Almost to the finish line, and you should know the deal by now: we're going to talk about season one of "The Wire" in two versions: one for viewers new to the show who don't want later events spoiled for them, and one for people who have seen and can talk about everything from first episode to last. This is the former; scroll up for the veteran-friendly version.
Spoilers for the penultimate, Pelecanos-ian episode of season one, "Cleaning Up," coming up just as soon as I find out who makes the best chili dogs in Newark...
"Where's Wallace? Where's the boy at, String?" -D'Angelo Barksdale
This is "The Wire," right here.
"Cleaning Up" is considered by many "Wire" fans to be the series' best -- and most painful -- episode ever, but its genius illustrates why even asking the Best Ever question is besides the point with this series. So much of what makes it great comes from everything we've seen before: our knowledge of the Bodie/Poot/Wallace friendship; of how much work the detail has put into getting Avon and Stringer, of how far Daniels has come from being a company man to being someone who cares about doing good policework, politics be damned; of how much D'Angelo sees of himself in Wallace, and of how he tried desperately to nudge Wallace out of a life he knows himself to be trapped in by circumstance and blood. There are many isolated moments of brilliance, but it's the cumulative effect of having seen every chapter of this novel for television that makes them really powerful.
"Where's Wallace? That's all I want to know."
There are many great tragedies throughout the run of "The Wire," but the death of Wallace is the first and still the one that probably cuts deepest. Yes, this is the life he chose -- and the life he chose to come back to after Lt. Daniels had provided him his escape -- but he was a sweet kid pushed into this life practically from birth (check out how little his mother cares about him), given such a limited understanding of the world that he couldn't fathom any other way to be. Forget being freaked out by living in the country; he's never been out of the West side of town! Yet even within this life, he found ways to rise above, to not grow up too fast and too hard like Bodie (who also got a raw deal from childhood) so eagerly chooses to. Wallace looked after those kids, looked after his friends in The Pit, felt genuine remorse for the role he (somewhat) unwittingly played in Brandon's murder, held onto his childhood as long as he could.
He's not without sin, but this? To be coldly executed by your two best friends while you sob, wet your pants and beg for your life? Just imagine I'm quoting the McNulty/Bunk apartment scene from "Old Cases" right now, because even after all these years, that's how I respond to it. What makes it especially haunting is the interplay between Bodie and Poot. Bodie is acting hard, more than eager to go kill his friend on Stringer's order. He's the one who stands at the top of the stairs and has to urge the reluctant Poot to follow, but when the actual moment comes, he freezes, and it's Poot who has to order him to do it, and who then takes the gun from Bodie's trembling hand and finishes the job. (This is the first of all the many times I've watched the scene, by the way, that I see that Poot's doing it out of compassion for Wallace.)
And then... and then... and then we come to D'Angelo screaming and cussing and demanding that Stringer tell him where Wallace is. As with the famous Bunk/McNulty scene, it's an example of "The Wire" using simple, repeated language to say so many things so well. We've seen D'Angelo struggle all season with his growing guilt about the pointless cycle of violence in the drug game, and the death of this kid, whom D'Angelo believed (wrongly, as it turned out) would never pose a threat to Avon and Stringer, is the straw breaking the camel's back. When he asks, over and over, where Wallace is, what he's really asking is, "Why have I sold out of my future for a couple of remorseless psychopaths like you and my uncle?," "How do you not get that it's the bodies that keep attracting the cops' attention?," "Why does The Game have to play out this way?," "Why should I be loyal to bosses who have no loyalty to their employees?," "Why didn't I just come right out and tell Wallace he was probably going to die if he didn't leave town?," etc., etc. While some "Wire" actors have parlayed their great showcases here into more mainstream work (Tristan Wilds is not only in the new "90210," but canoodling with Dakota Fanning in "The Secret Life of Bees"), it's beyond ridiculous that no one in Hollywood watched the "Where's Wallace?" scene and thought to give Larry Gilliard Jr. an interesting role off of it.
Just as we've watched the journeys of Wallace and D'Angelo, which led one of them to death and the other to jail, we've also watched Cedric Daniels grow from Burrell loyalist to dedicated cop. The motives for the change may on some level be self-serving -- he feels guilt over Brandon's murder, and now for Kima getting shot -- but there's no questioning that his loyalty is now 100 percent to doing this case right, no matter how much it costs him in his quest to climb the ladder. It was pure pleasure to watch him give it to both Burrell and Clay Davis in a way that wasn't insubordinate, or profane, or literally disrespectful, but was so frank and unswerving that it alarmed these two born liars.
And yet, in that "Wire" way, Daniels' triumphant moment (of character, if not of career) has to come in the same episode where we find out that, yes, he was dirty once upon a time and stole money off of drug dealers to help finance the swank lifestyle he has now, with the well-appointed brownstone, the expensive political fundraisers, etc. No one on "The Wire" is ever all good or all bad. (Though some would argue the latter point.) They're just people.
Note how McNulty, our ostensible hero, shows his true colors in the opening scene, when he admits to Daniels that he only cared about Barksdale as an excuse to prove how smart he was. Of course, anyone who's been paying attention all these weeks -- and that includes Daniels himself -- probably figured that out by now, but it's still admirable that the show would be willing to have its main character make such a confession. We've been watching long enough to know that the case does, in fact, matter, but to Jimmy it's just as much of a power trip as it is to Burrell, and Rawls and Avon and Stringer.
Though "Cleaning Up" is the culmination of several months (in real and show time) of investigation by the detail, with the arrests of D'Angelo and Avon, it's also something of an intentional anti-climax. Thanks to the deaths of Wallace and Stinkum, Wee-Bey's escape to Philadelphia and Avon and Stringer constantly changing up, what does the detail have to show for all this work? A murder charge on Bird (that relies on Omar coming back to town and being a credible witness), murder charges for a fugitive (Wee-Bey) and a man they don't know is dead (Little Man), a mid-level drug charge on Avon, and a potentially larger one on D'Angelo. For all the lives this crew has taken, that's it? Really?
Obviously, there's still some string to be played out in the finale, particularly with Lester following the money so closely that he scares the snot out of Clay, Burrell and Ronnie's boss (not to mention Ronnie herself), but I love how even an episode that's this powerful, and that brings together so many storylines from the previous eleven episodes, can be designed in a way that's still vaguely unsatisfying. As McNulty puts it to Daniels before they raid Orlando's, "This isn't as much fun as I thought it would be."
Some other thoughts on "Cleaning Up":
• As he will do in every subsequent season, sometimes as a freelancer, sometimes as a staff writer/producer, novelist George Pelecanos gets the honors of writing the next-to-last episode and playing hatchet man for David Simon. These penultimate chapters tend to be the best part of each season, primarily because the worst things happen in them. Like fellow authors Richard Price and Dennis Lehane, who would join the writing staff in later seasons, Pelecanos is a natural fit with the world of "The Wire." His Washington, D.C.-based crime novels cover much of the same thematic ground about the pointless culture of drug-related violence, the cyclical nature of family relationships, the decay and neglect of American cities, etc. One of his books, "Drama City," might as well be a "Wire" spin-off, and his latest novel, "The Turnaround," is terrific. What are you doing spending all this time watching TV when you can just read a book?
• Whenever a "Wire" character I like gets killed (or suffers a fate that's almost as bad), I like to look back at the elaborate chain of circumstances that has to take place for that to occur. In this case, Omar and Brandon have to rob the Pit stash at a time when Poot's in the room; Poot and Wallace have to be at the Greek's arcade at the same time as Brandon; Poot has to be too afraid to make the call himself (and to talk to Stringer later); Wee-Bey and Bird have to dump the body right in Wallace's backyard; Herc and Carver have to be listening to Poot have phone sex long enough for them to hear him give up the info about Wallace's guilt over Brandon; the Baltimore PD has to have no money for witness protection; Kima has to get shot and distract Daniels from going to pick up Wallace before Wallace goes stir crazy at his grandma's; Burrell has to demand that Daniels raid the main stash, making Stringer and Avon paranoid enough to have Wallace killed, etc. It's never just one action, but a series of little tragedies along the way that lead up to the big ones.
• Though he appeared briefly at the political fundraiser party in "One Arrest," this is the first real showcase for Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Clay Davis. He makes the most of it, demonstrating how quickly Clay can shift from smooth politican to profane street hustler.
• Last week, Maury Levy showed himself to be a great legal attack dog for the Barskdale crew. This week, he reveals himself to be an active co-conspirator in Avon and Stringer's crimes. He may stick to the letter of the law by excusing himself before those two actively begin discussing whom they need to kill, but Maury's the one strongly suggesting they have that conversation in the first place.
• A couple of episodes back, we saw that Shardene wasn't immune to Lester's charms, and here we see that he's more than happy to reciprocate her interest. He bigfoots Sydnor on Shardene's request for coffee (and knows how she takes it!), is the one to comfort her when she freaks out about wearing a wire, and eagerly volunteers to, um, room with her for the duration of the case. Again, Lt. Daniels is an observant man, so he knows what time it is with this.
• More Daniels cleverness: even as he's openly defying Burrell, he still knows how to play the political game when it suits his purposes. When Burrell asks whom Daniels doesn't want to lose from the detail, Daniels knows the best answer is none at all -- that Burrell would no doubt cast away anyone Daniels expressed an interest in protecting -- and is rewarded when Burrell cuts loose the useless Santangelo and the mostly useful Sydnor while "punishing" Daniels by making him keep Lester and Prez, who are by now the heart of the detail.
• Lots of Herc-related hilarity: Herc and Sydnor driving Lester nuts with their chili dog argument, Herc and Sydnor trying really hard not to leer as Ronnie watches them watch Shardene walk with the string around her ankles, and especially Herc's victory dance at finding out his score on the sergeant's exam.
• This episode features the first appearance of Michael Hyatt as D'Angelo's mom, Brianna, and their interaction (and relatively close ages) does create the brief impression, expressed by Wallace, that this is some girlfriend of D's we haven't met yet. Note that their closeness only goes so far: Mama Barksdale will bring her boy some nice take-out fish, but when Avon suggests that D'Angelo will have to go to prison so Brianna can maintain her lifestyle, she seems ready to go along with that.
• Yet another thing that I noticed for the first time watching the episode again this week (it's at least the 10th time I've seen it over the years): Bodie and Poot's moment on the staircase is later mirrored by McNulty and Daniels after the arrest of Avon. This time, it's the man at the bottom of the stairs (Daniels) nodding for the man at the top (McNulty) to join him. And like Poot doesn't want to let go of his friendship with Wallace, McNulty doesn't want to take that step and let go of a chance to take down Stringer.
Coming up next Friday: "Sentencing," the end of season one and the end of this summer flashback.
What did everybody else think?