Friday, May 29, 2009

The Wire, Season 2, Episode 1: "Ebb Tide" (Newbies edition)

As we did last summer, it's time to revisit "The Wire," the greatest drama in TV history, this time moving on to season two. And, as I did last summer, I'm going to do two slightly different versions of each review: one for people who have already seen the entire series and want to be able to discuss how events in these episodes impact or are echoed by events down the road; and one for people who are slowly working their way through the series and don't want to be spoiled for episodes they haven't been to yet. (If you want to see how they differ, you can go back to check out the veteran and newbie editions from season one.)

Newbie-friendly spoilers (the veteran edition is here) for the season two premiere, "Ebb Tide," coming up just as soon as I take note of the mileage...
"It's all about self-preservation, Jimmy -- something you never learned." -Jay Landsman
As I wrote when I reviewed "The Target," the first episode of season one, "The Wire" is a show that teaches you how to watch it. And even here, with a full season under its belt, the series still needs to offer up reminders that it's going to play by its own rules.

Having spent the 13 hours of season one introducing this huge cast of characters, explaining how they work together, or against each other, you might expect season two to pick up with a quick re-assembly of Lt. Daniels' task force to go after Stringer Bell and the remains of the Barksdale drug operation, or after a similar drug crew. Instead, it's like we're back at square one.

There are some familiar faces, but they're often in new and marginalized places, like McNulty working on the boat or Daniels in the evidence room. Characters who were marginal last year, like Prez's well-connected father-in-law, Major Stan Valchek, are now major players, and we're introduced to a whole new cast of characters down at the docks.

Because the stevedores are a predominantly white group, you might assume that "Ebb Tide" is in some way an attempt to reboot the series and try to draw in a larger audience. You would be wrong (though this was the show's highest-rated season). Outside of Prez's monologue in Valchek's office, in which he offers his own brief synopsis of the Barksdale investigation, there's no attempt at hand-holding, no effort of any kind to make this world fathomable to a new viewer. I could barely follow the action with Bodie and Shamrock and Stringer in this one the first time through, and I'd watched the first season religiously. This is the start of volume 2 of the Great American Novel for Television, and good luck to you trying to crack it open at this point.

No, what David Simon, Ed Burns and company are doing here is revealing that "The Wire" is going to be far more than a cops vs. drug dealers saga. It's not a crime show. There's a lot of crime in it, yes, but it's a story about the death of an American city (really, the death of the American city), and little by little the show is going to take us into every corner of that city. Last year, it was the projects and the drug war raging within them. This season, our focus turns to the ports, and to the state of blue-collar, industrial America, which has been phased out in favor of a service economy that many of these guys just aren't equipped for. As Simon referred to it in a few interviews, it's "a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class."

As has been said many times before, the opening scene of each "Wire" premiere is like a mission statement for that season. We open with McNulty riding forlornly on the boat, staring out at the many abandoned factories ringing Baltimore's harbor. Once upon a time, these places were thriving concerns that provided jobs for any man willing to put in the work, no matter his background or skill level; now they're rotting husks, relics of a time that barely exists anymore. Jimmy looks at those factories and thinks wistfully about the way things used to be, the lifestyle his father and his father's friends had. Then he and his partner Claude answer a distress call from a party boat filled with yuppies who couldn't care less about Bethlehem Steel or Domino Sugar; they just look at the harbor as a place to get their drink on while dancing to "Blue Skies." Jimmy notes that they have to tow the boat out of the shipping channel, but at the same time, the harbor seems so dead that it hardly seems worth the bother; it's been a long time since cargo ships were constantly coming and going from this port.

Recognizing all of this, Jimmy takes a bribe to tow the boat to an out of the way location where the party can keep going, and there you have your season in a nutshell: the port workers are dinosaurs, being replaced by wealthy people looking to party (or buy condos with waterfront views), and the only real money to be made around here is through bribery.

And it's in that capacity that we get to know the new season's central character, union leader Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer). I don't want to go too deep into discussing everything Frank is up to, but he makes some of it clear in his argument with union rival Nat Coxson, and in the actions we see him take involving his nephew Nick, the mysterious "Greek," and Father Lewandowski at the local parish. Because the grain pier has fallen into disrepair, and because the shipping channel isn't deep enough any longer, not enough ships are coming to the port to employ all stevedores that Frank represents. So he's taking bribes from the Greek to slip shipping containers past customs, and then using that money to get close enough to politicians -- with a little help from his favorite priest -- who might be able to help him get the canal dredged.

But in buying a new window for the church nave -- and in making an offering higher than the one the Polish cops and firemen could afford -- Frank has now put himself on the radar of the petty but politically influential Stan Valchek. And in trying to help the Greek and his people import a shipping container (or, as they'll be referred to mostly from here on out, "can") full of dead girls, he's about to get a whole lot more.

Again, without wanting to give too much away, let me offer the best I can in terms of an explanation of who some of the key new (or more prominent) figures are so far:

• Frank Sobotka: Head of the stevedores union. Keep in mind that there are several different types of stevedores involved at the port, but the primary group, and the one Frank and these others are a part of, are the checkers, who are responsible for identifying and tracking all the cans as they move in and out of the port, and who have the ability to help smuggle items in.

• Nick Sobotka (Pablo Schreiber): Frank's nephew, such a junior checker that he struggles to get shifts when there are so many senior guys ahead of him and so few ships to work. He's Frank's go-between with the Greek.

• Ziggy Sobotka (James Ransone): Frank's bumbling (but well-endowed) son, who can be as charming as he is obnoxious.

• Horseface (Charley Scalies): Frank's heavyset sidekick

• Stanislaus Valchek (Al Brown): Commander of the Southeastern district of the Baltimore PD, which covers most of the remaining white ethnic neighborhoods in the city, as well as the port; he's Prez's father-in-law.

• Spiros "Vondas" Vondopoulos (Paul Ben Victor): Nick's soft-spoken contact; is either the Greek, or at least a Greek

• Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan): Port cop whose job largely involves driving around the stacks of containers to make sure nothing's amiss; she's the one who notices the broken customs seal on the Greek's can.

This is a lot to take in, I know. Lots of new people, and lots of old friends still absent for now. No Bubbles, or Omar, or D'Angelo, and a bare minimum of Bunk, Kima, Avon and others. But just as I imagine lots of you were completely lost at this stage in season one, only to grow to understand and love it as you went, I suspect you're going to have a similar learning curve here.

Some other thoughts on "Ebb Tide":

• To make it clear that the show hasn't forgotten about the Barksdale investigation, and that it views every part of this city as connected in some way, we spend a decent amount of time in the premiere following Bodie trying to pick up a non-existent drug shipment, and then on Stringer trying to find out why their supplier left them hanging. What makes it particularly inscrutable is the way we keep seeing Bodie and his partner Shamrock from the perspective of Tank and Country, the two older hands Stringer has sent along to make sure the young guys aren't stealing. It's sound strategy on Stringer's part, but it makes the subplot more complicated than it probably should have been in the middle of an episode that's already incredibly dense.

• That subplot does give us two wonderful Bodie moments that echo season one. First, we have him being confused by the idea that the radio stations change when you leave Baltimore (and then being disgusted when the first Philly station he tunes in is playing "A Prairie Home Companion"), which is very much in keeping with Wallace not even knowing what things are like on the east side of town, let alone in the country. Second, we have him scolding -- in an echo of one of D'Angelo's lectures to him last season -- one of his new soldiers about the futility of always thinking of violence as the first solution to any problem in this business.

• One final point on that subplot, and a holdover from the veteran discussion of last year's premiere. A commenter, Boones19, suggested that the Dominican drug crew that Fitz from the FBI was investigating (with the help of one of Jimmy's informants) would turn out to be Avon and Stringer's supplier, but when I caught the lawyer telling Stringer that his client was under investigation from the DEA, not the FBI, I checked with David Simon, who says they're two unconnected outfits.

• A new season means a new -- or, in this case, the Tom Waits' original -- version of "Way Down in the Hole," and a new opening title sequence, this time filled with images of the port. As I did last year, I suggest taking a look at Andrew Dignan's analysis of each of the first four seasons' title sequences at The House Next Door, though I'd steer clear if I was a newbie, as it's filled with spoilers about this and later seasons.

• "The Wire" is nothing if not patient, as is Jimmy McNulty, and the show is willing to take the time to show Jimmy taking the time to screw over Bill Rawls and Jay Landsman (who, we find out, was the one who gave away Jimmy's fear of the marine unit, rather than Jimmy himself doing it out of self-loathing over what he did to Kima and D'Angelo) by going over the tide charts for proof that the dead woman fell into the water within Baltimore PD jurisdiction.

• This show loves its parallels, and here we get Daniels and Bunk tearing apart the evidence room for the material on the Gant case at the same time Bodie, Shamrock and the mechanics are searching the car for the drugs that are supposed to be there.

• The band playing at the stevedore bar is The Nighthawks, who enterprisingly put a banner with their website on it in the background of the shot.

• This qualifies less as a spoiler than it does a fair warning for the newbies: get used to Ziggy showing off his large (albeit, to our eyes, clearly fake) male appendage.

Coming up next Friday: "Collateral Damage," in which the dead girls cause a stir among various law-enforcement agencies, Avon's sister pays him a visit, and Valchek's vendetta begins.

What did everybody else think?

18 comments:

napawo72 said...

So glad you're doing this - I loved your Season 1 posts. Just started watching Season 2 a few weeks ago, up to episode 4 now. I'm enjoying it far more than Season 1, so far.

jim said...

Great work - so glad you're continuing with these posts - as a Wire newbie now digging my way into Season 2 they are invaluable to helping wrap my head round the labarynthine plots!

Paul S. said...

Your timing is impeccable, as my wife and I just finished Season 2 ourselves. (And thanks so damn much for the "newbie" versions, as I have been especially careful to avoid future season spoilers where I can help it)

While I don't think my love for Season 2 burns with the "white-hot sun" intensity of that for Season 1, I think that's more a reflection on the joy of discovery than on the quality of Season 2. (Had to go back yesterday and watch "The Hunt" episode from Season 1; Rawls' pep talk to McNulty in that one still makes me tear up a bit)

My favorite comment about Season 2 so far came from my wife, who mused that Simon apparently hired every unattractive actor in Baltimore to play the various stevedores. They are a motley (if gruffly endearing) bunch...

Looking forward to the next one!

Orion7 said...

I'm very glad you're doing this. This was where I first started watching the show, and I don't think I've ever been as confused when watching TV in my life. It's good to hear it was confusing for those of you who had already watched Season 1.

Andrew Dignan said...

Thanks for the plug Alan. I'd also point out that if people are less inclined to read through what is a fairly verbose article on the subject, Matt Seitz, Kevin Lee and I worked on a video version of the article which illustrates some of my arguments as well as segments it into individual video clips for each season. You can view the video essays for all 5 "The Wire" seasons at the link below.

http://tinyurl.com/mtl7cp

Savvy Veteran said...

I watched this episode one day after finishing season 1, so beforehand I felt confident that I would be prepared for anything Simon & Co. had to throw at me. After it was all finished though, I felt like about maybe 20% of what I had seen had flown right over my head. A thorough read of the Wikipedia entry on the episode was very helpful, as was a second viewing. I'm now six episodes in, enjoying it very much, and having no problems comprehending what I'm seeing (I can't even imagine what it would be like for someone to try to watch this show while knitting or something). It's exactly like you've said: this show teaches you how to watch it, and they don't seem to plan on rehashing everything we've already seen in season 1, so we'll have to learn a whole new set of rules for this new story.

I'm really just impressed with the skillful way in which all of these characters are introduced--I don't think I've ever seen a show have as large a cast, with every character equally as capable of carrying his/her own story (and I'm told it only gets bigger), as this show .

Thanks for doing these recaps, they're a great way to learn more about this terrific show.

mjryan said...

At the end of last year, I bought the entire series when Amazon had it on sale for $89, thinking that it would be a great show for my husband and I to watch together. He liked the couple of episodes he saw but his attention span isn't long enough, he travels occasionally and I don't have the patience to wait for him. I blew through seasons 1 & 2 when I was holed up in bed after surgery and started on season 3. I'm embarrassed to say I got a little burned out on Baltimore. But, I'm ready to re-watch season 2 and join in the discussion.

There isn't much I can say about the first episode because, like you and other posters have mentioned, the switch to an entirely new area of the city was a little confusing (and jolting). But, I loved it all the same. One of the best aspect of The Wire is the knowledge that Simon and Burns know where they're going with the story. There won't be any surprises for the shock value; it will all make sense within the larger arc. Excellent, excellent television. Thank you so much, Alan, for introducing me to it.

fgmerchant said...

Not to but into the posts, but I just started watching The Wire from Season 1. I have to admit that I am pretty bored right now. I'm halfway through the first episode, how many episodes would you say I should watch before I decide if I like the show or not?

paul b. said...

how many episodes would you say I should watch before I decide if I like the show or not?
Oh, I don't know what the answer is, but it's definitely more than half of one. I tell my friends that The Wire requires an up-front commitment and a lot of patience. The show just isn't going to make a big effort to keep you hooked. You have to decide you're going to give it a chance or else you will stay bored.

There just isn't enough that happens in a single episode, so I can understand when you say you're bored. If you're still not at all intrigued after a few more episodes, maybe it just isn't your cup of tea.

Savvy Veteran said...

@ fgmerchant:

If you want to get yourself hooked, I'd recommend watching at least three episodes. When I saw the first episode, I felt almost entirely in the dark, but after I figured out the rhythm of the show, I began to glean more and more details from each episode, and started to find it to be both brilliant and extremely entertaining. I suspect you say that you're "bored" because you're finding it hard to follow, and I can totally relate (heck, I still had this problem with the season TWO opener!). Seriously though, stick it out a little longer and I bet that you'll really grow to love it.

But, like paul b. said, it's entirely possible that it's just not your cup of tea. I just hope that you don't come to that conclusion too hastily.

fgmerchant said...

I've just finished the second episode and I can say that I am officially hooked. I think it was a lot about just concentrating and trying to figure out what was going on. I figured that I should give it a try since it is referenced so much on this blog, and now I am glad I did.

All right, I really need to get to bed, staying up till 4am is pretty pointless these days.

Anonymous said...

I always tell people to at least watch the first three. That's about how long it took me to "get it".

eyeball Wit (aka avincent52) said...

One newbie tip from a vet: You might think about watching it with the closed captioning on.

During season one especially, I had a hard time just figuring out what the characters were saying.

I think I had gotten used to it a bit by season two (and I was generally watching on a better television or with headphones on my iphone), but I think it's worthwhile.

I thought season two was the slowest "starter" of the bunch, but it's well worth it. Give it three or four episodes and you'll be hooked too

fgmerchant said...

Actually I did watch with the subtitles on, but by the end of the season I didn't have to look down at the bottom of the screen as much.

Too bad you are only going to do 1 a week Alan. I watched all of season 1 over the past two days, and reading your recaps after each one helped me keep things in order and see things from a different light. I'll probably pull ahead now since I am about to start the second episode of season 2.

I will say I am disappointed not to have the old characters as prominently featured, now I have to get to know a whole new bunch!

Amy Ryan has some eagle eyes since that customs thing looks like only a tiny little strip. I assume the boat was filled with sex slaves since there didn't seem to be anything but young girls. I'm interested to see where this season goes. But, again, I found myself bored in the first episode. I know enough to stick around till it gets interesting now, since I just went through the same thing with the first season.

Hot Breakfast said...

fgmerhcant,

Another vet with some advice - hope you don't mind.

What you think is a feeling of boredom is just an illusion. The beauty of The Wire is that almost everything that is happening, from episode one to the end, IS important. You feel bored because you just don't realize how important the things you are viewing in the early episodes are.

The payoff, obviously, comes as the season progress and all the seeds that were planted in the early episodes start to sprout and bloom. Some of these seeds take multiple season so grow!

Instead of thinking the early episodes are "boring" try to think of it this way. And, if you ever go back and re-watch any of these seasons you will pick up so many more things and you'll truly come to the realization of how amazing this show is.

JustJoan said...

I'm almost afraid to appear to diminsh Idris Elba's gifts as an actor by talking about this, but I just have to say it: acting's gain is GQ's loss. Idris Elba looks so damn fine when he puts on his "dress for success" duds, and I had totally forgotten until now how amazingly he can transform himself by what he wears, be it a suit or merely a pair of eyeglasses. And if they are still looking for a black James Bond, they can look no further.

Debsa said...

Thank you, thank you and again I say thank you... I am so happy to read your Newbie editions and am loving the context you put everything I have just watched, it's like I'm reviewing the episode with an old friend.

Tabloid Guy said...

Not sure if this blog is even checked anymore, post HitFix, but as a Wire newbie and newspaper guy, I feel compelled to point out one detail that's gotten surprisingly wrong. When Stringer visits Roberto's lawyer in NYC, he glances at what's clearly supposed to be the Wire's version of the Post or Daily News on his desk and it's a two-deck headline that says something to the effect of "Dominican Drug Dealer arrested." First off, in what universe is this front page news in New York? Secondly, in what universe does a tabloid run six columns of text on the front page with nothing more than a headshot? If they felt they needed to put the story on the front page, at least do it right, with a giant headline like "BUSTED!" burned into a six-column photo of Roberto being led away in cuffs.

For a show that gets all the details right -- and given Simon's own newspaper history -- this surprised me. To maintain the painstakingly constructed verisimilitude, a more believable depiction would have been to have the story on Page 9 with a big headline and the photo described above. The lawyer would have had the story open to that page anyway.

Only in movies/TVs are head shots featured so prominently in the paper. OK, end rant.