Time once again to hop in the wayback machine and revisit episodes from "The Wire" season one. As usual, we'll be doing this in two editions: one for folks who have seen the whole series and want to talk about how season one stories tie into things down the road, and one for people new to the show who don't want to be spoiled. This is the latter; scroll up for the veteran-friendly version.
Spoilers for episode 10, "The Cost," coming up just as soon as I load up on junk food...
"Buy busts, lieutenant. It's what I asked you for, months ago. It's what we do, successfully, time and again, to make these cases." -Burrell
And here is Ervin Burrell, and the Baltimore PD, and every other institution on "The Wire," in a nutshell. His protege, Lt. Daniels, has done his best to convince Burrell that they need to think outside the box in their dealings with the Barksdale crew, that doing what they've done, time and again, won't work with these guys. And Burrell doesn't want to hear it. He wants this case to go away, fast, and he genuinely believes that business as usual will get him what he wants. Instead, he orders an undercover operation that's as futile as Daniel knows it will be -- and, worse, it gets Kima and Orlando shot.
Because "The Wire" deals with so many lofty sociological issues, critics (and I put myself in this company in the early seasons) sometimes did a poor job conveying just how well the show could work as pure entertainment. But I defy anyone to look at a sequence like the botched undercover and not leave deep claw marks on either the nearest upholstery or the forearm of their significant other.
This kind of sequence is such a staple of cop shows that I'm struggling to put my finger on what it is in either David Simon's script or Brad Anderson's direction that makes this one feel particularly tense. Is it that Kima had been established as such a three-dimensional, likable character through the season in general and this episode in particular? Is it that, as "The Wire" tends to do, we spent so much time setting up how this was supposed to go that it was doubly chilling when the plan went awry? Our knowledge of how Avon operates casting a pall over things? Savino's ice-cold, nearly-silent demeanor throughout? The darkness and the bleak, unfamiliar neighborhood? Or, again, our knowledge that all this risk was basically for nothing?
No matter the reason for it, the sequence works like gangbusters -- even though I know what's coming next, this is the first time in the rewatch process where I got frustrated that I didn't have time to immediately watch the next episode -- and caps off one of the busiest episodes so far. Each season of "The Wire" is structured in such a way that nothing seems to be happening for a very long time, and then all of a sudden lots of things are happening all at once as you realize how much of those slow-moving episodes were paving the ground for all this action.
After several months (in both real time and show time) of little progress, the detail now has a line on the main Barksdale stash house, which in turn could give them a line on every major drug player in West Baltimore. They have Stringer, Wee-Bey and Bird all implicated in Brandon's murder, courtesy of Wallace. They have a line into Avon's various real estate holdings, and if complacent boobs like Burrell don't get in their way, they could actually make one hell of a case here.
The show had spent so much time following Wallace's guilt over the Brandon killing that the episode actually skips over McNulty's initial interrogation of the kid, and it's okay. We know what Wallace knows, and we know how guilt-ridden he is about it, and in some ways it's more dramatically satisfying to come in the next morning with an exhausted Jimmy telling Bunk what went down. Besides, we get to rehash most of the material -- including Wallace's refusal to rat out D'Angelo, the only player with anything close to Wallace's own levels of compassion -- a second time when Daniels meets with him, so any blanks we haven't already filled in our heads get filled here.
Even at this late date in the season, though, Simon and Burns are willing to take their time on the stories that need it. Bubbles essentially spends the entire episode sitting on the same park bench, day after day, soaking in the sights, sounds and smells of the straight life and fighting the urge to get high. He has conversations with Walon and with Kima (who, to her credit as both detective and human being, quickly figures out what Bubbs is doing without having to be told), but mostly it's about watching Andre Royo sit on that bench, looking around, trying not to give in to temptation. The moment when we finally see him leave the bench and tell one of the touts that "I ain't up" is all the more powerful because we've seen so much of his journey already this season, and then because we spend so much time just watching him sit there. And our knowledge that he's placed so much of his future in Kima's hands only makes the botched undercover operation seem that much worse.
"The Cost" features three different characters attempting to get out of The Game. Wallace winds up with his grandmother, Bubbs is on his bench, and Omar gets on the bus, having realized he pushed his vendetta as far as it can go. Admittedly, Omar doesn't seem in a hurry to switch professions, but even his willingness to leave Baltimore seems revolutionary on a show where so many of the players seem uncomfortable if they wind up on the other side of town, or, in Wallace's case, in a rural neighborhood where the sounds at night aren't of breaking glass and rough language, but good old-fashioned crickets.
Some other thoughts on "The Cost":
• Though Daniels is right in his argument with Burrell, we've seen throughout the season that he can be just as guilty of business-as-usual thinking. Note that his insistence on trying to follow Avon in "Game Day" because that's how things were done in Narcotics -- despite Jimmy's warnings that this would be pointless -- only encourages Avon and Stringer to be more careful than ever before. This viewing was also the first time I ever noticed Avon's line about where that cat-and-mouse chase would have led the cops had they kept up with him: to the barbershop.
• I know David Simon went to U of Maryland, so when Kima's girlfriend Cheryl began boasting about what bad-ass drinkers Northwestern journalism students were, my eyebrows raised. Then I spent 30 seconds on Google and discovered that Laura Lippman (aka Mrs. Simon, and a former Baltimore Sun reporter herself) studied at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.
• I should also say about that scene that, in retrospect, I should have been prepared for Kima to get shot, given that she had just been shown in this moment of pure happiness, delivering an anecdote from her earliest days on the force and then making out with her special lady friend. Between that and her promising Bubbs that she'd help him out starting tomorrow, I should have been able to spot the neon "DANGER!" arrow pointing straight at her, but I was thunderstruck at the time.
• Note that, among Carver's snack binge in the surveillance van is a bag of Utz potato chips, something of a regional junk food delicacy, particularly in the Pennsylvania-Maryland corridor. On "Homicide," Stan Bolander would occasionally pledge his alliegance to Utz.
• My one beef with the episode: Bubbles looks around the neighborhood and sees kids playing with actual bubbles. A little too on the nose, even if they looked purdy.
• Have I mentioned how much I love Prop Joe? That's some shameless shit he pulls off in this episode. Having set up Omar's failed attempt to kill Avon, he now gets Stringer to pay him to guarantee Omar's safety, while pretending to have never met Omar before. If it seems obvious to us, it's only because we know things Stringer doesn't.
Coming up next Friday: "The Hunt," in which the department puts all of its muscle, for good or for ill, into finding the shooters.
What did everybody else think?