Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Wire, Season 2, Episode 8: "Duck and Cover" (Veterans edition)

Vacation's done with, so let's get back to revisiting season two of "The Wire" in two versions: one for people who have watched the entire series and want to be able to discuss it from beginning to end, and those who aren't all the way there yet and don't want to be spoiled about later developments. This is the veteran post (click here for the newbie version).

Spoilers for episode eight, "Duck and Cover," coming up just as soon as I get some scrapple with that...
"But on a good case, running front of the pack? That's as close as the men comes to being right." -The Bunk
If we accept, as we should, that Baltimore is the true star of "The Wire," then Jimmy McNulty was the city's leading co-star in season one, which is why it was so jarring to see him be sidelined for so much of this season. Oh, he set some things in motion by sticking Rawls with the Jane Doe murders, but mostly he's been directionless, and drunk, and irrelevant. In the episode before "Duck and Cover," he was virtually absent, and it was only when he appeared near the end that I realized he was missing.

But McNulty returns to the center of the narrative in a big way in "Duck and Cover," an hour that showcases the many negatives and positives of our favorite drunken Irish bimbo.

I've been accused in past "Wire" reviews of being too hard on McNulty, so I should say upfront that I don't dislike the guy. As impeccably played by Dominic West -- one of those actors with a gift for becoming more appealing, not less, the worse his behavior gets -- how could you not find Jimmy likable on some level? And in the grand scheme of "The Wire," Jimmy's sins are far lighter than those committed by an Avon Barksdale, or even an Ervin Burrell.

But fairly or not, I find myself holding McNulty to a higher standard than almost any other character on the show. Part of that comes from the way that he is, in fact, held out as the closest thing "The Wire" has to a true lead, but more of it comes from Jimmy's position in the show's universe, from his awareness of that position, from his abundant intelligence and talent, and from the way he presents himself to the world versus the way he actually is. While there's hypocrisy throughout the show's characters, I guess I expect more from McNulty than I do from the likes of Avon or Burrell -- and, like all the characters on the show who continually give him second and third chances because he's so smart, and so damned charming, I feel far more disappointed when he fails to meet those expectations(*).

(*)Now, some of this is obviously being considered with 20-20 hindsight over what Jimmy will do, and what other characters around him will do under similar circumstances, over the course of the series, which we'll save for discussion in the veterans comments if you like. My recollection is that, the first time through the series, I was completely on McNulty's side in all his early disputes with Lt. Daniels, where going back over that first season, I found myself sympathizing with Daniels more often than not.

"Duck and Cover" presents McNulty at his worst, and at close to his best, all in the course of an hour that manages to be more character-driven than usual even as it's significantly moving the plot forward. The pre-credits sequence is astonishing, horrifying, and hilarious: "The Lost Weekend" in four minutes, as we see just how low Jimmy can sink without either work or family to ground him. Exiled by Rawls, rejected by Elena, he is staggeringly drunk, even by standards of past Jimmy/Bunk alcoholic escapades. He can compose himself enough to convincingly lie to his favorite bartender about calling a cab, but is so sloshed that he gets into a hellacious car wreck -- and so stubborn, drunk or sober, in his belief in his own abilities, that he then recreates the car wreck in an attempt to prove he could have avoided it(**) -- then passes out in an all-night diner and is lucky enough to find a waitress desperate/dumb enough to take him home for a quickie.

(**) Jimmy's pantomiming of the angles required to hit/miss the bridge supports was like a parody of any scene -- notably the legendary all-F-word sequence from "Old Cases" -- where Jimmy or Bunk or another cop will silently recreate a crime scene, try to figure out the bullet trajectory, etc.

McNulty in those circumstances is no good to himself or anyone around him (I still try to fill in the blanks on how the waitress reacted when she got a look at Jimmy's car), and even The Bunk admits he's not always much better when entrenched in a case. But it's a step in the right direction, and from the moment Lt. Daniels liberates him from the boat, we see a Jimmy who's making an effort, and who's particularly self-aware (if, at times, self-loathing).

Yes, it's funny that he happens to enter the detail office at the exact moment when they're trying to pick the ideal undercover operative to infiltrate the condo/whorehouse. But as his comments to Kima in the surveillance car about the marital status of the aptly-named Robert Johnson make clear, it's funny because Jimmy's so very much like these pathetic jerks. He knows about lying to yourself, and your wife, and your kids -- about pursuing your own selfish needs at the expense of the people you care about -- and in his behavior at Beadie Russell's house, he suggests he's not a total lost cause.

Beadie and Jimmy both go back to her place fully aware that they're going to have sex, but when Jimmy gets a look at her place -- with the abundant evidence of Beadie's role as a single mom doing what she can for her kids -- he backs out. In many circumstances, a man bailing over kid-related imagery would seem cowardly, but it's the most morally upright thing Jimmy does all episode. He knows he's bad news -- as Bunk told him last season, "You're no good for people, man" -- and that even vaguely sober, he'll bring Beadie and her kids nothing but pain, so he backs out before it can go anywhere serious. When he's on the phone with the whorehouse madame, she asks him what kind of girl he wants, and we see him looking at the exact kind of girl he wants: Beadie Russell. But he knows, deep down, that he's not the kind of guy she would want if she got to know the real him -- at least, the real him at this moment.

Because the rest of the ensemble is so rich, the other actors so talented in their own right, I can't say I was disappointed to have McNulty out of action for so much of this season, but it's still nice to have him back, and at a relatively high-functioning level.

Some other thoughts on "Duck and Cover":

• As Jimmy's putting himself together, Ziggy is falling apart. He's humiliated by Maui and all the stevedores who goaded him into the fight -- And how funny is James Ransone as he stands on top of the can and spews "BAD ADVICE!" like it's the toughest insult he can think of at the moment? -- and now Nick is trying to turn him into a glorified mascot in the drug operation that Ziggy wanted so desperately to run. Everyone in Ziggy's world, it seems, is better than Ziggy at just about everything -- except, that is, clowning himself. Because Ziggy is one of the few characters on the show able to recognize that the game he's been asked to play is rigged -- that he and all the guys he knows have had their wings clipped like the pigeons -- he reaches a point in "Duck and Cover" where he understands that the guys all view him as comic relief, so the only way to survive is to take control of the joke, which he does with his bizarre bit with the diamond necklace-wearing, beer-sipping duck.

• This episode introduces McNulty's deep and abiding love for the music of The Pogues, which the series shares. Jimmy's rocking out to "Transmetropolitan" as he gets into his fender re-bender.

• After writing season one's brilliant "Cleaning Up," George Pelecanos became a full-time "Wire" producer in the second season, and "Duck and Cover" is the first of his two scripts for this year. (He also, as he does every season, whether a producer or just a writer, handles the penultimate episode.)

• Because the writers spent so much time in season one explaining how the detail goes about its business, season two can pick up the pace and assume we understand how things work. Case in point: the discussion with Ronnie about needing to meet the legal standard of exhaustion before a judge will authorize a wiretap.

• And that judge offers one of those great small moments that you know was drawn from real life, as we discover the guy is much more amenable to authorizing a warrant if he can get some free housework -- done, of course, by low men on the totem pole Herc and Carver, who get some early karmic punishment for their ongoing Fuzzy Dunlop scam -- in exchange.

• As with the Barksdale case, where a simple drug assignment eventually involved real estate, state senators, etc., the detail is finding that this new assignment goes a lot deeper than Stan Valchek's grudge against Frank Sobotka. It's a really interesting contrast to see them go against a non-street target, and to see that Vondas and The Greek have weaknesses that Avon didn't (they don't expect to be wiretapped), but also strengths he doesn't (they can afford to waste lots of time and money dumping clean cans to try to shake the detail loose).

• One of the things "The Wire" does so well, and that's so rare in the rest of popular entertainment, is spending time simply showing characters thinking. Here, we dwell for a long time on Frank as he starts to put the pieces together about the police surveillance -- aided, in large part, by the fact that the port police and the phone company are both large bureaucracies where the left hand doesn't know what the right is doing and therefore secrets aren't properly kept. It's also cool to see both sides of the case think they're outwitting each other, when in fact it's about 50-50 (the detail doesn't know Frank is on to them and dumped a clean can on purpose, while Vondas and Double-G don't know that the detail has a tap on Sergei's phone).

• Where was Jay Landsman to offer up a fashion critique when Bunk traded in his usual pinstriped lawyerly affectations for his Edmonson Lacrosse sweats?

• Getting back to last week's discussion of Sobotka's blind spots, note that he'll grease a job for his brother (albeit one that would give the guy walking-around money at best), but not for his son.

• Note that the dolls Double-G winds up with are Bobbie, not Barbie, as I suspect the Mattel people wouldn't want their product associated with this show.

• The Bodie/Poot subplot about a neighboring drug crew stealing all their business with a superior product not only reinforces Prop Joe's argument from the previous episode about product trumping real estate, it features more comedy of traditional business thinking being applied to the drug world, as the two slingers whom Bodie fires (and who wind up working for the rival crew) demand "separation pay."

• The Emmy voters ignored her for her brilliant work as Holly on "The Office," so I want to briefly sing the praises of the wonderful Amy Ryan in her role as Beadie. Just check out how many emotions wash over her face as she realizes Jimmy is about to walk out the door: disappointment that she's not going to have sex with this man she's very attracted to, guilt that perhaps getting a look at her cluttered, kid-friendly house was a turn-off (even though she knows Jimmy has kids), but also a bit of relief that her new job isn't going to be complicated by an office romance, as well as the stiff upper lip attitude that's carried her as far as it has raising two kids on her own. Great, great actress.

And now it's time for the veterans-only section, where we talk about how events in this episode will reverberate later in the season, and the series:

• By the time Jimmy goes back after Beadie, at the end of season three, he's finally turned himself into a man who might be good enough for her. Of course, he has his backsliding moments -- as in, all of season five -- but it was really gratifying to watch this relationship simmer over time.

• Louis Sobotka's refusal to take the no-show job Frank arranged for him will echo in his reaction to finding out the extent of Frank's criminal enterprise, and in finding out what Nick's been up to selling drugs.

• Like Ziggy, Marlo Stanfield knows his way around a Baltimore pigeon coop.

• Rawls' homoerotic insults -- here with Daniels -- become all the funnier once you know what will be revealed about him late in season three.

• Bodie's feud with the rival crew will have fatal consequences -- and lead to the first appearance of Bunny Colvin -- but note that at no time does he go to Stringer or Shamrock or anyone else higher up the ladder to consult about the clash. So, should he have? Or is the guy running the towers supposed to take initiative in matters like this? If it was Wee-Bey or Stinkum, would we assume they had authority to act on their own?

• The Greek's speech to Frank at the end about buying something you can touch seems to fly against what little we know of the man and his sidekick. He and Vondas seem to live without flash -- making money without seeming to need the things that come with it. Of course, we really know nothing about either man -- including both of their real names, and The Greek's true nationality -- so this could be like when McNulty found Stringer's apartment and was stunned to realize who he'd been chasing all those years.

Coming up next: "Stray Rounds," in which Bodie's feud reaches another level, The Greek gets careful, and Jimmy has problems remembering a magic word. Can't promise when I'll be able to do the review, but it'll get done sooner or later.

What did everybody else think?

30 comments:

Andrew said...

the title bar says season 1...

Fernando said...

If it was Wee-Bey or Stinkum, would we assume they had authority to act on their own?

When Stink got points on the package and had to take over new territory, that word came from up on high (Avon/Stringer). So Bodie was probably overstepping his bounds on this one; though it was defeating territory, not expanding (I haven't rewatched this episode yet so im not completely sure on that point).

Alan Sepinwall said...

the title bar says season 1...

Thanks. Fixed.

Danny said...

Getting points on a package would be getting a raise so it would need to come from higher up, otherwise he would be stealing money. That is not an apples to apples comparison. I think if Bodies attack was clean Stringer would of given him a pat on the back. Stringer has always been less "street" though so if Bodie came to him, he might of told him to negotiate a deal with the other crew. In later seasons you can tell members of the Avon/Stringers crew think of Stringer as soft during their war with Marlo.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think Stringer would have been annoyed had Bodie come to him, considering he regards himself as being focused on bigger and better things. I also suspect Avon ran a tighter ship.

And we do know that Vondas loves his Joseph Abboud, so fancy spending isn't totally out of line for these guys.

Eric Hartley said...

My recollection is that, the first time through the series, I was completely on McNulty's side in all his early disputes with Lt. Daniels, where going back over that first season, I found myself sympathizing with Daniels more often than not.

Isn't that one of the marks of a great show -- that it makes you think and you pick up new layers of meaning each time through?

debbie said...

I feel the same way about Zig. I was so annoyed by him my first time around, but I feel so sorry for him now.

Anonymous said...

Avon was much more focused on the street level deals. He considered himself a drug dealer, whereas Stringer had aspirations/pretentions of being an entrepreneur and business mogul. Thus, I would expect Avon to be more responsive to Bodie's needs than Stringer, who was simply born into the wrong culture. All the crass violence and base mano a mano struggling was not his thing, though he was fully capable of enacting it if it suited his agenda.

digamma said...

My recollection is that, the first time through the series, I was completely on McNulty's side in all his early disputes with Lt. Daniels, where going back over that first season, I found myself sympathizing with Daniels more often than not.

FitzHugh's assertion that "Daniels is dirty" biases the viewer pretty heavily against him.

Abbie said...

I just want to say that I don't think the waitress who took drunk McNulty home was either desperate or dumb. I thought the waitress knew exactly what she was getting, wanted it, and asked for it.

I can see her point. I'm embarrassed to say it, but I can see where she's coming from. (And I'm also neither desperate nor dumb.)

troy said...

I find that I'm myopic with McNulty. I don't care about what he did before season 1 started, and I don't hold season 5 against him until it's unfolding. His biggest sin in my mind, pre-season 5, is what he did to Bodie toward the end of season 4, and that was obviously unintentional. Other than that, I think he's on the right side of most of the important stuff. And I didn't side with Daniels second time around, although I better understood where he was coming from.

I tend to think of McNulty as a bellwether. He kind of shows me who to like (Bunk, Lester, Omar, Bodie, Bubbles) and who not to (Rawls, Stringer, his ex-wife). And as digamma said, he had reason not to trust Daniels, which Daniels seemed to reinforce with what was looking to be an ineffective campaign.

Andrew said...

I will agree is Abbie; I'm a heterosexual male and I even think McNulty is sexy, with his sexy busted up hand and all. Related note, my new requirement in a woman is that they have to love The Wire; much of a dealbreaker if they don't, no doubt.

Anyway, Alan, I'm somewhat of a late comer to The Wire, about 6 months ago since I first experienced the first revelations that was, The Wire and I appreciate your in-depth reviews even this late in. They have definitely helped restockpile my procrastination material. Also, having just come fresh off a Generation Kill marathon, I have come to newly appreciate Ransone's work as Ziggy as I was fully entranced with Cpl. Person and his perspicacious diatribes.

I just wanted to expound on Bodie's character off this episode that I thought was probably unintended but is very prescient in retrospect. Looking back at season one's chess scene, Bodie's inquisitive nature was always wondering how to become "top dog" with the late D'Angelo rattling off the forlorned "the king stay the king" line. Fast forward to this episode; This is an opportunity, I feel, where Bodie can really take control, delegate, and move up in the ranks but he seems only content to maintain his foot soldier commander position working with Poot to maintain territory.

Just brought this up because while Simon's overall stated intention with The Wire was to make commentary regarding the blind consequential control of institutions, Bodie's behavior, I feel unintentionally, shows us the symbiotic institutionalization of people that once looked to defy and/or change the game that ended up staying the pawns and getting capped in the head by Michael lookalikes in S4.

Anyway those are my two cents on this episode and lastly, if David Simon doesn't win 2 emmys this year: one for the outstanding GK and one as an apology from all the years Wire went horrifically unrecognized; might be time for us all to go to the mattresses and burn Hollywood down!

Alan Sepinwall said...

Look, I get that Dominic West is attractive to the ladies. I'm just saying that she finds him passed out in a booth, a bloody hand wrapped in a makeshift bandage, no doubt reeking of booze, and to top it all off, we know they took Jimmy's smashed-up car back to her place. Not to get all judge-y (or too judge-y), but there comes a point where hormones have to take a back seat to fear of injury and/or a social disease, you know?

Bryan Murray said...

I really liked this episode the first time I watched it and upon multiple viewings. It almost seems like McNulty is a breath of fresh air - like a drunk relative who is both entertaining and frustrating. Dominic West never gets enough credit for carrying large chunks of this show and he's so good by this point in the S2 that he makes it look easy. Too bad he kind of loses it again while he's out in S4.

The bizarre duck incident? That is an understatement. I have never understood Ziggy's duck and I fast forward through each bit.

Pelecanos!! He is just great. I just read his latest, "The Way Home," and this is his first novel where I choked up a bit. The Frank/Ziggy father/son dynamic is very much on display.

Oh, and Abbie - will you marry me?

debbie said...

Not to get all judge-y (or too judge-y), but there comes a point where hormones have to take a back seat to fear of injury and/or a social disease, you know?

I agree with you, Alan, but I don't think that character - a relatively young waitress working the graveyard shift at a Baltimore dive - would have a history of the best judgment. Just saying.
Plus, he barked orders at her to get him some eggs...what girl could resist?

Anonymous said...

Jimmy's car crash scene is, in my book, the funniest of the entire series. I'm so humbly grateful to the kind soul who put that clip on youtube so my buddies and I can view it a few times before a long night on the town.

I'm with Andrew -- I never realized how good of an actor Ransome was during my viewing of the Wire. In hindsight, I think this is because he does such a convincing job as Ziggy, but until I saw Gen Kill, I didn't give him his deserved credit.

-E

Ethan said...

I did not care for Ziggy at all until he got the duck. Which is odd, because even the first time through, you know things won't end well for that duck. It actually made it worse, to finally see the good in someone just as their wheels fall off. At first I thought my dislike stemmed from James Ransone, but all of the business with the duck (and my subsequent viewing of Generation Kill) erased that suspicion.

Anonymous said...

I am not watching these episodes right now (last saw them about 6 months ago) but I enjoy the posts and discussions.

I just wanted to second your great observation on the McNulty/Beadie scene at her place. You stole my thunder on pointing out her fascinatingly conflicting facial expressions as he abruptly excuses himself. Just terrific work from Amy Ryan and Dominic West.

nfieldr said...

Alan Sepinwall said...
... and to top it all off, we know they took Jimmy's smashed-up car back to her place.


Do we? All we know is that Jimmy's car is in front of her place. She had to get to work somehow, so maybe they both drove to her place from the diner. Or did I miss something?

Ford said...

Jimmy McNulty’s Big Night Out is the greatest cold opening ever in television history.

Bunk mumbling under his breath and shaking his arse is a treat.

Oh, and I think Landsman may have described his outfit has having a somewhat ‘sweaty recalcitrance’.

Muz said...

debbie sez:
I agree with you, Alan, but I don't think that character - a relatively young waitress working the graveyard shift at a Baltimore dive - would have a history of the best judgment. Just saying.
Plus, he barked orders at her to get him some eggs...what girl could resist?


That moment where Jimmy takes a look at her and goes "Whoah!" to himself, straightens up and gets all Garry Cooper with his order is fantastically hilarious.

What do we make of all this though?
I generally take it as; even on a bad night he wins enough to have no reason to stop. And he gets an anecdote for his extensive collection.
In that he's like Ziggy; getting by on being vicariously amusing for others. But he's smart enough to not be happy with that. Plus he's got known talents and friends who'll reach down for him.

Rebecca said...

Alan, on rewatching this season the Greek's advice to Frank took on a much more sinister cast. It all stems from Frank's index finger -- when he stabs at the table and almost loses it describing how he's (over)extended on his port obligations, you can see a shift in the Greek's eyes: this is not a guy who does business the way we do business. "It's a new world". That moment marks the beginning of the end of Frank.

I didn't catch this until the second or third rewatch, but now it seems so clear... Like Bryan says, Pelecanos!!

Valchek makes the same gesture later in the season, at a moment when he chooses to fatally mess with the investigation. It's totally right for those characters (and good for the parallelism people mentioned earlier); once I noticed it, it raised up memories of stubborn Eastern European relatives poking tables for emphasis in steeltowns throughout the Rust Belt.

Always Boris said...

I'm so glad many people have commented about Bodie. Whenever I think about which Wire character is my favorite (as if I could choose just one), I always come back to Bodie. I'm one episode behind on this go 'round so forgive me for briefly going back to an earlier episode. But the cold open when Bodie is buying flowers for D'Angelo's funeral really sums up what I love about Bodie: his fierce loyalty. He may think D'Angelo was weak but he won't trash him after he's dead. And he wants flowers designed to look like the towers. And, even though he eventually has to work for Marlo, he ultimately goes down with (and because of) his loyalty to the Barksdale crew. I know he killed Wallace. But he did so at the bidding of his boss, Stringer. And, as far as abiding by the rules of an institution, I am hard-pressed to think of one other character on the Wire who is as loyal to his institution as Bodie and who doesn't eventually screw over or backstab someone within his institution -- someone to whom he is supposed to be loyal (again, excepting, you know, that whole Wallace incident).

As far as whether or not Bodie overstepped his level of authority (or lack thereof), I think the only reason his actions might be an issue are because Stringer cut a backroom deal with Prop Joe to let Prop Joe's people into the towers. Otherwise, I think such action on Bodie's part would have received approval. In fact, in S3, Bodie is expected to take charge and deal with some of Marlo's people encroaching on Barksdale territory and Stringer is none-to-happy to have to be brought into the situation.

Anonymous said...

That car crash scene is perhaps the epitome of Jimmy McNulty's character. Drunkenly, he assesses the situation and determined that he drove fine and that it was in fact the road that was wrong.

Also, in the unpublished book of my imagination that delves into Trains as metaphor for big, unmovable systems and Cars as personal freedoms in The Wire, this particular scene would have a whole chapter dedicated to it.

Eyeball Wit said...

That car crash scene is perhaps the epitome of Jimmy McNulty's character.

Exactamundo! And that in four minutes, is why, at the core, I really despise him.
I'm not suggesting that we should judge someone by his worst moments, but a montage of their 10 worst moments might be a good place to start.
And from losing his kids trailing Stringer to getting real, live people killed by the copycat serial killer, this Jimmy is no bargain.
And the fact that he's cute (I'll take your word for it, Abby) and smart (but not as smart as he thinks) doesn't make up for that.

But isn't Amy Ryan amazing? Forget about the Emmy--she got jobbed on Oscar night for Gone Baby Gone.

Anonymous said...

The Greek's speech to Frank at the end about buying something you can touch seems to fly against what little we know of the man and his sidekick. He and Vondas seem to live without flash -- making money without seeming to need the things that come with it.

I think it's helpful to keep in mind the "allegorical" meaning of The Greek, who David Simon said, "represented capitalism in its purest form." In particular, he represents the late capitalism of globalization with its connection to postmodernism, "the cultural logic of late capitalism" (Frederic Jameson) and its celebration of consumerism and the process of self-identification and the creation of self-worth through consumption. Global capitalism

survives and capitalists prosper because people are persuaded to consume beyond their basic needs.... Therefore, the prime culture-ideology task of global capitalism is to ensure that as many people as possible consume as much as possible, by inculcating beliefs about the intrinsic value of consumption as a "good thing" and the key component of the "good life." (From Leslie Sklair's The transnational capitalist class, pp. 10-11)

You will have noted that the two products The Greek singles out, "a new car, a new coat," suggest reference to Nick and his new truck and Ziggy and his $2000 jacket that "not even a black man could style." It suggests the difference between Frank, who was disciplined under a capitalism whose ideology extolled the intrinsic value of work and whose self-identity is tied to work (which Frank will turn to to "get clean" after his and Ziggy's arrests), and the younger generation for whom work is to make money to buy things that make up the "good life": "It's a new world, Frank."

gcam said...

that picture of dominic west that appears at the top of these comments should be on his IMDB bio page, a classic

Mike said...

I thought the Greek's comment about buying a coat or a car was a veiled threat: we know everything there is to know about your family, so don't event think about crossing us.

Mike said...

I took the Greek's comment about buying a car or a coat to be a veiled threat: we have people watching your family, so don't even think about crossing us.

Gridlock said...

Also, in the unpublished book of my imagination that delves into Trains as metaphor for big, unmovable systems and Cars as personal freedoms in The Wire, this particular scene would have a whole chapter dedicated to it.

And in SE05 the system even takes away their cars and puts Jimmy on a bus; fantastic.