Since we're up to the final episode of "The Wire" season one, you really don't need me to tell you that this is the version of the review where you don't have to be worried about spoilers from later seasons. Scroll up for the veteran-friendly version.
Spoilers for episode 13, "Sentencing," coming up just as soon as I take this blog federal...
"You grow up in this s--t. My grandfather was Butch Stamford. You know who Butch Stamford was in this town? All my people, man -- my father, my uncles, my cousins -- it's just what we do. You just live with this s--t until you can't breathe no more. I swear to God, I was courtside for eight months, and I was freer in jail than I was at home." -D'Angelo Barksdale
Why do we watch this show? Seriously, why do we subject ourselves to a drama that spends 13-plus hours of television building towards an ending this bleak, that offers such little hope for the future of both its characters and the system we all live in? What masochistic impulse could lead me to obsess so much on this world, to go back and watch Bodie kill Wallace, or Brianna change D'Angelo's mind, or Bubbs fall off the wagon, six years after these things upset me the first time? Forget McNulty's line from season five asking what the (bleep) is wrong with this city. What the (bleep) is wrong with all of us who keep sticking around?
Nothing's wrong with us -- not related to our love of this show, anyway. We watch it because, even though it makes us despair, it's brilliant. We watch it because, even though it's awful to see D'Angelo throw away his future after Brianna packs his bags for a guilt trip, Larry Gilliard Jr. delivers such a scorching performance throughout. We watch it because, even though it's stomach-churning to see Maury Levy on the other end of Ronnie's phone call instead of the public defender, the moment is set up so expertly. We watch it because, even though many characters we like suffer many fates we don't, we realize in the end how much the show has been trying to warn us about this from the jump.
David Simon and Ed Burns have always modeled "The Wire" after Greek tragedy, and the concept of predestination is as strong here as it was in the time of Sophocles. Landmsan warned Jimmy in the very first episode that he'd wind up riding the boat, and Lester warned him again a few episodes later, and where does Jimmy wind up? (And it is, as usual, Jimmy's uncontrollable need to lecture others on their moral inferiority that screws him over; if he walks politely out of the meeting with the U.S. Attorney instead of insulting the guy, Rawls almost certainly never gets a call about it.)
"Sentencing" is packed with callbacks or payoffs to moments from throughout the season. Poot repeats D'Angelo's lesson about the danger of one man selling and then serving the same customer, as he takes D'Angelo's role as leader of the Pit. (Characters filling other characters' shoes will be a popular theme on the full-circle "Wire," particularly as the series moves forward.) When asked whether he talked business with Wee-Bey on the ride to Philly, D tells Bunk and Jimmy that they have a rule against it -- a rule Wee-Bey had to remind him of in the first episode. When the two detectives hear D refer to Diedre Kresson wanting to put the 8-ball on ice, they immediately understand why the refrigerator door was open. (D's recounting of that murder and how Wee-Bey really did it also reconciles D's aversion to violence, particularly against civilians, with him taking credit for the deed. For more on that, look to the bullet points.) Daniels gives Prez his gun back and makes a wry joke about its infamously light trigger pull. Herc tries to pass on the brains-over-muscle lessons of the detail, even though you can tell he doesn't really believe in them. On his way out of court, Stringer throws Jimmy's "Nicely done" line from the premiere right back at him. And after all of that, after the closing montage shows that the partial takedown of the Barksdale crew has in no way slowed the spread of drugs throughout Baltimore, we hear Omar whistle "Farmer in the Dell" one last time and remind us that it's "all in The Game, yo." The players may change, may (like Bodie or Lester) get promoted to bigger roles, but The Game will always be here.
One of the series' key themes is the folly of placing your faith in institutions, because they're designed to protect themselves and not you the individual. D'Angelo placed his faith in both The Game and his family, and they combined to drag him down and send his ass to prison for 20 years. McNulty put his faith in law-enforcement and found out that no one on either the local or federal level really cares about stopping the likes of Avon and Stringer. D goes to prison, Jimmy to the boat, and their institutions grind on with them on the margins.
Bubbs put his faith in Kima and had his thin recovery plan undone not because she was unreliable, but because the system placed her in a situation that made her unable to help him when he absolutely needed her. (Though, again, it was a shaky idea to begin with.) Daniels put his faith into the idea of climbing the ladder and staying tight with Burrell, and in the end gets burned and passed over for promotion because he tried to do his job the right way. Carver instead becomes Burrell's new pet and gets his own promotion, but Daniels' come-to-Jesus lecture makes him start wondering if it was such a good idea.
There are happy endings on the margins, like Lester escaping pawn shop purgatory (and winning the affections of Shardene, to boot), or Prez proving himself to be a useful detective, or even the return of a smiling Omar to the streets of West Baltimore (NOTE: several readers have pointed out evidence within and without the episode that Omar's operating out of the South Bronx at this moment in time), but they're overwhelmed by all the tragedies at the center. Yes, the detail gets Avon locked up on a minor charge, and several of his lieutenants are either dead or locked up for a long time, but at what cost? Wallace is dead. Nakeesha Lyles is dead. Orlando. Kima caught a bullet and is lucky to be stumbling around a hospital corridor on a walker. Jimmy's on the boat, Santangelo back in uniform, Daniels' promotion prospects are iffy at best, Kevin Johnson is half-blind, D'Angelo is taking the fall for his uncle, and Stringer and the organization as a whole don't seem to have missed a beat.
By the end, even Jimmy recognizes how much damage he's caused for so little noticeable gain. His "What the f--k did I do?" catchphrase again is used to connote tragedy, not comedy, as is Bunk repeating his "Happy now, b---h?" put-down from earlier in the season.
The wheel keeps turning, the players keep playing, and as hard as it was to re-experience most of what happened towards the end of this season, there's a part of me that wants to blow off all my professional responsibilities and proceed immediately to watching all the awful events of season two. And I don't believe there's a thing wrong with me to want that.
Some other thoughts on "Sentencing":
• Getting back to the pain of seeing D take the fall for Avon, it's a mark of how well D was written and played that we mourn a 20-year prison sentence for a character whom we first met as he was beating a murder charge through witness tampering.
• In the veteran-friendly review of "Old Cases," I talked at length about how D'Angelo lied to Bodie and the others about killing Diedre Kresson, and how it was virtually the only time in the run of the series that Simon and Burns would deliberately lie to the audience about something that big, for that long. I went on at length about my discomfort with the choice (specificially as it changed my perception about D'Angelo going from then until this episode) and then invited David Simon to offer up his own explanation for the choice. If you've been following the newbie versions of these reviews, I'd advise you to click on the above link to read it; so long as you bail out before the comments start, you won't get spoiled on anything that happens in later seasons.
• I could probably isolate and sing the praises of virtually every scene in this episode if I had the time, but one in particular I want to highlight is Jimmy finally finding the stones to visit Kima in the hospital. Every beat was just right, from Cheryl bolting in disgust as they discussed the case to Jimmy crying over his white guilt to Kima pragmatically stating that her only regret was not using more tape to secure the gun.
• As I said when I first started talking about the show's music rules, the one concrete exception made each season is with the montage at season's end that sums up where the characters, and The Game, are headed. This one's scored to "Step By Step" by Jesse Winchester
• I thought it was a very nice background detail to have D's public defender be so obviously horrified by the crime scene photos of Deirdre, Wallace, and company, and the realization that her new client was involved in some bad, bad stuff down in Baltimore. Like Jimmy and Bunk and D'Angelo, we've been so hardened to all these murders by now (save Wallace, of course) that it was good to have an outside reminder of just how brutal the Barksdale crew is.
• If you've ever seen or heard a David Simon interview or commentary track, you might have recognized his voice as the bailiff announcing the entrance of the judge for the sentencing hearing. It was a last-minute bit of audio looping, and Simon was the only guy in the room who hadn't already contributed a voice elsewhere in the episode.
• Jimmy's comportment in the relationship department has never been what you would call admirable. But Ronnie -- who claimed to be done with his drunken, manipulative ass several episodes back -- jumping his bones in the parking garage after he handed her what looked like a career case was a reminder that it takes two to have an ugly affair sometimes.
• Rawls punishing Jimmy is in some way on Jimmy, who could never leave well enough alone even as he knew his boss was gunning for him, but Rawls absolutely does not play fair with Santangelo. Santy kept up his end of the deal by closing an open case, and Rawls still puts him on a foot post in the Western district.
• Another nice touch involving a throwaway character new to the storyline: Lester's retired buddy at the phone company who invokes the cliche of cops giving speeches about how "all-fired important" their case is, followed by the guy's genuine pleasure at realizing he can help Lester catch a guy who shot a cop.
• Carver's a knucklehead and a rat, and yet there are these moments of incredible clarity like his "Wars end" line from the pilot or, here, him watching Bodie and his crew beat on Onion and observing that this is why the cops can't win: "They f--k up, they get beat. We f--k up, they give us pensions." Somewhere, Det. Mahone (retired) is hoisting a glass in Bodie's honor.
• Blink and you may have missed Toni Lewis, who played Det. Teri Stivers in the last few years of "Homicide," as one of the feds in the second meeting with McNulty, Daniels and Lester. She'll pop up a few more times in season two.
Coming up next: Nothing. Summer's just about over, new TV shows start debuting as of Monday, and I unfortunately won't have time to move on to season two until at least next summer. (And I still have to do those "Sports Night" reviews I've been promising for forever; maybe that'll be a circa-Christmas/Chanukah/New Year's thing, but don't hold me to it.) It's been really gratifying to read comments in both versions of these reviews from people who said they finally started watching the series because of me and quickly raced through the later seasons.
As a reminder, you can find my reviews of season four here, and of season five here. Eventually, I'll get around to chronicling the adventures of Frank Sobotka, Ziggy, Fruit and company.
What did everybody else think?