follow...

One of the dominant themes of "The Wire" is the tremendous waste that the drug culture has created in inner-city America. Men and women who might have otherwise gone on to great things -- or, at least, to something resembling the middle-class lifestyle familiar to the majority of the show's audience -- are either deprived of opportunity, or else seduced away from those opportunities, by life on the corner.

Look at the moment where one of the abandoned kids in Wallace and Poot's care asks Wallace for help with his math homework. It's a fairly simple, culturally-relevant word problem about the number of passengers on a city bus, and yet the kid has no idea in how to solve it, or much interest in trying. Yet when Wallace translates the problem in terms of keeping the count on the stash, the kid gets it quickly. Math as a concept is an abstraction that has no real place in his world, but getting the count right? Do it or risk a beating.

And in this episode, Simon and Burns establish Stringer Bell as either the greatest example of this wasted potential, or perhaps the greatest counter-example. Maybe both.

Where Wallace's young charge can only relate to the world at large when it's placed in a drug context, we discover in "Lessons" that Stringer is trying to master the drug world by using knowledge gleaned from the real world. We already had a sense from earlier chapters (notably when Stringer and Avon discussed their plans to take over the Edmonson corner, where Omar kills Stinkum near the end of this episode) that Stringer had more business savvy than your average TV druglord. But the idea that he takes macroeconomics courses at the local community college, or that he insists on running his copy business as a real business and not simply as a front? That's the genius of Stringer Bell, and of the show. In another life, Stringer could have gotten a job on Wall Street, but in this one, he applies principles like elastic vs. inelastic products to catering to West Baltimore's dope fiend population.

There's a very interesting moment late in the episode, after Stinkum's death, where Stringer tries to caution Avon about seeking immediate retribution on Omar. Avon's head is in The Game, where you don't let something like this slide, or even appear to slide, or risk losing face. Stringer's approaching the problem from a more calculated point of view -- his plan still ends with Omar being killed -- but you can also see on his face that he's done a mental cost-benefit analysis of the entire Omar affair and is starting to wonder whether the stick-up man is worth all the trouble.

"Lessons" also establishes that there's more of a connection between the real world and the drug world than Stringer's college classes, as the detail picks up Day-Day Price -- driver for state senator Clay Davis -- with a trash bag full of cash handed to him by one of Avon's soldiers. We don't know yet why a state senator is accepting cash from a local drug lord, and thanks to Deputy Ops Burrell, we may never know. It's worth noting that Burrell's reaction to this development in the case doesn't automatically suggest that Burrell himself is corrupt, just that he's politically astute enough to know that no good can likely come to the department from messing with the business of an influential politician. Regardless of his motivation, Daniels appears to be just as screwed with Burrell as McNulty is with Rawls; if the two of them could stand each other's company, maybe they could hoist a beer over the irony of that.

Of course, Jimmy gets plenty of drinking in with The Bunk in this episode, and Bunk sums up his partner and friend in one devastating sentence: "You're no good for people, man." McNulty has been set up as our protagonist, and is played by the exceedingly likable Dominic West, but by the end of this episode -- by the end of this run of episodes -- it's obvious that The Bunk ain't wrong. Jimmy asking his sons to tail Stringer is the sort of thing that seems practical and amusing to him but is an even bigger parental breach than bringing the boys with Omar to the morgue a few episodes back. And he screws over Ray Cole in order to protect both the wire and Bunk's own murder case, big picture decisions that might be more palatable if he had the guts to be honest with Cole about it. I know Jimmy's afraid of the wrath of Rawls, but own your actions, man. Please.

I'll give Jimmy credit for this, at least: when Omar leaves the detail office free and clear, having made it quite obvious (without ever coming out and saying it) that he killed Stinkum and intends to keep hunting Barksdale people, Jimmy at least has the awareness to ask Lester if they're still cops at this point. It's a mark of the series' measured pace that we're eight episodes in, and the detail only has significant charges against two mid-level Barksdale people -- one of which gets taken away when Omar kills Stinkum. Omar is, like McNulty, a tremendously colorful and charming figure -- and a hell of an investigator, to boot -- but an episode like this, with the murder of Stinkum and Kima's realization that Omar probably didn't directly witness the Gant killing, is a reminder of the shady moral territory the cops enter when they deal with someone like him. Omar puts his life in simple terms for the cops -- "The Game is out there, and it's either play or get played." -- and how are upholders of a strict legal code supposed to operate around that?

Some other thoughts on "Lessons"

-Again illustrating the depth that the show tries to give all its characters, this episode shows two very different sides to Wee-Bey. Early on, we get him out with D'Angelo and the guys at the crab shack, having a good time, cracking jokes and getting made fun of for his affection for the too-hot hot sauce. It's a very humanizing scene -- and then we see him drunk (or high, or both) at Stinkum's party, dragging the barely-conscious Keisha into a bedroom and not even noticing that she died later in the evening.

-Earlier in this season, while discussing the opening titles, I pointed you towards Andrew Dignan's essay at The House Next Door about the series' various credit sequences. Andrew, Matt Seitz and Kevin B. Lee have now turned the idea into a five-part (one for each season) video essay for the Museum of the Moving Image, and you can see it at the Museum's website. As I write this, entries for season one and two are up. The season one entry is fairly newbie-safe, but I would avoid anything after that; the season two entry gives away major developments for both that season and season three.

-At one point in the episode, you can see Bunk reading a mystery novel by Laura Lippman, a Baltimore fixture who also happens to be Mrs. David Simon. This will become a running inside joke on the series, as later seasons will show characters perusing books by members of the extended "Wire" family, whether it's a George Pelecanos thriller or a first edition of "Generation Kill."

-If you haven't made the name connection by now, Det. Ray Cole is played by the late Bob Colesberry, executive producer of the show and the man responsible for much of the series' visual style. Though Jimmy notes hear that Ray's clearance rate this year is good enough that he can absorb the Stinkum whodunnit, for much of the series he's treated like just as much of a clown as Santangelo. In one of the prequel short films that were produced to tease the final season, we see McNulty, new to Homicide, explaining to Bunk that he got assigned to this elite unit, despite minimal training and service time, because he solved a case that a Homicide veteran was screwing up. That Homicide detective? Ray Cole.

-By this point, I probably should be keeping my copy of "Homicide" the book handy for reference. I can't swear that a drunken, guilt-ridden Bunk burning his clothes to get rid of the trace evidence is an incident from the book, but I feel reasonably confident that the book is the first place I encountered the idea.

And now let's talk about how some developments in this episode that will play out over the run of the series:

-Stringer and Avon's debate about Omar is far from the last time we'll see these two friends get into it over watching the bottom line vs. maintaining your rep. Stringer is a criminal who wants to be a businessman, while Avon is a good businessman who knows he's just a criminal, and it's that fundamental divide that will destroy them both by the end of season three.

-I love comparing McNulty's relationship with his sons here versus the last time we see them in season five. Here, pre-adolescence, they revere their old man, even though he's rarely around, and think doing surveillance on some scary criminal type is an exciting adventure. By season five, they're old enough to recognize that all the cool things he does are far, far outweighed by all the ordinary things he fails to do.

-Oddly, I remembered this episode's epigraph -- Omar saying, "Come at the king, best not miss" -- as being not from this episode, but the next one, and Omar recognizing that he screwed up his best chance at killing Avon. I guess over the years, the image of two different sequences with Omar shooting while Barksdale people crouched behind the safety of nearby cars blended together.

Coming up on Friday: "Game Day," in which the detail finally gets a good look at Avon (sort of), while the audience gets its first look, period, at a fella by the name of Proposition Joe.

What did everybody else think?

19 comments:

Andrew said...

Ahh, Jimmy McNulty, model parent.

fluffhead81 said...

For fans of Tom Waits, check out this full concert on NPR Music:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92916923

It has a fantastic version of "Down in the Hole."

ami said...

Alan,
I read somewhere that the woman who plays Bunk's "date" in this episode is the same actress who played Miss Anna in S4. Do you know if that's true? I've not seen this epi in years.

Andrew said...

Alan, I'm reasonably sure that the "Bunk burning his clothes incident" was not in the book. I remember reading somewhere once that Simon claimed it happened to a famous writer he knows, but he refused to name him.

rawls said...

i don't care if they speak mandarin chinese with a cock suckers lisp

Anonymous said...

Alan,

Is it possible you could ask David Simon two questions?

1. Along with the careers that we followed, especially Carver and Daniels, why is it that someone like Lester Freamon, who was of course stuck in the pawn shop unit but later allowed out when none of his enemies were left to care, was never able to run the special crimes unit himself? Why Sg. Marimow or any commander necessary by season 4, considering how instrumental he was in solving each of the cases?

2. I remember we reached a consensus in season 5 that Cheese was not Prop Joe's nephew, but I distinctly remember in Season 4, episode 11, he called Prop Joe "unk." after Omar robbed the stash. I know it could be just an expression, but just in case, is Cheese related to Joe (and therefore Randy related to Joe)?

Anonymous said...

1) Lester wasn't rank.
2) Prop Joe specifically says that Cheese is his sister's boy.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous,

Could you explain 1 again? If he is a detective, can't he become a Sergeant?

--Anon

Anonymous said...

Lester, much like McNulty, is about the work and not the rank. Making Sgt meant absolutely nothing to Lester, except probably having to go to in-service training, taking tests, in other words all the stuff we saw Carver do in S1 other than be Burrell's snitch. Even if he was about making a pay raise, I'm gonna guess even though it's not ever said, that Lester with his 13+ years as a detective is making more than Carver's first year as a Sgt.

Plus, having the proxy LT as they do in S4 and S5 (why can't I ever think of his name beyond the fact that he's rebuilding his house?) means Lester can pull sneaky Lester moves like subpoenas for records from Clay Davis and Andy Krawczyk without having a too-curious LT and the brass above him watching.

As for Cheese and Prop Joe, unless a writer from the show clarifies, most viewers I know think it's a bit of a continuity error, as you have Drac in S3 on the wire saying he's kin to Joe and implying that Cheese is not. But in S4 and S5, most definitely Cheese is Joe's uncle. And when Joe gives his infamous speech in S2 about family ruining his shit, he also mentions Cheese in the same conversation but not as family.

Anonymous said...

"as you have Drac in S3 on the wire saying he's kin to Joe and implying that Cheese is not."

The point of contention, if I'm thinking of the right one, is a slang hicup, where Drac saying Cheese is "off-brand". The intention, I think, is that Cheese is inferior, like the fake Timberlands Poot accuses Wallace of wearing. I thought somewhere in the midst of the Cheese/Ziggy/Sergei debacle in season 2 it was first mentioned that Prop Joe was his uncle.

Anonymous said...

Not sure I agree completely,

Lester is definitely about the work, bu he also about showing how smart he is (similar to Jimmy). Had he been his own commander, he wouldn't have to fool anyone before getting the subpoenas signed by a DA.

Pointing to the first season:
Landsman - "Nice pull. Where you from?"
Lester - "Pawn shop unit."

Not that I can see him going through classes to learn the material, I could see Lester acing a test and making rank once Daniels started rising higher up on the ladder.

Rawls said...

yeah but you are forgetting is that freamon is a backstabbing snake in the grass detective who will backdoor anyone of rank in the hopes of making a case.

i'll give it to the detective, he's a hell of an investigator but he needs supervision. thats why he doesn't make rank, because no one wants him out there hanging more wire on people than at&t.

as long as he is not in charge, he does not call the shots, me and burrell did. chain of command officer, chain of command, and lester never learned it.

thats why he doesn't get to run major crimes, under my watch anyway. you saw him run it last year with young sydnor, and you saw the mess he caused.

so these are for you annonymous, these are for you, one for your eye, and one to shove up your narrow irish ass.

can't you connect the fucking dots?

Anonymous said...

LOL... I guess "gaping asshole" is reserved for McNulty.

"I thought somewhere in the midst of the Cheese/Ziggy/Sergei debacle in season 2 it was first mentioned that Prop Joe was his uncle."

Nope. Just watched it again. Prop Joe says, "The Cheese won't be happy about having to pay me back [for Ziggy's car]." The family rant arises from Sergei saying that Ziggy is Nick's cousin, and that family can't be helped. So Joe talks about Cheese, and talks about family, but never says that Cheese is his family. Also, Cheese never refers to him as his "Unc" until Season 4.

Again, it's possible that these are just coincidences but it really does seem like Cheese as Joe's nephew was magically woven into Season 4.

And Rawls, once you made Acting Commissioner and Daniels was Deputy Ops, you know damn well you could give two flying fucks about what happened in any department, as long as Daniels's ass would be on the line.

Rawls said...

you're just having a little fun aren't you anonymous? pretty soon, you're roll out a real post, maybe inside a cake? and then it'll pop out, flash a little tit, give a whiff of that muff?

that'd just be fucking crembrule.

JeffS said...

Alan, the Barksdale crew isn't at a crab shack - they're at Chaps, a locally famous pit beef stand on Pulaski Highway on the east side of Baltimore (way off their home turf.) Ironically, the stand is located in the parking lot of an east side strip club much like Orlando's (which is/was also a real location, the Ritz in Fell's Point.)
WeeBey has loaded up his pit beef sandwich with fresh ground horseradish, a typical topping, albeit not in those quantities - that's what he's flattening down with the bun top so that he can take the first bite. It looks like he's got about a half-pound of it on there, when most people would use a tablespoon - no wonder his sinuses come back on him!

Anonymous said...

"why is it that someone like Lester Freamon, who was of course stuck in the pawn shop unit but later allowed out when none of his enemies were left to care, was never able to run the special crimes unit himself?"

That's easy; mainly, Lester would never be able to get rank. First you have to pass the sergeant's exam, then you wind up on a list, then the commissioner decides who becomes a sergeant (remember, that's how Carver gets ahead of Herc, and, eventually, how Herc gets ahead of everybody else).

Who's going to be Freamon's rabbi to get him sergeant's stripes, let alone a lieutenant grade or higher? That's even assuming that people he previously pissed off didn't still have a connection to Burrell / Rawls / etc. And there comes a point when Rawls clearly knows that Freamon is not to be promoted, at least by the third or fourth season.

Additionally, there's no point in the series when Freamon needs to be in command of the unit. Whenever his choice of LT is in command, he's fine. Marimow only takes over because Rawls is pushing Daniels, so Freamon had nobody to turn to there (Rawls wouldn't put him in charge). Then his choice of LT is back in command. He would never need to be the commander, so why would he do it?

Michael said...

<>

A conversation mirrored much later when Chris and Marlo discuss the same issue - however Marlo seems to take the more pragmatic option than Avon.

Michael said...

Stringer tries to caution Avon about seeking immediate retribution on Omar

A conversation mirrored much later when Chris and Marlo discuss the same issue - however Marlo seems to take the more pragmatic option than Avon.

(* reposted as my initial attempt messed up the quote tags)

Michael said...

One little tiny thing that occurred to me this morning - when Jimmy send his kids to play front and follow on Stringer, he refers to "the black guy over there" (or something along those lines) and they correct him that it's supposed to be "African American".

Given that Idris Elba is neither African nor American (his parents are, but he's English), was this perhaps a sly dig from the writers at the common notion that there's somehow something wrong with the word 'black'?